Book review: Columbine, by Dave Cullen
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)
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