Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Columbine Climbed In

I finished Dave Cullen’s Columbine several weeks ago. It’s still with me. I’m sure you’ve had this happen, you’ve read a book and it climbs inside you, matting and nesting inside your thoughts. Seldom does a book linger quite like this one has.

On this I 8 Wednesday, I highlight 8 ways the well-written, New York Times Bestseller, Columbine climbed inside my thoughts:

Reflections on Journal Writing
The two boys who carried out the heinous acts detailed many of their plans and their intentions in their journals. They didn’t censor. In fact, from what I read in Columbine, at least one of the boys repeatedly cried out for help in his journal. It churned my thinking about my own journal writing. I’ve found it cathartic through the years, but for some odd reason I’ve censored myself more in the past few years. I don’t want certain thoughts read by my children someday. Some things I talk out with God alone.

I Googled Patrick Ireland
I was compelled to learn more about Patrick Ireland. After closing the book, I needed to know that he turned out okay. He was the boy in the window caught on tape by media cameras. He flung himself out the library window and onto a SWAT team truck, then attempted to get in the driver seat and flee. He did all this with a pellet in his brain. It struck me, the power of fight or flight. And his attitude following Columbine left a great impression on me.

Watching My High School Video Tape
I’m fairly certain reading Columbine inspired me to whip out my old high school video tape, an amateur documentary of my senior year.

Wondering Who I’d Be
In tandem with watching the high school tape, I contemplated who I’d be, how I’d react if I was thrown into a crisis like that. The mind can’t truly go there, but I sifted through whether I’d be the vocal Christian, or the one mistaken for the vocal Christian. Would I have stepped on someone on my way out of the building or stayed behind and helped stop the blood flow quickly seeping out of a teacher?

Thinking about the Adam & Eve Predicament
I have a name for families having to suffer the aftermath of what their child or sibling does—the Adam and Eve predicament. In the story of Cain and Abel, I imagine people often think about Cain and how he lived knowing what he did. I think about Adam and Eve. I can’t fathom what the weight of knowing what their one son did to their only other son must have been like. In this, Columbine shook up my thoughts about the Klebold family and the Harris family. The parents sure, but even more I found myself curious about the siblings. (My family history likely instigated such thinking. One of my older sisters has multiple mental illnesses and has threatened similar offenses I read in the book. On more than one occasion she called our high school inciting a bomb scare. Knowing what I know now about her mental illness, I understand most of her destruction is turned inward.) But still…

Thinking about the Weight of Suicide
Both gunmen killed themselves. It complicated the town’s urge to blame someone, to hold someone accountable. One of the victims also had to deal with her mother’s suicide a year after the tragedy. A delicate and heartbreaking issue. I’ve skimmed the surface of the devastation suicide invites into a family. My sister (the one I mentioned earlier) has attempted it numerous times. I recall waking up in junior high and high school receiving life-changing late night phone calls. I never knew if this time “she succeeded.” Succeed—an unusual word to describe it.

The Role Media Plays
According to Cullen, the media scrambled all kinds of facts in those first few hours that would impact witnesses and perceptions of the crime for years to come. The boys were dubbed losers. Not so. They were tagged as part of the Trench Coat Mafia. Not so. It would be easy to place blame on the media or one outlet, but Columbine was an explosion of chaos that sent shrapnel of chaos everywhere.

What Does God Feel about Psychopaths
I’m still praying about this one. I wish I had a confident answer. I don’t. I simply don’t know.
The book tackled hard questions. I’m a why woman. I love to learn and often why is the first question I ask. Cullen helped me understand more of the why. But questions remain and I know I’ll still be thinking of Columbine years from now.

The following quote is found several places in Columbine, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

*photo of columbine flower by flickr


  1. Oh man, I feel like tearing up just reading your post. I was in high school during Columbine and it was a scary time. :-(

  2. I've heard great things about this book! I know one thing for sure. I think you would be one of the ones taking your own shirt off your back to stop blood flow on the teacher.

    I often wonder what I would do in certain situations. I read about a horrific scenario the other day and wondered what I would do. I think there are some situations that we simply could never predict how we would react until faced with that predicament.

  3. Wow. I haven't heard anyone talk of COlumbine for a long time but I was thinking about it just the other day. I heard Michael W Smith's song that he wrote after it and I was tearing up.

