Sunday, August 30, 2009

TSS: Columbine

Well, I managed to complete the first week of school! While there are still some logistical issues to work out between the school and the church, all in all I think the first week went fairly well. I must admit that I was totally exhausted by Friday evening. I teach six classes in a row and am basically on my feet from 7:45 until 4:15. It will take a couple of weeks for my feet to adjust to this new schedule - as well as my voice. I am pretty sure I collapsed around 8:30 on Friday night!

While I have been in the mood to read these past couple of weeks, I have just not felt like I have had the time to completely escape into a literary world; there has been too much real world happening. On Saturday morning, however, I discovered that my local library finally had my copy of Columbine ready for pick up. Since my lesson plans are up to date and it is too early in the semester to begin grading papers, I picked up the book before noon and immediately became engrossed in the ten-year documentary.

I am not quite sure why I have such a fascination for this subject matter. Some of you may recall one of my first reviews being Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed. I had mixed feelings about that novel, wishing the author had focused more on the Columbine storyline and less on the ancestral heritage. After reading my review, several suggested that I read We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, which I did and thoroughly enjoyed - although in a haunting sort of way. When I learned that Dave Cullen had written a non-fiction book which chronicled the last 10 years since Columbine, I immediately put my name on the library list. Apparently it has been quite popular as I had to wait nearly 5 months to read it. I must say it did not disappoint.

I am in awe of the amount of tedious research that Mr. Cullen had to cull through in order to coherently write this 350 page summary of the events leading up to the massacre, as well as the investigation that took the better part of a decade to complete. Dave Cullen is a journalist and his instinct to sift through the 25,000 pages of data for the hard-hitting, significant details is exemplary. His crisp, to-the-point writing style is a pleasure to read. However, what truly sets this book apart from the others that I have read on this subject is that the author attempts to tell us WHY this event happened; a question that many of us have pondered since April 20, 1999. There were so many inaccuracies that were leaked in the early hours and days after the event that the truth was difficult to discern.
We remember Columbine as a pair of outcast Goths from the Trench Coat Mafia snapping and tearing throughout their high school hunting down jocks to settle a long-running feud. Almost none of that happened. No Goths, no outcasts, nobody snapping. No targets, no feud, and no Trench Coat Mafia. Most of those elements existed at Columbine - which is what gave them such currency. They just had nothing to do with the murders. The lesser myths are equally unsupported: no connection to Marilyn Manson, Hitler's birthday, minorities, or Christians. --- page 149
Contrary to what many of us believed, these boys did not seek revenge on a predetermined "hit list" but rather they had planned to kill anyone and everyone. Dylan was extremely depressed and suicidal. Eric hated the entire human race and had dreams of annihilating us all. Several professionals in the mental health field believe that he was a classic psychopath.
Ten years afterward, Eric still baffled the public, which insisted on assessing his motives through a "normal" lens. Eric was neither normal nor insane. Psychopathy (si-COP - uh- thee) represents a third category. Psychopathic brains don't function like those in either of the other groups, but they are consistently similar to one another. Eric killed for two reasons: to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it. ---- page 239
While the book is relatively short, it is quite comprehensive. Not only does it chronicle the events leading up to April 20, 1999 - beginning with the all school assembly the Friday before warning the students to have a safe Prom weekend, but is also gives background information on the planned attack beginning in January, 1997. Interspersed throughout the narrative timeline is the ongoing investigation after the massacre that took literally years to complete. Some of the injured victims are followed over the years and their recovery, coupled with their forgiving spirits, are an inspiration.

This is a book that has shaken me to the core. While we have a better idea as to why this happened - there is still the ever-present thought this could happen anywhere at any time. We as a nation have learned a lot from Columbine and have implemented many safe standards for schools to follow. The loophole in the gun laws have been plugged and suburban America is no longer naive in thinking it is immune to violent attacks. In some ways it is hard to believe that 10 years has passed since that tragic event, but in other ways the memory is still quite vivid.

One of the final chapters of the book begins:
The fifth-anniversary commemoration drew a smaller audience than expected. The crowds had grown progressively smaller each year, but the school foresaw a bigger bump for this milestone. Nearly everyone was pleased by the light turnout. It meant people had moved on.

