Soon after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve of their classmates and one of their teachers at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, I bought a second TV. The event was so horrifying, riveting, and incomprehensible that I did not want to miss any of the coverage of it by walking out of my living room and into my study.
Journalist Dave Cullen spent a decade immersed in the study of the massacre. He scrutinized thousands of pages of police reports. He studied the diaries and relevant homework assignments of the killers, and watched the video recordings they left behind. He learned about clinical psychology and criminal psychology, and conducted hundreds of interviews. Columbine, the resulting book, is one of the most compelling works of nonfiction I’ve ever read.
Every time another school shooting bursts into our lives, I wonder anew how to make sense of it. Each one has its own narrative and its own dynamics, and so Columbine cannot speak for them all. But as an in-depth exploration of one of the most searing of them all, written with plenty of context about other situations and other motives, the book is indispensable to our understanding.
Columbine is written like a novel, with careful character development and narrative tension — only all of it is true. It is truer, in fact, than many of the media reports that preceded it. One of Cullen’s most important accomplishments is that he shatters the myths that grabbed the attention of the nation (and much of the world) and wouldn’t let go. Trench Coat Mafia? Social outcasts? No, that’s not who the killers were. They both “had very active social calendars, and far more friends than the average adolescent,” Cullen writes.
Were they tormented by bullies and ridiculed by jocks? No, just the opposite — they were proud of themselves for picking on others. Products of “broken” homes? No, both Harris and Klebold, like most other school shooters, came from two-parent homes.
Cassie Bernall, the student who was shot to death after admitting to one of the gunmen that she believed in God, and whose story inspired a book that sold over a million copies? That wasn’t her story, it turns out. Val Schnurr was the student who said yes (and survived). Were the parents of the killers monsters? No, they weren’t.
One of the most eminent scholars of psychopaths, Robert Hare, developed a psychopathy checklist. Nearly every characteristic on the list describes shooter Eric Harris, from the manipulativeness, mendacity, grandiosity, and lack of empathy to the superficial charm. His charm may have been one of his most consequential qualities: he fooled friends, parents, teachers, law enforcement officers, and mental health professionals. Dylan Klebold’s profile was different. He was the follower, and his own personal fantasies leaned much more toward suicide than homicide.
As do many school shooters, Harris and Klebold dropped plenty of hints. Often, those hints were not taken seriously. Sometimes law enforcement had potentially damning evidence, but didn’t follow up. There were pieces of the puzzle scattered here and there, but never put together until dozens of people lay dead or grievously wounded.
The story of Harris and Klebold is the central narrative of Columbine. Yet there is so much more. Cullen also tells the stories of the parents and families and friends of the victims, and guides readers through the struggles and triumphs of those who were injured and maimed. The parents of the killers did not talk much, but to the extent possible, their lives are part of the narrative, too. That Cullen’s book came out a decade after the shooting is important. The psychology of Columbine and its key players was different the day after than it was a year after, and it was different five years later than it was ten years later.
The teachers and administrators also play a role in Columbine. For the administrators, though, the first three years after the shooting are in a way the most telling. By 2002, Cullen writes, only one of them remained at the school: Frank DeAngelis, the man who was the principal at the time of the tragedy, and who cried openly when he addressed the public.
Columbine is also an astute work of media criticism. Chapter 28, “Media Crime,” opens with this:
“The Trench Coat Mafia was mythologized because it was colorful, memorable, and fit the existing myth of the school shooter as outcast loner. All the Columbine myths worked that way.” Cullen then goes on to explain why the particular elements of the myths took hold and how so many untruths got told even when sources were not deliberately lying.
With fifty-three chapters, an afterword, a timeline, dozens of pages of notes and references, plus appendices with a diagram of the school and excerpts and sketches from the killers’ journals, Columbine will be an enduring contribution to our understanding of the unfathomable. Too bad we need it.
Bella DePaulo is the author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.
Twelve, March 2010
Paperback, 445 pages