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Monday, July 27, 2009

Columbine Ensures No One Will Ever Forget

Where were you when ...

... President John F. Kennedy was assasinated (November 22, 1963)?

... Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon (July 21, 1969)?

... the Twin Towers fell in New York City (September 11, 2001)?

... Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas (August 29, 2005)?

Some events are so momentuous - either because of tragedy or triumph - that they remain frozen in our minds forever. While I didn't experience the first event, my mother-in-law did. She remembers - vivdly - watching the news coverage in the sweltering heat of her living room. I wasn't alive when JFK was shot, but my mother recalls getting the news while heading to class at BYU. The last two, however, played out before my eyes on the t.v. screen. I remember the horror, the disbelief, the fear - and that was just from seeing images on the news. At that point, I had visited neither New York City nor New Orleans. I knew no one who lived there. Despite the distance, I grieved for the victims. I'll never forget 9/11 or Katrina.

April 20, 1999 saw a tragedy of another kind. Two high school seniors open-fired on their classmates at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. The news sent my heart straight through the floor. My teenage nieces attended high school in Littleton. Although I'd visited them only 5 months earlier, I couldn't recall the name of their school; I prayed it wasn't Columbine. It wasn't. Still, I remember being glued to the t.v. watching terrified students stream out of the school, an injured boy falling out a window, anchormen/women trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. In the days following the murders, the media ranted about cause: bullies; violent video games and movies; Goth culture; lax gun laws; and inaction by police. Eventually, other news stories captured the nation's attention. Those who, like me, were swept away by other headlines probably remember only a few things about Columbine: teenage killers worn down by constant bullying; a boy falling out a window; a girl martryred for her belief in God; tearful reunions. According to journalist Dave Cullen, we don't know the half of it. In fact, we know even less than we think we know.

Cullen, considered the leading expert on the tragedy, recently published Columbine, a hefty, in-depth look at the event he spent 9 years researching. In it, he writes:

"We remember Columbine as a pair of outcast Goths from the Trench Coat Mafia snapping and tearing through their high school hunting down jocks to settle a long-running feud. Almost none of that happened. No Goths, no outcasts, nobody snapping. No targets, no feud, and no Trench Coat Mafia. Most of those elements existed at Columbine - which is what gave them such currency. They just had nothing to do with the murders" (149).

Cullen's book seeks to set the record straight. With information culled from personal interviews, police reports, journals, video tapes, court records, etc. he leads the reader through the tragedy. He paints the killers in a new light - as intelligent boys who thought, dreamed about and planned "Judgment Day" far in advance. Eric Harris, especially, emerges as a cunning psychopath with a "preposterously grand superiority complex, a revulsion for authority, and an excruciating need for control" (234), who mowed down his peers gleefully, and mostly just to prove that he could. Cullen tracks the police response from initial actions to astonishing cover-ups to lawsuits charging gross mishandling. He talks about the victims - from the controversy surrounding Cassie Bernall's supposed martyrdom to Coach Sanders' undisputed courage to Patrick Ireland's (the boy who pushed himself out the window to safety) painful recovery. Columbine's administrators, faculty, students and their families are also represented - Cullen discusses the fear, the anger, the emotional distress that shook everyone's lives. Exhaustively researched, unflinchingly candid, and absolutely mesmerizing, Columbine offers a riveting look at the nightmare that still haunts so many today.
'm going to be honest: I couldn't wait to finish this book. Every time I picked it up, I felt a shiver run down my spine. I'm not sure I've ever read anything so chilling. A couple of years ago, I reviewed Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes (read the review here), a novel about a Columbine-like school shooting. In conclusion, I wrote: "This book scared me to death." That book was fiction. This book is not. I wish it was. Disturbing does not even began to describe Columbine. Still, it's a fascinating, compulsively readable book that will linger in your nightmares long after you've turned the final page. It brings up questions that will churn endlessly in your mind: Could Columbine have been prevented? Do parents ever really know their children? At what point does typical teenage angst turn dangerous? Are some children really born bad? There are no easy answers. Even Cullen can't fully answer the biggest question that sprang out of the Columbine tragedy: Why? He simply presents the evidence - a staggering amount of it - and lets us draw our own conclusions. And what conclusion have I come to? Columbine is unparalleled in its scope, its detail, its research. It's fascinating on every level. But, I've never been more relieved to finish a book. Although some events must be remembered, sometimes all you want to do is forget. Thanks to Columbine by Dave Cullen, I never, ever will.

