Columbine, The Book
I spent ten years on Columbine. I was driven by two questions: why did they do it, and what became of the survivors?
22 Best Of 2009 lists
My big surprise was that most of what we "know" about Columbine was wrong. It wasn't about the jocks, Goths or the Trenchcoat Mafia. The killers didn't even see themselves as school shooters—it was mainly intended as a bombing.
The key to understand this tragedy is is jettisoning our concept of "the killers." Spend a few pages with Eric and Dylan, and you'll discover two starkly different boys. Their personalities were poles apart, like the motives that drove them. Eric Harris was monstrous; Dylan Klebold was a revelation.
The survivors proved equally illuminating. Their stories are surprisingly uplifting—a refreshing contrast to Eric and Dylan. Thousands faced the unthinkable, most overcame it, often in extraordinary ways. I was amazed by their resilience. (The resilience of Patrick Ireland was all that really got me through. Readers keep telling me that's been true for them, too.)
I was also surprised to learn just how different the experience can be for people going through it side by side. Each survivor's recovery is unique, and the greatest lesson other communities can learn is: Don't try to rush their healing! Fuller description of the book below.
NY Times video: "Haunted by Columbine"
12-minute mini-documentary, Sep 2015
This video appears on the New York Times site, but was actually produced for them by RetroReport, an award-wining nonprofit news org that revisits events from the past to set the record straight. I've been watching their work for quite awhile, and been really impressed.
I spent a year with RetroReport on this project. (They did all the work. I just let them come interview/film me, and helped with occasional fact-checking, etc.) I'm just amazed that they devote an entire year to get 12 powerful minutes to set the record straight. Their diligence shows. I have some additional thoughts about it at my Haunted by Columbine blog entry. Here's the complete video:
We created this 50-plus page modular Columbine Teacher's Guide, and we're giving it away free. Thanks very much to all the teachers who helped create it and then refine it to make it more practical.
I also gathered most of the key evidence that I sifted through writing the book, and organized it into the research tool Columbine Online. It contains photos, diagrams, scans of the killers' journals, links to all the reports and police files, instructions on how to get your own copies, etc.
Let's "disappear" future killers
You can watch me discuss my proposal on disappearing the killers on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 and debate it with Jeff Greenfield on CNN's Reliable Sources. I got into it deeper with a guest host on AC360 in Aug 2015: How the media should cover murderers.
Help a kid: Depression kills
Make a difference: Two million teens are clinically depressed
Teen depression is the great unlearned lesson of Columbine. Six percent of U.S. adolescents suffer clinical depression. That’s 2 million kids. We keep getting wake-up calls, but it's time to act. Readers tell me they don't know where to start, so I created Teen Depression 101 to share what I've learned. It includes warning signs, resources, discussion-starters, etc.
Parents and teachers: please discuss depression openly with kids. Our Columbine Teacher's Guide has a Teen Depression unit. Renowned hostage negotiator and head of the FBI's Columbine investigation, Dr. Dwayne Fuselier has published a practical guide for parents/teachers to talk to kids—using the same approach that helps talk down gunmen: active listening.
See a kid in danger? Get help. Save a life.
For gay kids (high risk, particular problems)
Order here. They ship worldwide.
The complexity of Columbine surprises most readers. This tight little video by South Park filmmaker Andrew Kemler summarizes it in 3 minutes.
You will meet the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. You will get a sense of what drove them to plot the Columbine school shooting and what they wrought. The video includes clips of the killers acting out on their Hitmen For Hire video, and cafeteria surveillance footage of them during the Columbine shooting.
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left an indelible stamp on the American psyche. Their plan was staggering: to blow up their school, surpass Oklahoma City in horror, and leave "a lasting impression on the world." The bombs failed. But the unprecedented attack unleashed a new era of violence in schools—branding every future shooting "another Columbine."
When we think of Columbine, we think of the Trench Coat Mafia; Cassie Bernall, mistaken Columbine martyr; and Patrick Ireland, "the boy in the window"—the whole world watching his gutsy escape. Now, in a gripping work of journalism a full decade in the making, comes the story we never knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen debunks the myths and produces a profile of teen killers that burrows to the core of psychopathology. He reveals two radically different killers: Eric Harris, the callously brutal mastermind, and Dylan Klebold, the quivering depressive who journaled obsessively about love and attended the Columbine prom three days before opening fire.