  4. I must read that book. An uncle of one of the victims came and spoke at my son's school the week before Christmas break. We spent the next few days Googling facts and finding out more about the incident. I had heard all about it, but my son was only a year old when it happened. He was very curious, and I wonder if he experienced some of the same thoughts you did while reading this book. (Yours were pretty deep, but I wonder if his were similar in a kid sort of way.)

  5. I want to read this book now. You bring up so many good questions. I'd read a review of Columbine a while back and many of your questions swirled in my head at the time. It's so hard to make sense of it.

    Great post, Wendy.

  6. Wow. You make me want to read this one, even though I'm not much of a nonfiction reader.

  7. As the wife of a high school teacher, I don't like to delve too deeply into this topic because it scares me. Ever since Columbine, my husband and his colleagues have had to carry out Intruder Alert drills involving Lock Downs. Our daughter was home sick one day when there was a real Lock Down on her campus. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

    Wendy, do you think reading this book would calm my fears or exacerbate them?

  8. Keli, I honestly can't say. The book reveals journal entries and specifics of what happened. It is assaulting at times. It also helped me with the why.

    I happen to believe with a God like ours, we can extinguish our fears, but I'm understanding of certain sensitivities. I have those for other things.

    It's an excellent conversation stirring book. But it makes sense why someone with a predisposition to the subject matter may wish to steer clear. Not sure my answer helps.
    ~ Wendy

  9. Wow, I haven't read the book, but reading your thoughts left me with goosebumps. I remember hearing about the boy who lept out the window and I've always wondered about him. I may have to Google him.

    Great post, Wendy.

  10. Wow, Wendy. I'm really touched that my book has stuck with you so long, and that you put so much thought into writing about it.

    I shared a lot of those same reactions. The "who would I be question" rattled through my brain many times.

    Meeting Patrick was one of the joys of my life. My first interview with him was about a two hour lunch, and I left shaking my head that anyone could really be that at peace with it all. I've met him several times since, and he's always the same: facing forward, not back. Once I got to know his parents, I understood better. They are remarkable--each in very different ways.

    Val Schnurr took longer to find her way to peace--5 years out, she said she was a total wreck. She got there. I didn't meet her in person until after the book was done. She made such an impression on me, I knew immediately she would be a big part of the afterword.

    Thanks for using the Hemingway quote, too. It's very emotional for me. At one point the working title of the book was "At the broken places." I have a little story about that, actually.

    I wrote that scene near the end--a few years after the groundbreaking, where Clinton quoted it. I typed in "the world crushes everyone," because that's how I remembered it. Then I did my fact-checking (I think I found a transcript), and was shocked to see I'd internalized something even worse. (As if breaking everyone were not bad enough. Haha.) I pictured the earth sometimes like a huge weight bearing down on and crushing me and sometimes like a huge spinning millstone grinding down one of my vertebra. I had spent years longer than intended on the book, and longer than was healthy, and I felt like I was getting crushed.

    That was the hope, though, that it would be taken from me, soon. And watching those magnificent families as Clinton called them, who had changed over those years--that gave me hope. And it was well founded. Once I finished the book, the weight lifted. I smile a lot more again. I cry a lot less. (Though to be perfectly honest, I am now.) It gets better.

    That was one of the themes I felt running through the story, and through so many of the people involved, most of whom I got to know over a long period. Terrible things happen sometimes. But they pass. We get over them. Hope and faith in a better day gets us through.

    (And what Patrick said got him to that window stuck with me, too. I won't spoil that one for people who have not read it yet.)

    Thanks. I didn't mean to chatter that long. It just welled up inside me.

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  12. Sorry for the double-post above. It said it was too long, but apparently went through anyway.

    And I had still more to day. Haha.

    We’ve had a lot of interest from teachers—and students—on using the book in school, so we’re trying to make that easier. I spent a good chunk of the fall creating the Columbine Instructor Guide and Columbine Student Guide. They are now online and free. Please consider spreading the word. Thanks.

  13. Hi Wendy -

    Your review got down to the nitty-gritty of the matter: how it affected you personally. Thank you for your honesty and transparency.


  14. Jessica, It was an emotional book to read. I remember watching it play out on TV. Devastated doesn't come close to describing how I felt at the time.

    Heather, Man, with everything that I am, I hope so. I hope that would be me. I want to live like that. But I don't know, I just don't know if I do.

    Jaime, The timing was somewhat strange for me reading it--over Christmas break. But I had so many whys still inside me and Dave did an excellent job trying to address those.

