Book Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

The Columbine High School Massacre is something I didn’t really look into even after watching Michael Moore’s documentary “Bowling for Columbine.” But during my senior year of college, my New Media Tech Comm professor assigned the class to code an online “monument” to mourn a tragedy. I choose Columbine and I’m glad I did. Ten years after the massacre, new facts and newly exposed myths came to light for me to use in my monument. I discovered Cassie Bernall was not killed because she told the killers she believed in God, Eric and Dylan were not part of the Trench Coat Mafia, and they were not bullied outcasts. I wanted to include their motivation for what they did in my project, and I was certain I got it right. The boys desired to be infamous (they wanted Quentin Tarantino to direct a film for their actions), and they were racist (they mocked Isaiah Shoels for his race before killing him).

I turned in my project, got an A, and was proud of myself for doing my research and finding out the truth.

And then I read Columbine by Dave Cullen and realized how horribly, disastrously wrong I was.

Ten years of research went into this book, and it could not be more obvious that Cullen poured his sweat, blood, and tears into it. The details are so painstaking that it reads like an actual novel. Not only does Cullen tell us about the massacre, he also includes who the victims were and what they did before they were killed or injured. They are the characters of their own story, and I grew to know them, became to attached to them, and often felt like weeping for them. Patrick Ireland’s battle to get out of the school after being shot in the head (and in the process having his half his body paralyzed), was especially chilling.

But those chills were nothing compared to the chills I got when I met the characters of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Many people already know that they were not bullied or outcasts, but a lot more popular than most of their peers. What few people do know is that Eric Harris was a full-fledged psychopath. Not insane, though. One thing I have grown to loathe is that people throw the words ‘madman,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘insane,’ and ‘psychopath’ around like they’re confetti, like they can be applied to people based on mere actions. An insane person is someone who hears voices, sees illusions, or whose rationality has become so warped that they can’t comprehend reality. Psychopaths on the other hand are a lot more sane than most people. In place of empathy and compassion, they are gifted with the ability to analyze such emotions and fake them. They come off very charming and likable when in reality “They can torture and mutilate their victims with about the same sense of concern that we feel when we carve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.”

To a psychopath, a person is merely a means to an end. A thing. An object. A tool.

However, Eric was not a ‘regular psychopath.’ “Most psychopaths are non-violent. They want you money, not your life.” He was a sadistic psychopath consumed with an unending hatred for all of mankind. He dreamed of a world where nothing happened. Humanity was extinct and in its place was a black void. So why would he settle for a school shooting? Well, that’s another myth. He didn’t. Despite his dream he was practical. He knew he couldn’t make it come true so he decided to settle for topping the Oklahoma City Bombing as the worst terrorist attack in American history. That’s right. Bombing. School shootings had occurred before Columbine and Eric had contempt for them all. Columbine was supposed to be a bombing, not a shooting. In fact, here’s the three ‘acts’ of the killer’s plan.

Act 1: detonate homemade bombs set in the school.

Act 2: Use guns to pick off fleeing survivors.

Act 3: Drive cars filled with propane tanks to ram incoming paramedics, cops, reporters, onlookers, etc.

The bombs didn’t go off. But if they had, Eric would have topped the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Dylan on the other hand was the polar opposite of Eric. Outwardly, he was incredibly shy but prone to emotional explosions if you “tripped his fragile ego.” His journal entries paint a picture of an incredibly depressed individual with zero self-esteem. In the last months of his life, he gave up on everything. He couldn’t connect with other people and the girl he was in love with never noticed him. There was nothing to live for. Death was the only way out.

In the aftermath of Columbine, America decided that the way to prevent further school shootings was to expel/suspend students for “Columbine-like behavior.” This included playing cops and robbers, bringing nail clippers to school, starting anarchy clubs, and dying your hair blue. After reading Columbine, it made me want to laugh all the more hard. As Cullen points out, you don’t see psychopaths coming. Despite his website filled with hatred and his violent outbursts, Eric successfully manipulated his parents, his teachers, and his friends. He charmed his way through therapy after committing robbery and was released early with glowing reviews.

“Don’t look for the oddball out. Psychopaths don’t act like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates. They come off as Hugh Grant in his most adorable role.”

It is a disheartening revelation, and Cullen doesn’t mince words with it.

I cannot recommend this book enough. There are several more myths of Columbine that I have not included in this review, and while very bleak in a lot of parts, you will hear stories of heroism, survival, and forgiveness. 5 stars.

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

–Alfred Pennyworth (The Dark Knight, 2008)

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12 responses to “Book Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

  1. What a wonderful, thorough review of my book. Thank you.

    I was shocked, too, as I began the research and started learning what really happened. (And then getting Dylan’s journal after seven years was revelatory. (Not sure I got that word right.)

    I’m so glad you pursued researching it further. That ambition will take you far.

    (And sorry in advance if my stalkers show up to spam you.)

    • Thanks so much for the comment! And thanks even more for writing such a wonderful book. You can bet I’ll be quoting it several more times in the future in my stories, especially the chapter on psychopaths. Though said stories will be fan fiction only, so I won’t make any money.