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for violence, language and very disturbing content
(Book image from Barnes & Noble)


  1. Great review! You have GOT to quit doing this to me! My TBR pile grows every time you post! :D

  2. Amazing review. I don't know if I could read it... but, I loved your review.

  3. Columbine isn't an event I want to read about currently, but I think it's important to struggle with those questions you mentioned. This is a book I'll keep in mind for the future.

  4. I live within five miles of Columbine. My kids' swim teacher was in the cafeteria that day and made it out safely.

    I've been in the school many times and can't help but think about that day.

    Your review is great but, honestly, I don't think I could read any more about it. I hope others will read it, though, it's an important subject

  5. When I first read your "where were you when.." I thought of the Oklahoma City bombing.

    I feel guilty for saying I look forward to reading this because of the content, but I do. Thanks (again) for a great review.

  6. Susan,

    Thank you so much for that review. I'm touched. You obviously put a lot of thought into it.

    Sorry for the nightmares. I've been asked if I had them, and I don't think so, though I tend not to remember my dreams five minutes after I wake up. It caused me a lot of trouble during the daytime, though. I'm not sure what happened to it all when I slept.

    It must have been churning, because I often woke up with troublesome scenes written and ready to spill. I keep a stack of notepads under my bed, and pens on the nightstand.

    Uh oh, off track there. I mainly wanted to say thanks.


  7. Pretty neat...a comment from Dave Cullen :)

    I did read Columbine and found it fascinating. Heartbreaking and on the verge of gory, but Cullen's research was so thorough and his writing so descriptive, I couldn't put it down.

  8. This must have been a hard book to read. I remember where I was, down to which seat in which dining hall, when I saw the paper with the news. Like you, I had family (a cousin) in high school in Littleton; fortunately, she also attended the other high school. The book sounds fascinating, if disturbing... and, again, hard to read.

  9. I want to read this, despite the dark subject matter. I really want to read the inside story, so to speak.

  10. Oh, heck. I'm going to have to read this one, chilling or not. I don't actually remember where I was during Columbine, but I remember walking with someone in the park and talking about it, while everyone was still numb with shock. And, I was under Katrina -- without power and pacing around the house. Hurricanes are scary. We watched the aftermath of the OKC bombing in our bedroom. Of all the disasters we've viewed, that's the one that had me sobbing like a baby because Oklahoma is home.

  11. Hey Lynne,

    I couldn't pass up a review like that.

    Thanks for all the other nice comments, too.

    I have to admit I was oblivious to Katrina the first several days, because I was in a self-imposed news blackout, trying to meet some deadline on my book. (I can't remember which.) I don't think I was leaving the apt, either, and discovered it about five days in, and was aghast, and then felt really guilty for not having known.

    Then I had to suppress the urge to go down there and help and write about it. I REALLY wanted to, but decided I can only do so many things, and this book was already threatening to be too much.

    I did end up going down 18 months later, on a clean-up project, and I was shocked to discover how little progress had been made. I was impressed by how resilient people were, though, and how determined they were to rebuild their city.

    Uh oh. Did I go way off topic?

  12. Wonderful review. My mom's cousin's step-son was paralyzed in this horrific act of violence and like so many others his life was altered forever.

    I think most parents just bury their head in the sand during the teenage years and hope for the best. I certainly hope I don't do that.

  13. It's interesting that so many of you mentioned the Oklahoma City bombing, as the Columbine killers were actually trying to outdo Timothy McVeigh. Scary. Weirdly, I don't remember a lot about Oklahoma City. I was in college then - a little self-absorbed, I guess?

    You know, as a parent, what scared me most about reading COLUMBINE is the fact that the parents HAD NO IDEA their kids were building pipe bombs, having homicidal/suicidal thoughts, and writing violent entries in their journals. I kept thinking "How could they NOT know?" I think Julie's right that parents "bury their heads in the sand" or they're so worried about invading kids' privacy that they miss so much. I think denial's a big part of it, too.

    In the book, I think Dave (whom I'm so honored to have in on this discussion) makes a point of not placing the blame on any one person. The parents didn't commit the crimes - their sons did. Did parents, police, teachers, and friends ignore things that should have been enormous red flags? Absolutely. And now they're living with that guilt.

