Book Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen
In this remarkable account of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting, journalist Cullen not only dispels several of the prevailing myths about the event but tackles the hardest question of all: why did it happen? Drawing on extensive interviews, police reports and his own reporting, Cullen meticulously pieces together what happened when 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold killed 13 people before turning their guns on themselves. The media spin was that specific students, namely jocks, were targeted and that Dylan and Eric were members of the Trench Coat Mafia. According to Cullen, they lived apparently normal lives, but under the surface lay an angry, erratic depressive (Klebold) and a sadistic psychopath (Harris), together forming a combustible pair. They planned the massacre for a year, outlining their intentions for massive carnage in extensive journals and video diaries. Cullen expertly balances the psychological analysis—enhanced by several of the nation's leading experts on psychopathology—with an examination of the shooting's effects on survivors, victims' families and the Columbine community. Readers will come away from Cullen's unflinching account with a deeper understanding of what drove these boys to kill, even if the answers aren't easy to stomach.

Growing up in Denver, this is one tragedy that really hit home with me because I felt so close to the area. It felt like it happened in my backyard. I was under the impression that this was a school shooting, that these poor kids were bullied to the point where they snapped and took revenge on the jocks and bullies. That is so far from the truth it is ridiculous. This book opened my eyes to the truth. This wasn't just a school shooting and I believe that if the killers knew that that's all we were calling it, they would be insulted (well Eric anyways).

The psychology student in me dug into this book with both feet and lapped up every detail about manic depressives, psychopaths, and personality disorders. Dave Cullen was able to get into the very thoughts of both killers through their personal journals. Poor misguided Dylan. Sure, he was a killer but I think more than anything the boy wanted love. He repeated the word love in his journal more than anything else. He was suicidal, didn't see anything good about himself, not his looks, not his personality, nothing. He was worthless and looking for a way out. So how did he become a killer instead of just putting a gun in his mouth? Enter the psychopath. Eric was the mastermind. He had a vision of grandeur. He planned every detail of the massacre down to the exact moment when the largest number of people would be in the cafeteria to begin the carnage. We were all pathetic robots, empty humans beneath him and his brilliance. He wanted to create mass chaos and devastation on a scale larger than OKC. Good thing he sucked at bomb making. If Dylan would have successfully committed suicide weeks before Columbine like he planned, Eric would have just found another partner but this was going to happen. He was destined to be a killer, he'd decided.

Every detail I thought I knew about this tragedy was wrong. The media got it all wrong. Thisbook is very well written. It is intense, gripping and at times frightening. It started to drag a little at the end but that was the only downside (other than the subject matter). I especially like the way it began with the Principal of the school at the time talking to the students about being safe, making it through prom night and coming to school on Monday morning. He loved his students. That was obvious. He just had no idea the tragedy that was await on Tuesday. This book gave me a lot of insight into the way people think, how conclusions are drawn and how one wrong action/statement/mistake can cause a snowball effect. This book did give me nightmares though because it took me through the whole journey with intimate details and at times is almost read like fiction. I felt like I was there and relived the whole tragedy as a fly on the wall. It was scary and an amazingly eye opening experience at the same time.

If you think you can handle it, read this book.

Sidenote: There was a lot of information about the victims and my lack of acknowledgment of them in my review is in no disrespect to what happened to the 13 souls that lost their lives that day. This was like a psychology text for me. I must know the whys, the motivations. I can't fathom the pain the victims families felt that day and to this day.


Anonymous said...

As you noted in your review, most of the media did indeed "get" Columbine wrong. So too did Mr. Cullen. If one were to read his book and his book alone then that person would be left with just as many fallacies and errors regarding the Columbine massacre as would a person who relied on television and newspaper coverage alone.

For a more balanced and, in my opinion, better researced look into what happened at Columbine High School and why, you should definitely read three other books on the same subject. They are "Comprehending Columbine" by Ralph Larkin, "Columbine: A True Crime Story" by Jeff Kass and "No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine" by Brooks Brown.

The latter of those three books was written by a fellow student and friend of Dylan Klebold's. Brown was witness to many incidents of both Eric Harris and Klebold being bullied at school, and believes bullying to be one of the factors that led the two to attack their school. The first book, written by Mr. Larkin, an American sociologist, takes an extremely thorough look at the atmosphere in and around Columbine High School; Mr. Larkin described it as "toxic" and he as well says that bullying was a factor in the Columbine massacre. The second book I listed was written by Mr. Kass, who was one of the very first Denver journalists to cover the massacre from the very beginning.

I highly recommend all three of the books that I mentioned. But if you could only stand to read one more on the subject then I would make it Larkin's book. The contrast between his and Cullen's book is remarkable.

gm said...

Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in
"Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the
fateful day.

The Denver Post

Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

"Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
Wall Street Journal

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks NaKesha. I appreciate the kind words, and your enthusiasm. Understanding Eric and Dylan really got ahold of me, too.

(And it's nice to see my online stalkers still following me. FYI, GM is publisher of Denver house that published the book he's touting.

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