There comes a time that everyone must not only see outside the box, but read things that make them less than comfortable. Life is not always honeybees and flowers bursting with colour. Dave Cullen offers this sobering perspective as he tackles an insightful view into one of the worst school shootings in history, though I am not prepared to posit how one ranks school shootings from ‘best’ to ‘worst’. Cullen pulls the reader in to explore not only the event that took place in a small Colorado community in April 1999, but also the vast array of sentiments surrounding this shooting, both before and afterwards. The book throughly examines all three time periods, though not in a clear division, allowing the reader to learn much about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who have long been deemed evil personified. Cullen gives these boys a personality as he searches for the triggers that led them to act. While both did have their issues with the law, there were no outward signs of aggression in the way they interacted with the general community or even their families. The revelation, found mostly after the fact, showed a detailed plot to exact general revenge, through taped messages and journal entries. What Cullen does highlight is that many of the signs, particularly a website, were pooh-poohed by authorities, or the depth to which the hatred was brewing seemed to have been lost as others missed the signs. Cullen then gives a thorough and heart-wrenching account of the shooting day and how members of the school community became victims of chance. It appeared as though there were no ‘specific targets’, as long as Harris and Klebold killed and hurt many. Cullen ties in the ominous date and how the boys sought to top Oklahoma City in loss of life, all in an attempt to make names for themselves. Victims received names and faces throughout the narrative, as did the injured. Cullen appears not to have wanted to simply lump them together into ‘the victim group’ or ‘those who barely got away’. Cullen also exemplifies the reaction by authorities to the events, from police to SWAT and even the national reaction from the White House. The reader cannot help but be swept up as they see how things were managed. Cullen then pulls the story into the aftermath and the synthesising of all the emotions and outpouring of grief. “Why?” and “How?” remained on the tips of everyone’s tongues, as well as how the school, the county, and the country as a whole (perhaps even the world?) would bounce back from this. School officials did not wish to be burdened with the pall of events, though they could not simply turn a new page and forget. It is perhaps this thread that proved most powerful for me; how did the school seek to learn and yet not dwell? While media outlets sought to focus on Nazi worship and gun stockpiles, Columbine and county officials needed to rebuild. That said, Cullen also spends much time exploring the familial reactions to events, both the Harris and Klebold families as victims themselves, even though many sought to tar and feather them with ease. Bitterness and resentment were flooding the region, leaving little time for personal healing. Targets were painted, threats made, and families destroyed. How does one seek to rebuild when the core is gutted? It is this aspect of the tragedy that cannot be fixed with a coat of paint and new drywall, where steam cleaners and a memorial plaque cannot erase self-doubt and hatred towards those who destroyed the lives of many. There are so many more nuances within the book, though it is up to the courageous reader to sift through the book and pull out what touches them most deeply. Not a book for those looking to apportion blame or shake their heads at two lone souls. This is the kind of book that leaves readers thinking and examining themselves, as it will do for me while Neo continues his scholastic endeavours. Brilliantly presented and captivating on many levels!
As a journalist for the events, Dave Cullen brings a wonderful perspective and his writing pulls the reader in throughout this piece. I have pondered throughout reading and come to realise that this book is more than facts and names and places, it serves as a biography of an event. Yes, a biographical piece of time, not a life or a school or even the killers. It is the event that needs a face, a life, and a death, which Cullen offers up and allows the reader to dissect at will. By putting a face on the event, those actors who shaped it also come to life. As Cullen admits in his opening notes, it would be too confusing to put names to EVERYONE, though he has done is best not to offer sweeping generalisations, but rather put names and faces and lives to those who were in the middle of things. While it would have been easy to go with the majority and dump on the Harrises or Klebolds, Cullen seeks to explore the family dynamics, as well as the lives of these two boys. He pushes into a zone that might have received much fodder already, labelling Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as psychopaths, but uses much of the medical and psychological analyses to SHOW how these boys fit the bill. They did have psychopathy in them and the key traits were exemplified throughout their lives, even if hindsight was the only way to see it come to the surface. The book is wonderfully paced and pulls the reader in from the start. Topics and chapters move throughout time, though in a way that has much organisation. This is neither a book of excuses or finger pointing, but a thorough analysis of what we, as humans, go through and how there is never a single answer or path to determinations. Media push us around like sheep, but to take the time and examine what is going on around us, we see the nuances and the differences, allowing us to form our own conclusions. I am aware of how odd that sounds, as I place my trust in Cullen here, but that is why I am writing this review; for myself to express what I see from this book. I remain in awe and shock, as I remember the day well, but have come to see that I really knew NOTHING other than what was force fed to me in papers and later stilted documentaries. May those who perished and were injured feel the warmth of many, for you are more than the statistics that surround this event. Pain and loss continue to this day and will surely never completely disappear. However, looking forward, this was a learning experience for everyone touched by it. Blame no individual, for we all play a part in fostering personal sentiments towards or against others. Children are our future and it is they who exemplify what is to come. As Cullen so aptly puts it, the education the world got that chilly April morning is surely more powerful than any line-item in the curriculum. Have we learned from it? I suppose only time will tell!
Kudos, Mr. Cullen for making me see that there is more than meets the eye. Your delivery has me hoping that you will return with more, on any subject, as you have piqued my interest!