Thursday, August 27, 2009

02:44 Columbine

Dave Cullen

When I was young, one of the reasons I always looked forward to going to my Aunt Juleann’s house was the fact that she had a hardcover copy of Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s account of the Manson Family murders and his memoir of successfully prosecuting them. For a time, as soon as we got to my aunt’s house, my sisters and I would race to that book, whomever was lucky enough to get there first got to pour over its creepy crime scene pictures in blurry black and white with the mutilated bodies tastefully cut out, leaving an eerie ghost white blankness where the victims had been. The only comparable objects of fascination were the Sears and JCPenney’s Christmas catalogues that arrived every autumn.

Since then, every true-life crime book I’ve read has had to compete with Bugliosi’s luridly fascinating tale. Dave Cullen’s Columbine is written with a novelist’s skill, such that, while I had the book out of the library, all I wanted to do was read it until I was finished. It’s a book that reminds you of what you had forgotten and corrects what you (and the media) got wrong. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t loveless loners but had friends and girlfriends. They didn’t “snap” and decide to walk into school and shoot people. Harris had planned it for over a year and it was actually supposed to be a bombing, which, if it had worked, would have resulted in a death toll in the hundreds. The inspiration wasn’t lonely school shooters, but terrorists like Timothy McVeigh.

Why did they do it? Cullen’s answer is so simple you can’t help but try to reject it. Harris was a psychopath. Dylan Klebold was suicidally depressed and turned his rage to the outside world. That’s it. No inciting incident, nothing specific provoked the attack. The attack on Columbine happened because the boys conceived it, planned it and carried it out. It happened because they made it happen.

Cullen’s chilling debunking of Columbine myths takes an ironic turn:

Dylan was heavy into school stuff. Eric, too. They attended the football games, the dances, and the variety shows and worked together on video production for the Rebel News Network. School plays were big for Dylan. He would never want to face an audience, but backstage at the soundboard, that was great. Earlier in the year, he’d rescued Rachel Scott, the senior class sweetheart, when her tape jammed during the talent show. In a few days, Eric would kill her

Written ten years after the shootings, Cullen is able to jump around in time, highlighting victim’s lives before the shooting to give you a queasy sense of suspense, which contrasts with stories of survivors after the shooting as they try to put their lives back together. This structure also gives him the opportunity to address diverse topics such as the rivalries among local religious groups, how false memories are created, and the way the human brain can re-wire itself after a trauma. It’s not just about the shootings.

As mentioned, Cullen’s explanation of the crime is that Eric Harris was a psychopath who hated the world and wanted to destroy some of it, and Dylan Klebold was clinically depressed, wanted to die and eventually agreed to take as many people with him. No Trench Coat Mafia. No victims of bullying getting revenge. Cullen finds plenty of evidence of pathology in Harris’ notebooks. Sometimes what seems like pathology may be the typical thoughts of a teenager. Harris seems constantly amazed at how well he is able to play the role of whatever adults want to see and how easily adults are fooled. Seems like a typical teenager, though other excerpts from his journals are chilling.

After reading Columbine, I was curious to see what other readers thought. I went to the reader review section on and was amazed at the hornet’s nest lurking there. There were a number of angry reviews from those for whom Columbine is simply the story of bullied boys lashing out. They believe it should only be discussed with the goal of eliminating bullying from our schools, which is a noble goal but probably about as realistic as peace on earth. At least they have a goal and a hope that human behavior can be improved. If Columbine is just the story of resourceful psychopaths, how do we prevent it from happening again?


wpbooks said...

I always figured journalists had given the Trenchcoat Mafia a bad name for no good reason! Guess I'll have to seek out a copy of Columbine as any comparison to Helter Skelter causes one to take pause. While that book, In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song were the touchstones of great crime reportage, I must give a shout out to the work of Harold Schecter who has become my personal favorite author of the genre. His accounts of classic mass murderers and sex criminals are unparalleled and if Columbine is half as good as his concise tomes I'll be quite pleased. Thanks for the tip!

Joseph B. said...

