Book Review: Columbine


Dave Cullen


464 pages

I am not sure about anyone else, but I have felt that Columbine was played out for years.  I am not being insensitive I hope—I just feel like it has been discussed and covered so much since it happened in 1999 that who would want to read anymore about it?  Especially considering that it seems to be the only school shooting to be so extensively covered.  For instance, take Virginia Tech.  There were doubly the fatalities, yet that crime came nowhere near the caliber of Columbine.  So now you know what kind of mindset I was in when I picked up Columbine—vaguely interested but primarily bored with the scenario.  It didn’t take long for me to take a complete 180.

I am not going to go too far in to the actual logistics of the claim because I would think most (if not all) of my readers would have some familiarity with the events of Columbine.  For those who may not, here is a brief overview—Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are high school seniors at Columbine High School near Littleton , Colorado .  They may or may not be outsiders, depending on what you believe.  They planned to carry out a huge massacre on April 19, 1999 but plans did not go off correctly and they actually had to wait until the following day to carry out their plans.  They had set up bombs all over the school’s property but almost none of them detonated.  Had the massacre gone as intended, the body count would have been much higher than it was—13 (besides the two gunmen).

One of the biggest issues regarding the killings is why?  At first, I, like a lot of people, believed the news reports that Dylan and Eric were outsiders that were bullied.  Now, I am not so sure.  Cullen certainly makes every attempt to dispute this theory.  Instead he paints the picture of two boys who were actually well liked, although a little insecure.  In fact, he portrays Eric to be very much a ladies man.  By the time I finished Columbine, I was convinced bullying had nothing to do with what happened on 4/20/1999.  Then I saw this review on Amazon, written by the father of one of Eric and Dylan’s former friends:

The FBI investigator says that bullying was not the problem and that Eric, for one, was a psychopath. Eric was crazy. That is so easy, and so convenient. It lets all of us off the hook for any part we may have played in the bullying and hatred that he endured.
“Crazy” is easy. Learning the real lessons is very hard. Facing the real truths is painful.

The entire review gave me pause for thought, including that portion.  Obviously, it is impossible to say for certain what the motives were or how the killers felt.  I don’t think Cullen was taking the easy way out, nor do I discount his theories, but it was interesting to read the viewpoint of someone who actually lived through the massacre and to read his take on the book.

Another issue touched on by the reviewer is the fact that Cullen labeled Eric a psychopath.  It’s impossible to make a judgment based on one book, especially considering I don’t have the knowledge or the evidence to determine someone’s mental and emotional standing, but I think Cullen clearly gives credence to the fact that Harris was a psychopath.  Maybe that is the “easy” answer, maybe not, but to me it is the one that makes the most sense.

It was strange, because the killers really became three dimensional to me.  I was so used to seeing them as monsters because of what they did, but I actually sympathized with Dylan in the book.  He was portrayed as being a follower—seemingly coerced into the plan for Columbine.  That doesn’t excuse what he did nor is it the reason why I empathized with him.  Instead, I felt like he was a very tortured person.  Lovable but possessing absolutely no self worth.  I felt like Eric had no chance to be a redeeming person—he was rotten through and through—but Dylan could have been someone else.  I don’t mean to offend anyone by my conclusions.  It goes without saying that I mourn most for the victims and their families.

All in all, I am so glad I picked up Columbine.  Despite being a well known story, it gave me a lot to ponder over and I enjoyed every minute of reading it, despite the horrific circumstances.

Lastly, has anyone else read this book?  If so, what was your take on Eric and Dylan?  Were you able to sympathize with one or both or neither?

Other Reviews:

Letters on Pages

Reading Rants!

Start Narrative Here

Page 247

Dog-Eared and Well-Read

I borrowed this book from my local library.

