Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Title: Columbine
Author: Dave Cullen

First Published: April 2009
Publisher: Twelve
Source: Library
417 pages




In a nutshell
On April 20, 1999, two boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, left an indelible stamp on the American psyche. Their goal was simple: to blow up their school, Oklahoma City-style, and to leave 'a lasting impression on the world.' Their bombs failed, but the ensuing shooting defined a new era of school violence--irrevocably branding every subsequent shooting 'another Columbine.'

This book is the story of Columbine - the story that none of us knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen has delivered a profile of teenage killers that goes to the heart of psychopathology. He lays bare the callous brutality of mastermind Eric Harris and the quavering, suicidal Dylan Klebold, who went to the prom three days earlier and obsessed about love in his journal.

Rebecca wondered how I could read Columbine so soon after April 16th: Virginia Tech Remembers. I didn't think I could do it either. But something in me wanted to understand why both incidents happened. How can someone walk into one's own school and kill students and teachers? Fellow students you might have played with or talked to. How can someone have so much anger in them? (Of course, terrorism is no longer limited to the school playgrounds now. But that's a discussion for another day.)

I think...
I still remember sitting in front of the TV on the morning of April 21st, 1999, as I did every morning before leaving for school. I was 15 and had just started my 10th grade in a school in Dubai. Columbine was on every news channel that day. It was scary. A crime, the kind of which I had not heard of. It made me realize that even schools weren't safe. I had not given it a thought before, but the news of that day acutely sharpened my antennae.

Columbine by Dave Cullen, was a remarkably informative book. I thought I knew enough about what happened that day and during the following weeks and months. I couldn't have been more wrong. As I was reading, I took two pages worth of notes. Half of them were indignant outbursts at some decisions taken. Michelle's review first introduced me to the fact that the Columbine tragedy was not a shooting but a failed bombing. Thirteen lives were lost that day. Eric and Dylan expected to take 2000 lives with them.

For investigators, the big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of the attack. Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed.

Dave Cullen gives an excellent insight into the minds of the killers, from almost two years prior to the "Judgment day". Eric Harris is revealed to be a classic textbook psychopath. His diligent methodical approach to anything astounded me. If he weren't a murderer, I would have been impressed with him. He was successful in fooling everyone - his parents, teachers, Diversion officers, friends, police officers. Apparently, there had been plenty of complaints previously registered against the two, that were not taken too seriously. The boys were making bombs, and quite a few people knew that.

Dylan Klebold, on the other hand, was depressed and suicidal. For two years, he pined for love obsessively. Murder was far from his mind. Columbine skillfully charts out Dylan's path from suicidal thoughts to homicidal. Dylan's family never saw it coming. He was his dad's "best friend", though I admit I couldn't see how his condition could not have been obvious. He was severely depressed with no motivation in life at all. I guess, no one expects their placid-appearing children to tote guns and kill others.

Eric's obsession with destroying the human race horrified me. He dreamed to stun the world. He wanted to be known as the perpetrator of the worst crime. By choosing Columbine High School, and planting plenty of bombs at strategic locations, he expected to reach his exorbitant target count.

Most terrorists target symbols of the system they abhor - generally, iconic government buildings. Eric followed the same logic. He understood that the cornerstone of his plan was the explosives. When all his bombs fizzled, everything about his attack was misread. He didn't just fail to top Timothy McVeigh's record - he wasn't even recognized for trying. He was never categorized with his peer group. We lumped him in with the pathetic loners who shot people.

Eric Harris was intelligent. I hate to say that, because I despised his character. But when you see the number of people he duped and got to make them believe exactly what he wanted them to, it was not hard for me to see his mental prowess.

Columbine also captures the community's response well. The parents' wait for their children teared me up. Especially those parents whose children would never come back. It exposed the various cover-ups that followed the tragedy. As with all tragedies, there were quite a few dirty name-calling and scapegoating that happened after this one too. I wish I could say that we as a community and as a government have learned a lot from this tragedy.

Overall, I strongly recommend this book. This book puts to rest most of the myths surrounding this tragedy, and believe me, there are too many. I wanted a look into the heads of Eric and Dylan. One a psychopath (which is apparently a trait that comes with birth) and the other a suicidally depressed kid (a curable and treatable condition). That doesn't excuse them, but they gave plenty of hints that no one paid attention to. The clues were everywhere, and some of them made me aghast, wondering why no one paid heed.

22 comments:

Lisa said...

Everyone I know that's read this one has raved about it. Definitely a must read.

Dana said...

Sounds like a really compelling read. Great review!

Helen's Book Blog said...

This is now the second review I've seen and I've added the book to my "to buy" list. Is it good for teens to read as well as adults?

bermudaonion said...