    Susan, I often have the wonderment of a child. This child-like vision plays out in wonderful ways and also in the ever-asking why way. Like so many things, a blessing and a curse.

    Thanks Jill. Dave did all the hard work.

    Katie, You know I absorb any and all kinds of books. This is one that found its way inside.

    Keli, I appreciate your question. I hope I helped (above). Received your gift today--reminded me of what a gift to me you are!

    Diane J., I just couldn't let it be. I also wondered to the point of Googling. See what Dave wrote in the comments. I kept telling my mom some of his responses to what happened. Blew me away.

    Dave, I'm honored and deeply moved by your thoughts here. Your work and extensive research is to be commended. It's obvious to me how very much you poured into this work. Patrick's attitude has served as an encouragement in my life (an unexpected one at that).

    I can see why At the Broken Places would be a consideration for a working title. I identify strongly with that quote. I could also see how the subject matter could become crushing at times. I think I read somewhere you worked over nine years on this project. That's what initially got me interested. I so much respect that kind of integrity going into one work.

    I'm thankful you delved into this dark place to help shed light on Columbine. I want to go check out those guides.

    Books have such potential to change people. You left a profound impression on me through this work. I thank you for that.

    Susan, I discussed the post with my mom before I published it. Vulnerability is always a gamble, but I think it is one of the best ways to help others know me. Thanks for your words.

    To hope and faith in a better day.

    ~ Wendy

  15. Hi Wendy! I read Columbine some time ago. I am not a non-fiction reader, and *especially* not a true crime reader, but Columbine moved me in a way few books--fiction or non--have ever moved me.

    It's interesting and touching that Dave mentions the toll the book took on him spiritually. When an author sacrifices his own comfort for the good of a work, it shows. Some true crime events are too sordid to offer the kind of reflective power that Columbine offers. I really don't care why some random serial killer chooses to wreak his evil on society. But Columbine is different: a cultural and spiritual crossroads, as Dave shows so brilliantly. Katie, you should read it, because the book helped me understand who we are as Americans, after Columbine. I think it would do the same for you.

    And Wendy, I am going to depart from coolness and non-judgment to say this. I don't know how God feels about the dupes of psychopaths, who follow a stronger will because they are confused and hormonal. But I'm pretty sure that the word "psychopath" is a label that we have given to what previous ages would have called "evil." And if you look at the writings of psychopaths (let's just say for argument's sake that Eric was one and Dylan was not)--they usually make no apologies for the fact that their desire is to kill and destroy and basically--be evil. That is different from other forms of mental illness. I think God may give grace to those who are mentally ill or weak and do terrible things. I think that he will not show mercy to those who set out to deliberately do evil and hurt other humans or even animals in dreadful ways. Nothing in the Bible (or in common sense) indicates that God makes exceptions for deliberate evil-doers who know that what they want to do is wrong and causes terrible suffering. The desire to inflict suffering is the opposite of God. It is not a "sickness," like other forms of mental illness.

  16. Hi Wendy! I'm so in awe that Dave stopped by! How very cool!

    I too was moved by the boy who crawled out the window. I remember watching it live and it was truly heartbreaking. I've seen him on various interviews and was shocked at how even keeled he came across. I have not read the book. It seems like one of those tough books that grinds you just a little more on the inside.

    On a side note, I used to work on a locked psychiatric unit for a number or years and people have illnesses in their brains just like you would in any other part of your body. Only the Lord knows the fine line that delineates true wicked behavior and that of psychosis. *I hope your sister is OK. You are always in my prayers.

  17. T. Anne - I feel that it's important to clarify because I have great sympathy for those with psychosis - those who would be on a locked psychiatric ward. Those with psychosis have illnesses and a difficulty distinguishing reality from non-reality. I had a close family member who went through psychosis for some time.

    But "psychosis" and a "psychopath" are completely different, though they are often confused. See this definition:

    Psychopaths don't go into locked psychiatric wards. The label describes a highly functional, aggressive, often manipulative personality, often narcissistic with an inflated sense of self worth and no empathy for others. Professionals do not regard the condition as "treatable" which is another clue that just's not an "illness." Please see the Wikipedia description or read Dave's book to get a profile of Eric Harris, the psychopath who planned the Columbine killings. There is a *huge* difference between psychopathy and psychosis. I should be clear, though, that Dave's account tries to be as objective as possible. I am the one who believes that psychopathy is a clinical label for evil. Dave never made that statement.

