Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Book Review: Columbine, by Dave Cullen
As I'm sure you remember, Columbine was all over the news for a week straight and those first few days of frenzied coverage set the narrative of the tragedy almost in stone. If I asked you to summarize a few things about Columbine, what would you say? Probably something like this: that it was carried out by two poorly parented antisocial loners bent on taking revenge for the bullying they experienced at school. That's why they targeted jocks. They shot a girl because she said she believed in God. They were part of a Goth group called the Trenchcoat Mafia. And nobody detected any hints of the attack before it came.
Read Columbine, by Dave Cullen, and find out why every single one of those details is incorrect. Because while the press created and presented a certain version of the tragedy for public consumption immediately after it happened, it didn't subsequently correct itself when new information came to light in the months and years that followed. That's why so many of these myths about Columbine are still taken as fact.
But what really sets Columbine (the book) apart is that it's not just about the shootings and the accompanying police response and investigation. It's about the killers, too, and I've never read a more caring account of two troubled teenagers than this one. The boys (and their families) are treated with such sensitivity and nuance that they are presented as the individuals they are and never reduced to caricatures.
Columbine is also about the media, and how their coverage got so terribly out of control and threatened to destroy the victims' community.
I think this book is actually more interesting to those of us who remember Columbine and remember it well. Cullen puts together the parts of the story we know - or thought we knew - thoroughly and steadily and then strand by strand unravels it until all is clear. To do this, he uses an interesting chronology that jumps around quite a bit - swinging forward a whole decade at times - but the whole remains coherent and very readable.
When Columbine happened I was wrapped up in my own world and dealing with some difficult things. Columbine made me feel emotion outside of myself for once, yet it also embodied the dark days I was going through. When I think back to that time period, most things are muted and dull, as if viewed through a pane of thick, distorted glass, but Columbine emerges as a moment of horror strong enough to break through that monotony of sadness. As the years passed, however, I seem to have bundled Columbine together with all that was going on in my own life at that time and then put it away.
I really appreciated reading this book and having it all tidied up and cleared away, once and for all.