We were covering one of the World Wars when I was doing my student teaching, and the topic of the day for my first ever class actually teaching went over something about chemical weaponry. I wanted to write World War II, but now that I think about it, it was probably World War I — but at any rate, the lesson that day went over some material about the use of chemical weapons.

I was nervous to teach a real lesson for the first time and I kept trying to remember everything I learned while promptly forgetting the most important lesson of all, which is to breathe, which my master teacher (i.e., the guy who was gracious enough to let me take over his class while he showed me how to become a teacher) helpfully reminded me in the passing period following that first class.

The other helpful tip he gave me after that first class was to ditch the part of my spiel about how to make chlorine gas.

It was a simple mistake — I was trying to "activate prior knowledge" and develop an "anticipatory set" about chemical weaponry, and in doing so I recounted my days working at Baskin-Robbins and a mistake I made just once mixing two different cleaners in a mop bucket.

"You can't do that," Chris, my master teacher explained, "One of these guys will probably want to try it."

So the rest of the day I had to use some other anticipatory set about chemical weaponry — can't remember what it would be and I remember very little about that day except for breathing and how it's important not to teach juniors about easy ways to make chlorine gas. That's nothing to sneeze at; these are two very important life lessons that are better learned sooner rather than later.

I can't remember which teacher it was who explained to me that some of the children you will teach will literally be psychopaths, and that there's not a whole lot you can do to get through to them, but in my mind I conflate these two memories — of learning that some of the kids you get a classroom will be psychopaths and in general avoiding showing a child how to make chemical gases. Memory is weird like that.

Imperfect memories are a recurring theme in Dave Cullen's Columbine. The theme of homemade explosives also features prominently in the book. It's a very good book. We just read it for book club, and schools and education and memories about this horrible episode in particular have been floating around my head for the last week since I read it.

The Columbine tragedy is not the kind of thing I like to read about, but Michael, who picked the book, said it was really good, so we read it. Before reading Columbine I would have been happy going my entire life never again having to think about it. When it happened I remember thinking something along the lines of that it was embarrassing for the United States — there had been a few school shootings before it, and of course Oklahoma City and Waco, and for an American, the 1990s looked like an era of self-hatred, self-destruction and self-immolation. You know, that old barstool theory of how without the Russians we just have to turn on something and it looks like it's ourselves.

I suppose it's strange and adolescent to react with "embarrassment" about kids blowing up schools, but that's what I felt at the time — I don't mind owning up to it — I was in my 20s. And I probably felt this way until 2001 when for me what the world thought of the U.S. ceased to be important. (I never understand the preoccupation with worrying about whether 60 percent or 40 percent of Pakistanis have a "very unfavorable" view of the U.S. It's been fairly constant through the 2000s — see page 94 of this .pdf, for example, and I seem to remember similar numbers going back into the 1990s, before Pew did their surveys. Point being, why care that much if the numbers will barely budge? Compare the numbers for Indonesia and Pakistan during 2002 and 2003 and you'll see what I'm talking about; public opinion is fickle, international public opinion even more so.)

The other thing I remember thinking during Columbine was "Fuck, how am I going to talk about this on the radio?"

At the time I was working in the superintendent's office of a medium-sized school district, and the communications director thought it would be good for me to pitch in occasionally with stuff like the five-minute Friday afternoon radio feature on the local radio station. She usually did it but when she was unavailable — or no one was available — I would help out. I'm happy to have had the opportunity to try to do it — I wasn't very good at it (that whole breathing thing I mentioned above) but it was cool to try to help out. Most of the time it was just a list of announcements, so it wasn't too difficult. I only did it a handful of times. And the Friday after the Columbine shootings was one of those times.

I prepared a statement in my mind that went something like, "First of all, our thoughts and prayers go out to the school community at Columbine High School and community of Littleton, Colorado." I don't remember anything I said after that.

And I hope the host didn't ask the logical follow-up question, which to me would be something along the lines of, "And what are we doing to make sure our schools are safe?" I honestly don't remember if he asked. Because the answer would be that there's really nothing the schools can do to prevent psychopathic teenagers from blowing up the place. Actually, I'm sure the high school principals got together with the district administration to go over the protocol for a school emergency or some such thing, but in terms of preventing a terrorist attack on a school? If a kid wants to do it, he will figure out a way. Children are smart like that, psychopaths even smarter.

At the time, this was less clear, especially in the aftermath of Columbine, when — as Cullen's book shows in great detail — a lot of bad information was floating around and it looked for a little bit at least that the shooting/attempted demolition of the school was a twisted response to school bullying and that schools had to do more to get through to children to show them that murdering thirteen of their classmates and torturing dozens of others was clearly wrong. People expect a lot out of schools, and they should expect great things, in theory, but schools can't do much sometimes. In the pre-Columbine era of school safety they didn't prevent Columbine, and in the post-Columbine era I don't think they'd do much better. Encountering psychopaths is just dumb luck, and like the teacher I talked to explained, some of these kids are inevitably going to be psychopaths.

All this is to say, Dave Cullen's Columbine is harrowing, gripping, unrelentingly tear-jerking and brilliant.

Like I said, in general I'm really uninterested by stories about stuff like disturbed teenagers who intend to shoot and blow up schools, but Columbine is so well crafted and compelling that it sucks you in like few books I've ever read. I like the book club I'm in, and I've read every page of every book we've discussed for over five years now, but I have to say that a lot of time reading is somewhat of a chore. I usually default to the way things worked in college when I'd allot myself 30 or 50 pages a day, or devise some sort of regimen for getting through a book before a deadline. And then I usually cram reading into a point in the day when I have nothing else to do — on the subway, on a flight, on a train, at jury duty — whatever. I never sit on the sofa and read, and if I do, I usually fall asleep. With Columbine I finished it on the sofa while working on one hour of sleep, and just tore through it. So maybe I'm not so averse to reading more than I am averse to reading books that are a chore to read — if so, then good books are few and far between. Columbine is one of those books.

