As my internship winds to a close (actually it’s over…I’m officially unemployed), I have been vertitably plowing through books. I know it’s because of all this new free time, but seriously? I thought Columbine, by Dave Cullen, would at least take more than a week. I might be able to finish it in 7 days, but I’d have to be trying hard.
Evidently, I’ve been trying that hard…and for good reason! I knew that Columbine, a detailed account of the 1999 school shooting–before, during and after the tragedy–was going to be different than Admission. And as addicted as I was to Admission, I thought I would drag my feet through Columbine, or any new book for that matter. I didn’t. I whizzed through it, memorized by each word, desperately yearning to know what came next.
Now, this is not to say Columbine is an easy read. In fact, there were several parts that were incredibly difficult to read. The account of the actual shooting is horrible. Not horribly written, but emotionally, it was very hard to get through. Simply heartbreaking. Then, Cullen–a former journalist for the Rocky Mountain Post who is considered the foremost expert on the event, being there from day one–takes readers through the lives of the victims. They are wonderful people, except you know they will die. It makes you sick.
Of course, most people don’t read books like this wanting to re-live one of the most awful days in recent American history. No one enjoys putting themselves through such torture–which is what it is. I have an incredibly vivid imagination, and it kicks into overdrive when I read. When Cullen describes the infamous library scene–where Dylan and Eric picked off 10 students hiding under tables, execution style–your blood runs cold. I can hear the screams and see the blood seeping into the carpet. I can see the girl chewing her hand in fear. No, the real reason people read books like Columbine is because they want answers to the ultimate question: why? Why did Dylan and Eric, two smart boys, do such a terrible thing? Why were they monsters–what made them that way? What drove them to do it?
Cullen’s book doesn’t give definitive answers, but then, no book ever could. Despite the fact that Eric left behind journals, online rants and video tapes describing their motives, one still can’t discern the reason behind their madness. But then again, can we ever? Do we really know why people do terrible things? Cullen makes one point: the reasons churned out by the media, and then accepted as fact by the American public, are wrong. They weren’t losers who were taking revenge upon bullies and jocks. They weren’t Goths or gay. They weren’t outcasts. They didn’t come from terrible homes. They didn’t even “snap.” They were just two boys filled with hate and rage, who felt they had been scorned by society and who had the means to fulfill their greatest desires–to hurt others.
Like I said, Cullen describes the fate of many of the victims and one story stood out to me as particularly infuriating. Everyone remembers the story of the girl, who was asked if she believed in God. When she said yes, she was shot. The story inspired a vertitable movement in the Evangelical community, and there were some who even wanted to make the girl a martyr. Her mother signed a book deal to write about it. Besides the usual contempt for those who profit from tragedy–church leaders admitted that the girl’s story helped increase their flock–what’s most infuriating is that the story isn’t true. Cullen describes how it was actually ANOTHER girl who had a conversation about God with the shooters. She wasn’t shot, though. She survived. Plus, two other girls verify that the girl who was shot never had a chance to say a word–Eric shoved the gun under the table and shot her mid-prayer. However, by the time those survivors had the chance to tell their story–and correct the myth–no one believed them. They were actually scorned by the church. The church and the publisher of the mother’s book continued to preach the lie, all in search of profit. Disgusting.
Now, I didn’t have an overwhelming interest in the Columbine shooting before I read this book. It was just another book I received at SPI, and the next on my list. Plus, I was 11 at the time of the 1999 shooting. I have memories of talking about Columbine, but none from that day. I don’t even think my parents or teachers told me about it, until it was long over. I mean, why would you frighten a 5th grader, telling them about the worst school shooting in American history? For that reason, Columbine never meant much in my mind growing up. It was just a name of an event, in recent but still somehow distant history. Not even when I reached high school did I understand its impact because, not one month into my freshman year, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in between homeroom and first period French. Suddenly, my life changed and it was defined by the events of 9/11…not April 20. Then, I was in college when the deadliest school shooting to date occured at Virginia Tech. I was in the newspaper office, an undergraduate like those that died. Again, this was a tragedy that touched me directly. Columbine remained in the background.
But, upon reflection, I’m glad I read Columbine. It’s a masterful recounting of a tragedy that very few people understand. It’s amazing what happened, and how much the public still doesn’t know.