Thursday, May 27, 2010


Last night I finished reading Columbine, Dave Cullen’s play-by-play of the 1999 school shooting. It was the most compelling nonfiction book I have read since Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open. (Which was, flat-out, one of my favorite books ever. Props to ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer for near-poetic narrative skills and to Agassi for his introspection, clear memory and willingness to lay it all out there. Also for the storytelling masterstroke of having married Brooke Shields.)

In Columbine, Cullen does a really good job of shifting focus tight and wide and back again, of showing us the crime in progress upfront and then again, from different viewpoints. He is good with character studies, and while I question his frequent use of terms like “brewskis” and “chicks”—I would have to read the killers’ journals; did they really talk like that?—he writes well.

What lingered with me most were the flaws he laid out in two institutions: the press and the police. Law enforcement failed to connect dots before the crime, and covered up their faults afterward. Rules about shielding evidence allowed them to do so, and to what end? As for the press, which printed an awful lot that turned out to have been wrong: Does speed inherently conflict with truth? Is the need for a compelling narrative and a quick “why” so pressing that mistakes large and small are inevitable and tolerable? I hope not, on all counts. Perhaps it is a given that initial accounts of anything are faulty and it is only with time (ten years, in Cullen’s case) that the truth will reveal itself. Through luck and avoidance, I never covered breaking tragedies, so maybe this is just easy for me to say.

One thing is for sure: The shielding of so much evidence for so long allowed mistaken interpretations to endure. Obviously I am always biased in favor of more information instead of less. I do not understand why so much material was allowed to stay under wraps for so long; sensitivity to victims is invoked, but isn’t understanding the truth the most sensitive thing we can do for everyone?

By the way, it may have something to do with my detachment from religion, but I never really got the Cassie Bernall-as-martyr piece. The story—refuted by Cullen—asserted that the killer asked if she believed in God, she said yes, and he fired. That version implies that she was taking a risk by saying yes, courageously not giving the answer that would have spared her. How would she have known there was a “right” answer? How, for that matter, do we?


  1. I am a conservative Christian myself, and am not sure about what I would do if some crazy guy asked me that. It's not that I would "deny Christ," really. More that, if I thought that by telling him "no" meant that I would have more years to spend with the children who need me, it would be a waste of my life just to say "yes." God is not glorified by such waste. Sort of a hypothetical, "Would you lie to a group of people who are trying to kill your friend about your friend hiding in your basement?" argument. Sure, we're not supposed to lie... but... I probably would.

    But at the same time, I don't fault this young lady. I suppose she is a martyr, though. She did die with a confession of Christ. I don't think you could die with a better testimony, and if death is inevitable, you get brownie points in heaven for that one. :)

    I troll my son's account on facebook and am surprised that they know about Columbine and Hitler's birthday. The school is very closed-mouth about the dates and treat them like any other. The children remember, though, even the young ones.

  2. But that's my question: How would you know "no" was supposed to be the answer that would save you? I can't imagine in the moment of crisis anyone could know enough about the killers' mindset to have any idea whether lying was the right strategic move.

  3. So did Dave Cullen tell you about this guy?

    --Crystal Archuleta, junior (EP1-197)
    "...she did see one person throw a pipe bomb. .....She told me at the time she thought it was Robert Perry."

    --Seth Dubois, freshman (EP21-125)
    "...Seth told Katherine(Carlston) that Robert Perry was seen shooting a girl in the back while leaving the library."

    --Wade Allen Frank, senior (EP1-91)
    "Mr. Frank told me that he thought origonally one of the individuals(shooting) was someone by the name of Robert..."

    --Bryan Frye, sophomore (EP25-69)
    "He stated that the person he had previously believed this shooter to be was Robert Perry. .....In a previous interview, after receiving his yearbook, he had told his father that he believed the shooter to be Robert Perry. He also stated that the gunman had bad acne."

    --Courtney Haulman, freshman (EP25-91)
    "There was three guys. The guy I remember most was the main guy. He's over 6' tall and has long curly dark-colored hair. He was wearing a trench coat. His name is Robert Perry."

    --Lacey Hohn, freshman (EP1-186)
    "...can you identify or descibe who was shooting? ....Ms. Hohn said that she does not believe it was Harris or Klebold. Ms. Hohn believes it was an individual named Robert."

    --Bijen Monty, junior (EP1-110)
    "I asked her if she saw the source of the shooting. She told me she saw who she thought, at the time, was Robert Perry with a gun hanging around his neck. She said she never actually saw him shoot the weapon.
    "She asked me if I had any information in regards to Robert Perry. I informed her I did not."

    --Tessa Nelson, freshman (EP1-113)
    "I asked her if she saw the source of the shots. She said she saw a male, who she thought was Robert Perry, wearing boots, dark jeans with dark hair, walking down the stairs outside the cafeteria. She said the male suspect pulled a gun and started shooting."

