Dave Cullen reflects on the endless and senseless tragedies that continue to erupt, and the “peculiar[ity]” of grief—he identifies his personal “poison” as “victim stories.” While studying Eric Harris was like “examining a disease under a microscope,” getting inside the psyche of Dylan Klebold affected Cullen deeply. He feels a great sadness for Dylan, whom he calls a “lost boy,” though it is of course dwarfed by his sadness for the survivors.
Dave Cullen’s personal voice finally comes through in full force as he discusses his own relationship to all he has witnessed and taken part in during the research of and recovery from the Columbine attacks.
As Cullen “g[o]t to work” immediately after the attacks, it was the “sea of survivors” struggling often flatly with guilt and the sense of being “lost” who affected him even more than the parents and relatives of the dead. The students he interviewed described feeling separate from their personalities, unable to “get [themselves] back.” Interviews with these students shifted the focus of Cullen’s attention back “to the living”—they, he says, are the reason he spent ten years writing about Columbine.
A journalist, Cullen’s allegiance to the living—and to discovering the facts that would help them to understand and cope with all they’d witnessed and been through—drove him to work for over ten years on a book about Columbine and ensure that the truth was known.
Cullen describes an interview with Don Marxhausen which turned into a “free therapy session.” Don’s “simple compassion” for Cullen, who was also struggling and suffering despite only being a reporter, reminded him of an encounter he had with a person handing out water and snacks outside the school on April 20th, the day after the massacre. When Cullen instinctively grabbed for a water, he felt ashamed, realizing they must have been for the victims. The man handing out the water bottles asked Cullen if he was thirsty, and when Cullen replied that he was, the man insisted that the water was for him as much as it was for anyone else.
Cullen’s unique meditations on what it means to be a witness are drawn out in these anecdotes. A member of the media, Cullen was in no way involved in the massacre—but the members of the Columbine community made him feel as if by bearing witness to their stories and their grief that he, too, had a worthy place in the story of Columbine and Jefferson County.
Cullen did not cry on April 20th, 1999, but did let himself weep on the Wednesday after the attack—the bodies of the victims were still in the school, and, with nothing and nowhere to mourn, students created a memorial and held a vigil around Rachel Scott’s car. Then Cullen wept, and believed he’d gotten his grief “out of [himself.]” Cullen later attended Scott’s funeral—not as a reporter, but as a member of the Columbine community, and out of a desire to feel “a connection to the dead.”
Cullen continued to immerse himself in the community as the grieving period began, longing not just to witness the community for his own ends but to truly connect to what was happening there.
Cullen attempted to abandon the Columbine story many times throughout the ten years he was writing his book, noting that “the public and the media harbored the same delusion” of being able to walk away from the horrific events and be “done” with them.
Cullen reflects on his own desire—and the community’s desire, and the world’s desire—to put the Columbine massacre on a shelf and walk away, stating that this is not really possible.
Cullen reflects on the realization that he suffered from depression in 1999—his “first” run-in with the disease. He felt its aftershocks as late as 2006, when “three school shootings hit in two weeks,” and Cullen accepted his “limits” when it came to exposing himself to traumatic footage and information of and about the new attacks. Cullen waited for years after Columbine for a “worse” horror to occur. That finally happened on April 16th, 2007, with the Virginia Tech shooting, which claimed “upwards of thirty” lives. Cullen did not expose himself to the gratuitous coverage of the murders.
Cullen had to watch out for his own tolerance for trauma and grief, too, and what it meant for him to want to be a witness and a member of the media alike. He hit a wall, so to speak, when a spate of shootings began to reoccur, and was no longer able to bear witness in the same way he had at Columbine.
There was an absence of “theatrics” from the worrisome but low-impact pre-Columbine school shootings. Post-Columbine, terrors following a “performance model” aimed at “staging theater” orchestrated to “match natural disasters” began to emerge. Terrorists and mass shooters fused, and Columbine is what melded the two phenomena into one, Cullen argues. “Spectacle murder,” the term for these “theatrical” attacks, is “all about TV.” He describes his own role as the “messenger” when reporting on tragedies and spectacle murders, and the “maddening” fact that even the experts Cullen routinely interviews cannot manage to stay ahead of these fame-obsessed killers. Body count and creativity are the two “routes to the elite club” of “prestige” murderers. Killers in the post-Columbine world have “cracked the media code.”
Cullen’s writing on spectacle killings reveals a deep understanding of the phenomenon. He understands that though he often knows what these kinds of killers want, he, investigative experts, and the larger media are unable to stay ahead of them or report on them in a way that feels responsible.
Columbine still “capture[s] the imaginations” of spectacle killers, Cullen says. All across the country in recent years, at least ten school shooters, both those who succeed and those who are arrested before they can carry out their attack, have cited Columbine as the inspiration behind their plans. Many of these shooters—or would-be shooters—believe the false but “appealing” script of “outcasts turning the tables on their bullies”—which was never a reason for Columbine, despite erroneous media reports.
By referring to the events of Columbine as a “script,” Cullen concedes that there is something about the attack that others want to follow, despite its now-known status as a failure. The facts of the killing are still misinterpreted by killers who desire fame and glory, or retribution against bullies.
The second most “pernicious myth” about Columbine is that it was a success. The attack was, by Eric and Dylan’s “own standards, a colossal failure, [initially] unrecognizable as terrorism.” The killers, Cullen says, who to this day try to “relive the glory and elation at Columbine” fail to realize that there was none.
Cullen outlines the problems that society faces in preventing attacks like Columbine. He believes guns and mental health are unfairly conflated, and also notes that killers like Eric and Dylan don’t “snap; they smolder.” Cullen argues for screening to identify teen depression, which is valuable not only in preventing shootings but in bettering dropout rates, addictions, car accidents, and “general misery.” “Teen depression,” Cullen says, is “the great unlearned lesson of Columbine.”
Cullen, using all that he has learned in his many years of research on the things that made Columbine possible, makes suggestions for ways in which our society can better serve both troubled teens and innocent citizens everywhere who could be hurt by the effects of “unlearned lessons.”
The media focuses on guns and mental health, but fails to recognize itself as a major factor in “handing [killers] the mic.” The media, Cullen says, must rethink how they report shootings and terrorist attacks, to take the spotlight off killers and focus on the victims. The media should sacrifice ratings, he believes, in favor of changing the landscape of coverage.
As a member of the media, Cullen knows what must be done to improve his industry and preserve its integrity. The “landscape,” though, has created an almost inescapable cycle of a need for ratings—and the realization that horror and terror often deliver on that front.
Cullen still “cringe[s]” for the survivors of Columbine every time he hears of a new attack. He is bolstered, however, by the strength of the families of the victims, such as Coni Sanders, who “gets back up” after the news of every new shooting “knocks her down.” She works with violent criminals now, and musters “tremendous empathy for ‘the enemy’” each day, knowing it is “the only way to reach them.”
Cullen is inspired by survivors and the families of victims who have been able to overcome their debilitating grief and use their pain for good. An attempt to empathize with the enemy has been Cullen’s life’s work, too, and he takes strength from the fact that he is not alone, and that perhaps this is the answer to combating violence and hate.