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Strong at the Broken Places

By Nicole Fuscia | Books | May 28, 2009 |

By Nicole Fuscia | Books | May 28, 2009 |

“That’s what I need to tell you: that I knew the loving world was out there all the time.” - Patrick Ireland, Columbine shooting survivor and Class of 2000 valedictorian

I don’t remember where I was on April 20th, 1999.

Since the minute I picked up this book, I’ve tried. I can tell you exactly when I realized that something was very wrong on September 11th, 2001. I can recall with perfect clarity watching the horror unfold in Oklahoma City as a high school junior. I just can’t remember what I was doing while the world stopped making sense at Columbine High School. I do have memories of seeing the photos and hearing the accounts and theories in the days afterward, so I was hooked when I saw Dave Cullen’s book perched on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. It seemed to be a serious, thoughtful look at an event that rocked America, free of showmanship and sensationalism, and the blurb promised to offer answers to questions that surrounded the attack and subsequent investigation for years. Hot damn, did it deliver. Cullen’s examination is insightful, probing, focused, and sensitive without shying away from the bald facts of that day. I was so blown away by the intensity and sheer amount of information that I needed to read it again before I could begin to write about it.

What do you remember? So much came from that day, a jumble of footage and conjecture: the “Trench Coat Mafia;” the theory of the shootings as retaliation for bullying; the Cassie Bernall “She said ‘Yes’” story; the images of teenagers fleeing in terror; the outrage over lax gun laws; the NRA’s insistence upon holding its annual meeting in Denver that year … it was a barrage, and Cullen covers it all while managing to streamline and structure it, patiently setting the pieces into place, debunking the myths and finally answering the ultimate question - “Why did it happen?” The who, what, when, where and how were covered years ago, but Cullen covers them again in order to give the why perspective. It’s not for the faint of heart; the destruction and carnage are described frankly and in detail. Cullen manages to somehow balance the facts with the people, which is downright daunting - not only does he cover the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, but also the victims, both living and dead, their families, the student population, the staff, the media, and the investigative teams. There is no way that I can do justice to it in a simple review, but I will try to give you the bare bones and hope that you’ll be inspired to read it for yourself.

Harris and Klebold were not outcasts, bullying victims, gang members, Goths, or anti-Semites. They worked in a pizza joint and had a circle of friends with whom they partied and went bowling; Klebold went to the prom four nights before the massacre. They came from intact, stable families and were extremely bright. No one “snapped;” the attack was meticulously planned for months. They came together in a perfect storm - shy, depressed, introverted Klebold and charming, quick-witted, psychopathic Harris. The pair worked their way from petty vandalism to theft (both were arrested on a felony charge for breaking into a van and stealing electronics a little over a year before the attack) and eventually to murder. Klebold didn’t want to live in the world anymore; Harris didn’t think the world was worthy of living. Harris’ fascination with the Nazis didn’t stem from a belief in white supremacy. He was obsessed with the idea of slaughtering “human animals.” Klebold yearned so hard for love that he hated himself and allowed that hate to leach out and spill over into destruction. He knew that he wasn’t going to make it out alive; he was too chicken to commit suicide alone so he decided to take others out with him when he went. Worse, there were signs for months. Harris had a website that he used to wax rhapsodic about murder and threaten a former friend and both killers leaked information about the bombs and guns to pals. They were arrested on felony charges. Harris was caught by his father with a pipe bomb. They wrote essays and stories for school that are clear warnings, in retrospect. They went so far as to write about their plans in detail in each others’ yearbooks less than a year before the spree. They both kept journals and together recorded the “Basement Tapes” to leave an explanation for the world. Harris and Klebold never planned on a simple shooting; they had several large bombs intended to take out a main part of the school along with hundreds of students and staff, after which they would pick off fleeing survivors with firearms before being taken out by police. Then each of their cars, rigged with time bombs, would explode in the perimeter, killing media and first responders. This was death as performance art. They were playing to an audience. (It was only by sheer luck and some level of ineptitude that the large bombs failed to detonate.)

Cullen takes in all of this information and lays it out, piece by piece, recreating the web that the killers spun and placing it in context. He uses a taut combination of flashbacks that lead up to that day and real-time scenes that progress forward through the investigation and the aftermath. In the in-between places, he follows the recovery of the injured, including Patrick Ireland, “the boy in the window,” who launched his half-paralyzed body to safety out the library window; the parents of the murdered students; the family of Dave Sanders, the teacher who lost his life attempting to get others to safety; and the principal, Frank DeAngelis, who assumed so much guilt and grief and devoted everything in him to getting “his kids” through the ordeal. Cullen covers the “Jesus frenzy” that exploded in the Evangelical community and examines the media manipulation of the tragedy as he derides the coverups fabricated by a significant portion of the investigative team. He champions the students who took back their school and refused to be defined by one heartbreaking act of devastation, but instead grew stronger for having been broken. It’s massive and beautiful. It’s pitch-perfect. Read it. Please.

Nicole Fuscia is a book critic for Pajiba. She lives in Philadelphia.