Columbine by Dave Cullen

I need a new set of criteria to review Columbine by Dave Cullen. It’s something much more than true-crime; a true-crime book about Columbine would be in very bad taste. It’s not a non-fiction novel like In Cold Blood, though Mr. Cullen uses novelistic devices throughout. Though gripping, it’s purpose is not to entertain. What is the purpose of a book like Columbine? Why study this piece of American history? What can we learn from it?

In Columbine Mr. Cullen presents as complete and accurate a picture of what happened before, during and after the massacre at Columbine High School on April 19, 1999 as we are likely to get for a very long time. (Some evidence is still sealed; some witnesses still have not granted interviews.) Whatever there is to learn from this tragedy, if anything, can be learned from reading Columbine.

Mr. Cullen structures Columbine in three main alternating parts. The events of April 19, 1999 are described in detail in the opening and closing sections of the book. I was struck by how much the media got wrong in its quest for instant and constant coverage on the day of the shootings. Mr. Cullen demonstrates just how unreliable eye-witness testimony can be, so much so that I will forever doubt it even when it is my own. Yet the media relied on eye-witness testimony from traumatized high school students who were sometimes simply repeating misinformation they had heard on television and radio moments earlier. As a result several myths became widely believed: the shooters were bullied outsiders without friends, the shooters were part of a trench coat mafia, the shooters were gay, the shooters were fans of Goth music, the shooters targeted minority students, the shooters targeted jocks, the shooters targeted Christians. None of these were true.

Mr. Cullen alternates his account of April 19 with an analysis of how the two shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, came to be mass murderers. By learning how this happened future tragedies can be prevented, some argue. It is clear from Columbine that Harris was the leader of the two. Mr. Cullen traces explores the work of Dr. Dwayne Fuselier who spent years studying Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold through their journals, homemade video tapes, court and medical records and the testimony of those who knew them. That Eric Harris was a psychopath comes as no surprise, but just what that entails is not widely known. Psychopaths are not typically violent. They have no emotional guilt or empathy for others, their goal is to manipulate those around them, but this only rarely results in violence. There is no effective treatment for psychopaths. In fact, treatment may be a way for psychopaths to become better at concealing the fact that they are psychopaths because it helps them learn how to fake being normal. While Eric Harris’s mental illness led him to kill, Dylan Klebold’s made him suicidal. No one knew the full extent of their conditions until afterwards. Both boys were in treatment programs as a result of an earlier arrest; both appeared to be doing well.

The third alternating part of Columbine is the aftermath–what happened during the criminal investigation, how the survivors and their families tried to recover and how the nation reacted. The people involved were all average people, put in the media spotlight through tragedy and without preparation. Mr. Cullen gives them their fair due. He does not make anyone a hero, nor does he demonize anyone. He presents a well researched, well written version of events.

In the end we come back to the question of what can be learned from this piece of history? Some say that it is not just dangerous to forget the past, it is rude. The job of history is to remember as well as to teach. I did not find any lessons in Columbine. Anti-bullying programs would not have prevented it; Harris and Klebold were not bullied. Eliminating social isolation would not have helped; neither boy was isolated socially. There is some comfort to be found in blaming the boys’ parents, but they both came from solid two parent families with actively involved mothers and fathers who saw that they needed help and got it for them. The police knew of things they did not act on, the boys did use the gun show loop-hole in the Brady bill to buy weapons, there were a few violent essays that raised concern with their English teachers, but there was no one person or one group who knew all the pieces of the puzzle, no one in a position to see the whole picture. Could some one person have done more? The answer to that questions is always yes. With so little to learn, history can only remember.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009.