Almost 20 Years On, The Story of Columbine is Haunting and Still Too Relevant

Book review: Columbine, by Dave Cullen (Amazon / Book Depository)

Anyone reading here knows I’m a huge fan of narrative (or creative) nonfiction, a genre that can encompass a lot, but the key element is nonfiction that uses narrative literary structures, styles and concepts similar to those used in fiction. Books like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s masterful and revealing Random Family is a standout example in this genre and one of my favorites, as is reporter John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or Rebecca Skloot’s recently popular The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Despite my reading list always being unconquerably long and like a Hydra head in that when I finish one, I’ve already added five more, I still can’t resist browsing lists of recommended narrative nonfiction. This genre is my weak spot. Dave Cullen’s decade-in-the-making 2009 account of one of the most infamous school shootings, Columbine, appears again and again on these lists. Today marks 19 years since that day “changed the way the nation viewed shootings”. I hesitated because I knew this would be a tough, emotional read but after seeing it lauded enough, I finally caved.

Reading it felt at times physically painful. I thought I’d check in and out, taking it slowly and tempered with reading something else. It didn’t work out that way, because the writing is so compelling, it does the cliched sucking-you-in.

The narrative jumps often between past and present and multiple story lines and players: the two shooters; the coldly cruel Eric Harris and depressed, downtrodden Dylan Klebold; their friends and families, several of the victims and their families, police and FBI agents, and many peripheral figures.

Cullen was one of the reporters who covered the deluge of information that poured out of the school and the surrounding Littleton, Colorado environs in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. He says that by writing this thoroughly-researched account, he wants to set right some of those initial wrongs and address misinformation. Part of the massacre even unfolded live on TV, as helicopters and reporters flooded the scene, and some students who already had cellphones called news stations.

This wasn’t exactly clear to me, why they would call the news instead of staying on the line with police or parents, but Cullen does put the danger into crucial context, at least: “This was the first major hostage standoff of the cell phone age, and they had never seen anything like it.” Students revealed their locations to news anchors, and no one knew exactly how many shooters were active or if they were also watching one of the many TVs in the school, catching the breaking news reports run on every station about the situation there and using it tactically.

The narrative unfolding on television looked nothing like the killers’ plan. It looked only moderately like what was actually occurring. It would take months for investigators to piece together what had gone on inside. Motive would take longer to unravel. It would be years before the detective team would explain why. The public couldn’t wait that long. The media was not about to. They speculated.

And as we now know, this rush to have information and answers immediately led to the dissemination of falsehoods and myths that became more cemented in collective memory and understanding than the truth, even when they were publicly debunked. One of the biggest is that of victim Cassie Bernall’s “martyrdom”, which was played up by her Evangelical parish.

Cullen also debunks myths surrounding Harris and Klebold – that they were heavily bullied outsiders, loners, “goths”, the Trench Coat Mafia myth, etc. Because Columbine was a big school, the majority of student witnesses interviewed hadn’t known who they were. But they still tended to confirm this media-driven narrative; yes, the boys were outsiders and loners.

Cullen argues that that wasn’t exactly the case: they did have a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, they’d attended the prom with dates the weekend before Tuesday morning’s massacre. They exhibited odd and aggressive behavior, to be sure, they’d had run-ins with the law over violence and underage alcohol use, but they seemed to do more bullying than they were victims of it.

Part of myth is memory, and Cullen explores the role that faulty memory played in creating or perpetuating incorrect narratives or events. It’s eerie, how a misunderstanding or a moment recalled in error can enter the narrative so forcefully, and have such stubborn staying power.

The book also presents some utterly devastating realities: despite the boys’ exploitation of the gun show loophole to purchase firearms without required background checks and the obvious horror of two teenagers being able to equip themselves with enough weapons and ammunition to do what they did, no lasting gun control legislation was enacted because of Columbine. What a fucking mess.

Kmart did stop selling handgun ammunition though, possibly in response to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, so at least there’s that.

One of the most devastating stories (they all are, don’t take that the wrong way – I just mean in the detail and telling of it) was that of the sole teacher killed that day, Dave Sanders, and his family. It was so difficult to read and think about, and especially disturbing that his death was preventable if police or SWAT had been better organized. Any reader should be aware; Columbine is incredibly challenging to read and turn over in your mind. It haunts.

