Through a Glass, Darkly

Imagine you're watching a play. The play is similar to another play that you've seen before, several plays, in fact. This time there is a screen in front of the stage made of fine black gauze. You can see and here what it going on behind the gauze, when the light shines a certain way you could almost forget the gauze is there. Then the scene ends and when the curtain rises again the same scene is played again, this time without the gauze screen. The same words are spoken but in some by different characters than you thought the first time. In other cases you can see the actors' expressions completely now and the words, though the same, have an entirely different sensation.

This is what reading Dave Cullen's amazing book is like. I thought I knew the story of Columbine - after all I'd seen it play out on my TV screen - but I was watching the whole thing through the gauze of misconception and insta-reportage. Cullen rips the gauze away and tells the whole story. It's not enough to say he sets the record straight, that sounds like he fixed the punctuation; This isn't a merely book, it's a revelation.

When people asked me what I was reading and I answered "A book about Columbine"
the usual reaction was a visual and verbal mixture of puzzlement and dismay. "Why are you reading about that" they'd ask, "hasn't that been done to death?" The simple answer is that the truth of Columbine hasn't been told until know. And when I'd puncture a few of the myths that we'd all believed to be truth - it wasn't the Trench Coat Mafia, they weren't Goths, etc - the response was "No way" followed by "I need to read this book, too."

Yes, you do. This is the must-read nonfiction book of the year.

Cullen spent years talking to the everyone involved who would talk to him and the result is a story that is actually more horrifying that anything reported at the time. Far from being bullied teens who fought back - and wasn't that always a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of reporters and viewers alike? - this is the story of a clinically depressed teenager in the hands of a teen-age psychopath. Eric Harris, the psychopath in question, is exponentially more terrifying than science fiction monster for the simple reason that you wouldn't invite "Alien" into your home but you'd give Eric the keys to your house to watch it while you were on vacation, all the while thinking what a nice, responsible young man he was. Meanwhile he'd be building napalm jet backpacks in your basement. Eric was misunderstood, all right, because he wanted it that way. Cullen presents one of the clearest explanations of psychopathy I've come across and the evidence for Harris being categorized as a psychopath is overwhelming.

Dylan Klebold, as Cullen notes several times, is more concerned with love than hate but the whole that depression leaves in his soul is filled by Eric Harris's hate for all humanity. It's easy to imagine Dylan Klebold taking a different path. By contrast, one can only see Eric Harris committing other more heinous crimes. Was it just bad luck that led Klebold into Harris's path? Who knows? That's the point that Cullen isn't afraid to make - that no one knows what created Eric Harris or what made Dylan Klebold so vulnerable to him. It wasn't being bullied or bad parenting or video games or Twinkies or music with hidden messages or any other stock, easy answer.

Cullen does find heroes and villains and mixtures of both. The families of the murdered react in different ways, from painful to witness hatred to self-destruction. The community reacts with compassion, understanding, exploitation, fatigue and finally ambivalence. I thought Cullen did an especially sensitive job of dealing with the role spirituality and faith played in the healing process. For some their faith allowed them to accept the tragedy with a peace reminiscent of the Amish school shooting. Others are moved by their faith to reach out the parents of Harris and Klebold only to find their actions denounced by others of the same faith. Yes, there are some who wittingly or not exploit the tragedy in the name of their religion and Cullen calls that out, too but this is a balanced portrait.

This is one of the best non-fiction books of the decade. The reporting is excellent and the writing is even better. Anyone who enjoys thoughtful non-fiction and/or wants to better understand the society we live in should make it a point to read this book.

No comments: