Incredibly vivid, heavily detailed, brilliantly written and fast-paced, Columbine is one of the best true crime books I’ve ever read. Written like a thriller, Dave Cullen, one of the first reporters on the scene that day, covers everything to possibly know about the Columbine massacre that took place on the morning of April 20, 1999, carried out by high school students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The book covers three major events: the evolution of the attack stretching out two years, the attack itself, and the aftermath that spans over the next decade.

There is honestly way too much to dissect for a simple analysis or review. To cover all of it I’d need to write a full-length essay. In short, it’s a true crime masterpiece that hits you hard in the chest. A large portion is dedicated to the survivors of the attack. Not just those in the school but the families of the thirteen. Cullen takes you along their recovery stories, particularly Patrick Ireland’s and Valeen “Val” Schnurr’s who pop in and out of the narrative as if to lend readers their resilience when things get too heavy.

The description of the attack itself is harrowing. Cullen’s words chase you down like that junkyard owner in Stand by Me, hitting you over the head with a rock in his dirty hand. Before I picked up the book I already knew a lot about the attack, that the bulk of it ended after about 17 minutes, that Eric and Dylan ended their own lives and that there were 13 victims, and yet I was biting my nails the whole time. Subject matter aside, it’s clear that Cullen is a phenomenally talented writer. He puts you in the moment. You’re there at Columbine not only living the event but watching it unfold.

You can hear the police sirens, the blaring fire alarm honking for hours, and feel the quaking rattle of the gunshots. It’s graphic and violent, every survivor shares a bit of the story so that readers get a full picture of that day, including the image of Eric smiling as he shoots through a glass door at a teacher and the slow, agonizing death of Dave Sanders.

The thirteen victims of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold

Debunking the myths of Columbine

It’s easy to tell that Columbine started from Dave Cullen’s desire to set the record straight. Facts about the massacre have never been 100% accurate, starting from contradicting personal statements to the first blundered press conference. Rumors have taken on a life of their own, becoming facts in the eyes of the public.

The biggest myth about the attack was that had to do with the toxic atmosphere at Columbine High. If you browse the internet you’ll find many Tumblr and Reddit posts featuring “evidence” of the harassment Eric and Dylan supposedly faced at their school. Cullen addresses these claims by saying that they were largely made by those who didn’t know the boys and were projecting hateful comments onto their characters post-mortem. Friends of Eric and Dylan have repeatedly refuted these claims, that they never knew either one to suffer at the hands of bullies.

The myth comes from our desire to give reason to such an event. Anything that would neatly wrap up the blame in a box and shape it into something acceptable. There was no obvious motive so people created one they could understand but even after all these years, the world is still bewildered. It’s just as Eric predicted:

“The majority of the audience won’t even understand my motives either. All you f***ers should die! DIE!”

Passage taken from Eric Harris’s journal, The Book of God

The motive of the psychopath

Warning. I am a major nerd for psychopathology so this section is a lot of rambling.

The psychology of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold is what inspired me to pick up this book. Anyone interested in the same should definitely give it a try. There is an amazing chapter in Columbine that works at explaining not only Eric but the reason why he and Dylan were a pair because, as most true crime enthusiasts know, most killers work alone.

Page 239, “Chapter 40: Psychopath.” Easily my favorite chapter of the whole book. It explains the reason why people such as Eric grow attached to people such as Dylan and why both committed the crime.

Psychopaths crave constant stimuli. They can’t feel or experience emotion the same way as everyone else yet they crave it. They’re aware of that spark they’re missing and often seek it out elsewhere. Usually, they find it in rushes of adrenaline or in the presence of explosive individuals, and Dylan Klebold was Eric’s explosive individual. Prone to impulsive fits of rage, Dylan ran hot and cold all at once. He was packed to the brink with raw emotion which made him incredibly stimulating to someone like Eric- a textbook psychopath who struggled to feel even a flicker of anything.

“The psychopath is in control, of course, but the hotheaded sidekick can sustain his excitement leading up to the big kill. ‘It takes heat and cold to make a tornado, ‘ Dr. Fuselier is fond of saying. Eric craved heat, but he couldn’t sustain it. Dylan was a volcano. You could never tell when he might erupt. Day after day, for more than a year, Dylan juiced Eric with erratic jolts of excitement. They played the killing out again and again: the cries, the screams, the smell of burning flesh… Eric savored the anticipation.”

Columbine pg. 244

A psychopath is not the Michael Myers type of killer most of us associate with the word. Their actions are used to meet specific goals. In Eric’s case, it was fame or rather, recognition. Columbine was a performance and the public was the audience. The objective was to leave a mark on the world. Just a single glimpse at Eric’s journal “The Book of God” shows how hungry he was for recognition. Not companionship or even success, but acknowledgment of his superiority. The kid really thought himself a god.

The hard truth of it is, Eric and Dylan walked into Columbine that day with no targets in mind despite their different objectives. Eric wanted mass extermination and fame and Dylan wanted suicide.

Final verdict

The attack didn’t happen out of the blue. There is a gradual buildup as well as some concerning red flags. As it turns out, there were MANY chances to stop Columbine. At least a year before the attack, multiple complaints were filed against Eric for threatening behavior and the reported detonating of crude bombs in isolation areas. Even more shocking is how Dylan attempted to warn several people! He hinted at the attack on several occasions, warned Eric’s neighbor (a boy who Eric sent repeated death threats to) about Eric’s desire to kill, and wrote a short story for class that appeared to be a foretelling of the attack just months earlier. It was as if he was begging someone to stop them. But of course, no one did.

We’ll probably never have the full story about what happened at Columbine. There are only two people who know the truth and they both took their own lives. They robbed the world of ever knowing the truth and so now, we do our best to fill in the blanks. As I said, there is a lot covered in Columbine. It does its very best at giving you the full picture or rather the picture that Dave Cullen has discovered for himself. Even if you don’t agree with his account, Columbine is still an incredible read.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
About the Author

Rachel Roth is a writer who lives in South Florida. She has a degree in Writing Studies and a Certificate in Creative Writing, her work has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. @WinterGreenRoth

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