“What if we had told the true story of two selfish kids out for their own aggrandizement? How many shooters would be imitating them today? We can’t unwrite those myths. But we can expose them.”
20th April, 1999: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered their high school and killed thirteen people. What drives two teenagers to enact a massacre of their fellow students? Dave Cullen was one of the reporters on the scene that day. In this award-winning book, Cullen explores what really happened that day, telling parallel stories of two kids working up to committing one of the worst shootings in American history and a community trying to process the aftermath of their actions amid a storm of media outlets reporting fiction as fact.
This book is outstanding. Well-researched, well-written, thought-provoking, harrowing, heartbreaking…there’s so much to say about this book and words don’t really seem enough. Cullen’s writing is balanced and accessible, laying out this atrocity in a factual way, acknowledging the horror without dwelling on it in any way that could be seen as voyeuristic.
The event itself happens early in the book, so I had no idea what the rest of the book was going to be about and was a little apprehensive. This is my first ‘true crime’ book so I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy 300 pages of analysis about something that took place in under an hour. Actually, the true value of this book is that story of the before and after. Cullen conducted extensive analysis of reports, journals and interviews, exploring the different motivations of the two killers and trying to breakdown the pervasive myth that the shooting was a consequence of outcasts being bullied. Harris was a textbook psychopath, he killed for enjoyment. Towards the end of the book, I started to find this analysis a little exhausting, I didn’t want to know anymore about how this boy’s total lack of empathy had destroyed so many lives; but perhaps this constant switching back and forth between the before and after helped to mirror real life – the community couldn’t possibly move forward on a linear, positive, healing journey. It would always be mixed, up and down, back and forth. The discomfort I was feeling was a tiny window into real life.
The different reactions across the families was also eye-opening, from the parents of the girl who was painted as a modern-day martyr; to the boy whose grit and determination saw him heal from a catastrophic brain injury. The day that Patrick Ireland led his fellow students back into the re-opened Columbine High School moved me to tears – there’s a reason Cullen partially dedicates this book to him.
Cullen’s critique of the media and the law enforcement in this case was fascinating. We all know that journalists and media outlets will run with stories that are not always based on fact, but the audacity of some was incredible. The actions of the Sheriff were also incredible, how he could stand up and make statements that were not only not based on fact, sometimes they were the exact opposite of the truth! This book really emphasises how the actions of outsiders – be it media, law enforcement, even tourists(!) can be worse that the event itself, perpetuating and distorting the trauma of the survivors and the families. These institutions have a lot to answer for, and Cullen’s open criticism of his own profession was admirable.
This book won’t be for everyone. While the commentary is very balanced, of course sections were harrowing and emotional, making me cry in places, and have to put it down in others. It couldn’t be anything else when talking about something like this. As such, there should be a trigger warning for graphic violence (while Cullen’s writing didn’t feel voyeuristic, journal entries do not have that filter), suicide, mental illness and references to imagined sexual violence.
I initially rated this four stars. Five-star books for me are usually accompanied by a need to physically hug the book to my chest and recommend it to everyone. Neither of these things applied to this book, there would definitely be certain people I couldn’t recommend it to. BUT, this book is so meticulously researched, so well-written, and such an accessible, balanced portrait of a community in crisis, I couldn’t give it anything less. If you like true crime, you’ll surely like this. If, like me, you’re new to the genre, this is a great introduction.
Thank you to Katya at Quercus Books for gifting me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.