Dave Cullen Takes on Columbine

This post discusses Dave Cullen's book about the 1999 Columbine massacre. Cullen argues that Eric Harris was a psychopath and Dylan Klebold was depressed and suicidal.

Ten years later, the images from the Columbine shootings remained seared in our collective memory. The bloodied library floor. The crying high school students holding each other in utter shock. Then-President Clinton yet again denouncing the senseless violence of another school shooting-this one, the most violent and bloody in American history. Reporter Dave Cullen was there from the beginning. Since then, he has followed the story with remarkable stamina, persistence, insight and commitment to the truth during the ensuing decade. His book, Columbine, published around the shootings’ 10th anniversary, provides the most comprehensive and authoritative look available at killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, at the build up to the shootings and their ruinous aftermath, and at the elusive question of why. For those interested in this gruesome topic, in short, his book is necessary reading. Just to be clear, Cullen and I are both Dart Center Ochberg Fellows. Named for Dr. Frank Ochberg, whose research led to the coining of the phrase, “Stockholm syndrome,” and who is a strong presence in the book, the fellowships provide a space to help journalists who cover trauma and violence deal successfully with those issues in their stories and with themselves. Cullen and I are also both serving as judges in a journalism competition. Columbine is drenched in irony from the opening pages, which start not with the shootings, but the weekend before, when Principal Frank DeAngelis is urging the students to come back safely after the prom the following weekend. Cullen swings the storytelling pendulum back and forth throughout the work, which has two major narrative strands. The first tells about the boys’ childhoods, histories, personalities and eventual decision to carry out their gruesome plan, which also included undetonated pipe bombs, while the second details the shootings’ and their multifold and devastating consequences. Cullen had a difficult task as a writer. On the one hand, he was writing about an event that was covered, as he notes, less than half an hour after the shootings started. Columbine has been the subject of endless analysis, speculation, books, movies and even legislation. This made it extremely difficult to bring new information into the conversation about the shootings. At the same time, Cullen also confronted a number of myths that sprung up quickly about the shootings. These ranged from the idea that the killers were seeking revenge against jocks who bullied them mercilessly to the assertion that one of the victims, Cassie Bernall, told one of the boys she believed in G-d in the instant before she was killed. To his credit, Cullen pulls off both masterfully. In part, this is because he sifted through tens of thousands of documents, among them files from law enforcement and the killers’ diaries. He also immersed himself in several branches of psychology and conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews with people affected by the shootings. One of his major findings: far from being bullied and cowed victims members of the Trenchcoat Mafia who killed in a spontaneous moment, Eric Harris was a psychopath, while Klebold was his depressive, suicidal follower. They wrote and talked about their plans, which were hatched more than a year in advance of the actual event. Their goals were far larger than the biggest school shooting in history; they wanted to blow up the entire building, and tried repeatedly to do so while shooting their fellow students. Beyond insight into the killers’ psychological makeup, Cullen does a meticulous job of showing the failings of adults along the way to recognize and take corrective action to thwart Harris and Klebold’s deadly plan as well as, in the case of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office, attempting to cover up their misdeeds. In some ways, these are the most painful sections of the book to read. The mother of a boy who was threatened by Harris repeatedly contacted law enforcement to share her concerns. An English teacher, after reading a particularly disturbing essay by Klebold, spoke with the boy, called his parents and notified his guidance counselor. Nothing was done. Cullen blends dispassion and compassion in his description of Tom and Sue Klebold, Dylan’s parents, who have been far more publicly forthcoming than the Harrises, who have never agreed to be interviewed. Cullen brings these same qualities to characters like Patrick Ireland, who was shot, but not killed, during the rampage, DeAngelis, who loses his marriage and much of the faculty’s backing, and the pastor whose spiritual support of the Klebolds contributed heavily to his leaving his position a year later. Cullen’s attention to detail is another praiseworthy aspect of the book. Chilling and poignant details abound on Columbine’s pages. These include the recounting of the final words Sue Klebold exchanged with her son-he had enjoyed the steak he had at Outback Steakhouse, Harris’ favorite restaurant-to the last of the Basement Tapes the boys recorded before heading off on their fateful mission. The book also contains a minute-by-minute recreation of the shootings, including their suicides, a description of the achingly slow rehabilitation process Ireland goes through, and Sue Klebold’s conclusion that Dylan’s actions were contrary to how she and her husband had raised him. These details are testament to Cullen’s intimate knowledge of his material and his considerable skill as a writer. Columbine is not without minor imperfections. While generally and cumulatively effective, the alternating narrative threads can be a bit jarring at the beginning as one is getting oriented to the work. Cullen’s background as a daily reporter shows through in patches of jaunty prose that do not work quite as well as others. And the reader, at the end of the book, is left still not fully understanding why the boys took their murderous actions. The last point is not a criticism of Cullen’s work, but rather a reminder that understanding pure evil-whether in the form of the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, or South Africa’s apartheid regime-remains elusive. That Cullen, after a decade of hard-spent work, is not able to arrive at a compelling and convincing answer is not an indictment of his work, but a reminder of how difficult that quest can be. Cullen ends the book with the unveiling of the memorial close to eight years after the shootings and the release of hundreds of doves into the air. The coming to order in the air of these birds traditionally associated with peace is a reminder that, after all, life does go on, and that a moment of tragedy, as Patrick Ireland says at one point in the book, does not define an individual, a community, or a nation’s entire life. That Harris and Klebold were able to carry out their horrific plans should continue to challenge us to seek to understand, to meet our children’s needs and to prevent further similar atrocities. Columbine, the fruit of 10 years of Cullen’s life, is an authoritative account and resource to help us do that necessary work.