  18. This is an amazing post. I love that you aren't afraid to the let the book in. Too often, I push off the whys. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  19. It has always struck me that Columbine is a flower. That this tragedy happened at a place named for something of beauty, something that grows up from the dirt.

    Wendy, I appreciate your thoughts on the book so much, but what I appreciate infinitely more is that you would open yourself like a book. That you would share pieces of your life with us that I am certain have caused you pain and confusion. You are a brave and selfless woman, and I have no doubt what your response would've been that day.

    So great that Dave would take the time to stop by and share his thoughts. That is the kind of author I want to be.

  20. Rosslyn, Got your message. Thanks for that. I'm going to let this one soak in prayer.

    T.Anne, I was pretty honored that he took the time to visit & leave such a thoughtful comment. I'm curious to learn more about your work experience sometime.

    Rosslyn, I appreciated how Dave really fleshed this definition out in his book, too. Opened my eyes to some things I hadn't thought about. Great, more thoughts spinning around up there. That's just what I need! ;)

    Tara, I let it in alright. Thank you for your words. Whys can get pretty heavy and I'm not always sure I should be asking them, but love that God loves me even though I can't help but ask them.

    Beth, The flower bit--that's why I chose this picture. U2 sings, "Grace makes beauty out of ugly things." What happened at Columbine was ugly to say the least, but stories like Patrick's that came out of it (and others). God finds joy in transforming (if we only let Him).

    I'm touched you are so confident in what my actions would be. Now, I hope I'd sacrifice. Then, I just don't know. But as I wrote, I'm not sure the mind can truly conjecture. Beth, I trust that you WILL be that exact kind of author.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion.

    And thankful for a God who can be trusted with all things...with everything.

    ~ Wendy

  21. This is a really great discussion, and that doesn't happen just by chance. You wrote a really vulnerable, thoughtful post Wendy, and while I haven't read your previous entries, I think it's a safe bet that you have gathered a smart, reflective group based on writing that appeals to those qualities.

    It's refreshing really--as compared to say, The Shouter Shows on cable TV (the "news" shows. Blech.) Thanks again for opening up to write it.

    I was about to address some of the great comments, but got interrupted by work. I just finished a day of high school skypes, including one really big group in their gym. I can't tell you how inspiring it is to see kids that excited about a book--about ANY book, really. That they can be renting a Harry Potter movie or playing a video game, and instead of skimming the book to pass the test, they are actually sitting down for hours and wanting to read.

    I'm happy to say that eagerness for learning is alive and well.

  22. This passage from Rosslyn really struck me: "I really don't care why some random serial killer chooses to wreak his evil on society."

    I may have to steal that. Haha. That concisely captures how I felt 12 years ago. I had almost zero interest in crime stories and never imagined I'd write a book focused on a crime. But everything changed for me the afternoon Columbine happened, because I drove out there and found myself in Clement Park meeting real people in turmoil over what was unfolding.

    That turned my perspective completely around, and initially for me, it was all about them. But over time, my curiosity over why and how this could have happened grew, and the story for me came to be about two things: why did this happen, and what did it do to the community. For me those two stories were so irrevocably joined, that I had to tell both together.

    Thanks to everyone who read the book, and the kind words.

    Keli, there are a few ways you can test the waters a bit. There are 3 excerpts online, including the first (2-page) chapter at I linked to all three here:

    Or you can watch the 3-minute intro video here:

    That will give you a sense. (I actually like the music they chose for the video, btw. I think it captures some of the tone of the book.)

    I just watched the video again, and I'd forgotten I read that Hemingway quote at the end of it. I had to do it about a dozen times before I could read it without choking up. I'm really glad we did it at the memorial, too, which is beautiful. It took the whole day to shoot, and we were racing to get done before sunset, which ended up giving us what for me is that breathtaking closing shot of the memorial. I was pleased with that.)

  23. Dave, thanks for taking time to respond to my comment. I watched the video, read the excerpts, and felt the familiar ache in my chest. When I first heard about Columbine, all I could think about was my teacher husband and how I'd have felt if the tragedy had taken place at his high school.

    I know God is in control, but I have to continually turn my fears over to Him. Perhaps if I read your book and gain a greater understanding of what took place on that and why, I'll be able to let go of some of my anxiety. I'm going to give this serious thought.

  24. Wendy: This sounds like one AWESOME book. I am starting my 'to read' list right now. This book will be at the top.


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