The cameras missed the outside murders and could not follow Eric and Dylan inside. The fundamental experience for most of America was almost witnessing mass murder. It was the panic and frustration of not knowing, the mounting terror of horror withheld, just out of view. We would learn the truth about Columbine, but we would not learn it today.
It’s not often that I feel compelled to review a book – or, at least, blog about it – only part way through. Maybe it’s my English major college experiences, but I tend to like to finish a book completely before I even try to talk about it. Columbine was different. I needed to get my thoughts down about it about a third of the way through it, and then I felt I needed to finish it as quickly as possible or else it would haunt me.
And haunt me it did. Does. I finished the book on Tuesday, and yesterday I needed to just collect my thoughts and not try to write about it yet. The book was phenomenal. Cullen’s writing style was very similar to what you might read in a newspaper (which makes sense, considering Cullen is a journalist) with short, choppy sentences and long, descriptive paragraphs with little revealing sentences at the end. Cullen did a nice job of giving us just enough information to keep us interested, but not too much that we were overwhelmed by the violence or the thoughts and texts of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, leaving us with questions but always coming back to answer them later.
I did find the latter part of the book a little easier to get through than the first third. This is not to say that I found the book boring or unable to engage me; it was just the opposite. I was completely engaged with the book, but as I was reading, I kept thinking about two things: 1) As a freshman in high school, I remember being totally terrified and totally glued to the television to see some sort of positive ending to the whole situation. I remember watching the news as the story was unfolding, and I remember many of the images on television and almost all of the narrative the media unfolded in the aftermath that were described in the book, and 2) As a high school teacher, this is my worst nightmare. There were so many things some of the teachers described in the book – warning signs, protocol, procedures – that are completely different now because of the Columbine tragedy, helping students and families understand what is going on with their children and get the help they may need, yet so many protocols and procedures that are eerily the same, providing little help for students or simply in place to cover the teachers in case of an unforeseen situation. The latter part of the book, however, focused mostly on trying to draw to light the truth that the media seemed to miss that day and the weeks following, as well as trying to answer the question: why? Why did this happen? What motivated these two teenage boys to cause such destruction?
The accepted narrative is that Eric and Dylan were bullied and snapped. That seemed logical at the time; I remember so many times in high school being picked on or put down, and although I would never turn to violence, it morbidly made sense that someone might. This was the narrative that was overwhelmingly accepted in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy, and one I’ve heard repeated several times. As a teacher, we are trained and trained again on warning signs and how to handle students who are victimized or who are, themselves, bullies. And we are trained on this because of Columbine. Many schools, including my own, use the Columbine tragedy to promote tolerance and acceptance through speakers and assemblies like the Rachel’s Challenge assembly in memory of Rachel Scott, the first student killed that day.
Cullen’s extensive research, observations, and interviews provide a different narrative that the media was not privy to at the time because information was so slow to be released from the police department, and by the time the information was released, the media had moved on to another news story. The narrative that Cullen presents is almost just as simple and easy to accept: Eric Harris was a psychopath, and Cullen provides ample clinical information to back this claim. Dylan Klebold was an intensely depressed, lonely, and gifted boy who craved friendship and a way out of this life – two things he found in Eric. Cullen also presents an alternative view of what happened with some of the students in the library, namely Cassie Bernall, the girl perceived to be a Christian martyr. Preliminary eyewitness accounts stated that she was asked if she believed in God, and responded “yes” and this is why she was killed. Cullen’s narrative is one that is proved by multiple eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence that it was not Cassie who stated her belief in god, but another girl entirely.
These are just a few examples that are presented in the book, but from a few comments and emails I’ve received and my very limited internet research on the book, this alternative view of the tragedy makes some people very angry. In a few direct emails and comments, I’ve been urged to read differing accounts, and told that Eric and Dylan were bullied and many people can back up that claim. Here’s the thing: Of course Eric and Dylan were bullied. They were high school students that didn’t fit the norm. Could that have fed into their hatred of society? Absolutely. Especially the impressionable and lonely Dylan. Was it the reason they brought guns and bombs into school? Cullen’s evidence to the contrary is compelling. However, I can see why Cullen’s view, even backed up with such extensive research, can be hard to stomach. As a teacher, I like the idea that there are warning signs and things I could do to prevent such a tragedy. I imagine this is a popular idea for parents and students as well. The idea that Eric was actually a nice kid, people liked him, and he had a whole lot of people fooled is terrifying. It’s also so easy to accept such a narrative as truth as the tragedy is unfolding, and for many people, once that narrative is solidified, it’s difficult to change your mind about it. We love to wrap up tragedies with a nice little bow and put them in the backs of our minds where we can forget about them for a while. To unpack that box and change the contents opens up old wounds that we would rather keep tied up. The fact that a few people are so resistant to this book solidifies in my mind its validity.
Do I accept this book as the end-all, be-all of the Columbine tragedy? No. There were many, many perspectives that Cullen did not cover or glanced over. However, I feel Cullen’s writing hit at many core truths of the tragedy and provide an alternate narrative I have an easier time believing than the one presented almost 12 years ago. His extensive notes and research only serve to persuade me further.
I can also see how the penultimate chapter and the build-up to it might anger some people. Columbine does an extremely good job of presenting Eric and Dylan as just boys. Just kids. Just two more victims of this tragedy. In their final scene, Cullen describes their death without a whole lot of clinical or forensic detail, but with great compassion. The boys are portrayed as, well, boyish in their final minutes of life, and I found myself just sad at the whole situation. Not angry, not afraid. Just sad. And I can see how that might anger some people who hold the belief that anyone who causes such tragedy does not deserve our sympathy.
All in all, I highly recommend Columbine. I will warn you, though, that the descriptions of the violence and the sections that delve in to the killers’ psyches can be difficult to read in large chunks. However, if you, like me, remember the tragedy but always felt you had several questions left unanswered by the mainstream media, you will be captivated by this book.
[President Clinton] was fond of quoting Ernest Hemingway, and Clinton recited his favorite passage: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
“Every day, from now on, the world will break someone,” Clinton added. “These magnificent families, in memory of their children, and their teacher, can help them always to be strong.”