Friday, March 26, 2010

Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

ColumbineTitle: Columbine

Author: Dave Cullen

Pages: 358

Source: Interlibrary loan

Rating: 10/10

Challenges: Read 'n' Review Challenge

First Sentence: "He told them he loved them."

Summary (From book flap):

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 the 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 were secretly stockpiling a basement cache of weapons, recording their raging hatred, and manipulating 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.

My Two Cents:

I wish I had a little more time between finishing this book and writing this review to allow what I read to sink in a bit, but I have to return it through the interlibrary loan system and must write my review now.

Disclaimer: There are a lot of conflicting reviews about the truth and validity of the things Cullen presents as fact in this book -- Some people claim that he bends the facts to fit his "mold" for the killers. I can't speak to a lot of these claims for several reasons: 1) I have not examined the evidence myself; 2) Many of the people voicing opposition to Cullen's book are either very close to the incident or are amateur researchers and are in no way experts; 3) The only people who truly can tell us a motive for the killings are dead. As a result, in this review, I will operate under the assumption that Cullen did his due diligence as a journalist and fully vetted things before presenting them as fact.

I was in the eighth grade when the attack on Columbine High School occurred. Even though I watched the TV reports and read the newspaper articles and discussed the incident in classes, there was so much that I missed.

This is the most riveting piece of non-fiction I have ever read. Cullen uses the evidence to propel his narrative, which reads more like the plot of a psychological thriller than reality. I had to keep reminding myself that this really happened; it wasn't a mystery novel. Most of what I read chilled me to the bone.

Cullen was on the scene at Columbine from day on, so he has a unique perspective on the incident and has seen it through the last 10-plus years. He lays out many of the myths which arose in the early hours after the tragedy: That the killers targeted their victims; that they belonged to a murderous group called the Trench Coat Mafia; that library victim Cassie Bernall professed her faith in God immediately before she was killed. The myths are brought to the reader's attention, and then Cullen shows why they likely developed.

The central thesis of Cullen's work, and the question everyone is still asking, is the one that is not really answered by the end: Why? The problem, Cullen shows, is that there really was no definable, singular reason. These were two incredibly troubled boys who carefully plotted a heinous attack in order to kill as many people as they could. The killers, especially Eric Harris, believed that they knew something about mankind that the rest of us didn't, and the people in their school would pay for their blindness. One of the first things I really was stunned to learn (Like most of the tragedies that unfolded following Columbine -- 9/11, Virginia Tech, etc. -- I watched for a short time and read the newspapers, but after awhile, it became too much too often, and I didn't read anymore) that the attack was really a failed bombing. Harris and Klebold planted two bombs in the cafeteria with the intent that they would take out upwards of 400 people and possibly collapse the library onto the cafeteria. They armed themselves with guns with the plan to mow down those fleeing the building following the explosions. They planted two more bombs in their cars with the thought that they would wipe out emergency personnel and journalists who had gathered in the parking lot. None of those bombs detonated, and the bombing turned into an improvised shooting rampage.

The differences between Harris and Klebold, as presented by Cullen, are striking. Klebold was a seriously depressed young man who had no ability to see himself as worthwhile. He contemplated killing himself for a long time, possibly years, before actually acting on it. Up until the day of the attack, it even appeared as if he might back out of the plan. Harris, on the other hand, was a textbook psychopath. He could charm anyone and convince them of anything they wanted to hear. He was prone to frightening outbursts of rage, but showed few other emotions. His journals show that he fantasized about doing away with the majority of the world's population, simply because he thought they were unworthy of living and were not as enlightened as he was. He was the mastermind behind the plan, and convinced Klebold to follow along.

This is a hard one, as you can tell, for me to review in terms of the traditional sense. There was so much in here that I remembered and so much I didn't know. These revelations overshadowed much of my usual ability to evaluate a book (Quality of writing, structure, etc.). Cullen is a fabulous writer; this entire book, as I said before, reads more like a heart-pounding horror show than a recounting of a real event. It unfolds not in a linear timeline, but often with chapters showing pre-attack, during-attack and post-attack in alternating chapters. It is a very effective way to lay out a book like this.

I would recommend this book to anyone who remembers the attacks or who isn't sure what to remember. Buckle up and prepare to be rocked. I will say that this is one of the most intense things I have ever read, and can get graphic in places, so if you're at all sensitive to those sorts of things, I would suggest staying away.


Aths said...

I have this one on my TBR, and as a VT student, I'm even more interested in reading it. Both the shooting anniversaries are coming up soon, VT's on 16th and Columbine's on 20th. Time for reflection.

Jenners said...

Brilliant review. I've been on the fence about this one as I know it will be very very disturbing but your review has convinced me that I need to read it.

Greg Zimmerman said...

Very nice review - I've heard nothing but great things about this terrifying book. Almost a modern-day "In Cold Blood," it seems.

Here's a Cullen blog, if you're interested:

Christy (A Good Stopping Point) said...

I'll definitely have to read this book this year. Every review I've read of it has reaffirmed my interest. Good review!

Karen said...

I read this book a few years back and it has stayed with me ever since. It is disturbing but yet something about it made me have to own it and so I bought the book. Dave Cullen wrote this book so well and if you haven't read this you have to...but be prepared to be disturbed by what mankind (kids) are capable of.

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