Columbine by Dave Cullen – Full Review

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.”


9 thoughts on “Columbine by Dave Cullen – Full Review

  1. “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.”

    Thank you for that, at least.

  2. Steven Gibson on

    Dave Cullen has been heavily influenced by the FBI profiler fusilier and others and here is what I think of his main points. Dave Cullen did expel some myths but in my opinion makes up a few himself. Ok. Here goes

    Eric and Dylan did not snap but planned this horrific attack up to a year in advance. They were attacking the whole school and not just the ‘jocks’. They were not members of the trench coat mafia. All of this serves to prove that bullying and/or low status within the school was nothing to do with the attack. Well no actually it doesn’t. First Eric and Dylan did snap, just not on the date of the attack. They snapped about the time they began planning the attack and indeed over a period of months. They ‘cracked up’ slowly as-opposed to snapped perhaps. That they did so does not necessarily mean however that they lost control, what was lost was faith in humanity, a belief in society and a desire to continue to exist. When they got to that point they became homicidal and suicidal. As far as I’ve read many murderous sprees are planned and are not spontaneous acts. That their act was planned and not spontaneous does not prove that they hadn’t cracked under pressure, it just proves their reaction was controlled and not instantaneous.

    They attacked the whole school because they believed that they were at war with everyone. They weren’t targeting specific people for things they had done.They were attacking what all the people represented and symbolised to them, they hated the nature of the social relations that existed at the school and the wider community. They hated the toleration of bullying, the cast system of jocks rule by parents and teachers and wider community and the hypocritical religious people at their school who has a huge amount of prestige and social power. They hated how they were perceived by the groups within the school and felt looked down on and/or rejected by them. They were attacking what they considered to be a mindless and conforming mass of people who nonetheless had power and perhaps more vitally, happiness. Eric and Dylan bitterly resented and envied that.

    Not being part of the trench coat mafia in no way means we can say neither Eric nor Dylan were bullied or derided. Bullying was endemic and many have reported seeing it directed to Eric in particular and others.yes it’s true they were not acting on behalf of the trench coat mafia but that doesn’t mean bullying is not relevant in our understanding of the boys hatred, resentment and desire to destroy and be destroyed.

    Cullen states Eric was a psychopath and Dylan a depressive who had completely different motivations in attacking the school. Well yes and no. They were different in many ways of course as characters. Cullen’s argument is summed up in the following phrase “Dylan was hurting (depressed) and Eric wanted to Hurt ( psychopath. Dylan only took part to keep his friend happy. Well I think this is highly questionable. First I believe that Eric and Dylan formed a very close symbiotic relationship and represented a mirror of one another. To an extent. They both shared a similar delusion, namely that they shared godlike self awareness but Dylan was as he said ‘a god of sadness’ whereas Eric was a (my words) ‘god of hostility and bitter hatred’. However we see glimpses of Dylan’s hatred and anger in his journals (externalisation of depression) and we see glimpses of sadness and despair in Eric’s ( internalisation of anger). Generally Eric externalised his depression and Dylan internalised his anger.

    They must have surely spoken to one another about their views of and feelings about the world and why they were doing what they were doing? Cullen’s thesis implies the two boys, who did everything together including commit mass murder, were scarcely conscious of one another,and worlds apart. I find this highly unlikely to be true, absurd even.These boys spent almost everyday together, alone. They spoke together and both were highly intellectual (indeed that was one of their main reasons in feeling so disconnected and alien to those around them). They made their basement tapes outlining their motives and both concluded that society, conformity and indeed humanity sucked. They wanted to die but hated that fact and blamed others for that fact. They wanted the whole human race to perish because they concluded it was a blight on the planet (a very depressed outlook). They both externalised and projected their sadness and rage onto the human race in general. I believe both boys were acutely aware of one another’s feelings, beliefs and came to similar conclusions.

    Cullen focuses on the boys individual pathologies as explanations for everything and especially regarding Eric, discounts any environmental factors. He does this to such an extent as to apparently misrepresent facts about Eric’s life, designed above all to reinforce the view that whatever was wrong with Eric it wasn’t his social life. Cullen depicts Eric as socially successful, most crucially with girls. Cullen has Eric as a successful ladies man. This is not supported by anything else I’ve read. When Eric couldn’t get a date for the prom this wasn’t mere bad luck as Dave asserts, it was a reflection of Eric’s true status with girls.

    More importantly however is around Dave Cullen’s discussion around the nature of psychopaths and what this means we can conclude about Eric and indeed Columbine itself. First Cullen asserts that (despite this condition being poorly understood) Eric is a born sadistic psychopath who wanted to kill for enjoyment and to demonstrate his ‘superiority’. Well no doubt there is some truth in that but that is far from the whole story and I would suggest these factors are consequences of the attack ( and its anticipation) but not its central motives.

    Dave Cullen argues that psychopaths are born and even though the condition can be exacerbated this is only a case of making a bad thing worse. Nonetheless he makes no attempt to explore whether Eric’s condition, assuming he was born with one ( though no evidence of psychopathic behaviour exist as a child whatsoever?) was exacerbated by his circumstances and/or experiences.

    However I would contend that exacerbate is the wrong word anyway. It’s much more fundamental than that. A James Fallon, a successful family man and Neuroscientist who studied the brains of violent psychopaths found out accidentally that his brain too had correlates with psychopaths. But he had never killed or committed a crime in his life. Fallon argues that technically being born a psychopath is not on its own the defining factor on which way the person develops, the other major factor is……yeah you know it, experience and environment. He was loved and cared for all his life and those potentially dangerous parts of himself remained latent and were negated.

