The Secrets of Columbine

A decade after the shootings, journalist Dave Cullen has written the definitive account of the high-school massacre—and explodes some long-held myths about the killers and their victims.

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I defy anyone who is a parent of a teenager, especially a teenage boy, to read Dave Cullen’s Columbine with any kind of dispassion or objectivity. Because for all that the book is a meticulous retelling of the horrific 1999 high-school shooting, complete with groundbreaking analysis of all the myths that have sprung up around that event, it is primarily—at least for this parent of a teenager—a portrait of the two who perpetrated it. And those of us who have taken comfort in the supposed fact that those boys were born monsters will be brought up short, especially by Cullen’s empathic portrait of 17-year-old Dylan Klebold. Yes, 18-year-old Eric Harris exhibited the classic traits of psychopathy, save one (childhood cruelty to animals), but Klebold was mostly an insecure angry teenager who didn’t confide much in his parents, and was obsessed with girls and sex. Sound like anybody you know—or were? My point exactly.

Read an excerpt of a new memoir by Virigina Tech professor Lucinda Roy.

But Harris and Klebold resorted to murder while millions of other disaffected teenagers work out their problems the old-fashioned way: by cutting classes, doing drugs, running away even. Why did Harris and Klebold play out their loneliness and anger by plotting an Oklahoma City-style bombing of their school?(Their plan became an up-close-and-personal sniper attack only when the bombs failed to detonate, Cullen reveals.) Was it the influence of violent media and videogames (even as a young child, Harris, according to Cullen’s analysis of his diaries—relished the idea of “heroic opportunities to obliterate alien hordes”)? Was it the Wild West gun culture that subtly infused this Denver suburb? Was it—and here’s the one that keeps us up at night—something Mom and Dad did or didn’t do?

If these are the questions you want Columbine to answer, you will be sorely disappointed. Dave Cullen is a great journalist—he was one of the first on the scene that April day, and has spent the past ten years interviewing hundreds of survivors, victims’ families, police, and psychologists to produce this definitive account—and he’s adept at psychological insight. He probes, he compares, he makes a valiant effort to understand; but, of course, he can’t ever tell the “real story” of Klebold and Harris because it is unknowable.

Still, Columbine is a riveting read, on a par with the greatest crime analysis from In Cold Blood or The Stranger Beside Me—but without the personal asides. It’s particularly trenchant in the passages that recreate the events of that day; for example, the sections about heroic teacher/coach Dave Sanders, who saved dozens of students before succumbing to his own wounds, is meticulously heartbreaking in its detail (“No dialogue was made up,” Cullen says in his author’s note; how he pieced these scenes together is, in itself, a miracle). Likewise the story of Patrick Ireland—“the boy in the window,” as seen, over and over, in the TV coverage—is remarkable for its painstaking depiction of a young man left paralyzed and unable to speak but who managed, through sheer will and amazing medical help, to dance at his own wedding.

Columbine exists on a meta level as well, as a journalist’s exploration of the way even the most well-meaning reporters can conflate a story and get it wrong. (Cullen says, straight out, that he was among the “guilty parties” in the early days.) The whole Trench Coat Mafia characterization, for instance, was a conflation—the killers did wear long black dusters on the day of the murders, but they were not part of any such group.Then there was the common wisdom that Harris and Klebold were outsiders who were targeting the “popular” kids; in fact, they were both good students and had friends; three days before the killings, Klebold even went to the prom. And, perhaps most controversially, Cullen reexamines the case of Cassie Bernall, the Columbine student who was portrayed as a religious martyr, in the press and later, in a book ( She Said Yes) that her parents published. According to the version we’ve all been told, Bernall was shot for having proclaimed her faith in God, and while at least one witness knew otherwise—one student, Emily Wyant, who had been under the table with Bernall said that Eric Harris shot Bernall in the head before she could say a word—the martyr story prevailed. It was “a wonderful memory for [Cassie’s] family,” Wyant’s mother said. And, of course, it made good copy.

Columbine doesn’t seem to care about being good copy. It is complicated, allows many points of view, and raises more questions than it, or any account of such a complex event, could ever hope to answer. It is also a great piece of journalism, the likes of which we rarely see anymore.

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Sara Nelson is the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly and the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.