    --Katelyn Sue Place, freshman (EP21-285)
    Kate said, "It was (Redacted). I'm almost positive of it. I remember looking him dead in the eye. He was in my debate class..... . ...Dylan kind of looked like Robert, but Dylan doesn't have the long face. Robert's teeth are messed up and he was smiling and I saw his teeth then.
    "She remembers him shooting Ann Marie(Hochalter). .... Robert was just randomly shooting. ...Robert was still shooting. ....Kate said that Robert shot Ann Marie before he smiled at Kate.

    --Lacey Smith, junior (4470)
    ....she did not have any trouble indentifying PERRY when he walked past her. I asked SMITH how sure she was that the person she saw and spoke with was (Redacted). I asked, "90 percent sure? 50 percent sure?" Her response was "100 percent sure."

    --Brenton Hooker, junior (16397)
    "....he turned around and observed an individual he thought was ROBERT PERRY(ex-student of Columbine High School) standing outside the door just to the north of the main entrance shooting a pistol in his direction.... ....HOOKER described the individual he thought was PERRY as 6'8" - 6'11" in height, very skinny, tight black pants, black trench coat... ."

  4. Cullen perpetuates the long-standing myth that Dylan was a sad little emo follower who was totally led by Harris.

    The truth is that Dylan was the one who wrote about going on a killing spree before Eric.


    On Monday, November 3, 1997, Dylan wrote in his journal:

    "[edited] will get me a gun, ill go on my killing spree against anyone I want. more crazy...deeper in the spiral, lost highway repeating, dwelling on the beautiful past, ([edited] & [edited] gettin drunk) w. me, everyone moves up i always stayed. Abandonment. this room sux. wanna die."

    He wrote "*my* killing spree", not "*our* killing spree".


    Those who have seen the basement tapes have said that, on them, Dylan appears far more eager and enthusiastic than Eric.

    Dylan was fairly tall (6'2") and somewhat aggressive; he was even considered something of a bully in his own right.

    On the tapes, Eric apologizes to his family; Dylan does not.

    On one tape, Eric is seen alone, tearing up when he thinks about his friends back in Michigan. He even turns the tape off so he will not be captured crying on camera.

    If he truly was a pure psychopath, as Cullen claims, is it likely that he would have cried while thinking about old friends?


    Cullen writes that Dylan had doubts about "going NBK" - NBK was the killers' code word for the massacre - *during* the attack. One wonders how he came to this conclusion.

    At the school on 4/20, Dylan was the one who seemed to be enjoying himself. Eric was subdued in comparison.

    At one point, Dylan saw one of his victims writhing in pain.

    "Here, let me help you," he said - and shot the boy in the face.

    Was that the action of someone who had doubts about what he was doing?


    There are also minor, niggling errors - at one point, Cullen refers to Rachel Scott as the "senior class sweetheart" when, in fact, she was a junior.


    This is not the forum for a thorough debunking of Cullen's work. The bottom line is that the book, while useful in some respects, is *not* the definitive, myth-busting account it purports to be.

    Read Mr. Cullen's book, but also read Columbine: A True Crime Story" by Jeff Kass; "No Easy Answers" by Brooks Brown; "Comprehending Columbine" by Ralph Larkin; and as many other books as you can find. Read the killers' journals and other writings ( is a good starting point). Read the documents (*very* begrudgingly) released by law enforcement over the years.

    Keep an open mind and remember that the "truth" is always very elusive.

  5. I meant to say, his book contains interesting information *not* found elsewhere. It also contains inaccurate information *not* found elsewhere.

    My own personal take on Columbine (which, admittedly, is as useful/useless as anyone else's) is that it was a "perfect storm" caused by various factors:

    * mental illness (I find Cullen's thesis - "Eric was merely a psychopath and Dylan was merely a depressive" - too simplistic);
    * social isolation/alienation (including bullying - it has been well-documented that Eric, at least, was bullied to some extent, and that the school administration turned a blind eye to some prominent athletes' misbehavior);
    * distant/emotionally absent parents;
    * massive police incompetence before and during the attack;
    * the trials and tribulations of childhood and adolescence.

    I don't believe that the boys were destined to turn out badly, although it is very clear they had serious, perhaps insurmountable mental and emotional problems.

  6. Also, let me clarify my remark that Dylan was "aggressive" and "something of a bully":

    Most accounts, including Cullen's, have portrayed Dylan as the reluctant follower. In fact, in the aftermath of the attack, many of his friends and relatives simply refused to believe that he was a willing participant in what was going on. It was not until descriptions of the contents of the basement tapes leaked out that people realized that Dylan was 100% behind the attack. He wanted to kill people.

