Katharine Coldiron examines the heart of truth about Columbine by reviewing and comparing the two definitive books on the subject: Sue Klebold’s A Mother’s Reckoning and Dave Cullen’s Columbine.
For a few weeks now I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Sue Klebold’s A Mother’s Reckoning. Her son was Dylan Klebold, one of the pair of shooters at Columbine High School in April of 1999. The book is an attempt to shed light on Dylan’s life, death, and choices.
It is harrowing.
Dylan was born in September of 1981, thirty-two days before I was. When he was a senior at Columbine, I was a senior at my own high school. As I’ve grown up, and Dylan has remained permanently seventeen, I’ve continued to prick up my ears at mentions of what he and Eric Harris did that day. I read Dave Cullen’s meticulous journalistic study of the shooting, Columbine, twice in a row, some sections over and over. The book provides a useful little chapter that situates psychopathy better than anything else I’ve ever read, but that isn’t the only reason. Columbine brings me vividly back to the experience of being a senior in high school in 1998-99—what it was like to be that specific age in that specific year. When Cullen writes about American teenagers in 1999, he’s talking about my peers. Eric and Dylan are hundreds of miles from where I was, both geographically and emotionally, but I recognize their area code. That experience, reading about these monstrous peers of mine, is frightening, familiar, discomfiting; it’s a feeling that’s not quite pleasant, but that I can’t seem to quit wanting to be inside of.
By the time I was in my mid-teens, a rash of school shootings had left bleeding pockmarks all across America. I did not have a difficult time understanding why they occurred. I knew alienation; I knew hostility to the school environment, in general; I knew the desire to wipe out the place and the people who (so I thought) held me back from happiness. When Columbine happened, I remember, clearly, not understanding why the public seemed so shocked. Of course I was disturbed by the shooting (I am not a sociopath), but I was not surprised by it, and I didn’t feel as if it should garner more attention or heartbreak than a gunman killing adults from a bell tower somewhere. At that age, I didn’t understand how cruel the death of a young person seems to an adult, because I had been surrounded by young people for all the life I had lived. They appeared no more or less precious to me than adults.
Though Cullen’s book comes closest, no study I’ve read has yet advanced the theory I’ve personally held about Columbine since April of 1999. The writers of these studies dutifully get inside Eric’s and Dylan’s heads (the psychopath and the psychotic depressive), and they walk around inside their lives a little, but they fail to go back and remember what teenagehood actually feels like, from the inside, especially if you’re a kid who doesn’t like being a kid. I think Eric and Dylan attacked their school with no idea whatsoever that they’d be seen as monstrous for attacking a place where children were. I think they attacked their school because their school was their world. It’s the place where they went every day, for four long young formative years. The place where they were forced to understand social Darwinism. The place where their entire lives centered: every day, school, every night, homework, every day, school again. No escape. No variation. School school school school school. It was the largest item on the horizon, the most soul-shackling obstacle between them and freedom.
(And it’s not the same as work. School envelops everything when you’re a kid.)
Dylan and Eric were both grandiose, in different ways, and they wanted enormous, earth-shattering destruction. Their perspectives were too foreshortened to comprehend that there was an earth to shatter beyond high school. I’m not saying this to demean them, or to indicate they didn’t know there was life outside Colorado. Of course they did. But dimly. Without full comprehension. Part of growing up is widening one’s understanding to live inside the knowledge of certain tenets, so basic they seem boring, won so thoroughly by experience that they can’t be taught: the world is wide, life is long, it’s possible to start over, time will lessen suffering. To those I’d add that teenagehood is the worst and life pretty much immediately gets better once high school is over. Eric and Dylan didn’t know those tenets, didn’t live in the light of them. In Eric’s case it might not have mattered, but oh, poor, poor Dylan. He could have been spared, if a hundred thousand things had been different. Instead, he lashed out, at the biggest, juiciest target he could see, at the institution that represented his suffering—the world, as he knew it—and was lost.