That sounds like a fascinating, but disturbing read. It does sound like there were a lot of clues, some that they could have been arrested for, but many which would only put them on the police's radar. I wish we could figure out a magical answer for how to prevent this kind of act, but I'm sad to say, I don't think we can.

Nadia said...

This is such an engrossing book that revealed so much information I had no clue about. Definitely a worthwhile read. Glad to see you got so much from it. Great review!!

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Awesome review! I'm proud of you ;)

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks for the kind words on my book Aths. That was a really thoughtful review, and I appreciate that.

An expanded paperback edition is just out. I spent a lot of time on the new material, so I hope it's OK to mention what I added:

— A 12-page afterword: “Forgiveness.” It includes startling new revelations on the killers' parents. The purpose, though, was to look at three victims in very different places 11 years later, and how forgiving played a pivotal role in their grief. I discovered the secret meetings with the killers' parents in the process.

— Actual journal pages from Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold.

— Book Club Discussion Questions (also available at Oprah.com).

— Diagram of Columbine High School and environs.

— A large-print edition is also now available.

There's lots more info at my Columbine site.

I appreciate the interest in the comments, too. Let me know what you guys think if you do read it.

Shantal said...

That's does sound like an excellent book. I'll have to look into this one. :) Thanks for the great review!!

StephTheBookworm said...

I'm glad you found this book as powerful and informative too. Wasn't it fascinating!? It was my favorite nonfiction book last year. Oh by the way, I just picked up the Virginia Tech book from the library after seeing your recommendation.

Aarti said...

I've heard nothing but praise for this book. I'm so glad such a sensitive topic was explored successfully and that you enjoyed the experience.

Emidy said...

Wow, I'm sure this is an emotional read. But the psychological aspect sounds really interesting! Great review, Aths.

brichtabooks said...

I am very interested in reading this book. Have you read "The Hour I First Believed"? It deals with Comlumbine using many facts, but putting it into an otherwise fictional context. Thanks for this well written review.

starviego said...

The big secret about Columbine is that there were more involved than just Harris and Klebold. Don’t believe me? Just ask the eyewitnesses:

http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/columbineeight.php

Steph said...

I definitely want to read this book. It would be painful to read, of course, but wonderful to go beyond the frustratingly shallow snapshots of these people and events that we've gotten through the media.

Aths said...

Lisa, it is! I got totally engrossed in this book!

Dana, thanks! I hope you choose to read it!

Helen, I would recommend it to teens as well. It explores the mind of a psychopath and a depressed person, but the lessons are so out in the open - of trying to understand troubled people.

Kathy, you are so right. I wish we had a solution for this.

Nadia, thanks! I am assuming that you have read and loved it too!

Juju, thank you. :)

Dave, thanks for stopping by my blog. I am so enticed to grab that paperback edition now. I am going to put it in my wishlist!

Shantal, I hope you choose to read it!

Steph, this book was amazing and fascinating! So glad you picked the Virginia Tech book! Waiting to see what you think of it.

Aarti, that was what especially amazed me. The shooting is just a few pages long. Most of the book focuses on the killers' actions, clues and motivations.

Emidy, Emotional yet very informative. I think it's important to read this book to come to terms with a horrible tragedy.

Julie, I have not read The Hour I first Believed, though I have it on my radar. I should pick it up sometime.

starviego, I'm not sure how to take that. It's quite funny, because the impression I got was that the police looked high and low for a third person and then the public would have someone to target their anger on.

Steph, it would be painful, true. But other than the wealth of information, it will also help the reader come to terms with an immense tragedy.

Care said...

I don't know if I have it in my to read this. I do want to as well as the Lamb book and the Picoult book and then I feel the fascination would take over my entire reading. It all just makes my heart ache.

starviego said...

"I'm not sure how to take that. It's quite funny, because the impression I got was that the police looked high and low for a third person and then the public would have someone to target their anger on."

They were desperate to avoid a trial, because the circle of co-conspirators would likely only have grown. It may have led back to the police themselves. There are simply far too many witnesses who contradict the police version of events. And I fail to find any humor in the fact that the co-conspirators got away with mass murder.

Ash said...

Awesome review. The event was horrific and I'm sure this was a very emotional read.

Jen G. said...

Great review, Aths. I applaud you for tackling this and the Virginia Tech book.

Aths said...

Care, I wasn't sure either if I could read this book, but I wanted to try and understand the victims and the culprits better. It was worth it in the end.

Ash, it truly was. But very satisfying too!

Jen, thank you! :)

NancyO said...

I just finished it - thanks so much for your review. I'm going to write one shortly.

Aths said...

Nancy, I enjoyed your review! Glad you liked it too!