Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Review: Columbine

Columbine Dave Cullen
Twelve/Hachette Books
1st trade edition March 2010
hardcover published 2009
443 pages

Why?  That is the unanswered, unanswerable question.

Susan Klebold, the only parent of a Columbine killer to speak publicly, says it in the title of her October 2009 essay for Oprah Magazine:  "I Will Never Know Why."

Dave Cullen spent ten years writing and researching Columbine, and what emerges is a portrait of a psychopath (Eric Harris) and a depressive, suicidal follower (Dylan Klebold).  While Cullen's book doesn't exactly exonerate the parents of the two young killers, it does offer a nuanced understanding of how two young men could plan and partially execute mass murder while living in loving, stable, two-parent homes in affluent suburbia.  In the case of Eric Harris, Cullen convincingly argues that the Harrises were manipulated and deceived by their son.  In the case of both young men, it seems as though denial has to be part of the explanation, since there were clear signs of trouble in the two years leading up to the Columbine massacre.

As a parent I find it hard to fathom how a child could be making pipe bombs in his basement and trying out recipes for napalm while his parents remained oblivious.  Yet that is exactly what happened in the Harris household.  Wayne Harris, Eric's father and a retired military man, seems more focused on maintaining and protecting the image of Eric and the rest of the family than on understanding what is really going on with his troubled son.  The elder Harris kept a steno pad as a sort of journal, recording Eric's various legal and social problems, but each time Harris seems to minimize his son's actions, and a month's restriction is the worst punishment ever meted out by this supposedly strict father.

Cullen presents a persuasive argument that Eric Harris was a classic psychopath who took pleasure in deceiving and conning those around him; he is presented as a remorseless liar, who enjoys manipulating the adults around him.  One chapter in the book is called "Psychopath."  FBI agent and clinical psychologist Dwayne Fuselier lists Eric's personality traits:  "charming, callous, cunning, manipulative, comically grandiose, and egocentric, with an appalling failure of empathy.  It was like reciting the Pathology Checklist.." (239)  Agent Fuselier is not only an investigator in the Columbine case, he is also a parent; Fuselier's son was a sophomore at Columbine at the time of the massacre.  Fortunately, Fuselier's son escaped unharmed.

Many others, however, did not escape unharmed.  One teacher and twelve students were murdered on April 20, 1999.  Twenty-four were injured, some critically.  Many more were traumatized, suffered from PTSD, or had their lives destroyed or changed irredeemably by the tragedy.  The mother of one of the injured students committed suicide.  The principal of the school was divorced from his wife after the tragedy.  In some sense, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold achieved partial success:  they created mayhem, pain, destruction and doom, and they became a part of an American mythology.

Much of what we know about Columbine, about the school, about the killers, about why and how this tragedy happened is untrue.  Cullen carefully and persuasively lays out how the narrative got away from the truth, how the media and the survivors created stories that reflected something other than reality.

Here are a few facts:  Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were not the victims of systematic bullying.  In fact, Harris had a violent, threatening web site in which he bragged about his pipe bombs, and made violent threats against people he didn't like.  There was a group of students who all owned black dusters (long coats), not trench coats.  Those students were often referred to as the "Trench Coat Mafia."  But the killings had nothing to do with the group, nor was there any connection to the Goth movement.  Cassie Bernall, who became a martyr and a saint to the Evangelicals in her community, was shot in the head before she had a chance to say a single word to her killer.  The declaration of Christian faith attributed to Cassie in the popular press, and in a book written by her mother (She Said Yes), was actually spoken by Val Schnurr, who was severely wounded but survived.

Cullen makes it clear:  the tragedy at Columbine had nothing to do with bullying, with Goth, with targeting specific students for any reason (social status, race, athletics).  The goal of Columbine was mass murder, and if Klebold and Harris had fully succeeded, hundreds of students would have died that day.  If the bombs placed by Harris and Klebold had detonated, as many as six hundred students who were in the cafeteria would have been maimed or killed.  The two murderers didn't snap or experience a sudden break from reality; there was no trigger.  The massacre was a cold-blooded murder planned out carefully over the course of a year.

Cullen documents, very convincingly, the instant mythology that was created early in the massacre's coverage.  He shows how false memories were created by traumatized victims, and how false explanations were built up into a cohesive narrative by the reporters who covered the story.

The truth about Columbine is that two young men, one depressed and suicidal, the other a sadistic psychopath, planned the cold-blooded murder of an entire high school because they hated the world, and they hated people.  In his journal, Eric Harris repeated again and again his hatred of all humanity. The plans for the massacre are documented in painstaking detail in the journals of Harris and Klebold, as well as in the videotapes the two filmed (mostly in the Harris basement) referred to as "The Basement Tapes."  Harris and Klebold felt unique and superior, not insecure and inferior.  Harris wrote in his journal in bold capitals:  KILL MANKIND.  That is the story of Columbine.

