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Dave Cullen talks about the myths of Columbine

April 26, 2009 | 10:20 am


In reviewing the recently released book "Columbine," Times Book Editor David L. Ulin wrote:

Forget everything you thought you knew. The girl who professed her faith in God before being gunned down in the library. The Trenchcoat Mafia and the feud between the goths and jocks. The idea that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- the two Columbine High School seniors who, on April 20, 1999, killed 12 of their fellow students and one teacher in what was, at the time, the worst school shooting in the history of the United States -- were disaffected, unpopular, motivated by resentment or revenge. Even the fact that the killings took place on Adolf Hitler's birthday was a coincidence: The boys had planned to do it a day earlier but hadn't been able to get the ammunition in time."

Author Dave Cullen spoke with Ulin on Saturday afternoon at the L.A. Times Book Festival about the book, which hit stores this month. "Columbine" marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic shootings that unfolded in the Colorado town.

Cullen recalled the moment he learned of the school shooting: He was at lunch “eating a budget gourmet frozen dinner,” and turned on the TV news to learn what had happened. As a journalist, he said, his relationship with the tragedy began that day, when he began covering the event.

The book, written in the third person to “avoid injecting [himself] into the story,” is a detailed narrative of the events that led up to the killings, profiles of the two killers -- Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- and the aftermath. But the events described in the book don't play out they way they are fixed in the public's mind.

Cullen spoke of the many myths about the shootings that he feels were fed to the public by the media, including descriptions of the two killers as being loners and socially inept. Those descriptions turned out to be false -- showing, Cullen said, that there is no uniform profile of a school shooter.

Cullen had copies of both boys’ journals with him, and showed the audience various charts and journal entries that Eric and Dylan had made over a few years' time. Of Dylan’s journal, Cullen said, “the most common word in here is love.” Ironic, for a boy who would go on to participate in the murder of 13 at his school.

Though a decidedly tragic topic, there were lighthearted moments during the session. The audience burst out in laughter when Cullen, without using names, compared a psychopath with those who run Ponzi schemes and with a certain recently impeached governor.

At the end of the discussion, Cullen addressed questions -- including one about how to know who will be the next Dylan and Eric. He responded by saying that 83% of school shooters tell someone of their plans beforehand. The difficulty is in taking the threats seriously enough to alert school officials.

In a time of questionable journalism ethics, Ulin described Cullen’s work as a piece that shows “the value of in-depth immersion journalism.”

-- Lisa Van Lund

Photo credit: MaryLynn Gillaspie