    Dylan was well on his way to becoming a full-blown alcoholic. His nickname was VoDkA (commonly misspelled as VoDKa - which would make sense, given his initials) and referred to his drink of choice. He was known for making "weepy" phone calls late at night.

    He was also known for harassing girls, especially in gym class. One day he pushed a girl to the ground and screamed that she was a "b----".

    Although Dylan often talked of finding "love" in his journal, he callously exploited his platonic friend, Robyn Anderson, to acquire guns for the massacre.

    Anderson had a crush on him, but he did not particularly care for her. He took her to the prom, but only after his parents offered him $250.

    (Eric asked several girls to attend the prom with him; all refused. He ended up staying home with a girl he met at the pizza place where he worked. She declined to attend the after-prom party with him, so he went alone.)

  7. Eric “If only we would have searched their room. If only we would have asked the right questions.” (talks about his mother being thoughtful, bringing him candy and Slim Jims) “I really am sorry about all this.”

    Dylan: “They gave me my fucking life. It’s up to me what I do with it.”

    Eric: (shrugs) “My parents might have made some mistakes that they weren’t really aware of.”

    Dylan: (talks about how his parents taught him to be independent and self-reliant) “I appreciate that.”

    The final tape

    Eric: “Say it now.”

    Dylan: “Hey mom. Gotta go. It’s about a half an hour before our little judgment day. I just wanted to apologize to you guys for any crap this might instigate as far as (inaudible) or something. Just know I’m going to a better place. I didn’t like life too much and I know I’ll be happy wherever the fuck I go. So I’m gone. Good-bye. Reb…”

    Dylan takes the camera then and begins filming Eric. Eric’s also wearing a plaid shirt that’s either dark blue or black with white, with a white t-shirt on underneath. His lower half can’t be seen.

    Eric: “Yea… Everyone I love, I’m really sorry about all this. I know my mom and dad will be just like.. just fucking shocked beyond belief. I’m sorry, all right. I can’t help it.”

    Dylan: (interrupts) “We did what we had to do.”

    Eric: “Morris, Nate, if you guys live, I want you guys to have whatever you want from my room and the computer room.”

    Dylan adds that they can have his things as well.

    Eric: “Susan, sorry. Under different circumstances it would’ve been a lot different. I want you to have that fly CD.”

    Eric: (eventually) “That’s it. Sorry. Goodbye.”

    Dylan: (sticks his face in the camera) “Goodbye.”

  8. Here's an interesting picture of the shooters:

    Dylan is on the left; Eric is on the right.

    The height disparity between them is perhaps somewhat exaggerated in this picture - a still taken from "Hitmen for Hire", a marketing-class project in which the two boys advertised a service to protect Columbine students from bullies.

    There is no doubt that Eric was clearly small and diminutive in the context of his social circle. Even Dylan, so seemingly towering in this shot, was no more than average height among his group of friends.

    I wonder how much of Eric's rage was simply that of a very intelligent but socially/emotionally stunted teenager who felt that he'd been put in an untenable position - he yearned to be a potent alpha male, but he was reminded constantly of his physical deficiencies and deformities.

    (It did not help, of course, that his older brother was taller, more sociable, more confident, and more popular - a football-playing, straight-A-earning "perfect son".)

    Columbine was - and is, obviously - an upper-middle-class, vastly disproportionately white suburban high school.

    Brooks Brown and others have indicated that it was a school where those who deviated from the norm were scarcely tolerated, and often were actively persecuted with the administration's tacit (or even explicit) approval.

    I personally believe that bullying was no more than a secondary factor - the two boys did not discuss it in their journals - but it contributed to a primary factor: Eric and Dylan's profound sense of alienation from the teenage society in which they struggled to survive, much less thrive.

  9. I agree, Linda. So... if I die after "renouncing" Christ, hopefully the reporters covering it will cut me a little slack that I was trying to do the right thing. I think Cassie was, too. We just don't know what we're going to do in a given situation until we're faced with it...

  10. The mistake in some accounts of what happened in the library was not that Cassie said "no" it was that she was never asked. It turns out that after Cassie was killed, another girl under a different table who was already hit by shotgun pellets was asked this question by one of the killers, and she replied No, then Yes. A boy under a table in between the two girls thought it was Cassie who was questioned and said Yes. In reality, it was Valeen. He didn't realize his mistake until much later.

    Cullen admits that reporters were more apt to accept student descriptions of what happened without follow-up. If this had been a car accident, for example, he said they might have been more rigorous in trying to find out what happened.

    Also, Cullen makes the point that initial stories filed by reporters were actually more accurate than later ones, in some ways. As time went by, the myths grew, and news accounts perpetuated many of them for awhile.