As affecting and important as this book undeniably is, it still seemed that much was left untouched. I realized upon finishing it that I didn’t even know the names of all of the victims, I’m almost certain that not all of them were mentioned. And despite some historically important myth debunking, I still had my doubts about a few points. I remember from the media at the time that it was believed they were particularly angry with “jocks” and “preps”, but it isn’t explained why they targeted people wearing white hats in the library, where elsewhere that’s explained as being part of a common “jock” uniform at Columbine. So, was there some truth to that after all? That seems like it would’ve been important to cover.

I liked that some of the survivors were followed, their progress at recovery detailed. It moved me to tears, especially Patrick Ireland, the boy who I remember from horrifying news footage – shot, in shock, and frantically brushing aside broken glass from a library windowsill before toppling out onto a van and a not-ready SWAT crew.

At first he assumed hope – not quite; it was trust. ‘When I fell out the window, I knew somebody would catch me,’ he said. ‘That’s what I need to tell you: that I knew the loving world was there all the time.’

And cue my river of tears.

Lives up to its accolades as excellently written, heavily researched narrative nonfiction about a terrible but unfortunately influential event, its lead-up and background, and of a kind of violence that’s become even more prevalent in the two decades since this occurrence. If only the politicians who continue to fight sensible gun control legislation would read it. My rating: 4.25/5

by Dave Cullen
published April 6, 2009 by Twelve Books (Hachette)

Amazon / Book Depository


21 thoughts on “Almost 20 Years On, The Story of Columbine is Haunting and Still Too Relevant

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  1. What an incredibly thoughtful and detailed review! I will be adding this to my reading list for sure!

    I remember during my university course, I did a paper on the Virginia Tech massacre (2007) and it’s stayed with me all this time, and it was so interesting to dispel the myth from the facts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I really recommend it, it lives up to its reputation for sure.

      That’s such an interesting aspect of these events – how quickly the myth takes over the facts. That’s fascinating that you researched and wrote about it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing, detailed review! I’ve had this book physically on my shelves since being about 14 and I still haven’t read it! I really, really want to. I did start it all those years ago but I wasn’t into reading as much as I was into watching movies, so I put it down and never finished it.

    This review has pushed it to the top of my TBR! I will definitely be picking this novel up again soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I think it’s one of those that a lot of people accumulated and never got around to – I came across that sentiment often reading other reviews or recommendations of it! It’s a must-read,, I hope you get to it soon. I actually read it last year and only posting the review now, and reading back over it, I was so struck just remembering what a powerful book it was.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! Have you read the book by Dylan’s mother? ( I can’t remember the title now, but I reviewed it last year, a Mother’s Reckoning or something like that) anyway it would be interesting to read that book and compare it to what was stated in this one, I’m sure there are conflicting opinions, to say the least!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! No, I haven’t read it (think you’re right about the title!) but I’ve heard a lot about it being a good one. It would be absolutely be interesting to read and compare! I’ve heard that she’s very honest in telling her story.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Useful? Actions of some kind could be mustering or could be delayed. Both coexist and are big troublesome matters. Resolves are needed. Writes on the subjects can certainly influence with reasonable impacts.


  4. I enjoyed your review and I’m very tempted to purchase this, though not sure I’m ready for the emotional slog it will take to get through it. This was such a profoundly shocking event when it occurred.

    Your post got me looking up school shootings and though there were only a few mass shootings before Columbine, there are records of shootings stretching back to the 19th century. So much for the good old days that people like to fondly recall.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! You definitely need to be in the right emotional/mental state for this one, that’s for sure. Interestingly, I also looked up school shooting history after reading this and was surprised it was as prolific as it was. But the author also discusses how the news media culture at the time contributed to Columbine’s notoriety. And it was the deadliest US mass shooting at that time (I think!) – so that’s why it earned a reputation over and above the others. What an awful piece of history to claim.

      I do recommend the book though, tough as it’s an important read.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review of a book that I have read more than once. Like you, I agree that many things were left untouched and unexplained. Perhaps the cover up Cullen alludes to goes deeper than anyone knows?? As a parent and a teacher, this should be required reading!!

    Liked by 1 person

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