Book Reviews: Columbine by Dave Cullen & Comprehending Columbine by Ralph Larkin

Book Review: Comprehending Columbine by Ralph Larkin

Within days of the massacre at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, I refused to hear or read any more about it.  Other than brief moments throughout the years, I’ve resisted every book, article and documentary, waiting for an appropriate period of calm and reflection before trying to get some perspective on this horrific event.

I recall the sickening clutch of fear I felt upon hearing the phrase Trench Coat Mafia for the first time.  That the national media instantly treated such obviously contrived, adolescent swaggering as a real threat to the community did not bode well.  More histrionic accusations soon burst forth: goths, Marilyn Manson, liberals, Satan, secularism, Hollywood, video games, and, inevitably, gays.  I became increasingly angry at this shrill finger pointing and ripped out a letter to the editor that was published in a popular online magazine.  I instantly regretted this move since all my letter did (in its very tiny way) was inflame emotions.  I should have been more calm, and simply pointed out that local boys killing local kids in a local institution like the local High School might indicate that the problem existed, oh, I don’t know - locally?

All these years later, I realize that I would have still been wrong, because the forces that led to the slaughter are certainly not unique to the Columbine community and are common everywhere in America, and the world.  The pathologies at work were singular only in that they fused at that place, at that time, and no more reflect local culture than the sudden outbreak of a rare disease.  The truth is that it could have happened anywhere.

Recently, I decided that since almost 14 years have passed, there must be a few resources that would be reflective, not sensational.  So I read Columbine by Dave Cullen and Comprehending Columbine by Ralph Larkin.  I found both of these books informative, but was amazed to read such widely divergent views about motive, and was shocked to learn that bullying may not have been any more pivotal than the coats that the killers wore.

Cullen's book demolishes myth after myth about the reason, planning and execution of the massacre, while Larkin explores motive in far greater detail.

It seemed to me that both books reveal an obvious truth: on their own, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold would not have killed anyone that day.  Two disturbed and unbalanced kids formed an explosive friendship, and the killing spree was sustained by a shockingly banal impulse to appear resolute for one another, at least in Klebold’s case.  It’s the same fatal clash of ego that Truman Capote explored with In Cold Blood

Cullen's portraits are riveting: In the final months of his life, Dylan Klebold filled his journal with the typically maudlin teenaged pining for love, along with his passion for a girl at Columbine, and drew pictures of hearts for page after page.  At the same time, Eric Harris was filling his journal with rants about his hatred for the world, how much he wanted to destroy and kill and rape and maim, and it was Harris who did most of the planning.  It is clear beyond any doubt that Harris was the ringleader, Klebold the follower, until the final minutes when Klebold seems to have egged Harris on.

Cullen’s book is a vital resource in distinguishing between Harris and Klebold.  He denies that they were bullied and whatever the truth, these were two vastly different teens.  Harris, he claims, was a psychopath (read my review of Dance with the Devil for my own experiences with an anti-social personality) and Klebold was a deeply depressed teenager who lacked a healthy personality capable of withstanding the gravitational force of a megalomaniac. 

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Larkin offers a similar dynamic, but claims that different forces fueled the massacre – namely that both teens were daily victims of bullying who had been seething with resentment for years.  And instead of a psychopathic personality, he claims Harris likely struggled with a major mental illness such as bipolar disorder, and his quiet anger morphed into a lethal rage that consumed his friend.

Columbine, like most High Schools, was a place where victimization was a part of life.  Cullen concedes as much while Larkin delves deeply into a violent and dangerous subculture in the hallways of the school.  I was struck by Larkin’s depiction of a student who graduated a year before the massacre, a star athlete and probable psychopath himself.  He terrorized other students, and after he was gone left a legacy of wanton cruelty that echoed in the behavior of students long after. 

Larkin says religious overtones provided a moral sheen to violent and abusive behavior, which was overlooked by an overwhelmed and distracted faculty that was desperate to keep the peace with the evangelical fever that animated the local culture.  School administrators, he claims, at best turned a blind eye, when not actually condoning and even participating in the abuse.  But all the same, I don’t believe there is anything unique about any of this.

In my personal experience in High School, I learned that coaches are especially guilty of this neglect.  I attended a Catholic boy's school, and coaches were the favored speakers to deliver noble lectures about character and manhood, while the student athletes closest to them and presumably most influenced by their example often exhibited extreme narcissism, little self-control and were prone to random violence toward their fellow classmates.  For a student like me, these realities undermined the authority of the coaches with absolute totality.  Bullied students take note of these things, of course, and are not immune to responding in kind.  I don’t think it’s insignificant that both Harris and Klebold displayed all these traits.

Because both killers were dead within one hour of shooting their way into the nation’s consciousness, there is no way to know any of this for sure. 

What we can know, and what Cullen reveals in startling detail, is the stark difference between these teens.  Harris, while sloppy about the details, planned the whole attack, which was meant to be a bombing.  Klebold signed on.  In Klebold’s case, it seems likely that he didn’t take it all too seriously at first.  I can easily imagine a teenager, for whom a year can seem like an eternity, agreeing to participate in his best friend’s crackpot scheme to blow up the school and shoot survivors.  I can see him playing along, confident that Judgment Day (as they called it) would never happen. Maybe he watched with disbelief as Eric charged ahead with the planning, but still imagined it was all a game.  Cullen notes that Klebold was deeply depressed, and suggests that he might have been seriously contemplating suicide, so he may have planned to be dead when the date finally rolled around.

You can imagine those final weeks when Judgment Day, lurking shapeless in the distant future for so long, suddenly emerged from the mist, looming over Klebold's life - a vast black wall with nothing beyond.  A year’s worth of tough talk is suddenly bearing down on him, and he lacked a mature personality that would be necessary to undermine the plot.  It does seem that he tried to send messages to others, like a chilling short story wrote for a class describing a man casually gunning down other people while he observes.

After the bombs failed to go off, the killers hastily decided to go on a shooting rampage.  During the massacre, they ignored hundreds of human targets and many students spoke of making eye contact with the killers as they passed the classrooms where dozens of people crouched in terror.  After the initial slaughter of the first twenty minutes or so (including a horrifying frenzy of murder in the library) where they killed 13 and wounded two dozen more, the killers made only half-hearted attempts at more destruction.  For about thirty minutes, they wandered the school aimlessly. Cullen claims that Harris simply became bored with killing, a startling explanation that he describes as typical for a psychopath and another clue to the true nature of the rampage.  As for Klebold, who knows?  Did he realize that, compared to what he had now done, backing out would have been the easiest thing in the world to do?  Did he spend his final 30 minutes consumed with regret?

If you are looking for a riveting account of that surreal day, complete with comprehensive reporting about the planning and aftermath, I highly recommend Dave Cullen’s Columbine.  He also does an excellent job of untangling myth after myth, including the famous martyr story of Cassie Bernall, and introduces you to the major players in a compelling way.  There’s also a buffoonish sheriff who may have made matters worse for everyone in the community.

If you want an academic exploration of bullying and the toxic hatred it can inspire, I can recommend Ralph Larkin’s Comprehending Columbine.  Be warned that they disagree completely about motive.

Columbine is available online here

Comprehending Columbine is available online here