Columbine is just one possible narrative; it may replace the prevailing mythology, but can we ever know whether this version of events is truthful and accurate?  Cullen spent at least nine years researching this book.  He interviewed hundreds of people.  He looked through more than 25,000 pages of police evidence, including the journals of the killers.  He makes a pretty compelling case.[Cullen's web site has copies of the killers journals, photographs, and much more documentation]

In the course of the book, the reader discovers that Jefferson County deputies had been alerted to the web site Eric Harris used to vent his homicidal rage.  The parents of a classmate of Harris complained about the threats, the possibility that Harris was making pipe bombs, the dangerous and volatile nature of the charming young con artist.  One woman, Judy Brown, seems to have been one of a very few who were able to see past the surface charm of Eric Harris.  Unfortunately, her complaints were ignored; then, on the day of the massacre, the reports filed about the complaints were printed out but later disappeared as part of a cover-up.  In retrospect it seems there were plenty of warning signs where Harris was concerned.

What are the lessons of Columbine?  It's very hard to say.  No gun laws were enacted as a result of the Columbine massacre.  In response to the popular view of the killers as victims of bullying, many schools instituted anti-bullying programs--that won't necessarily prevent another Columbine.  Should teachers and administrators be trained to recognize psychopaths?  That is a disturbing notion.  In fact, Columbine is a disturbing, unsettling book.  It is fascinating for the way it exposes weaknesses in the way the story of Columbine was reported.  As a psychological study of the two killers it is extraordinary.  As a study of trauma and recovery it is equally extraordinary.  The resilience and fortitude of two of the victims, Patrick Ireland and Val Schnurr is inspiring.  Can this book help us understand how Columbine happened?  Perhaps.  Can this book help us to prevent another Columbine?  I don't think so.

I'm glad I read this book, and I'm glad it is over.  The book will definitely stay with me, in good and bad ways.  The pain and excruciating trauma of the victims was very difficult to read. The rage, sadism, egotism, and hatred of the perpetrators was equally difficult to read.  I had to keep reminding myself:  this was real, these people are real. It was almost too painful to believe.

If you are a compassionate person, this book will be painful to read.  If you are a sentient member of the human race, maybe it is important to know what happened and how.  Not that we can stop every psychopath out there, but maybe it is good to know they exist, and maybe how to recognize them--especially if they are living in your house, making pipe bombs.


tea lady said...

I think that I read a review of this a little while ago and I was intrigued.

What a great and thorough review. It's just terrifying that this horror seemed to come from nowhere.

Jessica said...

Great review, I remember reading that essay the mother wrote and it was quite shocking.

Super Librarian said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review. The book sounds fascinating.

NancyO said...

I really enjoyed Columbine. I also reviewed it in May at my blog if you want to go look. I will also warn you up front that there's someone who delights in making really nasty comments to people who blog about this book.

Kate said...

Wonderful review - well written and very thorough. This sounds like a tough one to get through, like you said - especially when you consider the fact that this is a true story.

You mentioned the parents and denial. As a teacher, do you find that you encounter this in alarming abundance? I think there are too many parents out there who are unwilling - or unable - to recognize when their child needs help.

Thanks for sharing!

bibliophiliac said...

@tea lady, Jessica & Super-thanks for your comments.

bibliophiliac said...

@Nancy O-thanks for the warning. I went to your review and read some of the comments. It did occur to me that the topic is a controversial one. My review is just one reader's response, and I respect the right of others to have differing opinions.

Marie said...

Great review. I've had this book on my wishlist for some time and even saw it at the book store on sale. I just wasn't sure it was worth reading. After having read your review, I think I should head back to the store and pick up a copy.

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

bibliophiliac said...

Honestly, in a non-fiction book about two teenagers who murdered eleven people, and maimed and injured twenty-four, and who terrorized countless others, whether the murderers were virgins seems laughably irrelevant. In fact, seizing on this detail seems to be a way of avoiding the larger issue of the violence and trauma inflicted by Klebold and Harris, for reasons no one can completely explain.

Dave Cullen said...

Lisa, wow, what a thoughtful review. I'm a little amazed, and grateful when people like you take such time and care with my book. And of course I'm glad that it satisfied you.

I'm glad to see moms here, and teachers, because I'm really glad the book is reaching those groups, and students.

I recently created a Students Page which might help interest kids. It has several videos and a Discussion Board. For schools and book clubs, I'm going to offer to skype in for 20-30 minutes this fall/summer.

I hope the book helps students, and moms. I was really impressed by Sue Klebold's essay that you link to, BTW, and I hope all moms read it. (And if you're interested in psychopathy, Dr. Hare's book WITHOUT CONSCIENCE is excellent, and written for lay readers. It's an easy read, but not dumbed-down.

There's lots more info at my Columbine site.


Dave Cullen said...

And thanks NancyO for the heads up on the nasty comments. I'm still sorry for what you went through--including the ones you couldn't publish. Ouch.

Lisa, I am similarly confounded by the way some people have latched onto the idea of whether or not Eric was a virgin. How is that significant? (But the bigger detail GM omits is that he published the book he's touting.)

bibliophiliac said...

Dave, thanks for taking the time to read my review of your book-I really appreciate it. I've also seen your web site, and it offers some excellent resources.

Dave Cullen said...

Your welks, Lisa.

And thanks for the nice words on the website. I'm glad it helped. You wouldn't believe how many hours I spent creating that over the years. (I didn't have the money to pay anyone, so I learned html and coded it myself.)

Kate said...

Hi! Just wanted to let you know I linked this review in my Friday Five at Kate's Library!

Have an excellent weekend!

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks, Kate.