I finished Dave Cullen’s Columbine last night. I loved it. It was haunting and illuminating and I loved it. Basically, Cullen has spent the last 10 years researching the tragic attack at Columbine high school. He interviewed victims and their families, went through all of the police evidence (including the Basement Tapes left by the killers themselves) and interviewed experts. What he discovered was that most of what the world thought they knew about Columbine was completely wrong.
The book opens with Cullen’s retelling of April 20th, 1999. I was a freshman in high school. I remember being terrified. I had just started a new school–could the same thing happen there? After that, my all girls Catholic high school began doing the most absurd lock down drills. The code was “The red roses have been delivered to the main office.” When we heard that, we were to calmly report to the nearest classroom and lock the door. I knew the drills were ridiculous. I was still terrified.
Cullen’s narrative of the tragedy is compelling and heartbreaking. Even if you think you know about what happened that day, you probably don’t. He recounts it in such detail, with such narrative skill (all too rare in grand non-fiction opuses (or opi as the Latin major in m wants to write)) that I was actually frightened reading it. I had nightmares. But maybe more interesting was Cullen’s account of the killers’ childhoods and motives. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were, immediately after the tragedy, painted as goth outsiders who enacted their revenge on the popular students of the school. But that’s not the story, Cullen claims. Rather, Harris was a psychopath and Klebold a depressed follower with the same tendencies. Everything we’ve been told–that Columbine is an example of what happens when students are bullied and schools ignore it–is wrong. Columbine is what happens when sick children don’t get the help that they need.
As an educator, I loved this part of Columbine. I loved, as strange as it sounds, thinking of them as students. Just students. Cullen gave excerpts of both boys’ academic writing, and I imagined what it would be like to have them in a class. Would I catch the warning signs? Probably not. It was a harrowing, sobering thought, and I’m still haunted by it a bit.
Columbine is a great read for educators, but it holds a lot of popular appeal as well. Cullen does a great job of analyzing the media coverage of the event, explaining how and why the “myths” grew up around the tragedy. I’m still thinking about Columbine which is, I think, the mark of a great book.