Review

Columbine

by Dave Cullen

It has been 10 years since “Columbine” came to mean
“massacre” in the American psyche. Instead of conjuring
the delicate blue flowers, the word is synonymous with a particular
kind of violence: massive and seemingly random. In his account of
the infamous and horrific school shootings, journalist Dave Cullen
unpacks the event, including the mental health and history of the
killers, their planned rampage, the responses of the community and
survivors, and the truths and lies published by the media.

The Columbine massacre, perpetuated by high school seniors Eric
Harris and Dylan Klebold, took place on April 20, 1999, just days
after the prom. Thirteen were killed, many others seriously
injured; in the end, Harris and Klebold took their own lives,
sitting next to each other against the school's library stacks. The
violence played out, almost in real time, over the country's
airwaves. But, almost immediately, the media (and the disoriented,
traumatized victims themselves) got several things wrong.
Consequently, by the end of the day, the incident was blamed on
bullying and the “Goth” scene, on the killer's hatred
for jocks and much more. In this excellent work of investigative
nonfiction, Cullen sets about to demystify the event itself and the
motives of the two boys.

Despite the persistent rumors, Harris and Klebold were not
members of the Goth clique called the Trench Coat Mafia, they were
not picked on and they didn't have a deep-seated hatred for jocks
or Christians. In fact, they had friends, dated girls, played
sports, were intelligent and successful students, and held jobs.
Still, they were, as Cullen demonstrates with much care and
objectivity, mentally ill. Because they both kept journals and made
diary-like video recordings of themselves, we can examine their
descent into criminal activity fueled by depression (Klebold) and
psychopathy (Harris). The records they left behind are chilling and
heartbreaking, and go far in explaining why they chose the
destructive and suicidal path they did.

Cullen does not just focus on Harris and Klebold, who, like
Leopold and Loeb, fanned the flames of each other’s illness
and encouraged criminal activity and violence in each other. He
also deals with the victims and survivors, the issues the community
faced, and the police and FBI responses and investigations. The
school principal, a popular teacher shot down, the activist
parents, those who came to forgive and those who responded in anger
--- all have a voice in these pages.

The author captures well the tension surrounding the Columbine
massacre: the tension boiling over inside the calculating and
murderous Harris and the suicidal and lovestruck Klebold; the
tension inside the school that terrifying morning and outside as
parents, friends and family could only wait until it ended; the
tension of law enforcement unclear as to what they were dealing
with or how to proceed; and the tension that swept the country as
it feared for its children and also feared the children
themselves.

Cullen could've gone deeper in exploring the mindset and
diagnoses of Harris and Klebold, and towards the end the pace
slackens and almost drags in parts. Still, COLUMBINE is a fantastic
and frightening exploration of this terrible moment in American
history. Cullen is a sensitive guide but manages to make the book
compelling. The decision not to include the usual section of
photographs was a wise one. Though we know what happens, the book
is a page turner because the details have never been illuminated in
such a concise, frank and well-written manner. COLUMBINE is sure to
become the definitive non-legal record of the Columbine tragedy,
and it is worthy of that distinction.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 28, 2010

Columbine
by Dave Cullen

  • Publication Date: April 6, 2009
  • Genres: American, Contemporary, History
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve
  • ISBN-10: 0446546933
  • ISBN-13: 9780446546935