Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jenn's Review: Columbine

ColumbineSummary:  On April 20, 1999, two boys 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."

When we think of Columbine, we think of the Trench Coat Mafia; we think of Cassie Bernall, the girl we thought professed her faith before she was shot; and we think of the boy pulling himself out of a school window -- the whole world was watching him. Now, in a riveting piece of journalism nearly ten years in the making, comes the story 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 prom three days earlier and obsessed about love in his journal.
The result is an astonishing account of two good students with lots of friends, who came to stockpile a basement cache of weapons, to record their raging hatred, and to manipulate every adult who got in their way. They left signs everywhere, described by Cullen with a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, thousands of pages of police files, FBI psychologists, and the boy's tapes and diaries, he gives the first complete account of the Columbine tragedy.
Review:  We don't review much non-fiction here at Girls Just Reading, but once a year or so I venture off the beaten path. By chance and via Twitter, I came across a fellow book-blogger reading Columbine by Dave Cullen.  I remarked that I wanted to read it and the publisher, TWELVE, saw my request and sent the book my way.  Even if they hadn't, I would have gone out of my way to seek out a copy of this book, because Columbine made an impact on me.  I was in my second and final assignment as a student teacher, working in a high school with a sprawling campus not unlike Columbine's.  The teachers I was working with had the television on in the classroom all day and we watched as the story unfolded in the media.  I don't think I ever looked at a classroom full of students the same way again.
The details in this book are well researched and organized, but also astounding.  Cullen takes us through the events leading up to the tragedy, the aftermath, the investigation, and the cover ups.  For the most part, Cullen's narrative follows the forensic pysch investigation of Dr. Dwayne Fuselier an FBI agent and clinical psychologist, as well as a terrorism and hostage negotiating expert. As Fuselier begins to investigate and make discoveries, time continues to move forward for the victims families, the survivors, and community.   Thus, the narrative jumps around chronologically, but it's certainly not a problem to keep things straight. Whereas a linear approach might have been nice, it may also have been a difficult and distressing read, so I appreciate his choice. There are lots of names to keep track of but Cullen also kindly provides an index for point of reference.

There were many false stories surrounding the event and Cullen does his best to dispel them.  The boys were smart, average popularity guys that acted alone.  They weren't bullied, if anything they were bullies. They weren't Goths or "Trench Coat Mafia", just a psychopath and a severely suicidal teen.  The media and the witnesses weren't purposefully trying to mislead the public, they were confused.  The Jeffco police were another matter entirely.

It is incredible that so many warning signs went unheeded, that no one put all the puzzle pieces together until it was too late.  Not that I think anyone could ever have imagined the heinous acts as those of April 20, 1999, but the police and judicial system had enough evidence to know that something bad might happen.  If only they had communicated or followed through on paperwork.

The one good thing to come from Columbine was the change in attitudes and response by educators, administrators, and law enforcement.  Since 1999, more than 80 school shootings have occurred, but none as devastating as what took place at Columbine, save for the Virginia Tech massacre where once again, communication broke down. 

I think this book is a must read for both teachers and parents.  Cullen does a magnificent job of fitting the truths  together.  It may change the way you look at the world.  I know the shooting changed the teacher I became...

*If you would like to read more about my personal thoughts on Columbine, please follow this link.


Topher August 31, 2010 at 12:33 PM  

Thank you for this review. I saw this book the other day while browsing around, and decided not to pick it up at the time - just put on my wishlist.

I was a high-schooler at the time, and it was pretty astonishing and incredible to sit through classes, watching what happened. I was in Colorado Springs at the time, so a lot of people felt it especially, and I worried that some friends might have been attending Columbine (none had!). Anyway, I usually like non-fiction every few fiction books and may pick this up next. Sounds like it's not at all what I imagined it'd be, and might put what happened in another perspective, maybe more accurate!

lisa :) August 31, 2010 at 3:24 PM  

Really nice review. A friend of mine just read this one and offered it to me. I was on the fence as to whether or not I wanted to read it, but now I definitely do. Thanks!

gm September 1, 2010 at 11:34 AM  

Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in "Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the fateful day.
The Denver Post

Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

"Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
Wall Street Journal

Dave Cullen September 1, 2010 at 1:21 PM  

Jenn, thanks for the really nice review of my book. Word of mouth on books is still vital, and I really appreciate your help in reaching more interested readers.

It's hard for me to imagine what it was like for teachers and moms to watch it play out at the time--and maybe even worse for people like you about to plunge in. I imagine you were anxious about what lay ahead already.

I wish we in the media had done a better job sorting it out for you all at the time. (Or at least in keeping our mouths shut on "why" until we actually had the information to speak intelligently.)

Topher and Lisa, I'll be curious to hear what you think.

For people on the fence about reading it, this short video summarizes the book, Columbine shooting and the killers’ motives in three minutes.

Or you can read the first chapter at Oprah.com:



Dave Cullen September 1, 2010 at 1:25 PM  

Whoops. I gave the wrong Oprah address. That link was for the book club questions we did for her--although that might be of interest, too.

Here's the link to read the first chapter:


That chapter is only about 2 printed pages, but we also gave Slate two excerpts. The links are at my site which Jenn graciously linked to, or I can provide the direct links if anyone is interested.

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