Monday, March 29, 2010

Columbine: the book

Is it appropriate to warn about spoilers when discussing a non-fiction book?  I guess in a way there probably are spoilers here, if you're not too familiar with the massacre at Columbine High School in April 1999.  There was a whole lot that I didn't know about that I learned from this brilliant book, and I think that most people unconnected to the school or the region are probably in the same position that I was in before reading this.  So if you are one of those people, then I guess this review will contain spoilers for you, but they're nothing that isn't already in the public domain when you search for information about the tragedy itself, so take the spoiler warning however you like.  And if you've already read my Goodreads review, further apologies, because this post is going to look pretty similar.

This is one of the most compelling works of non-fiction I think I've ever read. Most of what I thought I knew about the tragedy at Columbine was untrue, and I love the way that Cullen told the real story here. I couldn't stop thinking about this book for the whole week that I was reading it, and I know that it will stay with me for a long time to come. The book skipped around a lot, chronologically, and I think that was intentional on the author's part, to break up some of the more difficult to read portions about the massacre and the killers' planning leading up to it.

A number of revelations (for me they were revelations, anyway) completely blew my mind.  I didn't know about all of the bombs.  Had they blown up (even if a single one had worked as intended), this whole tragedy would've been a COMPLETELY different situation.  First of all, the number of people killed would've been multiplied by a lot.  Second of all, the whole theory that Eric and Dylan were targeting anyone would've been ridiculous from the start.  You don't target individuals with a bomb.  If even one bomb had gone off, maybe the SWAT teams would've charged in sooner.  Maybe the officials in charge that day wouldnt've told groups of students and teachers to stay in the building as long as they did.  I didn't know that evidence was hidden or that the Jeffco Sherriff's Office told out and out lies about whether they had information that could've stopped the attack before it happened.  I didn't know that the "standoff" that took place that afternoon was completely fictional and Eric and Dylan had killed themselves just 40 minutes after the attack began.  Not that the responders had any way of knowing that, but they sure could've if they had stormed the building sooner than three hours after it all started.  The "She Said Yes" story, which portrayed Cassie Bernall as a martyr who died because she professed her belief in God after one of the killers asked her about her beliefs, was a complete fiction that got blown so far out of proportion it's ridiculous.  The killers were not some bullied outcast types - they had plenty of friends, they had girlfriends, and Dylan Klebold attended the prom just 3 days before the shooting.  What blew my mind the most, though, was learning about the cover-ups and destroyed and hidden evidence and the legal struggles that were necessary for any of those public documents to be released because of what they revealed about the way that the matter was handled by the Jeffco Sherriff's Office.  Wow. 

I remember when the shooting happened, and I remember that it was huge and that everyone thought these kids were retaliating after having been bullied for years by the snotty rich kids and jocks at Columbine High.  Not so.  Not so at all.  Eric Harris was a full-on psychopath with a death wish, and Dylan Klebold was depressed and suicidal and desperately in need of acceptance, which he found from the wrong source in his psychopathic friend.  Dylan tried to leak the attack a few times before it happened, but no one picked up the signals.  Police had a search warrant for Eric's house a year before the attack that, if it had been executed, could've put an end to it well before it happened.  Seriously, I couldn't put this book down.  It was so completely engrossing.  It has piqued my interest in learning even more about the tragedy, and has me doing more research and reading more and more of the official reports that were so concisely summarized in the book.

I had one conversation with J about whether this book could be seen as one reporter's taking the opportunity of such an awful event to cash in, and I honestly don't believe that to be the case here. Partly because it was written 10 years after the incident, but partly because it feels like a truly journalistic venture. There were a lot of lies and a lot of cover-ups and a lot of hidden evidence and media misconception surrounding the shooting, and the author professes his guilt as one of the reporters covering the unfolding story as it happened on that point off the bat.  This book reads like what I think it was meant to be - an effort to lay clean everything that happened before, during, and after the attack without attempts to place blame or explain why it happened. It was excellent for its objectivity but also for its empathy and ability to humanize what for most of the world was a television/media-relayed tragedy. It was well-researched and well-written, and I highly recommend it to everyone.


  1. The big secret about Columbine is that there were more involved than just Harris and Klebold. Don’t believe me? Just ask the eyewitnesses:

  2. Thanks for your comment. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate, but you make a good point. Had the SWAT teams or other responders stormed the school sooner, or if the investigation overall had been more cooperative and/or transparent, maybe we would have a better picture of "what really happened." Instead we have what we have, and it says what it says, and I think Cullen did an excellent job of researching and culling all of that information into an excellent book.

  3. I've wanted to read this book since it came out. I read the book by Wally Lamb (the name escapes me right now!) about Columbine and it really piqued my curiosity. I'll have to request this one from the library.

    Thanks for the great review!