Columbine unfolds seamlessly, in an unforgettable tale of two honor students with a healthy circle of friends, secretly stockpiling a cache of weapons in the basement. They recorded their vitriol on film while manipulating every adult who could have stopped them. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left warnings all around them—described by Cullen with a sharp investigative eye and psychological acumen. Culling from hundreds of interviews, thousands of police files, testimony from world-class psychologists brought in by the FBI, and the boys' videos and journals, he delivers the first comprehensive account of the tragic Columbine school shooting.
In the tradition of Helter Skelter and In Cold Blood, Columbine is destined to be a classic. A riveting tale of murder, redemption, police cover-up, and a town apart—the haunting cautionary tale for our age.
Why I Published Columbine
by Jonathan Karp
I was drawn to Dave Cullen's work by a New York Times column by David Brooks, who praised Cullen's freelance writing on the Columbine shooting. Cullen had been on the scene at Columbine High School from day one and had distinguished himself as the most authoritative writer on the subject. I asked him to write a short book on the massacre.
That was about ten years ago. Since then, this gifted and relentless writer has lived with this story every day, going to extraordinary lengths to understand this tragedy from every relevant perspective: through the eyes of the families, school officials, investigators, community leaders, and most amazingly, the killers themselves, who left behind such extensive personal testimony and evidence about their plans that the author has been able to do something truly remarkable—document the descent of two teenage boys from a typical adolescent life into madness and murder.
What is shocking about the Columbine shooting is just how ordinary these two boys seemed. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold loved their parents, did their homework, worked at the local pizzeria, and—contrary to widely reported accounts—were well-liked by their peers. With precision and perspective that will haunt and amaze you, Dave Cullen has crafted an indelible portrait of American youth that is at once familiar and horrifying. Better than any author I have ever read, he describes the psychological journey through which young men become killers.
This is not an easy story to confront, but I have no doubt that Columbine will be regarded as a classic of literary nonfiction and the definitive work on the community that suffered one of the most violent tragedies of our time.
Editor In Chief and Publisher*
Twelve Books (Hachette Book Group)
* Jonathan is now publisher of Simon & Schuster.
Critics on Columbine
"What's amazing is how much of Cullen's book still comes as a surprise . . . [His] nuanced dissection of the differences between Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold is first-rate."
— New York Times Book Review
"Cullen makes it work because he insists on framing the killers in human terms . . .
That's tricky ground for a writer to navigate, to ask, if not for understanding, for compassion for two boys regarded as monsters."
— Los Angeles Times
"The pacing of an action movie and the complexity of a Shakespearean drama."
"Read this book for its unflinching honesty . . . You may want to leave the horror behind you—that may be why you haven't yet picked up Columbine, journalist Dave Cullen's spectacularly gripping account.
But Cullen's chilling narrative is too vital to miss."
— O: The Oprah Magazine
"This superb work of investigation looks to be a definitive account."
— Columbia Journalism Review
"Cullen's Klebold is a lonely depressive, and all too easily manipulated. Harris is a genuine psychopath, a natural-born killer.
And yet, both boys emerge as three-dimensional human beings. Throughout, Cullen refuses to sensationalize."
— Very Short List
"Like Capote's In Cold Blood, this tour de force gets below the who and what of a horrifying incident to lay bare the devastating why."
"An astonishingly comprehensive look at the incident and the decade of struggle."
— Chicago Tribune
"It opens with a proclamation of love and concludes with an image of redemption, and what unfolds in the pages between them is extraordinary."
— Charlotte Observer
"Graphic and emotionally vivid; spectacularly researched and analyzed."
— Booklist (starred review)
"Definitive . . . a staggering feat of reporting that completes and corrects the record in equal measure."
"Accomplishes an astonishing number of things in compelling, articulate prose . . .
Most remarkable is Cullen's ability to present an onslaught of facts while recreating such anguish and fear. Columbine is a valuable historic resource, but it roils the heart, too."
— Miami Herald
"This book is a masterpiece."
— Seattle Times
"In this remarkable account of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting, journalist Cullen not only dispels several of the prevailing myths about the event but tackles the hardest question of all: why did it happen?. . . Readers will come away from Cullen's unflinching account with a deeper understanding of what drove these boys to kill."
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Click for all Columbine reviews—with longer passages and links.
- Columbine Teacher's Guide (free)
- Columbine Online (free research tool: killers journals, photos, etc.)
- Columbine Student Guide (free)
- Booking Dave for Skype or school assembly
Autographed copies (shipped worldwide)