Sunday, October 25, 2009
Columbine (NF 2009) - Dave Cullen
The front cover of Dave Cullen's Columbine shows a mostly deserted Columbine High School (date undetermined) with a few scattered cars sharing the parking lot with large patches of melted snow. It's a scene you see at countless schools across the country hours after the doors have closed for the day. What makes the cover so striking is that the school grounds only take up a very small portion of the photo. The school is dwarfed by a huge gray sky that seems to stretch on forever.
For a long time, I found myself staring at that photo in wonder. Then I realized that the photo stirred something in me greater than wonder. It haunted me. Then it angered me. Then, strangely, it comforted me.
Although the story of Columine belongs to the students, parents, teachers and surrounding community, it is partly a masterful psychological study of the two killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Harris was the mastermind, a true psychopath that literally saw himself as superior to nearly everyone else around him, a young man filled with absolute hatred for most of the people in his universe. He saw himself as a god, but in fact, he was quite small, a small young man raging against the world. Right or wrong, that's what the photo says to me. That one quiet picture unleashes a whole gamut of emotions that you can't deny while reading Columbine.
Regardless of what you've been told about what happened at Columbine, what you know is probably wrong. Dave Cullen spent nearly ten years researching and writing Columbine, which serves not only as a stellar account of what really happened on April 20, 1999, but also how the media got it wrong.
We were led to believe a group calling itself the Trench Coat Mafia was responsible, that they were hunting down jocks, settling long-standing feuds. None of that is true. The truth is far worse and far more chilling. Cullen shows, citing the killers’ journals, videotaped conversations and eyewitness accounts, that the attack was intended to kill not just a few hated students, but every single person at the school, over 2,000 students and faculty.
Cullen masterfully tells the Columbine story in an unconventional manner, using multiple time lines and points of view. This works because Columbine is such an unconventional story. There had been school shootings before Columbine, many of them, but none were quite like this one. Cullen doesn't pull any punches, but he doesn't exploit his subject either. He's got too much respect for the subject, his audience and his profession. That respect comes across on every page.
Columbine is often a painful book to read, but one we should not shrink away from. It belongs to that community, but it also belongs to all of us. It's a necessary reminder and an essential warning of what did and could happen anywhere.