    This suggests that psychopaths like everyone else are shaped and influenced by their experiences with their environment, that is, other people.

    • Ashley on

      Thanks for sharing this. Due to the extensiveness of this comment I think you need your own forum to express these ideas rather than buried here. However, you and I are going to have to agree to disagree. What I saw as Cullen’s main point when I read the book (which was a LONG time ago) was that the media created a myth surrounding the killers – and continues to do so with every mass shooting to this date – and then quickly moves on to the next thing to get the best ratings/most clicks possible. The media is no longer concerned with truth, but with page views, and will say whatever they want to get those views, true or not. While you and he might both have some truth to your statements (I haven’t done the research myself, so I don’t really, truly know), Cullen’s point was that the media doesn’t care what’s true. They paint a picture and leave, and that’s detrimental to our society and to anyone searching for the “why” out of a tragedy like this one.

    • beth sue on

      Steve Gibson, thanks so much for your insightful and spot on comments. and thank you Ashley for providing your open forum.

  3. Steven Gibson on

    Yes it’s true that Dave Cullen’s book highlights a lot of errors in the reporting of events at columbine but for me at least, the central conclusion that the culture of the school is relevant to understanding this crime, stands. A lot of big details were wrong e g the boys were targeting the jocks, they were members of the trench coat mafia. However to go from this to conclude that bullying etc is irrelevant as Dave Cullen does is to my mind very dubious. As said, Dave presents a questionable image of Eric in some important aspects, indeed vital. For example Eric laments the fact that he felt so left out by so many people at the school, people he felt had rejected him and thought him weird. Yet in ‘Columbine’ we have an Eric (and Dylan) who have full calendars of social events, who are popular etc. While not outcasts as such everything else I’ve read including comments from people who knew them, suggests they weren’t that socially successful. Eric managed a few dates, none of which progressed. Whatever else Eric was he wasn’t stupid, so if he was the way Dave presents him why talk about about feeling left out? The point I make is that I think the main thrust of Dave Cullen’s book is to make people think there were no external factors affecting the boys developing feelings and mentality. I think that’s a mistake and crucial one. Why? Well I don’t know but I think that psychologically it’s easier to simply reduce these types of incidents to the madness or the badness of someone rather than thinking and asking, is our society as healthy as we like to think?

    I will consider setting up a blog, thanks for that advice. Steven Gibson. Social Worker, Scotland.

    • Ashley on

      Again, it was a long time ago that I read the book, but I didn’t get the idea that Cullen thought the culture of the school was irrelevant. It’s dangerous for anyone to point at someone and say “Oh, he did that because he was bullied” and say that was the only reason. Cullen didn’t spend time talking about the bullying because it was fleshed out by the media already; he focused, instead, on painting the rest of a full picture of two boys rather than one facet of it, as the media did. We can’t totally blame society, because lots of kids are bullied and don’t resort to mass shootings, and we can’t totally blame the media because bullying probably did play a bit of a role. It’s about painting a full picture of two whole human beings, which we generally don’t do because we, as a society, are happy with a simple explanation that makes us feel better and then we move on.

  4. Steven Gibson on

    And I think that’s as serious as the way media can distort things. I think dave Cullen’s book is also a distortion.

  5. Steven Gibson on

    Hi. Well it’s interesting what your saying about Dave’s book trying look at the other factors involved out with bullying. However from what can make of his argument, he very explicitly states that bullying was in no way a factor. He doesn’t say it was but now lets look at others issues, he says it wasn’t anything to do with it but was all about the boys themselves, the depressive and the psychopath. I think therefore David’s book represents the other end of the spectrum of an explanation, first it was all about bullying and now it’s all about the boys. I agree with Ralph Larkin (who wrote what I consider to be a very good book about the issue titled ‘comprehending columbine before Dave Cullen’s work) who argued that this crime can be understood as an interaction between the boys and their social environment. It’s about both the social environment and the boys temperaments, personalities and predispositions. To work out this interaction is a complex task of course and Larkin does tend to focus very much of the social environment but doesn’t discount the boys personalities, whilst David focuses on the internal world of the boys but does discount the boys social environment( indeed he as said presents a picture of social success for Eric which I can’t find any corroboration for).

    It’s about both in my view. As you say many people are bullied and or rejected etc and very few resort to violence. However we are creatures of averages and someone always is out with the ‘normal average’ and I would suppose that applies to reactions to stressors in the social environment as well? For maybe every million person bullied, rejected and ridiculed one person at some point is going to develop an embittered hostility and act on it, due to their temperament and predispositions. But they are still reacting to something.

    Despite its being very well written and enjoyable to read ( indeed it reads more like a Novel than a factual book) columbine for me represents a simplistic explanation of the event, precisely because it disregards and treats as irrelevant the boys social reality, or paints a questionable portrait of their social reality in order that it can be discounted.

  6. Steven Gibson on

    Oh and by the way apparently Dave Cullen hasn’t read Ralph Larkin’s book, despite it being previously described as the definitive account of the massacre! Dave is somewhat aware of its findings but seems to think Larkin wrote the book without his having access to the boys journals (and therefore coming to the wrong conclusion). That is simply not accurate, Larking quotes extensively from Eric’s journal and he is very aware of the counter arguments made by Dave Cullen, and disagrees. If you are interested I would recommend ‘comprehending columbine’ as a must read, even if its not as well written as Columbine’ (its a bit more like an a academic report but still very interesting).
    Regards. Steven Gibson.

Leave a Reply