Home > Culture, Literature, Reviews > Unreliable Protagonists: Dave Cullen’s Columbine

Unreliable Protagonists: Dave Cullen’s Columbine

As detailed and well-researched as Dave Cullen’s book on the Columbine massacre is, and as filled with outrage, empathy, and ambiguity as it is, none of those things make it truly notable. Nor, ultimately, do his strong efforts to dispel the media-ingrained myths about the tragedy (no one was martyred for professing their religious faith, nor for being black or a jock or a bully; violent video games and aggressive music were a symptom of the killers’ drive to destruction rather than the cause; the Trenchcoat Mafia connection and Goth associations were simple instances of witness confusion). And his scattershot, detail-strewn writing style does him no special favours either; he’s influenced by Jon Krakauer, certainly, but brother ain’t no Krakauer.

No, what really struck me about this book is how Cullen unflinchingly makes Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold his protagonists, granting them a terrible tragic agency that the media coverage, public narratives, and victims’ reactions diluted almost completely. In blaming their parents or the movies, music and video games they enjoyed, in making them out to be victims of high school culture, or in calling them violent nutbars full-stop, observers have made their crime more manageable through diminishment. It’s an understandable human impulse, but Cullen shows, in great detail and with stunning sympathy for not only the event’s victims but for its perpetrators, how wrong it is.

These boys were fully responsible of their faculties and planned this attack meticulously (or at least one of them was and did), and that makes it both more vivid and more horrible to contemplate. In Columbine, they emerge as real people, beyond the slaughter. The textbook psychopath Harris is both the Marlow and the Kurtz of Cullen’s modern suburban Heart of Darkness. Cullen sketches a figure that even the most vigilant of parents (and Harris Sr., a strict military man, comes across as pretty damned vigilant) would have been powerless to check. Harris was a skilled liar, manipulating parents, teachers, friends, and even therapists, youth probation officers, and police into believing he was a polite and responsible model citizen while methodically describing and planning what can only be described as a terrorist strike, an act of a much greater magnitude than the one he did execute. A budding intellectual, he was not the first impressionable, dark-minded young man (and sadly, unlikely to be the last) to misinterpret Nietszche as an argument for the necessity of eliminating the perceived inferiors around him. Most of all, though, Harris was a spectacular misanthrope, yearning for the apocalyptic extermination of the human race from the face of the earth. As Theoden wondered aloud in The Lord of the Rings, what can men do against such reckless hate?

The sensitive, depressed, self-deprecating Klebold, meanwhile, comes across as Harris’ first victim, lead by his more dedicatedly violent friend into turning the suicide he so craved into a communal event. Klebold was the more brilliant of the two, but was also inescapably shy and awkward, and felt it keenly. Unlike the cold-blooded Harris, Klebold was unable to even mask his discontent; he was lost in his own head, in fantasies of love and belonging rather than his partner’s fantasies of hatred and permanent exclusion. Although Cullen can’t trace the precise thread of Klebold’s eventual participation in mass murder on the basis of his mountain of evidence (the many ways that facts can fail us are elucidated chillingly in this book), his characterization of Dylan suggests that this painfully inwardly-turned teenager came to feel that a private end would not suffice to connect him to his fellow beings as he longed to do. Perversely, under Harris’ noxious but irresisitible influence, he perhaps believed that the only way to belong among his peers was to slaughter them.

The book is a bit too creatively jumbled to constitute a definitive account of the attack, its lead-up, and its aftermath, but for a vivid picture of its perpetrators, it is unlikely to ever be matched. For that portrayal alone, it is highly recommended. And though my earlier comparison of Cullen’s book to those of fellow bestselling non-fictionist Krakauer was disparaging, Columbine shares elements of all four of Krakauer’s books. Written by a detail-focused journalist and researcher with fortuitous proximity to a major tragedy (like Into Thin Air), it offers vivid portraits of impressionable youth wasted on a deluded attempt to accomplish something grand (Into the Wild), explores the terrible tragic power of ideas and ideology (Under the Banner of Heaven), and enumerates the myriad deceptions and bureaucratic machinations of the morally-compromised authorities and the easily-manipulated media (Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman). If it doesn’t quite add up to the particular force of any of those books, Dave Cullen’s Columbine remains a notable and illuminating read nevertheless.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Reviews

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