Thursday, April 29, 2010

Beyond Riveting

Due to a recommendation made by Janet Reid on her blog, I picked up Dave Cullen's newly-released-in-paperback Columbine. I have to say that I cannot remember the last time I was so affected by a book. Or a movie. Or anything really.

I remember the Columbine tragedy, of course. I remember the news coverage and the horrible realization that two teen boys could perpetrate such an unspeakable act. I vaguely remember the reports of a girl who was killed because, when asked by one of the killers if she believed in God, she said yes. I remember the theories that these two boys were victims of extreme bullying, that they'd been pushed around so much that they'd finally snapped. I can remember wondering at the time what kind of parents could raise such monsters.

Come to find out, many initially believed "facts" about Columbine were in actuality falsehoods that were picked up by the media during those first few chaotic days and then cemented in the public consciousness for a variety of reasons.

For me personally, I was physically far enough away from Columbine that after those first few days of 24/7 media saturation, the event slipped into a dark corner of my mind where I file those sorts of atrocities. I never thought to ask any questions about what I'd been told. And truthfully, finding out that the facts were different than what was initially reported wouldn't have made much of a difference to me. Beyond my compassion for the victims and their families, my interest in Columbine at the time was something between rubber-necking and sadness at yet another bit of proof that mankind can sink to some pretty horrible depths.

But stumbling upon this book recommendation, my curiosity was piqued. I toddled on over to Borders and picked up a copy. And then I didn't put it down for two straight days. It was that riveting.

First of all, author Dave Cullen has a wonderful writing style. The narrative moves quickly, and his decision to jump between time periods and central "characters" really draws you in in a way that I don't think a straightforward, linear approach would have. Far from confusing, this format reads more like fiction than a true crime nonfiction. I call the people in this book characters despite the fact that they are all (or were) real people because Cullen's writing style comes almost close to fiction in his ability to weave a story out of the myriad of facts involved. It's truly to his credit that this real life story reads better than any fiction I've ever picked up.

Primarily, Cullen tells the real story of Columbine. He clears up a lot of misconceptions and myths. He reveals problems within the local agencies that might have kept this from happening in the first place. And he looks far deeper into the lives and motives of the two killers than anything newspapers ever managed to convey.

In doing so, Cullen manages something that in a million years I never would have expected anyone to be able to pull off. Somehow, someway, he manages to show killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as human beings. These boys are not likable per se, and never once does Cullen let you forget that they turned into stone cold murderers. But for all that you despise these two boys for what they have done, for all you hope that they are now burning in the deepest levels of hell for the pain and anguish and ruined lives they left in their wake, Cullen manages to awaken a glimmer of something that at least lives in the neighborhood of compassion.

Or maybe it's learning the truth that moves Harris and Klebold a step closer to being understandable human beings.

Come to find out, Eric and Dylan were not the victims of merciless bullying, stuck in an oppressive school environment where they had to fear for their lives on daily basis. Nor were they goth stereotypes or Marilyn Manson acolytes or even zombified gamers who'd been so desensitized by video game violence that they went over the edge.

No, it turns out that Eric Harris was a psychopath. And while that sounds nice and dramatic and faintly Freddy Kruegerish, it's actually fairly straightforward. Psychopathy is a genuine mental illness with a list of criteria often used to diagnose it, a list from which Eric demonstrated far more traits than not. While Eric can never be excused for what he did, turns out it's not such a shock after all given the way psychopaths view the world.

Dylan Klebold is a bit hazier. Seems he was a very depressed young man with an obsession with suicide. He hated himself so much, it didn't take a lot to convince him to turn his anger outward. Unfortunately, circumstances put Dylan in the path of Eric Harris, and together the mixture turned as combustible as gasoline and a lighted match.

Cullen's book goes into much more depth about the possible whys of the situation, and it all works to paint these two villains as something far more complex and three-dimensional than one would ever expect.

I found it all absolutely fascinating. I also found my reaction to this book very disturbing. How in the world could I feel anything other than complete revulsion for these two boys? How could I ever see their suicides as tragic beyond the fact that they denied their victims any chance at real justice or closure?

It wasn't until I found this essay by Cullen himself that I was able to come to grips with my reaction to reading this book. I'm grateful that he both wrote about and shared his own ambivalence because it mirrors my own and makes me feel a little more comfortable with my own reaction. Seems I'm not a freak after all.

In the end, I can't recommend Columbine highly enough. As a person who would never willingly pick up a true crime story, I can honestly say this is now firmly near the top of my must-read list.

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