Columbine by Dave Cullen
Genre: non-fiction, true crime
He told them he loved them. Each and every one of then. He spoke without notes but chose his words carefully.
I first heard about this book on Metafilter when Susan Klebold, mother of one of the killers, had an article in O Magazine. Before that I had never been interested in the shooting. Not beyond the evils of rubber-necking at some one else’s tragedy. But the discussion there seemed to suggest that this was a well-thought out and reasoned look at the community surrounding the school, as well as the killers themselves. And the author, Cullen, believed that the popular myths about the shootings shouldn’t stand unchallenged.
As a book this really does work well. It is well written; in many ways it seems almost like a novel, but you are always aware that this is a true story, which means it has more of an impact. And it stays far away from any tabloid sort of reporting; not shock!-horror!-read for the vicarious thrill that it could easily have angled for. Instead it seems well researched, informative, appalled at the crime and still trying to understand so that school shootings can be lessened.
When someone mentions the Columbine shooting, what’s the first thing that pops into your head about the killers? That they were bullied and this was their revenge? That they were Manson fans and members of the Trench Coat Mafia? That they were loners and outsiders?
In this book Cullen argues that none of that was true. That these myths have hidden the truth from people. He argues that Klebold and Harris were actually quite popular at school, not part of the jocks set, but they had friends and girlfriends. Harris especially was popular with the girls. And while they may have listened to Manson they weren’t huge fans at all. The Trench Coat Mafia was a real group, but it was about looking good, not about violence. And yes, Klebold and Harris wore trench coats but this was because they were good for hiding the weapons they carried.
Cullen argues, convincingly, that Harris was a prime example of a psychopath. His while life he had an over-whelming sense of his own superiority and was enraged at the prospect of being under the authority of his inferiors. He spent his life lying to the people around him, learning how to push buttons and get away with everything. Successfully fooling almost everyone he came into contact with. Klebold, on the other hand, Cullen sees as a textbook case of “suicide by cop”. Only of course, he wasn’t shot by the police, but by his own hand.
Reading this book is often quite difficult. Cullen does a very good job of describing events without sentiment, but never so detached that the reader forgets the tragedy that she is reading about. It is a hard read, but it should be. The aspect of this book that I liked above all was that it managed to humanize these two murderers. Not so that you want to make excuses for them, or feel sorry for them, well maybe until they started down the road that would lead them to the shootings. But it is important to acknowledge that Harris and Klebold were human. They weren’t some monster that were so abnormal that we shouldn’t try and figure out what made them act. Understanding doesn’t excuse but it may help in stopping a future murderer.
But then again I can’t say for sure that Cullen is correct. He makes a pretty convincing case, but I don’t know the details and, to be honest, I’m not going to spend years of my life trying to interview parents, friends, and victims. I’m not going to trawl though the evidence. Cullen has made his case. And made it well.