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

Book Review: Hitler's Last Secretary by Traudl Junge

Hitler's Last Secretary by Traudl Junge

Book Review by Bud Gundy

When I start reading about a topic, I often find myself obsessed for a while.  So right after I finished The Third Reich at War (review below) I decided to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to for years.  Hitler’s Last Secretary by Traudl Junge is an engrossing read, every bit as mesmerizing as the movie it inspired, “Downfall.”

Traudl Junge is the secretary in question, and the forward gives us a good overview of the scope of her life and how she came to see Hitler for what he really was, looking back on her gullibility with amazement.

But her own memoirs offer very little in the way of that insight, and I recommend you watch the documentary interview conducted shortly before she died for that sort of perspective.  These memoirs were written in 1947, while the memories were still fresh in her mind, and she hadn’t yet grasped the true nature of the story she relays with such a dispassionate (dare I say Germanic?) voice.

She begins her story with her life in Munich as a girl, before her parents ended their unhappy marriage.  While she didn’t hate her father, he was an absent parent – working in Turkey for several years before the divorce.  She has evident admiration for her mother, a single woman struggling to raise her children and to give them a decent upbringing with the help of her own parents.  Even still, both parents are shadowy enigmas, making it easy, I suppose, to identify her later devotion to Hitler as the love for a misbegotten father figure.

Junge tells breezily clueless stories from her school years, remarking on the disappearance of Jewish friends with a voice struggling with nothing greater than confusion.  She never joined the Nazi party, partly because of her mother’s warnings to remain aloof from the savage political forces at work in Germany, and partly because her outlook was decidedly apolitical.  One is tempted to feel scorn for a girl so willfully ignorant of the terror for anyone identified as an outsider in Germany.  In the documentary, she stated that she found it hard to forgive herself for this, and I have to say that I agree.

She followed her older sister to Berlin to start a career as a dancer, but by this time the war was in full swing, and Germany was not clamoring for new dancers.  She secured a secretarial job before a family friend tipped her off to an open position at the Reich Chancellery.  After working there a short while, she found herself among a group of just nine women who are asked to submit to a battery of tests to join the small circle of women who work exclusively as secretaries to Hitler.

 Junge is frank about Hitler’s kindness and consideration, his doting affection for his secretaries and others who served him in crucial but low-level positions.  But he is a demanding boss, too, expecting his personal workers to be available at any time, and to conform to his vampire-like schedule of staying up all night and sleeping until early afternoon.

At first, she is excited by the thrill of living at the center of power, with all the famous names sweeping in and out – Speer, Borman, Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, Mussolini and other notorious people.  Details of this life are rich and fascinating – the tedium of listening to Hitler’s famously dull nightly lectures, the glamour provided by Evan Braun, the distinction of living and working in Hitler’s various enclaves.  We see the regular entourage at dinner, at work, at play.  It is a fascinating glimpse into this world, especially since so much of it seems routine and, at times, utterly banal.

As the war progresses, Junge writes of the hope and inspiration that Hitler gave those in his immediate circle.  She does not write of the sense of doom that many in Germany felt, starting in 1941, when they realized that Hitler had expanded the war too quickly, and that that country was rushing headlong to defeat.  She lived in a gilded bubble, something she did not realize until many years later.

Junge marries one of Hitler’s valets, but she is emotionally vacant about this episode.  Her husband is transferred to the Western front where he is eventually killed.

The final year is easily the most engrossing.  Hitler survives the assassination attempt at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters but never really recovers.  His health deteriorates, a physical manifestation of his intellectual realization that everything is falling apart.  Naturally, he blames everyone else for his own failures.  Finally, his inner circle moves into the bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery to wait for the arrival of the Russian army and for Hitler’s demise.

He announces that he’s decided to kill himself, and along with a handful of other stalwart supporters, Junge refuses leave the bunker when a final chance presented itself.  She says she surprised herself with this decision, but it allowed her to see Hitler’s final days with a very unique insider’s perspective.  This is a riveting read.

Amazingly, Junge only felt a single instance of anger toward Hitler before his suicide.  It wasn’t until he was dead that a more permanent sense of fury settled into her feelings about him.  Only then did she wonder why he had prolonged the war, and thus the suffering.

As usual, people mistook vanity for courage, hubris for resolve, pettiness for ideological consistency, and Junge was only one of the millions who did so in Germany at that time (let’s not get into the scary recent parallels in our own country).  I believe she was being honest when she says that she foolishly believed Nazi propaganda about the war being a defensive move for Germany.  I’m happy that she eventually realized that this was no excuse.

I’ve heard criticism of the various incarnations of her story for granting Hitler the ability to show kindness and solicitude, but as much as a I sympathize with those critics I have to disagree.  I think it’s a mistake to make cartoon characters of human monsters.  Pretending that hateful people are hateful in every respect only makes it more difficult to identify true evil.  A dull and ridiculous little man can inspire needless war and genocide.  Shouldn’t we know that and be on guard?