Cullen was on Coast To Coast AM radio a few months back and I only caught part of it. Went back and listened to the archive and found his take on things very fascinating. I might have to look for the book.

the hanged man said...

WPBooks - Helter Skelter still fascinates me like no other true crime book, though while I had Columbine all I wanted to do was read it.

I'm ashamed to say that I still haven't read Executioner's Song or In Cold Blood.

Is Schechter's writing as lurid as the book covers?

Joseph - Thanks. I'll have to check out the coast to coast interview.

wpbooks said...

Re: Schecter...It's the crimes themselves that are lurid, so it would be impossible to report on the crimes and the criminals politely. He's concise and the profiles are amazingly well researched and what's really interesting are the times the crimes take place in. He is a constant reminder that none of this mass murder and sex crime is a new or recent phenomenon. ICB and TES are great reads, and if you're into the true crime thang, you owe it to yourself to read them....and by the way, as much as I love Helter Skelter and the way it is written, I find that when it comes to The Mansons I enjoy the original edition of Sanders' The Family, even with all the oooh-we-ooohs!

Erin said...

Mom (or was it you) had a paperback copy of Helter Skelter. As a child, I could never get past the fist page which said, "This book will scare the hell out of you." Boy, if that wasn't the truth.

"There were a number of angry reviews from those for whom Columbine is simply the story of bullied boys lashing out. They believe it should only be discussed with the goal of eliminating bullying from our schools. . .At least they have a goal and a hope that human behavior can be improved. If Columbine is just the story of resourceful psychopaths, how do we prevent it from happening again?"

I think this is part of the problem. The real truth (resourceful psychopaths) is ignored in favor of those we can blame (bullies, Marilyn Manson). In events such as Columbine, people don't want answers, they want scapegoats. As a result, the real answers get lost.

Note: I'm not saying that bullying isn't a huge problem. Of course it is. However, it appears that wasn't the reason for what happened at Columbine.

Sears and JCPenney's Christmas catalougues, Helter Skelter, and the Reader's Digest Strange Stories and Amazing Facts. Man, we were weird kids.

Erin said...

first page, not fist page. Someday, I will learn to write in English. *Sigh*

the hanged man said...

Erin said:

"Sears and JCPenney's Christmas catalougues, Helter Skelter, and the Reader's Digest Strange Stories and Amazing Facts."

I have all of these in my apartment right now. The weird kid has become the weird adult.

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks very much for the nice review. I appreciate you spreading the word.

And "In Cold Blood" is stunning. I didn't actually care for "Executioner's Song," but "Devil in the White City" was also really strong. It's not Capote, but a great read.

Dave Cullen said...

FYI, a posted a lot of info about the killers, and resources for victims, etc. at my Columbine Guide.


the hanged man said...

Thank you, Mr. Cullen: I was impressed by Columbine. I did intend to mention your website and its wealth of material, but couldn't find a way to shoehorn into the review. Anyone interested in the story should head there.

Another thing I couldn't work into the review: there's a passage in which the boys wonder who will direct the inevitable movie based on their planned massacre. Spielberg and Tarantino are mentioned. The boys would no doubt have been mortified if they had known that not only would it end up being Gus Van Sant, but that he would include a scene of them embracing together in the shower. It should be mentioned that Van Sant deliberately included every knee-jerk explanation for the killings in his film, thus defusing any one explanation.

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks again. (And sorry for my typo. Doh!)

I do take a bit of pleasure from knowing Eric would have been appalled by much of what has been made of them. He did NOT want to be known as a school shooter. And screwed up most of his plan terribly.

That's little solace, but I'll take what I can get.

Iva said...

John, you're back!!! I've missed your blog...I'm so happy you're writing again.
I will most definitely have to get a copy of "02:44 Columbine."
"Helter Skelter" absolutely terrified me. I read and re-read it and it terrified me each time. I also remember the fear that the crime produced, not only in Hollywood, but spreading throughout the country. Who could do such inhuman, cruel things? And, what is even scarier, how do they induce others to do their will?
Fascinating review, well done!