Wednesday, February 9, 2011


by Dave Cullen
Star Rating: 4 out of 4

The cover alone is enough. There is only one word on it. It's in small letters surrounded by empty space, but it's not really empty; it's charged by all the memories, assumptions, and emotions surrounding that day, those deaths, and that name.

The events are these: on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered thirteen people at Columbine High School before turning their guns on themselves. The boys had homemade bombs set strategically around the school, none of which went off that day; if they had, the death count would have been in the hundreds. Evidence was discovered after the fact that the shooting spree had been planned for over a year in advance; this included the so-called Basement Tapes, rage-filled video rants in which the two boys recorded their intentions in the weeks before the attack. Incompetent police work and media rumor-mongering contributed to creating a number of false impressions following the attack, which this book does much to clarify.

This book brings up so many emotions. I just want to quote passage after passage. Several paragraphs made me sick to my stomach; others made me want to cry. Cullen is able to convey the punch of that day's horror and trauma, and of the aftermath, in expert journalistic style:
Dylan was heavy into school stuff. Eric, too. They attended the football games, the dances, and the variety shows and worked together on video production for the Rebel News Network. School plays were big for Dylan. He would never want to face an audience, but backstage at the soundboard, that was great. Earlier in the year, he'd rescued Rachel Scott, the senior class sweetheart, when her tape jammed during the talent show. In a few days, Eric would kill her.
[Eric] researched the possibilities for an English paper. Guns were cheap and readily available, he discovered. Gun Digest said you could get a Saturday night special for $69. And schools were easy targets. "It is just as easy to bring a loaded handgun to school as it is to bring a calculator," Eric wrote.
"Ouch!" his teacher responded in the margin. Overall, he rated it "thorough & logical. Nice job."
And yet... there's sympathy to be found here too, for the injured, the families, the parents of the killers, and even a killer himself. Eric Harris was clearly the mastermind of the event: he was the one who went to all the trouble of making the bombs, finding a way of purchasing the guns, planning the date, and stoking the anger within them both toward this end. Dylan, on the other hand, presents a problem.
Murder or even suicide takes willpower as well as anger. Dylan fantasized about suicide for years without making an attempt. He had never spoken to the girls he dreamed of. Dylan Klebold was not a man of action. He was conscripted by a boy who was.
According to the evidence available, Dylan fit the mold of a suicidal depressive. He kept a journal of his meditations on existence, God, morality, but most of all, on love. Dylan was obsessed with romantic love, though he'd never received it; Cullen notes that "Love was the most common word in Dylan's journal." He was lonely. He was miserable. He was angry too, but until Eric that anger was directed inward at himself. I found it impossible not to wonder what might've happened to Dylan if Eric had never come along. True, he might've committed suicide like he planned. But he also might've found that love he seemed so convinced would save him.

It's clear through the transcripts of Eric's journal and website that he felt himself supreme (he even calls himself god), so far above other humans that killing people was a pleasure. Cullen painstakingly explains the nature of psychopaths, with their superiority, grandiosity, manipulation, and contempt, and compellingly presents the head FBI psych investigator's conclusion that Eric was a true psychopath. (Once you see the list of characteristics laid out, it's tough to really argue the point.) Cullen employs an excellent authorial method by describing Eric's position on the rest of humanity with "we" or "us" phrasology. Eric's malevolence seems to jump out from the page, straight at the reader. See this hatred? Cullen seems to be saying. This isn't abstract. He hated you.

I don't remember Columbine personally (I was only 13) and haven't read any of the many reports or newspaper articles this book cites. I couldn't even have told you the shooters' names beforehand. Now I doubt I'll ever forget them. These two wanted to be remembered for what they did at Columbine -- wanted to "live in infamy," to borrow a phrase, and now they do. But Cullen cleverly intertwines the history of the boys' plotting in with the story of the recovery that began afterward; as the boys spiral down, never to return, those still alive begin to heal. There's a great philosophical question: if you could have a life where you were reviled for Hitler-esqe atrocities but remembered forever, or a life where you were good and happy but lost to memory within a few generations, which would you choose? I think most people of good conscience, including most of those in this book, would choose the latter.

All are portrayed with great humanity. The language doesn't sensationalize. It's possible more lives could've been saved, or been lost, and the story of those lives was unforgettable. But when it comes down to it, this is a brilliant, heartwrenching book about one boy who hated all of us, and who convinced another boy to help him kill.


  1. What a great analysis of the cover, Alice. This is on my list, but I haven't gotten around to it—I'm glad to hear that it treats everyone with humanity.

  2. Clare, oh, it is so, so good. The bleak subject matter makes it a tough read sometimes, and I definitely had to put it down a few times in favor of something more upbeat, but it always pulled me back in. I hope you enjoy it when you reach it on your list! :)

  3. This is a really great review. I got goose bumps at the end. Going to buy this book next time I'm in the bookshop. Thanks for sharing.