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 amazon.com 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?