(how slick is this cover? not even an author credit. beautiful)
I went to Columbine after finishing A Thousand Lives by Julia Sheeres, probably the largest-scale and fully researched of the Jonestown massacre. Beyond an inclination towards masochism, these two show off my mental leanings recently. I'd also lump all the reading I was doing about the Batavia six months or so ago in the same category. There's always a central psychopath with a gift for lying and persuasion and a god complex. Jim Jones, Eric Harris and - reaching back five centuries - Jeronimus Cornelisz read very similar, at least before various factors push them out of the debatable sanity of psychopathy and into flat out madness.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve students and one teacher, and wounded 25 on the morning of the 20th of April, 1999. When it happened, I was fifteen. Eric was three years older than I, Dylan two. I shared a taste in music with them, and Dylan filled notebooks with a very "me" brand of listless fatalism. There was a lot I recognized, there, but at the same time I fell easily into the trap of media subjectivity - I'd heard they were bullied, outsiders, social pariahs, but that was where my understanding of the incident ended.
It's been a long time since the shooting itself, and handfuls of information had only really shifted my perception of the whole thing very slightly. In my mind, Columbine happened because the US has a chronically idiotic approach to gun laws. What I'd never really focused on, in my understanding of Columbine, was Harris and Klebold themselves, and this is where Cullen succeeds in flying colors.
Columbine is an epically researched, near-definitive recording of Columbine - starting with the shooting itself and then radiating out in broader and broader circles until you see the effect not only on the victims but on the survivors, the wounded, the family, the professionals involved in the investigation. I don't believe the viewpoint is objective - Cullen is particularly gentle towards the parents of the two boys - but it's very close, and every statement is backed up with citations and accreditation and a lengthy list of people who assisted. I was occasionally librarian-distracted by how impressive this bibliography was.
Cullen himself was/is a journalist, and was intimately involved with the initial event and fallout. It's given him a very clear viewpoint on the media chaos from the inside, and also access to huge amounts of material from fellow journalists. I was regularly stunned by the scope of the material presented. This is a life's work of collation, and I'm a little surprised it took Cullen a mere ten years.
The picture painted of Harris and Klebold is vivid, and both frightening and desperately sad. Harris doesn't appear to have ever been a candidate for normal human behavior, but Klebold - poor, depressive, lonely Klebold - seems as much a victim as the students he killed. I really came away wondering if Klebold had had a friend - any other friend - who gave him the attention and affection he seemed to get from Harris - whether the shooting would have occurred at all. Harris was a psychopath, but he also needed attention and support, which he got in spades from Klebold.
One of the things I think the book did really impressively - and it reminded me of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones in this respect - is handling the wider families, in the months/years following the incident. There is no easy closure these people. Some fought legal battles against the school, the parents, the county for years. Some (many) took refuge in faith, showcased in the somewhat unsettling account of Cassie Bernall's death and her church's embrace of her martyrdom. And many of them imploded as families, through divorce, separation, and in one horribly sad case, suicide. Columbine didn't start and end in a day, and the book is all-embracing in its acceptance of that.
Obviously it's not going to be a light or fun read. But I do think it's an important one, if only to quieten down the part of us that looks for a reason when these things happen. By the books conclusion it almost feels closer to a natural disaster than an act of murder, which is a credit to the complete lack of blame Cullen distributes as the writer.
And credit where credit is due - no glossy photo insert. The book is full of accounts concerning how the media feeding frenzy traumatized recovering students, and tactfully chooses to omit that TrueCrime staple.