Revisited Review: COLUMBINE, by Dave Cullen #NonFicNov

As part of my participation in Nonfiction November, I’m digging into the blog archives and re-posting my thoughts on some of the notable nonfiction I’ve read during the last few years…and if I’m talking about it again, it’s nonfiction I think you should read, too.

Audiobook read by Don Leslie
Grand Central Publishing (2010), trade paper (ISBN 0446546925 / 9780446546928)
Nonfiction (current affairs), 464 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Blackstone Audio (2009), ISBN 9781433290466; Audible ASIN B0025ZAMU6)

(originally reviewed November 12, 2013)

In April of 1999, my son Chris was a freshman in a large suburban high school. Most of the students came from solidly middle-class homes, and there was a strong evangelical-Christian presence in the community. We were well over a thousand miles from Jefferson County, Colorado, but the surface similarities made it hard not to think that what happened at Columbine High could just as easily happen at Germantown. I think my cohort–parents of the classes of 1999 through 2002 at every high school in America–was particularly spooked by Columbine. As we followed the story, we hoped we’d learn that there was something unique to that place that factored into the “why” of it…and that might mean our kids, in their own high schools, would be safe.

Journalist Dave Cullen was at Columbine High School on the day of the massacre, and stayed with the story for nearly a decade. As he dug into the evidence released in the years following the shootings, researching the details of that day and what brought it about, he discovered that while early reports got most of the facts right, they spun them into erroneous, but persistent, conclusions about the killers’ backgrounds and motives. In Columbine, he pulls his findings together into a revealing, insightful, and gripping narrative that closely examines and debunks nearly all of the most prominent “myths,” including:
  • “Jocks, minorities or Christians were targeted. False.
  • “The killing went on for hours. False. It lasted 16 minutes.
  • “Eric Harris killed Dylan Klebold. False. Chapter 52, ‘Quiet,’ depicts the actual suicide, and presents the forensic evidence to back it up.
  • “Christian martyr Cassie Bernall’s last act was a gunpoint profession of faith. False. Chapter 38, ‘Martyr’ describes the truth of what happened in the library, and how the confusion with another victim developed. (Other aspects of the storyline unfold in additional chapters.)
  • “The Trench Coat Mafia. Nearly everything about this barely-existent band is false. Chapter 28, ‘Media Crime,’ explains how this one emerged.”

Links, scans, and indices to nearly 30,000 pages of official evidence, a selective bibliography, and other background material are posted as an “online companion” to Columbine, and it would be easy to lose days going down the rabbit hole of Cullen’s extensive research, although most readers probably won’t feel like they need–or want–to do that. The story is told pretty thoroughly in Cullen’s award-winning book. He covers the chronology of the day (sometimes in unsettlingly graphic detail), follows the police investigation, and provides detailed portraits of victims, survivors, and their families. He discusses the effects of trauma on memory and the unreliability of eyewitnesses as he explores how some of those stubborn myths took hold.

But Columbine’s greatest significance rests in its insights into the psychological makeup of teenage killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Through excerpts from both boys’ journals and the analysis of psychologists who studied them after the event, Cullen reveals that their depiction as social outcasts or victims of bullying was one of the many things the media got wrong. Klebold’s journals make it obvious that he had serious and untreated clinical depression–if he was victimized by anyone, it was himself. Meanwhile, Harris is pegged as, quite literally, a textbook psychopath* with a grandiose plan of destruction; his portrait is utterly chilling (and reminded me a lot of the title character in We Need to Talk About Kevin; that novel predates Columbine, but it makes me think Lionel Shriver must have done some pretty good research herself). 

(*There’s actually a psychopathy checklist, and as FBI analysts reviewed the documents Harris left behind, they were able to check off more and more boxes on it.)

Much of what’s revealed in Columbine is made public for the first time in these pages, and it makes clear that what happened at Columbine High happened because of the individuals involved, and wasn’t precipitated by anything specific to their circumstances. I’m not sure there are many larger lessons we can take away from that–none that might help us feel a little better about our kids’ safety, anyway. Readers looking for reassurance that “Columbine can’t happen here” aren’t likely to find it, but they will end with a much better understanding of what really happened there.

One of the many ways that audiobooks have improved my reading life is that they’ve helped me get to some of the books that have been hanging around my TBR collection for years. I bought Columbine when it was released in paperback in 2010…and it’s sat on the shelf ever since (surviving the Big Book Purge of 2013). I thought about finally cracking it open late last year, after the Sandy Hook school shootings, but went with the audio of a thematically-related novel that had been in TBR even longer, We Need to Talk About Kevin; instead. But as my reading preferences have been shifting more toward nonfiction lately, I decided to make Columbine my next audio read (after Sheri Fink’s Five Days At Memorial). I’m not sorry I did–I wasn’t wowed by Don Leslie’s reading, but I wasn’t bothered by it either–but the standard tag that Audible applies at the end of every recording, “Audible hopes you have enjoyed this program,” doesn’t feel right with a book like this. Columbine isn’t a book you read for “enjoyment”–you read it for insight, for context, and for stellar narrative journalism. And if those things matter to you, you should read it.

Rating: Book–4 of 5; Audio–3.75 of 5

Book description, from the publisher’s website: 

On April 20, 1999, two boys left an indelible stamp on the American psyche. Their goal was simple: to blow up their school, Oklahoma-City style, and to leave “a lasting impression on the world.” Their bombs failed, but the ensuing shooting defined a new era of school violence-irrevocably branding every subsequent shooting “another Columbine.”

When we think of Columbine, we think of the Trench Coat Mafia; we think of Cassie Bernall, the girl we thought professed her faith before she was shot; and we think of the boy pulling himself out of a school window–the whole world was watching him. Now, in a riveting piece of journalism nearly ten years in the making, comes the story none of us knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen has delivered a profile of teenage killers that goes to the heart of psychopathology. He lays bare the callous brutality of mastermind Eric Harris, and the quavering, suicidal Dylan Klebold, who went to prom three days earlier and obsessed about love in his journal.

The result is an astonishing account of two good students with lots of friends, who came to stockpile a basement cache of weapons, to record their raging hatred, and to manipulate every adult who got in their way. They left signs everywhere, described by Cullen with a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, thousands of pages of police files, FBI psychologists, and the boys’ tapes and diaries, he gives the first complete account of the Columbine tragedy.

Opening lines: “He told them he loved them. Each and every one of them. He spoke without notes but chose his words carefully. Frank DeAngelis waited out the pom-pom routines, the academic awards, and the student-made videos. After an hour of revelry, the short, middle-aged man strode across the gleaming basketball court to address his student body. He took his time. He smiled as he passed the marching band, the cheerleaders, and the Rebels logo painted beneath flowing banners proclaiming recent sports victories. He faced two thousand hyped-up high school students in the wooden bleachers and they gave him their full attention. Then he told them how much they meant to him. How his heart would break to lose just one of them.” 

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,318 other subscribers