Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

Occasionally I like to post a book, movie, or music review for pieces I particularly enjoy...or hate with unrelenting passion. I kid. But truly, sometimes I come across something I so enjoy that I'd like to recommend it to you in the hopes that you enjoy it also.

It is with this spirit that I introduce you to a book I've recently finished: Columbine by Dave Cullen.

I'd have to describe the book as a sometimes fast-paced account of the years leading up to, and years following, the Columbine school tragedy.

I say "sometimes fast-paced" because other times it's a bit jumpy, moving between the scene of April 20th, and the past events of the planning stages or the investigation time line.

Meticulously researched, the account includes hundreds of hours of interviews weaved together in a disturbing, yet stirring narrative. Disturbing because, by this account, officials had many red flags leading up to April 20th that they failed to act upon, which may have derailed Harris and Klebold's plan, and stirring because the stories of the survivors move between heartbreaking and inspiring.

As I've mentioned, the book is a bit jumpy, dropping threads of pre-April 20th and then picking up with the narrative of the tragedy or snippets of post-April 20th, but I almost think it works better that way. After all, the book took me a month to read mainly because I could only handle it in small doses. The zig zag between story lines is effective in managing your sanity.

I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know what really happened, why they did it, and what happened to Littleton afterward. Warning: Not for the faint of heart.


Kyle said...

Dave Cullen's book is well-written and contains some interesting information, but I find it highly flawed. It is hardly the definitive, myth-busting account of the 4/20 massacre it purports to be.


I don’t dislike Cullen's book because he’s *wrong*, per se.

I dislike it because he claims that it is possible to be *right* about Columbine. I dispute his claim that his interpretation – his convenient truth, if you will – is the only valid one.


Having said that, let me add that his characterization of the two shooters is absolutely ludicrous.

Eric Harris was not a swaggering ladies' man, and Dylan Klebold was not a cowering emo.

Cullen frames the entire massacre in terms of pop psychology: "Eric Harris was a sociopath and Dylan Klebold was a depressive - and that's it."

I find this "diagnosis" trite and simplistic - and highly suspect.

(Cullen's main source for his theory is Dwayne Fusilier, an FBI investigator with a huge conflict-of-interest - his son not only knew the killers, but made a video with them in which *the very act they attempted to perform* - blowing up the school - was depicted.)


Cullen dismisses his critics as people who have their heads in the sand, clinging to the obsolete notion that “Eric and Dylan were just a couple of bullied kids who were targeting jocks.”

He’s wrong.

My objection to Cullen’s book rests on my belief there are too many unknowns, loose ends, and nagging, unanswerable questions, for anyone to say that “A caused B, which caused Columbine.”

My personal belief is that the attack was a “perfect storm” of numerous factors interacting in erratic, unpredictable, irreproducible ways: mental illness, yes, but also:

* social alienation and isolation (including bullying – but not to the extent that some people think);
* questionable parenting;
* massive police incompetence;
* the trials and tribulations of two very smart, very troubled (in somewhat different ways) teenagers trying to navigate the perilous route from childhood to adulthood.

I don’t see how Dave Cullen can conclude that Eric Harris was a successful ladies’ man and a confident social king. A lot of people have looked at the evidence, and no one else has made that conclusion.

Only someone with a predetermined idea (“Eric was a sociopath, and that’s all there was to it!”) would be able to ignore all of the evidence suggesting that Eric was a social non-entity.

(People say that Cullen spent ten years researching and writing his book, but he began expressing his ideas in Salon.com articles as early as the fall of 1999, and basically spelled them out entirely in April 2004. He seems to have decided early on that Eric was the psycho and Dylan was the emo - period. In so doing, he closed his mind to alternative perspectives.)

Dylan was a lot more aggressive than a lot of people want to believe – he had a lot of anger in him. He wanted to kill and hurt people.

I believe that Eric and Dylan were at or near the bottom of the high-school social structure.

But, as I’ve said – that was only one factor. And maybe not even the most important one.

Of course, if the school wasn’t a factor at all – and even Eric Harris himself wrote that people should not blame the administration – why did they choose to attack the school, and not some other target?