All I have left is questions. If a detail as small as the one that’s driving me crazy in these two books can’t be settled upon, how can we, as a culture, come to a correct interpretation of why Columbine happened?
Last night I cross-referenced some stuff in Sue Klebold’s book with stuff in Cullen’s. I couldn’t listen to Sue anymore, her sweet, serious, Midwestern-mom voice narrating this utter horror, but I wasn’t finished thinking about Columbine for the evening (not that I ever will be ultimately finished with thinking about Columbine). I skimmed for information about what was in Dylan’s journals, the posthumous diagnoses of him that had been made, Cullen’s read of the Basement Tapes compared to Sue’s. Twice I found a discrepancy I couldn’t explain. These blips had to do with a detail that makes no real difference to the case or the story. Nevertheless, between the two books, someone is wrong, or not telling the whole truth, about a certain event.
This discovery, of the inconsistency between what Cullen said about why an event happened and what Klebold said about why the same event happened, positively incensed me.
Klebold’s book is the most careful, kindhearted, candid, apologetic-to-a-fault book I think I’ve ever read. It is unique among memoirs, in my reading experience, in its attempts to tell the author’s truth without causing harm. Most writers would cut out some of the repetitive apology she offers, either forging ahead without caring or finding it aesthetically unsound to keep saying she knows how much others have suffered because of what her son did. Not Sue Klebold. Again and again she writes sentences to the effect of “I know this might sound terrible, but I thought of my son first, before thinking of his victims”—I mean, of course you did, Sue, he was your damn son. They have to remind you every single flight to put on your oxygen mask before assisting your child.
Cullen’s book is very different. He’s an extremely good writer, so he puts you inside the minds and hearts and struggles of many different people over the course of the book—the victims, their parents and loved ones, the school administrators, police investigators. And, critically, the shooters and their friends. Columbine is sourced with ten years of research and interviews. I believe Cullen may have seen and read everything in existence that has to do with the shooting. I mean everything.
I don’t think either of these two authors has reader manipulation in mind. I believe they are each telling the truth as experienced and/or researched. And yet there’s this detail, something about the Klebolds’ other son, that is told one way in one book and another way in the other book. It makes me question the whole emotional foundation of Klebold’s book, and the researching methods of Cullen’s book. Hundreds of pages of the books line up with each other evenly—their read of the Basement Tapes was almost identical, aside from the emotional impact on Sue—but this one thing doesn’t. Which makes me wonder if both authors are misreading and misstating everything, if the truth about Columbine has only a scattershot relationship with either book.
The truth about me and Columbine is that I’m not connected to it in any way other than age. The truth about Sue Klebold and Columbine is that she is more invested in her story than any reader (or potentially writer, except for the Harrises, who continue to maintain radio silence) ever will be. The truth about Dave Cullen and Columbine is that he wrote the book of his life, the definitive text on a watershed event. Nothing in Klebold’s book, not a word of it, tells the reader she’s approaching her task with anything but a desire to reach out, to help, to say what she can to prevent more suffering. Cullen has no reason to fudge anything in a book he probably hoped would win national prizes and fix his writing-career star as high as it may ever go. Neither of them is lying, is what I’m saying. The discrepancy cannot be mended, not without talking to both authors and asking why they wrote it the way they did.
No truth is definitive. No detail is ever told truly. Infuriating. Impossible. Fact.
All I have left is questions. If a detail as small as the one that’s driving me crazy in these two books can’t be settled upon, how can we, as a culture, come to a correct interpretation of why Columbine happened? How can I, with so little investment, claim that I know something about the killers’ state of mind that no one else has pointed out? What is to stop the story from unraveling completely? To stop truth, as a concept, from total dissolution, like sugar in hot water?
[This piece originally appeared on Katharine Coldiron’s blog, The Fictator, and is republished here with permission.]