      I can’t wait for the movie to come out. For some reason, I can picture the creators of “The Social Network” doing it.

  2. It’s always dangerous to accept one person’s version of the “truth”. Please don’t read this one book on the subject and think or believe that you now know what happened, and when, and why. There are several other books on the subject of the Columbine massacre that present a very different version than Cullen’s book does. I highly urge you to read “Columbine: A True Crime Story” by Jeff Kass and “Comprehending Columbine” by Ralph Larkin. Kass was a reporter at the newspaper Rocky Mountain News in Denver, and he covered the Columbine massacre from the very beginning.

    The books by Kass and Larkin are quite good, but by no means are they (or Cullen’s book) the definitive work on the subject. That book has yet to be written. But when you’re reading about such a serious subject and forming opinions on them it’s never good to stop at one book about that subject. Read everything and then form opinions.

    • Thanks for commenting! You’re right, it is dangerous to take one source at face value, but Cullen’s book isn’t the only research I’ve done on Columbine. It may be the only book I’ve read on the massacre, but I have also watched several documentaries that are in agreement with Eric’s psychopathic behavior, Dylan’s depression, and the fact that they were not bullied outcasts. Their bombing plan also came from their personal journals. So far I have decided to accept Cullen’s version due to the evidence that supports it, but I’m not at all close-minded. If new evidence comes to light, I will of course take it into consideration.

  3. Thanks, Sara. Excellent defense of your position.

    You got the milder version of “Reader’s” message. She has followed me around for a few years now (oddly changing her name around recently), and for awhile, she pretty much came right out and called the bloggers fools for getting taken in by one book. Now it’s more implied. Haha. She’s adjusted her approach as she got some rough feedback, but the gist is the same.

    Of course I’m all for people reading more on Columbine, though I suggest a very different reading list (which is in the back of the book, and a shorter version on my site.) Dr. Hare’s “Without Conscience” is particularly excellent. He’s a true leader in his field.

    What I find odd about it, though, is Reader’s assertion that the major ideas in my book are just one person’s opinion. It’s not like I toured the crime scene and concocted my own theories. My book is based on years of researching, including the lead investigators on the case, and leading experts on these sorts of crimes. As much as I’d love to say I devised some breakthrough theory and cracked the case, I didn’t. Much better cops and criminologists than me did that. I was just the messenger.

    • You’re welcome. But in all honesty, thanks aren’t necessary. You’re a person who cares about facts so I’m happy to defend you. And yeah, I do wonder if Reader realizes she’s not only arguing with you, me, and a lot of other people, but also with the sources we’ve all researched including Eric and Dylan’s personal journals. In the post, I specifically said I did research before I read your book for my New Media project. Also, she never stated which points she disagreed on, which in itself weakens her argument considerably.

      I’ll be sure to check out Dr. Hare’s book. Thanks for the rec!

  4. This book is a load of s**t! I cannot disagree more with the interpretation this dude had of Eric! I have so many disagreements with it if I even began explaining them I can assure u I’d NEVER stop! Especially the subject matter he “read” in Eric’s journal… I READ Eric’s journal SO many times I can even recite some of its content word for word and so much of what he said (or what u mentioned in ur review) was in the journal was not and if it was it was only part of what was actually written and not the whole thing.
    And btw the “Much better cops and criminologists” are as my art teacher would say “the blokes with the big spectacles and pink underpants who don’t know f**k about what their talking about!” I have friends who are almost a spitting image of Eric (and some Dylan) and their NOTHING like those idiots and “criminologists” who CLAIM to know people they truely don’t know f**k all about….
    And 1 more thing ANY f*ck**g teenager in the universe can fool their parents, friends and who ever bcoz guess what..?? No parent in the universe will ever force themselves to believe that their kids would do that… I mean which parent will wake up one morning and say “my child likes guns and goes to shooting ranges and gun shows a lot and hates high school let me call the cops because he could be the next Columbine killer” NO PARENT!
    Speaking from experience I’m a teen who goes to shooting ranges loves guns and collects knives AND is in love with Nathan Gaudet AND Eric David Harris (as an art prac I drew Eric as my icon) and I make it no secret and I have been for more than 5 years and I HATE my school, my teacher and every1 in it AND my parents know and guess the f**k what my parents never called the cops although I’m almost exactly like Eric…. Blows ur theory doesn’t it?? U idiots just look for false reasons to make money… Almost every outsider and bullied teen (which they were btw DO ur research and read the REAL journal) is like that…

    • I can think of a whole host of things I would rather be doing instead of countering your asinine, pretentious arguments such as playing the piano, writing, or sticking my head in a trash compactor. So I’ll just say thank you for amusing me with your stupidity. 🙂

  5. Sara,

    First, you handled Ashleigh magnificently!

    Secondly, I agree with your take on psychopaths. These personality types are adept at blending in; acting “normal” .

    Great review and kudos to you for being so thorough! I’m going to have to add Dave’s book to my TBR!

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