Columbine is a book ten years in the making. Dave Cullen was one of the first journalists on the scene the day that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wreaked their violence, and he spent the next decade painstakingly researching the incident, determined to tell the story of what actually happened that day. This might seem like a ploy to make money — I can just hear the newscasters: “Are your kids safe? What really happened at Columbine, tonight at nine.” But this isn’t that kind of book. In fact, it’s specifically designed to be the antithesis of the kind of snap journalism that brings half-formed stories into the public eye before the facts are clear.
Because of the shitstorm media circus that Columbine became, even while it was still happening, there are a lot of things about the public narrative of the tragedy that are simply not true, but which millions of people nonetheless take as a given. Cullen not only manages to dispel those myths, but also conveys the events and the humanity of the people who played their parts in a clear and very compelling manner. It was very, very hard to put down this book, even despite the disturbing nature of some of its subject matter.
Among the myths that Cullen dispels:
1. This was not a school shooting. Klebold and Harris were emulating Timothy McVeigh, not the many school shooters who had been in the news that year. Originally they planned the incident for the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombings, but didn’t have their plans finalized on time, so it was pushed back a day to the 20th. Their main plan was to blow up the cafeteria and take out hundreds of students at a time. The guns were for picking off the stragglers. The bombs, however, were faulty.
2. Klebold and Harris were not bullied or unpopular. Most people thought Harris was charming, and he was popular with girls. Neither boy was considered an outcast, although they did associate with some of the members of the Trench Coat Mafia (who were famously blamed for the incident). Dylan went to their senior prom the weekend before the shooting and seemed to have a great time, according to his friends.
3. Klebold and Harris did not target jocks. Both boys were huge sports fans. They did not in fact target anyone. They were aiming for destruction of the entire school.
4. Klebold and Harris did not organize this as a revenge thing. Cullen had access to both boys’s journals, as well as their Basement Tapes (which they left as their legacy). Harris is widely recognized as a psychopath, and Dylan was severely depressed. Both boys were extremely intelligent.
5. The cops knew about Harris’s criminal behavior, including a blatantly violent website, a year before the incident. The cops even had a warrant for his arrest, but it was never acted upon. There was a police cover up when it was learned about the mistake.
6. Cassie Bernall did not defend her faith in the library and get shot for her troubles. The student who reported that she was the one who said that was injured and confused. It was actually another student named Val, who has since been ridiculed for trying to steal Cassie’s thunder. Cassie’s mother, who published a book about her daughter several years after her death, refused to believe the true story.
Seriously. I could go on.
The book is absolutely fascinating, not least because Cullen really wants to understand not only why the boys did what they did, but the impact their actions had on the community, on individuals within that community, on the families of the victims and the families of they boys themselves.
I was in eighth grade when all this happened, and I actually have clearer memories of the Kosovo bombings than I do of Columbine. But I do remember how Columbine took over the media, how it was all anyone could talk about, and how horrified people were that not only something like that could happen, but perhaps moreso that something like that could happen while we were watching. It didn’t feel like real life. And in many ways, it wasn’t. The story in this book was real life. The details. The personal stories. The people who actually lived it, and have to live with it every day.