But I digress. I’m wasting time arguing that Cullen is “wrong”, when I should be reiterating my point that there is no “right” or “wrong”.

Kyle said...

But I digress. I’m wasting time arguing that Cullen is “wrong”, when I should be reiterating my point that there is no “right” or “wrong”.

I strongly disagree with Cullen’s contention that there is an easy answer and a concrete explanation.

Before one can come to believe that Cullen’s book is the “true story” about Columbine, one must come to believe that there is such a thing as a “true story” – that it is possible to take one of the most notorious crimes of the late 20th century, muck around in the evidence, and produce a simple, tidy explanation: “Eric Harris was crazy (Cullen uses the word “sociopath”, but he might as well have said that Eric was possessed by the demons of Doom), and he persuaded Dylan to help him try to blow up Columbine High.”

I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s that simple. No one will ever convince me that the explanation, if there is one, is that simple.

I think that “Eric and Dylan were a couple of bullied kids who targeted jocks” is just as simplistic and inaccurate a statement as “Eric was a sociopath and Dylan was a depressive.”

Dave Cullen has merely replaced Simplistic, Inaccurate Statement A with Simplistic, Inaccurate Statement B.

I concede that there’s more evidence to support SIS B than there is to support SIS A, but I contend that both statements are equally unhelpful in helping us understand what happened.

Anyone who believes that the cause of Columbine can be boiled down to a simple formula – “Psycho + Emo = NBK”, or even “Bullies + Outcasts with Guns = NBK" - is intellectually lazy, IMH (and ultimately irrelevant) O.

At the very least, such a person is somewhat close-minded.


For alternative perspectives on the Columbine massacre, read:

* "No Easy Answers" by Brooks Brown;
* "Columbine: A True Crime Story" by Jeff Kass;
* "Comprehending Columbine" by Ralph Larkin.

Read the killers' writings (available on www.acolumbinesite.com - with which I am not affiliated.)

Read the documents *very* grudgingly released by law enforcement over the years.

Read as much as you can.

Keep an open mind.

Remember that the "truth", far from being plain and simple, is always far more elusive than we want to believe.

Don't be taken in by hype.

Kyle said...

NOTE: I wrote this critique some time ago. I just realized that I forgot to edit it to change the instances of "sociopath" to "psychopath".

It hardly helps my credibility as a reviewer to admit that I confused the two terms, but in all honesty I must.

In the past, I have criticized Mr. Cullen rather harshly. I now realize that the success of his book is immaterial in terms of the larger attempt to comprehend the Columbine massacre.

Those who demand the "closure" of easy answers and clear-cut explanations will accept his conclusions; those who are not no easily satisfied will continue the search for truth.

My main message is this: Read Cullen's book, but don't accept it as the gospel of the ages handed down from the oracle of truth.

Kyle said...

That should read "so easily satisfied".

I hate to come across as sloppy and/or anal-retentive, but I'm tired.

gm said...

Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in "Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the fateful day.
The Denver Post

Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

"Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
Wall Street Journal

Ms. Quarter said...

Thank you for the book recommendations Kyle and gm, I will definitely look into them.

As with any event that so drastically changes and effects a part of our society, it's impossible to know everything, believe whole-heartedly in one account, or not have some misgivings about anything you read or see that attempts to summarize it. I admit the last paragraph of my post seems a bit blase and dismissive of these nuances.

Ultimately, I liked the book, I thought Mr. Cullen did as thorough a job as he could, and in no way did I mean to insinuate his work is the definitive work regarding Columbine - a distinction it's probable no author will reach. In my humble knowledge of Columbine, I meant only that this particular read was more encompassing than anything I have read so far, and certainly more than what I remember of the national press at that time.

Thank you for your comments; I greatly appreciate a spirited conversation!

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks for the really nice review of my book, Ms. Quarter.

I wove the two major stories together because I thought the two sort of commented on each other and gave you an appreciation you'd only get experiencing them simultaneously. I also wanted to show the tragedy through many perspectives.

I would not take the comments personally, as those two follow me and post them verbatim all around the web. (GM is the local businessman who published the book he's hawking.) It has nothing to do with you, or you opinions, which I personally found quite thoughtful.