11 Responses

  1. I just began reading this a few hours ago, and I picked it up on the heels of reading Lionel Shriver We Need to Talk About Kevin. Reading begets reading. I’m only a couple of pages in, waiting for it to pick up–my primary motivation for reading it was wanting to know the real-life events of Shriver’s gripping novel. It’s going to be an emotional roller-coaster, I know, but I can’t help it.

  2. This is a great book to start after We Need to Talk About Kevin. You will have a lot to ruminate over.

    • I’m back. :] I’m having trouble staying with Cullen, after the feverish storytelling of Shriver. After a roller coaster ride, the jarringness of being in a, say, haunted river ride [or whatever one calls it] doesn’t make for comfortable reading.

  3. I haven’t read Columbine. I checked it out from the library once, and didn’t have the time to read it. I’ve kind of been waiting until I’m really in the right mood to read the book because it’s such a serious topic. Pretty much the same reason why I haven’t picked up We Need to Talk About Kevin yet either.

  4. Dave Cullen’s book is well-written and contains some interesting information, but I find it highly flawed. It is hardly the definitive, myth-busting account of the 4/20 massacre it purports to be.

    I don’t dislike Cullen’s book because he’s *wrong*, per se.

    I dislike it because he claims that it is possible to be *right* about Columbine. I dispute his claim that his interpretation – his convenient truth, if you will – is the only valid one.

    Having said that, let me add that his characterization of the two shooters is absolutely ludicrous.

    Eric Harris was not a swaggering ladies’ man, and Dylan Klebold was not a cowering emo.

    Cullen frames the entire massacre in terms of pop psychology: “Eric Harris was a sociopath and Dylan Klebold was a depressive – and that’s it.”

    I find this “diagnosis” trite and simplistic – and highly suspect.

    (Cullen’s main source for his theory is Dwayne Fusilier, an FBI investigator with a huge conflict-of-interest – his son not only knew the killers, but made a video with them in which *the very act they attempted to perform* – blowing up the school – was depicted.)

    Cullen dismisses his critics as people who have their heads in the sand, clinging to the obsolete notion that “Eric and Dylan were just a couple of bullied kids who were targeting jocks.”

    He’s wrong.

    My objection to Cullen’s book rests on my belief there are too many unknowns, loose ends, and nagging, unanswerable questions, for anyone to say that “A caused B, which caused Columbine.”

    My personal belief is that the attack was a “perfect storm” of numerous factors interacting in erratic, unpredictable, irreproducible ways: mental illness, yes, but also:

    * social alienation and isolation (including bullying – but not to the extent that some people think);
    * questionable parenting;
    * massive police incompetence;
    * the trials and tribulations of two very smart, very troubled (in somewhat different ways) teenagers trying to navigate the perilous route from childhood to adulthood.

    I don’t see how Dave Cullen can conclude that Eric Harris was a successful ladies’ man and a confident social king. A lot of people have looked at the evidence, and no one else has made that conclusion.

    Only someone with a predetermined idea (“Eric was a sociopath, and that’s all there was to it!”) would be able to ignore all of the evidence suggesting that Eric was a social non-entity.

    (People say that Cullen spent ten years researching and writing his book, but he began expressing his ideas in articles as early as the fall of 1999, and basically spelled them out entirely in April 2004. He seems to have decided early on that Eric was the psycho and Dylan was the emo – period. In so doing, he closed his mind to alternative perspectives.)

    Dylan was a lot more aggressive than a lot of people want to believe – he had a lot of anger in him. He wanted to kill and hurt people.

    I believe that Eric and Dylan were at or near the bottom of the high-school social structure.

    But, as I’ve said – that was only one factor. And maybe not even the most important one.

    Of course, if the school wasn’t a factor at all – and even Eric Harris himself wrote that people should not blame the administration – why did they choose to attack the school, and not some other target?

    But I digress. I’m wasting time arguing that Cullen is “wrong”, when I should be reiterating my point that there is no “right” or “wrong”.

    I strongly disagree with Cullen’s contention that there is an easy answer and a concrete explanation.