    If anything, this book has taught me to be more vigilant in watching/guarding my kids. They're still pretty little, but they grow up fast. I'm praying that keeping the communication lines open now will help keep them open in the future. Other than that, I'm going to pray my little heart out to get through the turbulent teen years. *Shudders*

  14. Great review and discussion. I was a teacher in a 4th grade classroom when I heard the news of Columbine. It had a great impact on the remainder of my teaching career. The monthly fire drills were supplemented by evacuation and lock down drills, both of which children find disturbing.

    It would break my heart to see little kindergartners walking silently into an adjoining neighborhood with their hands on their heads. I finished as a school librarian who had to locate a place between the stacks where students could huddle out of view of the many windows after I had locked the large glass doors. I've always liked to think of a school library and a safe retreat for students. That is part of what made Columbine especially horrific in my mind.

    While I may have survived huddling under my desk as a grade schooler
    during the Cuban missile crisis, I so wish that my grandchildren did not have to practice drills whereby they might survive violent attacks.

  15. This cover is really striking. I want only in first grade when Columbine, but I can still remember hearing about Columbine and some of the effects of it.

  16. I saw this book listed in Bookmarks and immediately flagged it as a TBR. Thank you thank you thank you for such a great review.

  17. This is a great discussion. I'm glad to be here.

    I'm so glad that kids are drilled to prep, but it is scary to think how that affects them. I'm glad I don't have to see little kids with their hands on their heads. I could not watch that too many times.

    I think it's tragic that they chose the library, too. High school kids who went to the library to study during lunch period. Yow.

  18. On Nov. 21, 2008, the Harris and Klebold parents were sent the same letter requesting cooperation. "Your stories have yet to be fully told, and I view your help as an issue of historical significance," it said. "In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one." The letter came not from Mr. Cullen but from Jeff Kass, whose Columbine: A True Crime Story, published by the small Ghost Road Press, preceded Columbine by a couple of weeks.

    "Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen." --Janet Maslin, New York Times

    "A decade after the most dramatic school massacre in American history, Jeff Kass applies his considerable reporting talents to exploring the mystery of how two teens could have planned and carried out such gruesome acts without their own family and best friends knowing about it. Actually, there were important clues, but they were missed or downgraded both by those who knew the boys best and by public officials who came in contact with them. An engrossing and cautionary tale for everyone who cares about how to prevent kids from going bad." -----Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists

  19. Laurel - What frightening images. I'm appalled, too, that they chose the library. As a reader, the library has always been a quiet place of refuge for me.

    Remember when that bank robber ran through my old neighborhood? The kids' school immediately went into lockdown. For a long while afterward, the kids talked about seeing teachers cry, kids panicking, and just chaos - and the school was never in any real danger. It makes me wonder if the drills and the warnings will ever be enough. School shootings are just so incomprehensible. At least Columbine has forced schools to adopt a zero tolerance policy on weapons, threats, etc.

    Anonymous - If I implied that Dave Cullen's book was the only one out there on Columbine, I apologize. I've heard of Kass' book, albeit vaguely. The fact that it was published by a smaller press evidently means it didn't get marketed as aggressively as Cullen's book (which isn't to say that Kass' account isn't as well-written or -researched.) The fact is, Hachette Book Group (Cullen's publisher, which is well known for its encouragement and support of book bloggers) sent me Cullen's book for review. Because of that request, I read and reviewed COLUMBINE. If Ghost Road Press wants to send me a copy of Kass' book, I'd be happy to review it as well. Just wait a couple of months, since my sleep patterns have yet to return to normal (Thanks a lot, Mr. Cullen!).

  20. Wonderful post and excellent discussion. The fact that people are having thoughtful discussions like this gives me hope.

  21. Wow! This is such a great discussion. I remember everything about this day. I was a junior in high school. After school, I had play rehearsal, stopped for Mexican food on the way home and once I did arrive home, the look of relieve on my father's face was unforgettable.

  22. I recall them talking about this one on npr and I was totally hooked because I had no idea that the stuff about the "trench coat mafia" and Cassie Bernall were actually myths that popped up right afterwards. It's hard to understand what drove those two to do what they did, and to a certain extent I suppose we never will understand.

    I'm adding this one to the list. Thanks for the reminder!


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