Many survivors began to think in terms of how many events were let to slog through. Only two remained now: the ten-year and the dedication of the memorial. Surely they wouldn't have to come back in twenty. --- page page 338
While I agree that the survivors have been through enough and it is time to let them live in peace - I truly hope that we as a nation never forget Columbine and will continue to give special thought and prayer each April 20, for if we do not take the time to remember history we are doomed to repeat it.

If you are interested in reading more information about this book and the resources used in writing it, please visit the author's website.


  1. I've read a ton of these school shooting books, including HATE LIST most recently, so I should probably check this one out.

  2. I am glad your first week went well, Molly. My mom doesn't start her first week of school until after Labor Day. She's enlisted my dad's help in getting her classroom ready, which, in between his complaints, I think he's quite enjoying. :-)

    Columbine is a book I really want to read. It really sounds like a worthwhile read. I haven't yet gotten into the school shooting fiction books that is out there, although I have several, including the two you mention, that I do hope to read one day.

    I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on Cullen's book, Molly.

    Have a great week!

  3. I understand the need to study incidents like this so we have a chance to prevent them in the future, and I've heard that this book is well written. I just don't think I could read it, though.

  4. As usual, Molly, a wonderful review! I agree about not forgetting these historical incidents and feel the same way about 9/11. That being said, I am not sure I will every read a lot of these school shooting books--at least not while I still have kids attending public school. I worry enough about them on a daily basis! ;) I do have one of the books mentioned, We Need To Talk About Kevin, on my tbr pile and hope to get to it in the next year or so. I have always read such positive reviews of it.
    Hope your second week of school gets easier on you--my boys were supposed to start school today, but the teachers went on strike. Oh bother...lets stretch this school year out even longer next spring--they already don't get out until the end of July and now they will need to make up these days...sigh...

  5. On Nov. 21, 2008, the Harris and Klebold parents were sent the same letter requesting cooperation. "Your stories have yet to be fully told, and I view your help as an issue of historical significance," it said. "In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one." The letter came not from Mr. Cullen but from Jeff Kass, whose Columbine: A True Crime Story, published by the small Ghost Road Press, preceded Columbine by a couple of weeks.

    "Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen." --Janet Maslin, New York Times

    "A decade after the most dramatic school massacre in American history, Jeff Kass applies his considerable reporting talents to exploring the mystery of how two teens could have planned and carried out such gruesome acts without their own family and best friends knowing about it. Actually, there were important clues, but they were missed or downgraded both by those who knew the boys best and by public officials who came in contact with them. An engrossing and cautionary tale for everyone who cares about how to prevent kids from going bad." -----Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists

    GM Davis

  6. Maybe Cullen has hit on the issue of why we can't let this go. Because we still didn't really know why it had happened. Even knowing all of what Cullen has turned up, it's still so hard to comprehend.

  7. I'm glad you've got through your first week. I always got to that Friday evening and thought, this is it, I can't do this job anymore, but it always passed by the time I'd had a weekend's rest and realised that I just had to get back into the working pattern again. It isn't only the children who forget things over the summer; our bodies forget the stresses and strains of teaching as well.
    In respect of books relating to school shootings, have you read Richard Russo's 'Empire Falls'? Columbine happened while he was writing it. I think Russo is one of the the great writers and if you haven't read this then I really recommend it.

  8. I agree completely with Kathy (bermudaonion). I absolutely know the importance of reading about these events and issues so we can try to prevent them in the future, but I think it would tough and scary to read.

  9. You are still being lied to. Big time. If you want to find out what really happened at Columbine I suggest you read what the eyewitnesses had to say:


  10. I'm glad to hear that your first week went well. I am back to school as well with the shadow of budget cut looming around the classroom.

    I would be more interested to read Columbine than the Wally Lamb's novel. Sandy has just posted a review of the novel but because of the distressful subject matter, I have not picked the book up. Maybe I should plunge into the core of the matter and read the investigation of the Columbine incident.

  11. I gave you an award!!!

  12. Thanks so much for that generous review of my book, Molly.

    I sure appreciate it. I'm especially glad to hear from teachers.

    Thanks for spreading the word.

  13. I was disappointed in "The Hour I First Believed" for that reason too (among others) and this sounds like a book that I will read ... it is just something that is compelling and makes you want to try and understand. Thanks to your review, I'm adding it to my TBR list.

    And wow ... author comment! Cool!


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