Parkland: Birth of a Movement, by Dave Cullen

Nine stars

Dave Cullen is back with another heart-stopping book that depicts the world of gun violence and school shootings. While his first book, Columbine, shook the literary world by depicting the event from two decades before, this piece seeks to encompass the momentum gained after yet another shooting by a group of students trying to neutralise these atrocities. After a shooting in Parkland, Florida, America wrung its collective hands yet again and vowed that school shootings needed to be dealt with once and for all, though this echoed sentiment seems to resonate after each atrocity, vowing to the victims that they will be the last. The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were the latest of those with a spotlight thrust in their faces, seventeen victims dead from another round of gun violence. But this was not just another school with students who wanted to mourn their losses. Cullen explores the power of a movement that began here, to toss off the yoke of ‘victim’ and turn it into something more. Guns and school shootings had peppered America for years and it was time to take the spotlight off the crying and blood, turning it towards a rallying cry for change. A small group in Parkland began organizing walkouts to protest gun violence, first at local schools and then across the country. There was a need to meet with political figures and plead the case for more restrictions on guns and the need to vilify the NRA (National Rifle Association) and all its spinning as it deflected any responsibility for funding campaigns to keep guns on the streets and in people’s homes. The movement grew and a march in Washington became a rallying cry for the world to see. ‘Gun are killing our children’, it sought to say, ‘and we are tired of it’. Cullen explores how the movement grew and put the spotlight on needed change and political action, forcing those who blame mental illness and not guns for all these killings in schools. As the movement gained momentum and people across the country gathered, thoughts of those who had been slain before in places like Sandy Hook, Columbine, and other horrid mass shootings added fuel to the already raging fire. However, as Cullen posits, one can only wonder if the momentum can be sustained and if politicians and those in positions of authority—read: the NRA—will be held accountable when the time comes. The blame game is strong, but it is time for action, serious action. Cullen and many others suffered significant bouts of anxiety and illness by hearing stories first hand, with long-lasting devastation for those who lived the events as well. One can only imagine the collective pain and mental illness that could come by seeing yet another blind eye turned in hopes of ‘never again’, only to be a temporary battle cry until ‘next time’. Brilliantly argued and researched, Cullen pulls the reader in again. Highly recommended for those who enjoyed Cullen’s past work as well as the reader with an interest in this sort of analysis of American culture.

As I mentioned in my review of Columbine, it is hard to rank the best and worst school shootings in America (or anywhere in the world). The pain and suffering that comes from the event leaves many in such dire straits that no one can really understand the depth of all that is going on. In this piece, Cullen seeks to rise above the analysis that he did in Columbine and look to the movement for a change in the conversation. He refuses to give the Douglas shooter any mention and the focus is less on that shooting than the larger movement to stop them in the future. He describes the agony enough to hook the reader, then moves on to show how speedily students worked to begin making a difference, using social media to push for change and to unite the country and speak about such tragedy. Not deterred by the NRA who sought to make it a mental health issue or President Trump who wanted to arm all teachers, these students wanted their voices heard and changes made once and for all. The time to act was prescient and Cullen was there to capture the movement at its inception. He explores the minds of the students, their efforts to argue with political figures as well as link arms with others who wanted to end the violence. Cullen takes on the movement’s core values and matches it to some of the other protests of non-violence in America history, drawing significant parallels. In his own tongue in cheek manner, Cullen debunks the ‘it is not guns, but people who kill people’ and ‘mental illness is to blame’ sentiments, asking at times why it is only America that seems to have this ongoing issue with school (and more generally, all) shootings in the world. There is never an answer for that. One can only wonder why tons of money is not being funnelled into mental health programs IF we are to believe it is mental health and not guns that are killing these students. Cullen’s well-paced piece seeks to make a difference in his own way with stunning chapters that are broken down into more digestible portions for all to see. There is a stunning exploration throughout and the reader will surely learn much from the movement. I can only hope not to read more Cullen if it pertains to new school shootings, but anything he has to say on the topic (or any topic), I will gladly read any day of the week!

Kudos, Mr. Cullen, for another riveting piece of writing. I hope the momentum can remain high as we go into the 2020 election cycle and beyond.

This novel fulfils the May requirements of Mind the Bookshelf Gap Reading Group.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

Nine stars

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!