Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

The aftermath of the massacre at Columbine high school totally defined my high school experience. I was in 8th grade at the time and remember being horrified throughout the day as periodically we would get rumors about what had happened out in Colorado. I rushed home from school and parked myself in front of the TV for the rest of the evening. For some reason, when a disaster happens I park myself in front of the news, trying to absorb every bit of information as it comes out (I think this started back in kindergarten, when my mom tells me I was obsessed with the Persian Gulf war and wanted to watch the news about it every night. And kudos to my parents, they let me).

After Columbine, school was different: within a few weeks there was a bomb scare at my middle school, and we watched across campus as visible security measures went up at the high school: cattle gates closing off all but one access to the parking lots during the day, security officers checking visitors in and out of the parking lot, etc. Even as new tragedies befell the nation over the course of my time in high school, Columbine's legacy was felt in all sorts of school policies.

Dave Cullen's tome on the Columbine shootings is the culmination of ten exhaustive years of research. From my perspective, it seems no stone was left unturned. While some of the book was a confirmation of what I already knew (Cassie Bernall most likely never said yes; the trench coat mafia was made up), much of the rest was filled with startling and unsettling revelations. More than once I had to set the book aside and take a break to do something mindless, just so I would stop thinking about it.

Also, reading the book made me totally wreck my nails. I've had a terrible nail biting habit since forever, but usually I only do it when I'm bored. Turns out if I get incredibly anxious I can say bye-bye to my nails as well. All ten finger nails were bitten down to the quick by the time I finished the book. Not my proudest moment.

Back in April, Oprah was going to feature Cullen on a show about Columbine, but decided to pull it because it focused too much on the killers. Cullen's book focuses at least half of its attention on Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and sometimes disturbingly settles into what Cullen imagines would be their thought or speech patterns. Non-quoted parts of the text curse, call authority figures bastards, etc. The book's chapters alternate between detailing what happened on April 20th, 1999 and afterwards to the survivors and the victims' families and looking at Klebold & Harris prior to the shooting. The text in chapters that aren't about Klebold and Harris doesn't fall into the vernacular of its subjects, so the brief moments where the text does begin to sound like Klebold and Harris sticks out all the more.

For me, this was an absolutely must-read book, and I certainly think it should be required reading (at least in excerpts) for anyone that works in schools as Cullen goes through a lot of effort to debunk the myths of the "profile" or a school shooter. However, it's certainly not an easy read, so have a nice light, fluffy book on the nightstand as well to comfort you when this one gets to be too much.


Anna Rhoswen said...

I don't remember much about Columbine, probably because I was slightly younger, and my parents kept me away from the news (go figure). I do remember the aftermath, even at home. I wrote one variation on the Sarah/Alay story where a rival school "attacked" theirs as a part of some training thing - no guns, no one died, just some sword fights and my usual witty banter. My mother flipped and about sent me into counseling. Blargh.

This is on my definite read list now. I've heard really interesting things about it.


Dave Cullen said...

Thank you for that wonderful and gracious review. More in the morning, but I couldn't go to bed without thanking you.

Angela said...

Britt - I think I remember that story! Or at least your mom finding one of your fics and wanting to send you to therapy. I know I was going to write a post-Columbine fic, but someone else beat me to it and it was so amazing that I didn't want to touch it.

Mr. Cullen - wow, thank YOU for the comment! It's thrilling to know my little review attracted your attention.

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