Dave Cullen. Columbine. Twelve Publishers, 2009. 432 pp. $26.99
On April 20, 1999, I was home watching my then nine-month-old daughter and then twenty-one-month-old nephew. After putting them down for a nap, I turned on CNN to catch some news. My television, as with most people that day, would stay on the news for much of the afternoon and into the evening as a story emerged out of Littleton (actually Columbine) Colorado about a school shooting that would take thirteen lives before ending with a double-suicide. In the week that followed, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what had happened. As Dave Cullen points out in his book, Columbine, much of what everyone thinks they know about Columbine was wrong, and after ten years, he seeks to separate out fact from fiction and myth and attempt to both understand the Columbine massacre and present a portrait of the effect that event had on the community of Columbine.
Cullen makes the case that much of what people took away from the massacre took place in the first 24-48 hours after the shootings began, and it would take about a year to sort out much of the truth, at least for those who cared to find out. Cullen himself was in Columbine as a newspaper reporter stationed at one of the makeshift reunion centers for parents to wait for their children. One of the points he makes (and he includes himself in this) is that the non-stop, up-to-the-minute nature of the news coverage that day created a news feedback loop for students and parents. One example had to do with the so-called "Trenchcoat Mafia," a group that may or may not have existed (there are critics of Cullen), but certainly did not involve Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, the gunmen that day. However, as people began phoning in reports and rumors to the local news stations, some reporters would repeat the allegations on air in an attempt to verify or negate them. Students and parents watching television would hear these rumors (such as the "Trenchcoat Mafia") and then incorporate them into their own narratives as they were interviewed by reporters. A number of myths began this way, and Cullen's work is a clear indictment of the way news departments and consumers both demand instant knowledge, but often at the cost of accuracy. It is also indicative of how 24-hour news channels have changed the nature of television, even altering "eyewitness" accounts of informants.
The most surprising revelations in the book were Cullen's account of the death of Cassie Bernall and his argument about the motivations of Klebold and Harris. Cassie Bernall became widely known as the girl in the school library who was asked by Harris if she believed in God. The story widely reported (and reinforced by Misty Bernall, Cassie's mother, in her book about Cassie) was that Cassie responded "Yes," and was then shot by Harris. She was held up by many (particularly an overly-eager book publisher) as a modern-day Christian martyr. The reality was rather different. Harris merely banged on the table Cassie was hiding under, looked underneath saying "Peek-a-boo," and shot her. Another girl who had already been shot once, Val Schnurr, was asked by Klebold at gunpoint if she believed in God. She floundered, answering no, then yes. Klebold would taunt her and then move on, but the exchange became confused with Cassie's death. When Val later attempted to tell her story to a church gathering, she was roundly criticized by those who had accepted the Bernall story as the truth. This was one of many such myths that arose within the first day after Columbine and remained planted in people's collective memory of the event, despite evidence that it did not take place.
The other surprising, and perhaps most controversial, aspect of the book addresses the possible motivation for the shootings. Many blamed the atmosphere at Columbine which they say was one which turned a blind eye to bullying. Cullen argues, based upon conversations with FBI agent Dwayne Fuselier, who had access to the journal writings of Harris and Klebold, that Harris was a classic psychopath in the clinical meaning of the term. He was entirely egocentric and could not consider the emotions or feelings of others as valid, certainly not as valid as his own. Klebold here comes off as suffering from depression, and forming a co-dependent relationship with Harris that ended with both of them seeking death: Harris in order to transcend the world and Klebold in order to escape it.
There are certainly problems with Cullen's work. He at times attributes feelings and reactions, particularly to Klebold and Harris, that no one could possibly know. Other critics have challenged his characterization of the shooters as more socially integrated than the popular perception of them allows. Cullen is upfront about his shortcomings in his forward to the book, and these errors do not detract from the overall book. What is fascinating for me, as a historian who writes about collective memory, is the way in which Cullen addresses the memory of the Columbine massacre within the Columbine community and in the nation as a whole. Overall, this is a book about how memories about traumatic events can shape communities and reshape and refashion the events themselves. It is also a cautionary tale about the shortcomings of memory and the need to always ask questions about the origins and purpose of memory.
Review by Erik C. Maiershofer, Ph.D.
Dr. Erik C. Maiershofer is Associate Professor of History in the Social Science Department at Hope International University.
The views in this book review are not necessarily the views of Hope International University.