books, Friday Recommends

Friday Recommends: Columbine, Dave Cullen



When we were in Denver, Dave Cullen gave a reading of his book Columbine at The Tattered Cover. We considering going to hear him, but given the many splendors of Denver, spending two hours thinking about the events at Columbine ten years ago struck us as a somewhat morbid way to pass our vacation.

You may feel the same way about the thought of reading Columbine. Who wants to spend 400 pages reliving a nightmare? There are also a dozen ways a book like this could go wrong, veering off toward sensationalism, voyeurism or embellishment. Remarkably, Cullen avoids those traps and delivers a dogged, detailed, thoughtful and panoramic account of not just what happened on April 20, 1999 but also what Columbine has come to stand for — which, he argues convincingly, is largely a myth. It may not be In Cold Blood, but Columbine is an impressive achievement.

For me (Ben), my recollections of Columbine are probably all the standard ones: an hours-long killing spree, the grainy images of students fleeing across the parking lot; The Trenchcoat Mafia; Bowling for Columbine; Cassie Bernall, the girl who said yes. Columbine reveals that every one of these associations is in some way a distortion. The killings happened in less than an hour, though it would be another three before a SWAT team found Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold dead in the library. Students did flee the school, but many were trapped inside, hunkered down in classrooms, storage closets, even above ceiling tiles, unaware for those three hours that Harris and Klebold were no longer a threat.

The media latched onto the moniker The Trenchcoat Mafia (TCM), which suggested Harris and Klebold were alienated goth kids targeting jocks, popular kids, gays, African-Americans and believers all at once. Actually, they weren’t in the TCM (or into goth), and they weren’t targeting anyone in particular but rather everyone. (The original plan was to detonate homemade bombs in the cafeteria during the busiest lunch period, killing hundreds.)

Michael Moore’s documentary, while generally about gun control and peripherally about Columbine, perpetuated the myth that Harris and Klebold went bowling the morning of the attack. They did not.

Finally, Cassie Bernall almost certainly didn’t say yes. Bernall was a believer but two eyewitness accounts from the library, one from a girl crouched next to her under a table, both corroborate that she was never asked if she believed in God. (They do say Bernall was praying when Harris shot her.) Another girl did say yes, and remarkably she lived. But her story has never been amplified by a huge Evangelical movement or a subsequent book written by Misty Bernall (She Said Yes) which became a New York Times bestseller.

As someone who once showed his youth group a 30-minute video about Cassie Bernall and her story (the video was promotional material from Plough, who published the book), I was unsettled to learn I had helped perpetuate a myth. Defenders who argue that the veracity of what happened in the library is secondary to the symbol of Bernall’s martyrdom and the inspiration it has offered are, I’m afraid, doing more harm than good. Any belief founded on a lie will crumble, either through disillusionment or the tunnel vision that results from willful ignorance. I would like Cassie Bernall to have said yes, but I would like more to know the truth.

The truth is what Cullen provides thanks to ten years of reporting on Columbine. He offers an especially good critique of the media, which fueled and shaped the story in ways that helped define it for an audience even if that depiction wasn’t accurate. USA Today ran a cover story just two days after the massacre that offered excellent reportage but poor conclusions. Cullen writes, “[The story] fused the myths of jock-hunting, bully-revenge and the TCM. … The details were accurate, the conclusions wrong. Most of the media followed. It was accepted as fact.”

A “20/20” segment on ABC ran an expose on goths one night after the attack, describing the killers as “proud, self-proclaimed members of the Gothic movement, and like the students involved in yesterday’s shootings, focused on white extremism and hate.” 

“The only real problems with [ABC’s] report,” Cullen writes with biting understatement, “were that Goths tended to be meek and pacifist; they had never been associated with violence, much less murder; and, aside from long black coats, they had almost nothing in common with Eric and Dylan.” Yet the Goth myth only grew.

Cullen devotes considerable time to psychological assessments of Harris and Klebold; wisely, he lets the experts speak in place of him simply offering conjecture. Harris, the mastermind, was certainly psychopathic. Cullen quotes from his journal (titled, with typical megalomania, “The Book of God”) as well as The Basement Tapes, the homemade video the killers shot together. Klebold is the more unsettling case because he wrestled with regret and doubt and seemed to grasp the human consequences of what he was planning to do. By the end he is as psychopathic as Harris, but that was not always the case. Klebold could have turned out differently; it’s Harris who never had a chance.

The signs were there to see. Throughout high school, the two boys — Harris, in particular — ran into all kinds of trouble with authority. They made pipe bombs, broke into lockers, stole electronics from a van, entered a rehabilitation program, purchased firearms illegally, built a website with explicit threats. They also floated their plans and theories in more subtle ways, through school assignments. This disturbed me most of all. What if I had been their youth pastor and missed the signs? What if Erin and I had been their writing coaches at College Summit and read a paper sympathetic to the Nazis (as Harris did) or fantasizing about killing “preps” in detail (which Klebold did in his English class)? The English teacher alerted Dylan’s parents and his school counselor, but no one acted on it. Other adults — but especially the Jefferson County police — saw evidence (a pipe bomb found near Eric’s house; death threats toward a classmate) that should have been put together but was not, either through negligence or incompetence. An investigator drafted an affidavit to search Eric’s house in April of 1998. It was never used. 

One heartbreaking moment occurs when Eric ordered magazines for his carbine rifle. He gave the company, Green Mountain Guns, his home phone number. When the clips arrived, they called the Harris home. Eric’s dad Wayne answered the phone. “Your clips are in,” the clerk said. Eric’s dad told him he hadn’t ordered any clips. The conversation ended there. Cullen writes,

Wayne never stopped to ask the guy if he had the right number. And the guy never asked any questions either. That could have been the end of it right there. If either of them had handled that phone call a little differently, the entire plan might have come crashing down, Eric said. But they didn’t.


That’s what resonates about Columbine. We have tried for ten years to label it, identify it, make sense of it, learn from it. Everyone has talked about the need “to prevent the next Columbine.” Cullen conducted hundreds of interviews and examined 25,000 pages of police evidence to see the event from almost every possible angle. He tells in detail the grieving and coping of families and community members dealing with the fallout. Everyone in the story — including the reader — is desperate for a reason, anything to clarify or simplify why Columbine happened. But some things are just senseless. Columbine is an unflinching account of our efforts to deal with that hard reality.


2 thoughts on “Friday Recommends: Columbine, Dave Cullen

  1. One of the blogs I read is by an English teacher who taught at Columbine in 1999, left, and teaches there again. She’s well worth reading about anything she comments on, but her entries about Columbine (found at the bottom of her blog in the left-hand column) are the ones pertinent to this topic.

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