Tuesday, February 19, 2013

No Single Why: Dave Cullen's "Columbine"

Strangely, I remember the publication date of Dave Cullen's 2009 book Columbine. I was working for Borders, and the book was the best-selling title of the week. Unlike other heralded, anticipated titles, there was no excitement or earnest conversation when customers picked it up. It was a sadly necessary work that contained definitive information and explorations of an often misread and misinformed event in American history, much like the 2004 publication of the 9/11 Commission Report. Borders categorized Columbine in the "True Crime" section, which isn't technically wrong, but it seemed sorely out of place among the usual lurid examples of "murder/torture porn" mass market books that dominate most True Crime bibliographies. A co-worker of mine read it and recommended it highly, but it wasn't until this month that I finally got around to reading it. My book club's February topic was "True Crime," and I don't think I'm wrong in assuming that my group picked this book in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings in December. Personally, the images of that recent shooting kept weighing on my mind as I read Cullen's work, and therefore, I kept thinking about the effects of media, politics, and gut reactions. However, Columbine is generally pure journalism, going for the "hows" and "whys" rather than the author's opinions and judgement. Given the intensity and the ripple effects of the 1999 happenings, it's impossible to read it and not make comparisons. The Columbine shootings are no less horrific now than they were fourteen years ago. And in today's continuing debates over gun control and mental illness, it shows how the events are still all too contemporary and raises many questions.

In most of my reviews, I tend to reserve the second paragraph for a summary and synopsis, but the events of Columbine are so well-known that they need a full recap; also, the book itself is the best documentation available, but with emphasis on the build-up and the aftermath. On April 20th, 1999, Columbine students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attempted to blow up their high school and shoot any remaining victims who attempted to flee the wreckage. Their homemade bombs didn't explode as planned, leading the two to enter the school and open fire. Before they committed suicide, they had killed twelve students, one teacher, and injured dozens of others. Cullen's writing style is reserved and journalistic, opening with an account of the prom ceremonies held the previous weekend, and then getting into the horrific details of the shooting. Some of the victims are explored with personal details of their lives. There is no hyperbole, no unnecessary dramatization, but rather a standard exploration of the events. Cullen is sensitive to every life affected by the massacre, but he engages in no emotional ploys or exploitation. For example, his characterization of teacher Dave Sanders (the only faculty fatality) is full of factual details, but he lets these details paint the picture without any assumptions.

"When someone crossed Dave Sanders, he responded with 'the look:' a cold, insistent stare. He used it one time on a couple of chatty girls in business class. They shut up momentarily, but went back to talking when he looked away. So he pulled up a chair right in front of them and conducted the rest of the class from that spot, staring back and forth at each girl until the bell rang (Cullen 21)."

The shooting is presented chronologically and fully detailed. Reading it is very uncomfortable, because, like any piece of good writing, the reader visualizes the events, and the imagination can add unsavory details to already traumatic happenings. This idea is essential as the aftermath unfolds, since police and media outlets were consistently fed misleading information and eyewitness testimony, since trauma and shock can lead to imagined details and assumed truths. Cullen's writing is based on complete research, yet the act of reading fills in any gaps. One can only imagine what it was like in the school during the actual unfolding.

"Nielson expected the shooter to arrive any moment now. But Eric was not following. He had been distracted. Deputy Gardner had pulled into the lot with lights flashing and siren blaring. Gardner had stepped out of his car, still confused about what he was walking into.

Eric opened fire. He got off ten rounds, all misses. Dylan did nothing.

Gardner took cover behind his police car. Eric didn't even hit that. Then his rifle jammed. Eric fought to clear the chamber. Dylan fled into the school.

Gardner saw his opening. He laid his pistol across the roof and squeezed off four shots. Eric spun around like he'd been hit. Neutralized, Gardner thought. What a relief.

Seconds later, Eric was firing again. It was a short burst; then he retreated inside.

It was 11:24. The outside ordeal lasted five minutes. Eric did most of the shooting. He fired his 9mm rifle forty-seven times in that period and did not use his shotgun. Dylan got off just three shots with the TEC-9 handgun and two with his shotgun.

They headed down the hallway to the library (Cullen 51)."

What makes Columbine so necessary is the staggering amount of false and conflicting information that was reported after it happened. The shooting happened when I was a freshman in high school, and I clearly remember the phrases that made their way into national and personal conversations in the weeks following: "goths," "Trench Coat Mafia," etc. Before setting records straight, Cullen explores the immediacy and necessity for the media to get reports of any kind out, especially in the hours following the shooting. This led to some sickening assumptions and acts: television reporters airing live calls with students trapped in the building, and engaging in rampant speculation. Of all the people involved in sorting out the events, I found FBI negotiator Dwayne Fuselier to be the most important and compelling. He became involved with the shootings on a personal and professional level. His son was in the building, but emerged unharmed. After, Fuselier conducted intense investigations and studies of Harris and Klebold over several years, trying to determine what drove them to their actions instead of relying on the gut reactions and categorizations of "good" and "evil." Even in the confusion, Fuselier arrived at the scene with as clear a head as anyone.

"Fuselier arrived at Columbine with one assumption: multiple gunmen demanded multiple tactics. Fuselier couldn't afford to think of his adversaries as a unit. Strategies likely to disarm one shooter could infuriate the other. Mass murderers tended to work alone, but when they did pair up, they rarely chose their mirror image. Fuselier knew he was much more likely to find a pair of opposites holed up in that building. It was entirely possible that there was no single why--and much more likely that he would unravel one motive for Eric, another for Dylan.

