Genre: Non-Fiction, True Crime
My Rating: 5 stars
As Sandy at You’ve Gotta Read This remarked in her outstanding review of this book,
There are a handful of events in our lives that we use to mark time. When JFK was shot, when Lennon was shot, 9/11…and Columbine. We will forever remember where we were and what we were doing the moment we heard the news.”
When I heard about the events at Columbine, I was out-of-town at a work meeting. I clearly remember one of my co-workers rushing up to me saying “There’s been this horrible shooting at a high school in Colorado. It’s all over the news!” Later that night of April 20, 1999, we all huddled around the TV watching the footage and proclaiming our disbelief over and over again. In the end, 13 people were killed and dozens were seriously injured. Countless others bore psychological scarring that affects their lives to this day. And the killers? Well, they shot themselves in the school library–the scene of the greatest carnage–leaving the rest of the world to piece together the reasons for why they did what they did.
Of course, school shootings happened before Columbine and they happened after Columbine, but Columbine seems to stand out as THE school shooting because of the sheer amount of news coverage that it garnered and the myths that grew up around it. For most school shootings, the event was over and done before any news cameras showed up–leaving us with only the tearful survivors to tell us what happened. With Columbine, the media coverage was immediate and ongoing. We saw the students fleeing the school. We witnessed the dead bodies laying outside of the school entrance. We bit our nails anxiously as Patrick Ireland dangled from the library window.
The reason Columbine was different was because we–the viewing public–became personal witnesses as the tragedy unfolded in real-time. As the Columbine story gathered steam in the passing weeks, a variety of myths grew up around the shooting. “The gunmen were bullied by jocks and were targeting jocks to get revenge.” “The gunmen were influenced by the music of Marilyn Manson.” “A group called the Trench Coat Mafia orchestrated the event.” Other myths would take longer to develop but would prove just as durable, particularly the story of Cassie Bernall, who was allegedly shot in the library for acknowledging her belief in God to the gunmen.
Eventually and inevitably, the news media moved on to other stories, and we were left with few definitive answers. In the 10 years following the Columbine shooting, Dave Cullen sifted through a mountain of information–conducting hundreds of interviews, reading thousands of pages of police files, consulting with FBI psychologists, and viewing the tapes and diaries left behind by Harris and Klebold–in order to write a definitive account of what happened that day at Columbine–including what led up to the shooting, what went wrong during the initial response, and the aftermath of the shooting in the community and those permanently scarred either by the loss of loved ones or injury. He also attempts to answer one of the biggest questions that lingers over the specter of the Columbine shooting: Why?
Cullen meticulously documents his sources for each section of the book. When I read the book on my Kindle, the text stopped at 80%. The remaining 20% contained Cullen’s documentation of where he got his information for each assertion made in his book. With this type of rigid reporting and documentation, I felt confident when I was reading Columbine that I was reading an account that was as accurate and true as it could possibly be.
Yet although the book is meticulously researched, it reads like a novel. The writing is clear and precise but gripping. As you read, you’re drawn in to the story. When Harris and Klebold are roaming the hallways in the aftermath of the first wave of shooting, you feel like you are walking alongside them. When frightened parents gather in the first hours after the shooting–frantically trying to locate their children–you feel their anxiety and stress. The book was emotionally powerful and affecting. When reading it, I dreamt more than once of being in the school with Harris and Klebold coming down the hallway. It was an uncomfortable read, and one that continues to haunt me. Unlike murder mysteries where you know the twisted psyche of a killer is simply the product of the darker corners of an author’s imagination, Columbine tells a true story. The events of Columbine happened not so long ago in a place that is probably quite similar to where you live. Columbine haunts us because it reminds us that something like this could happen in our community, to our sons and daughters, in our schools.
Cullen moves back and forth in time throughout the book–describing the myriad of information left behind by Harris and Klebold. As Cullen develops their story, it starts to become clear why Harris and Klebold did what they did. These were not boys who impulsively decided to shoot up their school one day. The Columbine shooting was a meticulously planned campaign of death and destruction that was painstakingly planned and documented by Harris. It turns out that Eric Harris was the mastermind and impetus behind the entire event; Klebold was a reluctant participant who only fully committed himself at the final hour. Harris fully intended to explain what he had in mind and why he did it–leaving behind a huge assortment of material for his audience after the fact.
When reading Columbine, one of the biggest shocks to me was that Harris never intended Columbine to be a school shooting. In fact, Columbine was really a bombing that went south. If things had gone according to plan, Columbine would have resulted in hundreds dead and the total destruction of the school. When I read the scope of his plans and just how much worse Columbine could have been, my jaw dropped to the floor.
Although this isn’t an easy book to read, I think that anyone who followed the Columbine story at any level should read this book to finally get an accurate accounting of the whos, whats, whys, wheres and hows of what happened at Columbine High School on that day in April. If you still think that Harris and Klebold were victims of bullying by jocks or that rock music somehow played a part in this tragedy, if you blame the shooting on the parents of Harris and Klebold for raising bad kids, if you wonder what happened in the community of Littleton in the years after the shooting when the cameras went away, you owe it to yourself and the victims of this tragedy to read this book.
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The Whys and Wheres:I bought this book for my Kindle because it seemed like a well-researched account of what happened at Columbine and I wanted to find out the true story for myself. I was not disappointed in the least.