Available online here

Book Review: The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

Book Review by Bud Gundy

For years, I’ve been a fan of the SETI project.  I produced several brief radio reports for their old Are We Alone?radio show and I’ve met the principal players – Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak and the legendary Frank Drake, creator of the famous Drake Equation.  I’m lucky to live in Northern California, where you can easily attend their public events in Mountain View – a drive of no more than 45 minutes from San Francisco.

So it was with eager anticipation that I picked up The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies, published in 2010.  In our age, three years since publication and thus three more years of what seems like exponential research and discovery can make any scientific report feel somewhat dated.

All the same, you can’t argue that there have been any changes to the major arguments he makes in the book.  If anything, the continued silence reinforces his points, and I’m sorry to say that he leans strongly against the existence of life, let alone intelligent life, anywhere in the universe at all.

His arguments are insightful and compelling, and the book is organized to build to his somewhat dispiriting denouement (at least if you are a SETI fan) in a comprehensive and skillfully argued way.  After an initial overview, he dives right into the likelihood of life (as distinct from intelligent life) existing in the cosmos, and offers some very exciting possibilities of finding quasi-alien life flourishing already here on earth (hint: it has to do with another evolutionary cycle distinct from our own.)

Then Davies takes us soaring into the universe with a series of skeptical, but always thrilling examinations about why aliens, if they exist, don’t seem very interested in communicating with us.  I have to say, every single one of his scenarios sounds plausible to me.

Davies often offers ideas for the sole purpose of shutting them down.  I, however, found much of this absorbing and riveting.  He can shoot them down if he likes (and he does) but nonetheless they are fascinating to contemplate, particularly the image of a lonely quantum computer drifting alone in space.

In the end, he didn’t convince me that intelligent life does not exist.  In fact, I lean heavily in the other direction, but I readily concede he is the one with the degrees.  However, just observation alone leads me to think it likely that we have many cosmic neighbors.  Like us, perhaps they see no real reason to broadcast their existence to the heavens, and even humans are scaling back radio and television signals in favor of more efficient modes of communication that don’t filter into space.

I think we’ll find intelligent life because it is easy to see that there is nothing extraordinary about where we live.  If it happened here, it happened elsewhere and probably has - many times. 

So even if you don’t agree with Davies, you’re bound to find this book interesting, even riveting at times.

Available online: Click here

Book Review: Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams

Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams

Book Review by Bud Gundy

This is the third biography of Queen Victoria that I’ve read, and it is easily the most engrossing and well written.  Kudos to the author Kate Williams for an engaging account, written with all the drama and suspense of a first-rate story.

What sets it apart from the other Victoria biographies is the focus on exactly how Victoria got to the throne, with a long look at the princess who was supposed to be queen in her stead.

The story of Princess Charlotte is not well known, but she was the daughter of King George IV, and she was the only legitimate heir to her grandfather George III, who was locked away at Windsor Castle, a raving madman for the last ten years of his reign.  Of an estimated 56 grandchildren, only Charlotte could inherit his throne because she was the only one born into a legal marriage.

Charlotte’s father acted as Regent for George III, assuming all the duties and rights of king while his own father was incapacitated.  When the old king died, George IV ascended to the throne for ten years while the country looked to Charlotte to deliver it from her wastrel father and the passel of drunken dukes, her uncles, who were widely hated for their self-indulgent tastes and lavish spending.

Charlotte was loved throughout England, attaining the reputation of a virtuous princess who would deliver the people from the debauched excesses of the sons of George III.  Her story is fascinating: her parents hated each other almost from the moment they met, and her weak father resented his daughter’s popularity.  The intrigue and subterfuge to keep the princess out of the public eye while George IV ruled is a tragic tale, involving plots and machinations that once sent Charlotte literally running from the palace to escape, if only for a night.

Charlotte married (a convoluted tale in itself) and soon became pregnant, but in a shocking development she delivered a stillborn son and died the next day.  The mourning was immense, vastly eclipsing even the overwhelming reaction to the death of Princess Diana.  England quite literally closed for two weeks – all shops and offices were shut.  The mourning was so great that manufacturers of finery begged the royal family to shorten the official period of grief to restart business.

After Charlotte’s death, the remaining sons of George III busied themselves with dispensing with their mistresses and marrying to produce legitimate heirs.  The Duke of Kent, Victoria's father, moved back to England (he’d been living abroad with his mistress of 28 years) and married a royal German widow who gave birth to Victoria.  After her father died, and then another uncle, Victoria was suddenly next in line to the throne.

