Monday, January 14, 2013

A Tragedy in the Making, a review of "Columbine" by Dave Cullen

Students and teachers thought it was a prank.  It was the week after prom, Seniors were getting ready to graduate, and the idea that this was real was unthinkable.  But the unthinkable happened on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School, as it had before at other schools, and would after.  Two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, would become infamous, remembered as deranged teenagers who attempted to blow up their school, and when that failed, kill 13 people and then themselves.

Cullen, Dave.  2009. Columbine.  New York: Hachette.

Until Sandy Hook, Columbine was the worst school shooting on record.  Harris and Klebold have been villainized, psychoanalyzed, preached about and lamented, and yet, we know very little about the actual lives of the boys behind the media-created myth.  Journalist Dave Cullen, one of the first on the scene the day of the shootings, would remain with the story for 10 years, pouring over countless police records, interviews, and journals, in order to bring the definitive book.  “The result is an astounding account of two good students with lots of friends, who were secretly stockpiling a basement cache of weapons, recording their raging hatred, and manipulating every adult who got in their way” [book flap].  Cullen debunks many of the myths that were concretized during the media’s coverage of the shooting in the week that followed.  For instance, the shooters were never part of the Trench Coat Mafia, they weren’t bullied, they didn’t target jocks and Christians.  Harris was found to be a psychopath,  while Klebold was depressive, suicidal.  Both were bent on annihilation.    Together, they became a murderous dyad-the perfect storm of teenage boredom , angst, and testosterone. 

I picked this book off the shelves the day after the Connecticut shootings, to see if it would shed any light on the tragic events that happened there.  What I found was a book in the same vein as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Cullen carefully recreates the events of the shooting, piecing together interviews and police reports to flesh out a step by step plan.  He explains the science behind understanding the events, and he does a particularly good job of explaining how the media and new mobile technology played a role in forming the American opinion of Columbine.  He explains how good people made mistakes, how connections just weren’t made, and how much of that was kept on the down low.  For example, a police investigator had opened a file on Harris a year before the shootings.  Both Klebold and Harris were in a juvenile rehabilitation program to avoid jail time for breaking and entering a year before.  Cullen makes a firm case for the evidence being there prior to the shooting and our failure, as a society, to notice.  Particularly interesting are his interviews with local pastors about how the shooting galvanized the local Christian community and differences of opinion among the clergy about whether the shooting should be used to bring more people to God.  Most compelling was his explanation of the psyches of Harris and Klebold, mostly through the work of FBI criminal psychologist Dwayne Fuselier.  Cullen honors the victims and families of all the victims through his careful work. 

Rewards and Reviews
Edgar Award
"Top Education Book"--American School Board Journal
Alex Award Finalist--American Library Association

Cullen, acclaimed expert on Columbine, offers a penetrating look at the motivation and intent of the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Drawing on interviews, police records, media coverage, and diaries and videotapes left behind by the shooters, Cullen examines the killers’ beliefs and psychological states of mind. Chilling journal entries show a progression from adolescent angst to psychopathic rage as they planned a multistage killing spree that included bombs that ultimately didn’t detonate. Cullen goes beyond detailing the planning and execution of the shootings, delving into the early lives of the killers as well. Graphic and emotionally vivid; spectacularly researched and analyzed.” -- Vanessa Bush, Booklist (April 2009)

 “Any book about this tragedy can be hard to read, and Cullen's detailed account of the gruesome killings and suicides is no exception. Cullen's style can also make the book hard going, as he skips back and forth through time and among different people involved in the event and occasionally repeats himself. In the end, however, Cullen clarifies a lot of misconceptions that evolved soon after the tragedy and provides new insights into why it occurred, which makes the book definitely worth reading despite the disjointed narrative.”Terry Christner, Library Journal (March 15, 2009)

“Cullen expertly balances the psychological analysis—enhanced by several of the nation's leading experts on psychopathology—with an examination of the shooting's effects on survivors, victims' families and the Columbine community. Readers will come away from Cullen's unflinching account with a deeper understanding of what drove these boys to kill, even if the answers aren't easy to stomach.”  -- Publisher’s Weekly (April 2009)

Ideas for Teaching
Using this with students might be difficult, but there are possibilities for teaching psychological profiling that would work with an AP class.  It would fit with discussions of teen depression and suicide; however, I would be cautious in using the protagonists as examples since their story ends in a worst-case scenario.  It could also be useful for media studies, religious studies or contemporary history.  Journalism and/or rhetoric teachers may find it useful for teaching students how journalists construct a story.  It would be a good read for any school administrator concerned with school safety. 

The author ‘s website includes a very comprehensive instructor’s guide which contains useful connections and study guides.

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