    Before one can come to believe that Cullen’s book is the “true story” about Columbine, one must come to believe that there is such a thing as a “true story” – that it is possible to take one of the most notorious crimes of the late 20th century, muck around in the evidence, and produce a simple, tidy explanation: “Eric Harris was crazy (Cullen uses the word “sociopath”, but he might as well have said that Eric was possessed by the demons of Doom), and he persuaded Dylan to help him try to blow up Columbine High.”

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s that simple. No one will ever convince me that the explanation, if there is one, is that simple.

    I think that “Eric and Dylan were a couple of bullied kids who targeted jocks” is just as simplistic and inaccurate a statement as “Eric was a sociopath and Dylan was a depressive.”

    Dave Cullen has merely replaced Simplistic, Inaccurate Statement A with Simplistic, Inaccurate Statement B.

    I concede that there’s more evidence to support SIS B than there is to support SIS A, but I contend that both statements are equally unhelpful in helping us understand what happened.

    Anyone who believes that the cause of Columbine can be boiled down to a simple formula – “Psycho + Emo = NBK”, or even “Bullies + Outcasts with Guns = NBK” – is intellectually lazy, IMH (and ultimately irrelevant) O.

    At the very least, such a person is somewhat close-minded.

    For alternative perspectives on the Columbine massacre, read:

    * “No Easy Answers” by Brooks Brown;
    * “Columbine: A True Crime Story” by Jeff Kass;
    * “Comprehending Columbine” by Ralph Larkin.

    Read the killers’ writings (available on – with which I am not affiliated.)

    Read the documents *very* grudgingly released by law enforcement over the years.

    Read as much as you can.

    Keep an open mind.

    Remember that the “truth”, far from being plain and simple, is always far more elusive than we want to believe.

    Don’t be taken in by hype.

  5. I haven’t read this but it seems to me that Eric could have been both a psychopath and been bullied. I really want to read this; there seems to be so much here that contradicts what has been conventional wisdom.

  6. I haven’t read this and don’t plan to, even though it does sound interesting. I read Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed last year, and even though I liked the book, I had a hard time with the fact that it was based on Columbine…and it’s fiction. That kind of made me leery of any other Columbine books. Which isn’t really fair to the other books, but I can’t get past it.

  7. I’ve heard good things about this book, and I’m interested in reading it. I know myself well enough to know that I’d never actually pick it up, though, unless I had a specific date for book club or a group read or something.

    I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. That makes it a little more likely I’ll eventually pick it up and read it.

  8. I’ve heard that this book is well researched and well written and every review I’ve read says it’s great, but I just don’t know if I can handle the subject matter.

  9. I still remember being extremely baffled when I heard about Columbine in 1999. I was a fourteen year old at the time myself, and did spend a few minutes contemplating what would take one of my school friends to take gun to everyone at school, with no regard to the consequences. I didn’t have an answer.

    Some eleven years later, I still don’t. While the ‘sociopath’ stereotype is the easiest one, is it actually the correct one? What turns one into a ‘sociopath’? Is it a particular event? A sequence of events? Or, is it the whole nurture vs. nature thing (which is what We Need To Talk About Kevin focused on)? And, who defines ‘sociopathic’ anyway? Prior to the shootings, would the same word have been used to describe Eric?

    I’d probably like to read this at some point, and a few other books based around the high school shootings, to get a better grip on the reality of the situation, as well as the psychology. It’s something I genuinely don’t understand, and my heart goes out to anyone and everyone who either witnessed or was affected by this tragedy.

  10. I’d like to read this at some point, but I admit mainly because we currently live in Colorado. I’ve been asked a couple times if I’ve read it yet. Makes me wonder if sales are especially high for this book in this state.

    On the other hand, my oldest is starting HS this fall and I’m afraid I might start freaking about the fact that this type of thing could happen at his school (whether we lived in Colorado or not).

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