I'm still trying to unpack what makes Columbine so good, but here are a few places to start. One, I think it's hard to write about events that are inherently disturbing. It seems that In Cold Blood is usually the model for a book like this, and I read that relatively recently. Columbine is much better. Cullen talks about the day itself, which is blunt-force powerful writing, especially the final chapters when he reconstructs what eventually happened in the library, but he also does a lot in terms explaining the confusion afterward, the malfeasance on the part of the sheriff's office with the subsequent investigation, the inherent problem of memory, the media's negligence in reporting the story and the creation of misleading myths surrounding the day itself. And then he has this power of tugging at heartstrings in the worst way — and I mean that in the best way — that has your eyes welling up every ten or fifteen pages. My eyes are welling up right now and I'm not sure why other than because it's that powerful a book.

There are two things in particular that I took away from this book that are worth mentioning. One, as I mentioned briefly above, there is nothing you can do to stop a psychopath. You'll remember that there were two shooters — one was taller and, as the book shows, just a depressed kid who got mixed up with the wrong crowd in a big way. The other one was shorter and, as the book shows, was a complete fucking psychopath, like according-to-the-scientific-definition psychopath. The taller one might have eventually quietly killed himself. The shorter one was destined to do something destructive against mankind, and he succeeded mostly.

We sat around the other night with some folks and tried to figure out if school violence like this only happens in the suburbs. It sometimes seems that way, but I think that psychopaths exist everywhere. In the case of Columbine, the shorter shooter just had more room to grow as a psychopath. Perhaps a psychopath in the Bronx wouldn't have the space to assemble propane-filled bombs in his bedroom and test pipe bombs in a crowded city park, but they can figure out ways to get in trouble just the same. I don't think it's just the suburbs.

The second thing I took away from the book was that I think I finally understand how victims and victims' families can eventually "let go" of the hatred for the people who were the cause of their pain. I used to not understand how one got over it — or even forgave people — but Cullen's book keeps after the victims and victims' families and shows how the survivors and families move on. Hard to express, but there's something cathartic about reading about how the people move on — especially a few examples of the kids who survived getting shot — which if you read the book you'll see.

That said, Cullen also does a nice job in the afterword by giving the victims' families the opportunity to describe their grieving process — all the examples are different, but they all capture the questions and emotions you have as you read the book — he gets out of the way and the conclusions are that much stronger. The questions that one mother asks and the anger she still has — expressed in a rush over just a couple of pages — mirror all the questions that you've wanted answers to over the course of reading the book and all the anger you feel about why all this has happened. Answers are not forthcoming, and the anger will still be there, probably always there. Really really powerful stuff.

Something equally fascinating about the book is that Cullen fought to keep any pictures out of the book. It's rare that you see that, and I can't think of another example of a non-fiction book that eschews images. He says that he includes pictures on his website which you can look at. I haven't yet, but I will in just a minute. My memory of the shooters is their dumb yearbook pictures that were reprinted everywhere after the shooting. These images were in my head while I was reading Columbine, and as time goes on the two shooters just look really dumb, stuck in time, stuck in an era of bad combat boots, duster jackets (not trench coats) and terrible German industrial rock.

OK, I just spent a while looking at Dave Cullen's site. It's disturbing. He was right; the book is better without the pictures.

Cullen's writing style is generally terse and pitch perfect. One passage late in the book (pages 331-32) stands out for me. By this point you know that the shorter shooter is a full-fledged psychopath, so the passage doesn't exactly surprise you — it just fits with what you understand the shorter shooter's personality to be:

No time. Less than a month to go. Eric had a lot of shit left to do. He organized it into a list labeled "shit left to do." He had to figure out napalm, acquire more ammo, find a laser-aiming device, practice gear-ups, prepare final explosives, and determine the peak killing moment. One item was apparently not accomplished: "get laid."

The book is tragic, but not exploitative, and not overly fixated on the massacre itself. Some of the best parts deal with ways that we could do better — how the media could do better, how social services and schools can do better, how the authorities can do better. So in that sense, it's got a positive message. And the survivors stories are really inspiring. Cullen does a great job weaving in these stories alongside the timeline of the day itself, going back and forth in time and simultaneously pulling you in to the story and pulling you through it — or at least allowing you to see a little daylight along the way.

Things did change in big ways after Columbine — the response of SWAT teams to hostage situations and more apparent if you follow the news, a new "zero tolerance" approach to threats on schools. Psychopaths will always exist, and children will do unconscionably fucked up things, but there is a higher tolerance for school systems being more cautious — and that should probably deter some copycats. Now we seem to treat it like it's a security line at the airport in that you can't even joke about an explosive; hopefully that deters some of the situations.

The case of the taller shooter is more complicated than you'd think from your fuzzy memories of April 20, 1999. Like I said, it's not clear that he would have died that way had he not met the shorter shooter. One of the most frustrating things in the book is that just over two months before the shooting, the taller shooter turned in a creative writing assignment that disturbed his instructor enough that she got the school counselor and his parents involved; nothing happened; it was "just a story." I don't know that things are still that way.

The case of the shorter shooter — the psychopath — is both more and less disturbing. Less disturbing only in that there didn't seem to be a lot anyone could do to stop him, and more disturbing if you tease out what the logical end of that reality is.

It's really a good book; all week I've been thinking about it, and all five of us at book club last night (other folks had stuff to do) felt strongly about it. The story seems to have taken over Cullen's professional life, and he fucking nailed it in this book. Wow.

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing, For Reals No For Serious | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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