Ten years has passed since that day when two students and their arsenal executed a ferocious attack on classmates at a Littleton, Colorado high school, but its imprint on the local community and broader national consciousness coldly reverberates. What occurred on that Tuesday, April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School, in the small, unincorporated Jefferson County township, is ignominiously enshrined in the pantheon of American evil, infamy, and, indeed, irrationality.
Thus a decade later we are still frightened by it and flummoxed as to why it happened, resolved to get to bottom of just what motivated these boys to commit such a vicious act on their peers. We feel stranded without the comfort of sensible or logical explanations. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embarked on that cold-blooded killing spree, massacring a dozen students and a teacher, in addition to wounding 24 more, before committing suicide, they went to their graves answerable for the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history.
But much of what we know or think we know about the sadistic spree comes from early news reports, long since filtered and diffused through hearsay, rumor, and the channels of pop culture: two misfits in black trench coats were taking vengeance against school bullies. Now, in Columbine: A True Story, longtime Rocky Mountain News reporter Jeff Kass — an investigative journalist who has been covering the story since the day it transpired — explores the mystery of how Harris and Klebold could have carried out such heinousness without others knowing even the very least about it. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is the third book released to coincide the 10 year anniversary, two of which are by journalists who have been studying the story for the past decade, and the other written from a psychologist’s perspective.
Predicated on inside research and exclusive information, it is hard to imagine any future projects superseding Kass’s moreforcible nonfiction narrative, in terms of its depth of study, breadth of knowledge, or creepy, eerie, grim application. In Columbine: A True Story, Kass focuses primarily on the murderers' psychological and social evolution — or utter maladjustment, really — and the battle to get government records relevant to the shooting made public. The book is crammed with passages from hard-fought copies of Klebold's college admissions essays and a federal deposition from Robert Kriegshauser, the Jefferson County diversion counselor who supervised the boys after they were arrested for breaking into a van. (Previously undisclosed, this lawsuit was filed against the company that manufactured the psychiatric drug taken by Harris. Kriegshauser has never spoken publicly.)
Another document Kass unearthed is a psychological profile of Dylan Klebold's mother, Susan, conducted when she was a teenager. The description reveals Susan as a bleak, macabre foreshadower of Columbine, for the psychiatrist treating her determines that she has a preoccupation with horror and death. Klebold's college admissions essay, written two months before the shooting, shows a tormented soul who regrets that he has made damaging life decisions.
In fact, most of the details in Columbine: A True Story corroborates what was already noted about Harris’s and Klebold’s antisocialism: they were outcasts and antagonistic, "probably on the lowest rung of the social ladder." Also, the boys vent in their journals their morose feelings of alienation and self-loathing. The book, however, holds some new disclosures for those who remember Columbine largely from preliminary media accounts. Kass rejects the enduring memory of two Goth freaks, or a pair of “Trench Coat Mafia” members, who targeted jocks, minorities and those who tormented them. These “Holden Caufields run amok” did not mark jocks or minorities, but rather aimed to wipe out as many people as they could, a few of whom just happened to be athletes and non-whites. Harris and Klebold seem to have devised the attack as a synchronized bombing; they began using their guns once the bombs failed to detonate. They were not Goths, and the Trench Coat Mafia did not exist, for the boys most likely donned trench coats to conceal weapons.
Another misconception that Kass addresses regards the shooting timeline. The barrage did not last as long as most people who watched the live television coverage recollect. Even though public perception lingers that the killings lasted perhaps more than an hour, from start to finish, the carnage took approximately 17.5 minutes. In Kass’s chronicle, the boys got tired of rampaging, stopped, chatted, roamed the high school for about a half hour, and then turned the guns on themselves.
Stark and sober, the book not only dissects all aspects of Columbine, but also invites readers to relive its gory pinnacle, replaying the execution of the killings for maximum literary impact. His storytelling is captivating, for it opens on the day of the shootings, and then works backward, wending a tale in which we absorb the killers' plummet into violence. Soon, we see the inner frustrations that fueled their quenchless anger.
Then, we are lead through the social and political aftermath of the shooting, a tense period rife with moral indignation. This fury targeted everything from lax school security and Goth and gun culture, to the use of pharmaceuticals and anti-depressants by teenagers, to parental supervision of the Internet, high school cliques, bullying, and the wantonly violent movies, video games, and magazines that allegedly whetted the shooters’ appetites. Too, Kass highlights the family of victim Isiah Schoel, framing their struggle to come to terms with his murder.
Ten years later, dealing with and attempting to understand evildoing still proves no easy matter.
Ultimately, what Columbine: A True Story does so well is to connect these dots, threads, and documents, leading us closer to an “answer” – if finding a satisfactory “answer” is even possible. Haunting, unforgiving, and chilling, it adds one more layer of reality to a horrendous event that no adequate emotional or mental appeal will ever quite mitigate.
From the galvanization of this sordid, painful, hopeful book, perhaps we can we learn — and relearn — from what happened at Columbine, and, most importantly, we can somehow apply its lessons to avert similar tragedies.