Sunday, May 9, 2010

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

ISBN: 9780446548928
Twelve (Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group) 2009
First Trade Edition, 2010

Back in 1999 my daughter was 10, still in elementary school and I never worried about sending her there each day. I mean, why would I? We lived in Santa Barbara, CA, a beautiful city on the coast where life was good and the worst thing we had to worry about at her school was the occasional episode of kids picking on other kids (not on my kid, but the parents were all aware of the major troublemakers). Then things sort of changed for a while on April 20th, when in Littleton, Colorado, high-school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to school like they did every other day, bringing an arsenal of guns and bombs and going on a killing spree that left 13 dead and several others wounded.  I couldn't get past the fact that the parents of the children who'd been killed had said good-bye to their kids that morning, never to see them again.  So for some time, I just sat and let CNN take me through the day's events, waiting for any new information they would broadcast about Columbine.  And from that day until this past week, I totally believed that the Columbine shooting was all about a couple of misfit kids who went into the school to take their revenge on all of those who had made fun of them or who had scorned them. I believed that Harris and Klebold were members of some creepy group known as the Trenchcoat Mafia who got some of their ideas from Marilyn Manson and waited precisely until April 20th because it was Hitler's birthday. And you know what? I wasn't alone.

Columbine is Dave Cullen's attempt to set the record straight.  It is the culmination of ten years of the author's research and hard work, based on witness testimony, police reports, survivor accounts, FBI files and psychological investigations, and last but not least, Harris and Klebold's own writing and video. As part of his work, Cullen  examines and attempts to debunk the "truths" put forth by  the media at the time, which we probably accepted because we were so eager to understand how this could happen and why. For example, rather than being outcasts at their school, both Klebold and Harris had friends, did quite well academically and participated in school events and were considering the senior prom.  However, Cullen argues for the fact that Eric Harris was a psychopath who could play the game and play it well, knowing precisely how to act for authority figures, while Dylan Klebold, who was more of just a follower, was suffering from severe bipolar depression and ultimately suicidal. Not that he's trying to excuse their behavior, but his research gives readers more of an insight into the why. Furthermore, the diaries and videos left behind indicated that Harris' plan was to take out the entire school (not just selected targets) with bombs and napalm placed in strategic locations, even as far as having bombs explode from the car to reach people who escaped the building and the police and medical personnel who would come once word got out.

Cullen offers a chilling recreation of what probably happened that day, which is extremely disturbing. Nearly as frightening were the actions taken (or not taken in some cases) by the Sheriff's department, whose officials realized they had made some really bad mistakes prior to Columbine as far as Harris and tried to cover their own butts. He also examines the aftermath of the shooting on the survivors and their families as well as the families left behind, does so very professionally -- no tabloidish reporting here. The book is obviously well researched, leaning on facts and eyewitness accounts, and never comes across as contrived.

If you're interested, after reading Cullen's account, you just might want to go back and revisit what you think you know about that day in April 1999.  I wasn't there, so I can't possibly swear to the veracity of everything that Cullen says, but his account is highly credible and makes for an intense read. If you are at all curious about the events of that day and want a fuller picture than the one offered by the media at the time, I most highly recommend you read this book.


  1. Hi Dave! And thanks for coming by. I really enjoyed the book and plan to post the review in a few other places as well. Thanks for your hard work -- and yes, it was lucky for you (but not so much for the parents) that it took so long for everything to be released. What are you writing about next?

    thanks again...I'll definitely pass the word.

  2. 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

  3. Hello, GM. I'm sure you are the "GM Davis" who wrote your own 1-star review on Amazon. Your thoughts are welcome here, but I have some comments of my own.

    1) Thank you for the book recommendation. I think I've read all I want to read about Columbine -- I'm interested but not obsessed, and quite happy with Cullen's book. I'm sure Mr. Kass' book is fine as well, but I'm done with Columbine for now.

    2)To be blunt: who gives a rat's ass whether or not Klebold or Harris ever got laid? If that's the reason you gave this book a one-star review on Amazon and highly recommend Kass' book, then you have obviously missed the point. Who cares??? Unless you've forgotten, these two kids killed 13 people and seriously injured several others. They also left others with scars which will probably never heal, and you're quibbling about whether or not two boys ever had sex? It's time to move along.

  4. I was at Columbine about 5 months after the shootings meeting with students preparing for college (this was when I was a college admission officer). Thanks for telling me about the book. I plan to read and review.

  5. Wow. That must have been tough for you being there in such close proximity to the shootings. Which college??

  6. Wow .. great review!! Exactly my thoughts on the book. Amazing right, the amount of myths that circulated since the d-day? And even though it's been 11 years, they still persist!

    I thought I follow your blog. While I was waiting for your review of Columbine, I noticed that I didn't have your blog on my list. Uff!

  7. Thanks, Aths! What really got me were the cover up by the Sheriff's dept and you really have to wonder if they had acted on earlier complaints if this would have happened. Oh well...add that to the list of things I'll probably never know the answer to.

  8. Thanks Nancy, Rob and Aths.

    Nancy, I really appreciate your help spreading the word. That's so important with books.

    Rob, I'll be very interested to hear what you think.

    Nancy: good job digging a bit on GM. For some reason, he omits the fact that he's the Denver businessman who published the Kass book he's hawking. Nice guy.

    (You are likely to hear from more of the squad that follows me around on the web to diss. Sorry to bring them to you.)

  9. ah! Well, I understand his negativity now (gm I mean). Getting diss mail doesn't bother me at all - it tends to lessen people's credibility with me anyway.

  10. Wonderful review and enjoyed reading the comments here. I too appreciated the take on this book and found it to be a powerful read.

  11. Thanks, Sheila. I recommend it to pretty much everyone!


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