Columbine by Dave Cullen


21948042On April 20, 1999, two boys left an indelible stamp on the American psyche. Their goal was simple: to blow up their school, Oklahoma-City style, and to leave “a lasting impression on the world.” Their bombs failed, but the ensuing shooting defined a new era of school violence-irrevocably branding every subsequent shooting “another Columbine.”

When we think of Columbine, we think of the Trench Coat Mafia; we think of Cassie Bernall, the girl we thought professed her faith before she was shot; and we think of the boy pulling himself out of a school window — the whole world was watching him. Now, in a riveting piece of journalism nearly ten years in the making, comes the story none of us knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen has delivered a profile of teenage killers that goes to the heart of psychopathology. He lays bare the callous brutality of mastermind Eric Harris, and the quavering, suicidal Dylan Klebold, who went to prom three days earlier and obsessed about love in his journal.


My husband is Japanese and the same age as the Columbine shooters so I asked him, what do you know about the shooting? What news made it over to Japan? His answer – two guys, revenge at jocks, Trench Coat Mafia, killed a girl for believing in God.

It turns out only the first two words of that answer are true.

It is an axiom of journalism that disaster stories begin in confusion and grow clearer over time. Facts rush in, the fog lifts, an accurate picture solidifies. The public accepts this. But the final portrait is often furthest from the truth.

We all watched Columbine unfold on TV but how many of us followed the investigation in the many months and years after? What we learned during those first few days stuck. We never bothered to update our mental map of the massacre, but Cullen did. He was at the school in the first days after the attack and stayed with the story for ten years.

The most masterful part of this book is the structure. Often books about a disaster talk about all the exciting stuff that happened the day of first, then spend the remaining 70% rehashing legal battles and roads to recovery. It’s chronologically accurate but increasingly tedious. In Columbine Cullen starts with the very basics of the attack, introducing us to key survivors and victims. He keeps that story rolling forward while interspersing it with Dylan and Eric’s life and actions leading up to their own deaths. The tension between the two story lines keeps the narrative gripping throughout, and the transitions are mostly smooth.

Myths are busted left and right, from bullying to the idea that something made Eric and Dylan “snap”. We get a fascinating deep look at the killers’ psyches and, thanks to their journals and video tapes, what they were thinking and planning.

I read an updated edition that includes a map of the school, pages from said journals, and a detailed timeline of events. There are no photographs on purpose; the rationale is explained in the introduction. I’m not sure what I would do but I respect the decision. (And really, if you want to see that sort of thing the internet is here for you.)

The main part of the book is pure journalism and very well done. In 2016 Cullen added an additional epilogue with his personal reflections and I’m not sure how I feel about it. There are some interesting passages but I usually like keeping the author and the work separate.

All in all Columbine is an intriguing look at what actually happened. It was recommended to me as an excellent example of journalism and I wholeheartedly agree.