By Dave Cullen
Everything about Columbine, from its stark, minimalist cover design (the massive heavens vaulting above the flattened school, with no subtitle or even author’s name appearing), to its pedigree (Dave Cullen’s coverage of the story started “around noon on the day of the attack,” and the book is “a blend of . . . contemporaneous reporting with nine years of research”), to its timing (published to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the shooting), announces it to be the definitive account of the tragedy.
This it is not.
It is a good book, well-structured, informative, and very fast-paced, but too limited to be definitive. Too much has been left out. To take a couple of obvious points, there are no visual aids in the form of maps or photos. These were sorely missed. The second section, for example, opens with a description of an iconic image: “There is a photograph.” One would like to see it. Maps, in turn, would have made understanding the events a lot easier. I found visualizing the beginning of the attack nearly impossible from Cullen’s description, and ended up having to search online for a layout of the school and grounds.
Presenting a pared-down narrative of the how, where, and when in order to focus more on the why is central to Cullen’s project. Indeed his most detailed description of the actual shooting appears at the end of the book and only provides a quick walk-through that doesn’t go into all the details. Even so, one expects the story to be more fleshed out than this. In some cases the blanks are understandable (if regrettable), in others not. As examples of the former we may take the question of why the propane-tank bombs put together by Eric Harris failed to go off. Since the bombs were a major part of his plan for “Judgment Day” this is an important part of the story. But officials who investigated the matter refused to be specific in their final report, “arguing that they didn’t want to give copycats any hints.” In the end the “primary mistake” was said to be “defective fusing.” Which tells us nothing at all, and seems a little odd since Eric was a bright kid who had apparently been building and experimenting with bomb fuses for years.
More perplexing than these lacunae is Cullen’s decision to tell only the most prominent victim stories. In fact, I suspect the only place some of the thirteen victims are mentioned is in the book’s dedication. Others – like Cassie Bernall (who became famous as a supposed martyr for her faith), the teacher Dave Sanders, and Patrick Ireland (the boy who climbed out of the library window) – are treated in-depth. There may be a reason for this – for example, other families being less forthcoming – but it leaves us with a narrow picture that has been (I have to assume, given the silence on this matter in any of the notes on sources) determined by access. The same might be said for Cullen’s total reliance on the psychological assessments of Eric and Dylan made by FBI specialist Dwayne Fuselier. While Fuselier’s opinions – in brief, that Eric was a psychopath and Dylan a suicidal depressive – carry a lot of weight and seem convincing, there is no attempt made at providing other perspectives or points of view. Fuselier isn’t just given the last word on the matter, he’s given the only word.
Might there have been other opinions worth canvassing? Take, for example, the matter of bullying. That Eric and Dylan were the victims of bullying is one of many Columbine media “myths” – along with the idea that they were Goths, into Marilyn Manson, Nazis, members of a “Trench Coat Mafia” or gay – that Cullen takes exception to:
Despite the press’s obsession with bullying and misfits, that’s not how the boys presented themselves. Dylan laughed about picking on the new freshmen and “fags.” Neither one complained about bullies picking on them – they boasted about doing it themselves.
But this only goes so far. In the first place we may wonder if the way the “boys presented themselves” was in itself a form of compensation for a more general sense of insecurity. And then there is the part about neither one complaining about being picked on. Cullen’s own account puts this into question. Of course people have different levels of sensitivity and ways of interpreting these things, but Dylan in particular at least felt picked upon and did complain of it. In one journal entry he wrote “I dont know what i do wrong with people . . . it’s like they are set out to hate & insult me.” In the “basement tapes” both boys raged over short lifetimes filled, at least to their way of thinking, with slights, insults, and instances of being picked on. Eric, we learn, “took some flack” from “older kids and bigger guys” (Eric himself was small and unathletic), but Cullen says this was “nothing exceptional.” Even given a heightened sensitivity to such “flack,” the dismissive “nothing exceptional” elides what might have been perceived as bullying. But it’s hard to say what was involved. We learn, for example, that Eric was upset that a girl he fancied was dating a “prettyboy” named Dan who had “punched him in the face.” We learn nothing more about the incident. It is editorially described as a “fistfight,” but that is not what being punched in the face means. The fact that Eric was still obsessed with revenge a year later would seem to indicate that he had not received the satisfaction of actually fighting the other boy. He had simply been punched out, and humiliated by the experience.
There likely is, in other words, more to the story. But without having read any of the tens of thousands of pages of evidence, it is nearly impossible for a general reader to make any firm conclusions on Cullen’s account. All one can do is attempt to read critically. An exercise encouraged by the fact that efforts were apparently made by the police right from the start to destroy evidence and doctor the “official record.” This was, ironically, a reaction that even Eric and Dylan presupposed in their planning, figuring that the “cops would chop up all their footage and show the public how they wanted it to look.” Covering ass is a basic survival instinct in a litigious society. On the day of the attacks Dylan’s father called 911 immediately upon hearing of the attacks . . . and then called a lawyer. Eric’s parents refused to be deposed until the victims’ families dropped their lawsuits against them. Under a special agreement the contents of their deposition will be kept under seal until 2027.
As with a lot of celebrated criminal cases – Ed Gein’s rural house of horrors, the stabbing of Kitty Genovese, O. J. – the cultural significance of Columbine arises from its transformation into myth. That myth may or may not have anything to do with the facts of the case (Gein didn’t preserve his mother’s corpse, and wasn’t a cannibal; there weren’t thirty-eight witnesses to Genovese’s murder; O. J. wasn’t persecuted by the legal system because he was black), but facts don’t always trump. And so we can only say, for whatever it is worth, that Cullen has done a responsible job of telling the Columbine story here, and tried as best he can to set the record straight.
Review first published online May 25, 2009.