Victoria never seemed a sympathetic person to me, despite the book’s long and interesting exploration of her unhappy childhood, ruled by a hapless mother who in turn was influenced by one John Conroy – a manipulative advisor who saw Victoria’s claim as an entry for himself and his own family into the royal sphere.  It was a bleak life in the small, dark rooms of Kensington Palace’s first floor.  But, of course, it was not nearly as bleak as the lives of the common people, who suffered from one economic depression after the next, and saw industrialization take their jobs and change their lives for the worse, a fact that Williams thankfully does not overlook.

I’ve always disliked the depictions of Victoria’s imperious sense of victimhood, her ranting and raving and absolute devotion to her own comfort and desires.  I suppose she felt it her due and that she didn't know any better, but it still grates to read of her shrieking tantrums when she did not get her way.  She was prone to these even as a child, and the all adults around her realized she would almost certainly one day be the queen and they were loathe to correct this behavior - thus the self-pitying adult woman.  The book closes a few years into the start of her reign, after her marriage to Prince Albert, leaving the long years of her rule to other sources.  Wisely so, I thought.

Despite my dislike of Victoria, I found this book an invaluable help in understanding her, and the turbulent times when she took the throne.  She remains a fascinating, enigmatic figure, and probably nobody, even her adored husband, really understood the forces at work in her mind.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this period.

Available online: click here

Book Review: The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

Book Review by Bud Gundy

My friend Marion recommended this book, with the polite but unmistakable admonition to return it soon, and in good condition.  When someone like Marion (a remarkable woman) loves a book so much that she must have it by her side whether or not she’s opened it in years, it gets my attention.

I read the book in a single day, the first time since I was a teenager that I’d been so absorbed by a story I finished it within 8 hours.

I’d been meaning to read The Naked Civil Servant for years.  I had a vague idea who Quentin Crisp was, but only that he was some sort of early 20th century gay pioneer.  In the 1990’s he made a series of controversial statements about gay people, dismissing calls for equality and insisting that homosexuality was an illness.  Like many others, I put these comments aside as the remarks of an elderly man who didn’t understand the way new generations of gay people looked at the world.  Men like Crisp were dinosaurs, the lumbering pioneers who had carried ideas forward but had collapsed with exhaustion and were no longer useful.

I was right, but only partially.  There was much more to the story than that.

Crisp was born in 1908, and while he covers his early years with insight and wit (he declares that those who are thought witty are those who laugh and listen politely to others – an insight I’ll have to test) the story really takes flight when he moves to London.

By this time, Crisp has accepted that he is a homosexual and has decided to confront the world with his existence instead of shading himself in public, his head down.  He slathers his face with make-up, styles his hair in dramatic waves and wears flowing, feminine fashions.  He monitors every step, one foot precisely in front of the other (I experimented with this gait last night, and realized that it required a steady rocking of the hips).

Thus he sets out in 1930’s London, often drawing crowds of people who follow him hurling insults, catcalls and rocks.  He is often attacked, and relates in a dispassionate voice the techniques he used to get out of trouble, when possible.  Of course, it was often not possible.  Several times he is beaten, he often fears for his life and danger is ever-present.  His presence inside large buildings would often cause a tumult and shopping is an obstacle course of insults and rude clerks.

But still, he often finds work – in commercial art, publishing houses and even an engineering firm.  This is no mean feat – his description of arriving for job interviews is a delight to read, but I suspect it wasn’t nearly as amusing to live the experience.  Eventually he becomes a model for art students, a civil servant in his mind and thus the title.

Along comes World War II, and he is called in for his physical.  I laughed out loud several times, the first being when a doctor told him with a hectoring voice meant to induce shame that he exhibited all the signs of sexual perversion.  Crisp happily agrees, telling him upfront that he is a homosexual.  This destroys the doctor’s authority, and he huddles with others to discuss what to do.  The whole scene is delivered with witheringly precise descriptions of one absurdity after another.

His conflict with masculinity and femininity are interesting, but maddening, delivered in a voice of authority that in the end he lacked.  I’d have to read the book at a slower pace to delve more deeply into what he meant by his somewhat contradictory approach to gender roles.  He idealizes the feminine side of himself, and indeed with all homosexuals, but at the same time, he is fervently in awe of masculinity, assigning it the treasured word of “normal”.  And he is by turns dismissive and protective of masculine gay men.

I admire his defiance of the world’s efforts to shame him, but years of being followed by screaming mobs and inspiring chaos wherever he went must have warped his mind.  No human is capable of withstanding that sort of abuse without acquiring scars, but Crisp writes of his deepest disappointment with other gay people who criticized his open defiance of convention.

Is this the root of his amorphous contempt for gay people who seek equality ?  For all of his courage, at heart he accepted that he was a lower form of life than straight people, so his defiance was based on acceptance of his status – the defiance of the scullery maid who resents the intrusion of a parlor maid.  He’d love that comparison, probably.  Or hate it.

In the end, Crisp walked with his head up, but didn’t dare look around, and while he was careful to place each foot just so, he was still watching every step.