Columbine by Dave Cullen

The reason many people will pick up Dave Cullen’s Columbine is not the reason many will remember it. While Cullen does describe the hours prior to, during, and after the deadliest high school shooting in the nation, this isn’t until near the end of the book. Many of the over 400 pages unravel the twisted path two boys followed to mass murder.

Eric Harris dreamt up the shooting and carried out almost all of the necessary steps over a year and a half period, including building and testing bombs and taking on multiple jobs to save up money for guns and ammo. However, the dullest parts of the book are when Cullen channels Eric’s voice. Harris was a textbook psychopath: “charming, callous, cunning, manipulative, comically grandiose, and egocentric, with an appalling failure of empathy.” His journal, recordings, and website were filled with a smattering of hate, loathing, and death, while he portrayed himself to everyone else as wholesome, always repentant when he had done wrong, and hardworking. His teachers and parents thought he was full of potential. The truth, though, was that he wanted nothing other than to cause as much pain as possible. One page of his journal is filled with large writing that reads, “KILL MANKIND.” Cullen wrote, “Eric would prove the easier killer to understand. Eric always knew what he was up to. Dylan did not.” The portions of the book devoted to Eric are interesting in that they delve into what it means to be a psychopath, but there is this inevitability present when talking about Eric, as if he was always going to walk into Columbine with a gun and take lives. The tension dissipates into hopelessness. It’s dreary.

The depiction of Dylan Klebold, however, has depth. While just as guilty as Harris, Klebold evokes pity in the reader. His journal, where he divulged his secrets for two years before the attack, was filled with his desire for love and acceptance, and his anger at God for making him so seemingly unlovable. Cullen describes Dylan as “a brain, too, but not quite so cool. Certainly not in his own estimation. He tried so hard to emulate Eric—in some of their videos, he puffed up and acted like a tough guy, then glanced over at Eric for approval. Dylan was taller and even smarter than Eric, but considerably less handsome…Dylan saw the worst version of himself.” Later, when describing the way Dylan saddled himself to Eric, Cullen writes, almost as if he can’t contain himself, “What a waste!” The portions devoted to Dylan read almost like he is another one of the victims, and, while there should be a distinct line between the killed and the killer here, it feels accurate.

Columbine was never meant to be a school shooing. Harris wanted to obliterate the school. He and Klebold placed two propane bombs near columns in the cafeteria, hoping they would explode and bring the roof crashing down, crushing the nearly 500 students below. Had the bombs detonated properly, there would be no confusion about who Harris and Klebold were targeting. Even still, all of the twelve students and one teacher killed differed in age, social status, and ethnicity. There was no ulterior motive. Only death.

The two formed a deadly dyad—one a sadistic psychopath, the other suicidally depressed. Eric needed help to reach his desired death toll and Dylan needed a friend who understood his desire to die. Both boys entered the school on April 20th with every intention of dying inside. Eric wanted to be a martyr, Dylan wanted to be free.

The remainder of Cullen’s Columbine is a mixture between debunking the many misconceptions surrounding the events and motives of the Columbine massacre, mostly circulated by the vast media coverage, and telling the stories of survivors, mourners, and first responders as they move through the grieving process and attempt to find their own answers.

The media response to the Columbine shooting was immediate and immense. Cameras rolled outside as gunshots and bombs erupted inside. Students and faculty inside the building called news station when they couldn’t get through to police and their calls were played live on air. Understandably, the story became muddled. At some point during the attack, Harris and Klebold removed their trench coats, leading students inside to report anywhere from one to four gunmen. Wild speculations about the gunmen’s motives spread. Within two hours from the start of the attack, a group of local goths known as the Trench Coat Mafia were being implicated. Students who heard this information on the news began repeating it back to reporters later, causing a vicious circle of misinformation. Now, some fifteen years after the attack, many Americans still see Columbine as a classic case of outcasts picking off their tormentors in a moment of blind rage. Cullen seeks to rectify this.

Cullen describes the events of Columbine with sincerity and respect. His characters, whether classically “good” or “bad”, are visualized as real people should be, with good bits and bad bits all jumbled up. You leave with the idea that he sees the seven and eight-year-old Eric and Dylan, playing soccer, fishing in muddy creeks, and attending boy scouts just as much as he sees the seventeen and eighteen-year-old Eric and Dylan, causing death and destruction that would haunt a town for years to come.

Happy (or in this case, not so happy) Reading,