Columbine by

18 March 2010

Genre: ,

ISBN: 9781906964146
LibraryThing ; Author’s site

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.

Other reviews: Ex libris ; Dangerously cold tea ; Some civil thoughts.

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7 Responses

  1. Nymeth says:

    "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."

    I completely agree with this. Of course, knowing they were human doesn't make it any easier to make sense of something like this, If anything the opposite. This sounds like a book I'd love to read sometime, so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Fence says:

    It is well worth a read Nymeth. A tough read, but worth it I think.

  3. gm davis says:

    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

    • Fence says:

      Hi GM Davis, first of all I have to admit that I'm sure Cullen got stuff wrong. He was after all, speculating as well as reporting. However I have no problem understanding that comment as portraying Harris as a fella who was a hit with the ladies, but getting plenty of dates doesn't neccesarily mean sexually active.

      And I would put a lot more store in your rebut if it wasn't posted, verbatim, on plenty of other reviews of Cullen's book. Seems like you have an agenda?

  4. Kelly says:

    I didn't pay too much attention to the hoopla surrounding the shooting after it happened, though I did watch Bowling for Columbine… I remember hardly anything about the movie, but it seems to me that its focus was not on the actual event so much as on the need for better gun control in America. The book sounds compelling and I think I'll try it!

    • Fence says:

      Urgh, Michael Moore annoys me. Though I too have seen Bowling for Columbine :) and like you remember very little of it, but I think it was more about gun control. It is also mentioned in this book as basing its title on a myth that Harris & Klebold went bowling before the shooting. They *did* often go bowling, but not that morning.