Reporters quickly keyed on the darker force behind the attack: this spooky Trench Coat Mafia. It grew more bizarre by the minute. In the first two hours, witnesses on CNN described the TCM as Goths, gays, outcasts, and a street gang. 'A lot of the time they'll, like, wear makeup and paint their nails and stuff,' a Columbine senior said. 'They're kind of--I don't know, like Goth, sort of, like, and they're like, associated with death and violence a lot.'

None of that would prove to be true. That student did not, in fact, know the people he was describing. But the story grew (Cullen 72)."

The above citation is crucial, since a large majority of Columbine is devoted to unraveling myths. The profiles of Harris and Klebold are of two vastly different psychopaths, in the literal definition. Harris was engaging and a masterful con artist, able to fool adults into thinking he'd changed after several run-ins with the law and some classmates. Klebold was intensely suicidal for years leading up to the massacre. Both boys came from generally good families and were bright. But through interviews (and viewings of the Basement Tapes left behind after their suicides), Cullen shows how they came together in one act for different reasons. Harris had delusional desires about making a mark on the world and eliminating people he deemed inferior; Klebold tagged along and grappled with his own psychological torments and feelings of insecurity. With these very human portraits, is Cullen absolving or forgiving the boys for their acts? Not at all. But it's a very real fact that psychological analysis is essential in regard to determining motives and reasons behind atrocious acts. One element of the current gun control debate is mental health. Stigmas about mental health are still persistent. Mass shootings and killings can't be boiled down to religious notions of good and evil. The human brain is complicated, and there are reasons and defects behind everything.

Cullen explores how religion in the very Christian areas of Colorado had good and bad roles in the aftermath. Some churches opened their doors to people seeking comfort and solace, whereas others, whether overtly or subconsciously, viewed the influx of people as a means of recruiting. There was also the complicated, exploited case of victim Cassie Bernall. The media jumped on the anecdote of her being killed because she professed to believing in god before being gunned down. Churches and citizens quickly held her up as a martyr even though eyewitness testimonies disprove the exchange. A girl who was shot and then asked about her belief was shunned by others believing she was just clamoring for the Cassie Bernall spotlight. Cassie's mother, wracked by grief, ended up writing a bestselling book about her daughter, and the line between healing and profiting was blurred.

"In July, the Wall Street Journal ran a prominent story titled 'Marketing a Columbine Martyr.' The publishing house was obscure, but Zimmerman had called in a team of heavy hitters. For public relations, the firm hired the New York team that had handled Monica Lewinsky's book. Publication was two months away, and [Cassie's mother] had already been booked for The Today Show and 20/20. The William Morris Agency was shopping the film rights around. (A movie was never made.) An agent there had sold book club rights to a unit of Random House. He said he was marketing 'virtually everything you can exploit--and I mean that in a positive way (Cullen 233).'"

Cullen's overall writing style is extremely strong. At first, I had issues with his casual vernacular (his preface stresses the differences between actual, documented dialogue and unverified, imagined conversations). He writes some scenes with an attempt to mimic the casual slang of late 1990s teenagers, but after while, I realized he wasn't doing this to distract. His style is giving visual and emotional immediacy to the dozens of outlying subplots, and as I've mentioned above, nothing in his writing is flippant or geared toward emotional pandering. After the chapters on the actual shooting, he alternates chapters between the victims and survivors, the shooters, and the authority figures. This style gives equal attention to every side of the story and aftermath. Obviously, the psychological and chronological profiles of Harris and Klebold are the most crucial, but the ripple effects are no less important. The phrase "healing process" often gets used casually in regard to shootings, but having it documented and tastefully explored is fascinating. I'm not going to use this review to explicitly link this study to my own views on gun control and the culture of violence. Cullen presents this case without personal asides or his own opinions. He devotes a brief section to the NRA's response to Columbine and its refusal to cancel its scheduled Colorado meeting. In his documentation, the NRA comes off as indignant to the pleas to postpone its meeting, and closes with a telling paragraph with a nod to the NRA's equivocal "olive branch."

"The group observed a moment of silence for the Columbine victims. It then proceeded with the welcome ceremony. Traditionally, the oldest and youngest attendees are officially recognized at that time. The youngest is typically a child. 'Given the unusual circumstances,'[then-NRA President Charlton] Heston announced that the tradition would be suspended this year (Cullen 212)."

There are many, many other angles I've left untouched: the histories of Harris and Klebold are complicated, detailed pages, and to conclude this review, I'm taking a note from Cullen's writing and not offering any revelations or closing arguments. The evidence and history are in the pages, and the reader can explore them any way he/she wants. I get a strong feeling that Cullen was aching to provide his own beliefs and sketches, but he wisely and bravely remains a reporter. He admits to his own mistakes and assumptions on the day of the shooting and uses Columbine to mark down the definitive account and to erase the myths and false reports that still seem to pass for public knowledge. Overall, this is a beautiful book in spite of its terrible, grisly origins. Unlike Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, this isn't a document that's half truth, half author creativity. It's a sadly necessary account of a turning point in American history with residual effects still being felt all too vividly.

Work Cited:
Cullen, Dave. Columbine. Copyright 2009 by Dave Cullen.

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