There's lots more info at my Columbine site.

I just created a Students Page, several videos and a Discussion Board. For schools and book clubs, I'm going to offer to skype in for 20-30 minutes this fall/summer.


Kyle said...

In response to Mr. Cullen, let me just add that I, personally, am in no way personally connected in any way, shape, or form with the Columbine massacre. I have no conflict-of-interest.

I'm just a random, anonymous citizen more than half a continent removed from Colorado, who's been horrified and intrigued by the massacre since the afternoon of Tuesday, April 20, 1999. I have nothing to offer but my own personal thoughts, opinions, and interpretations, which you are free to mock, condemn, and/or disregard.

I wouldn't say that I "follow Mr. Cullen" around, per se ... although I can see why he might feel that way. I have a friend who occasionally sends me links to articles and blog postings such as this, and I post comments on them. I've found it easier to have a standard message to post, although I'm always willing to talk to people who have questions about, comments on, and/or criticisms of what I write.

Mr. Cullen spent ten years researching and writing his book. It's his baby. I wouldn't blame him for feeling a bit put off by my (somewhat piecemeal) efforts to counter his claims and conclusions.

I understand why Mr. Cullen's work has received so much praise, even adulation. I even concede that, if my mind were wiped clean, I might very well be able to pick up his book, read it, and accept his conclusions.

I can't, though. I'm sorry, but I can't. I wish I could.

Kyle said...

Here are a few specific comments:

Cullen claims that Eric Harris was a swaggering ladies’ man and confident social king. This assertion is ludicrous.

Cullen writes that Eric “got lots of girls” and had a relationship with a 24-year-old woman named Brenda Parker. He even quotes Parker in his book. The truth is that Parker had no connection to Harris or the tragedy; she was a “fangirl” who later admitted to the police that she made up the stories for attention. She has *zero* credibility.

Eric tried to get a date to the prom; he failed. He asked several girls, all of whom turned him down. He finally convinced a girl he met at the pizza place where he worked to spend a couple of hours at his house on the night of the prom; they watched a movie. She declined to attend the after-prom party with him, so he went alone.

Harris was fairly short (5’8″) and very skinny, with a deformed chest due to his pelvus excavatum. As his body language in the following video (recorded in a hallway at Columbine and shown in a documentary about the massacre) demonstrates, he was no match for the larger boys he encountered on a daily basis:


In his final journal entry, Eric wrote:

“I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things. And no don’t — say, “well thats your fault” because it isnt, you people had my phone #, and I asked and all, but no. no no no dont let the weird looking Eric KID come along, ohh — nooo.”

Does that sound like someone who was confident and socially successful?

Cullen perpetuates the long-standing myth that Dylan was a sad little emo follower who was totally led by Harris.

The truth is that Dylan was the one who wrote about going on a killing spree before Eric; he someone else to help him.

(Keep in mind that Eric and Dylan intended the massacre to be a bombing event with a shooting element. Their plans went awry.)

On Monday, November 3, 1997, Dylan wrote in his journal:

“[edited] will get me a gun, ill go on my killing spree against anyone I want. more crazy…deeper in the spiral, lost highway repeating, dwelling on the beautiful past, ([edited] & [edited] gettin drunk) w. me, everyone moves up i always stayed. Abandonment. this room sux. wanna die.”

He wrote “*my* killing spree”, not “*our* killing spree”.

Those who have seen the basement tapes have said that, on them, Dylan appears far more eager and enthusiastic than Eric.

Eric apologizes to his parents numerous times, by saying that he’s “Sorry*.

(Some, no doubt, will interpret this as further evidence of his psychopathy – his “duping delight”.)

Dylan apologizes to his parents *once*, in the final tape. His lone apology is rather formal: “I just wanted to apologize…”

On one tape, Eric is seen alone, tearing up when he thinks about his friends back in Michigan. He even turns the tape off so he will not be captured crying on camera.

If he truly was a pure psychopath, as Cullen claims, is it likely that he would have cried while thinking about old friends?

(I have made this argument before, and people have claimed that Eric was acting. There’s no way to know.)