Thursday, June 23, 2011

5 Questions for "Columbine" Author Dave Cullen

April 20, 1999 is a day that many of us remember--it was the date of the Columbine High School massacre. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting spree through their high school killing 15 people and injuring 24 people before they they took their own lives. What happened afterwards was a media frenzy. The facts surrounding the case reported by the media were a spectacle; the stories about the shooters led to questions of who, or what, to blame for this horrible event. There were a lot of untold truths of that day, but 10 years later, Dave Cullen released a book that tells the real story of Columbine.

"Columbine" exposes many of the myths and tells the whole story of what happened before, during, and after the events of that day. I asked Dave Cullen some questions I had about the book since I read it back when it was released.

You spent 10 years doing research for "Columbine." When you were able to put all of the facts together, were you a surprised with the media's inaccuracies?

Very surprised. I actually discovered how badly we in the media got it back in September 1999, when I did a big piece on what really happened for What surprised me the most was that nearly ten years later, those myths were still firmly entrenched.

The one thing that I was a little taken back by was the supposed martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. Your research states that Cassie Bernall didn't have the exact exchange with the assailants as it's been reported. What has been the response to that particular part of the book?

No, Cassie never had a chance to say anything. Response to that varies, but the vast majority of readers I've heard from have been grateful to know the truth. That includes Evangelical Christians, many of whom were deeply moved by the story they had read or heard. Many are sad to let go of the myth, but would rather know the truth. And Val Schnurr's story of professing her faith and then living to tell is powerful, too.

In a particular part of the book, you mention a psychologist who examined the materials that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left behind. The summary of what he said is that there is no treatment for the psychopathy that Eric Harris had. You also mentioned Eric's many run-ins with the law. Do you believe someone could have stopped them had they actually acted upon the warning signs that he was showing?

Yes, there is no known treatment for pyschopathy. Often, treatment makes them worse--by tutoring them on how to perfect their performances as they con us. We don't know how to make a psychopath better; the best we can do for now is lock them up. Unfortunately, they have to commit serious crimes before we can put them away for very long. So yes, there are so many times and ways that Eric could have been caught before this happened, and we could and should have stopped this attack.

The question remains though: what would have happened once he got out of prison, if in fact, he ever did time? Psychopaths are a huge public menace, and it's incredible that we have so little in our arsenal against them. If ever there was a public health issue crying out for more research, this is it.

The insights into Dylan Klebold's life are much different than Eric Harris' life. Dylan had loving parents, he seemed to have goals, and yet he was involved with Eric Harris. How much influence do you think Eric Harris had over Dylan Klebold?

I think Eric had tremendous influence. Any best friend in high school can have a lot of influence, but Eric was a master manipulator. He read people expertly, knew what they responded to and played them. Eric played nearly everyone around him (except Judy Brown), and above all, he played Dylan. In his journal, it's clear what an abysmal opinion of himself Dylan had. He was crying out (privately) for someone to help him make him feel better about himself. I think Eric saw that, and played to it. He made Dylan feeling worthy. That's powerful.

What has been the response you've received from the survivors and the families of those who lost loved ones that day? 

It's been mostly very positive. Nearly all the families I've heard from have told me it helped them understand the killers and therefore understand why it happened. There was tremendous frustration that ten years later, they still didn't know. We can't ever know everything about Eric and Dylan, but they left an incredible amount of material explaining themselves, so we know a great deal.

Many thanks to Dave Cullen for allowing me to interview him. You can find out more about "Columbine" and Dave Cullen by visiting

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