On my old blog I did a couple of posts about Dave Cullen’s book Columbine. The first entry was when I was part way through the book, the second when I finished. Both sparked a lot of comments. Several were from the book’s author. A number of comments on the second review came from someone who has extensively blogged about Columbine, though he (I’m using the masculine pronoun as a generic pronoun here; I don’t know the blogger’s sex) has no personal knowledge about the school or the event. His first comment was based on erroneous assertions about a book he hadn’t read and drawing more erroneous conclusions about how the legal system handles insanity pleas. Ever one to educate, I answered first, then checked his blog later. He is very invested in a particular paradigm. I suspect many of his readers are, as well, though some may be simply curious. It reached a point where it seemed like a long post here would work better than a long comment at the other post.
TheDude asked this: “Ms. Reed, what is your assessment of this quote by Brooks Brown: ‘Dylan and Eric are responsible for creating the tragedy of Columbine, but Columbine is responsible for creating Eric and Dylan.’” I was Brooks’s debate teacher for four years; he was kick-ass at it. We’re Facebook friends. He is very bright, and I love him dearly—always will. Having said that, I can only say that I disagree with Brooks here. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve disagreed in the years I’ve known him, but we have always maintained respect for each other.
The next comment, from Iporter101, was substantially more nuanced and requires a more extensive reply. I want to say to this person how much I appreciate his/her sensitivity and willingness to keep an open mind. I appreciate the fact that you understand that this isn’t a historical event for me; it’s a significant part of who I am. If you watched Rachel’s memorial service, you heard me speak about her. She was on my speech team, as was Dan Mauser.
Naturally, we all see events through our own lenses, so I’m going to give you a few of mine upfront. I was a speech/theater/choir geek in a high school of around 2,800 students. From elementary school on everyone knew I was an athletic disaster. Ours was a typically sports-focused school with its share of jerk jocks and mean cheerleaders, along with some perfectly nice athletes and cheers, but they were unquestionably the top of the high school totem-pole. Welcome to America. Speech kids were not cool. We could earn the same letters as the jocks (and I did) but we wouldn’t be caught dead in letter jackets, lest someone mistake us for the jocks we generally held in mutual contempt. My friends and I did not attend pep rallies or go to sports games. There was one cheerleader who left permanent metaphorical nail marks in many, many girls’ psyches. I left a few marks of my own, I guess. We were young.
I was a smart, opinionated, outspoken girl in the 1970’s (which was not the fashionable thing to be). I compensated for that by being flirtatious. I had a big boyfriend from another school, so guys knew it wasn’t going anywhere, but the flirting made the brains and mouth forgivable. There was a boy who helped me out a lot in chemistry. (OK, I was history and English smart—sucked in math and science.) There was no such term as “stalking” for what he did back then, but that’s what he ended up doing. He showed up at my house often, but only when I was home alone. When I wasn’t alone, I’d see him drive up and down the street in front of my house. He got very possessive, trying to intimidate guys who talked to me. It was scary. It probably didn’t help that he told me, with absolute seriousness, that he wanted to be a hit man when he graduated. He didn’t have many friends. That’s the thing about behaving in ways that scare people; they don’t want to hang out with you. I lay on my mom’s bed one warm night talking to a friend on the phone with the window open, and I told her how much he scared me, but I still felt beholden for the help in chemistry. The next day at school, he cornered me against the lockers and told me there was a girl he thought was his friend, but he found out last night that she told her friends she thought he was creepy. I realized that he must have been standing outside my mom’s window in the dark listening. Then he said that one day he would find her alone in the dark and put a bullet through her head. He never spoke to me again.
Do I think my school made him into that? Do I think he threatened me and wanted to kill people for a living because he was low-man on the totem pole at school? What do you think? I’m sure if you asked him what happened, he would have told you that I’d led him on, even though everyone knew I was absolutely faithful to my boyfriend. I’m sure he saw me as one more bitchy girl at school who’d never give him a chance. If you asked someone who’d heard only his side, they’d tell you the same thing. That wouldn’t make it true. Look, when you gather together 2,000-3,000 people based on nothing but geographic proximity, you’re going to get a mixed bag. Dynamics will never be ideal. Ultimately, people who are angry and hostile don’t make friends in any environment.
Yes, we had a group of problem jocks at Columbine, especially in the 97-98 school year. They were not the majority. I would say my high school had very much the equivalent, and my friends were on the receiving end of whatever harassment was dished. Here’s where Cullen’s point becomes pivotal. Many kids will resent that. They will look back on those interactions with hostility for years. But most kids will not stalk a girl and threaten to put a bullet through her head. Most will not walk into school with guns and shoot people. That takes a very particular kind of person, and what it is that makes them that was set into motion long before they get to high school.
Psychologists and law enforcement professionals have concluded that Eric was a psychopath. Ireporter quotes Eric: “Everyone is always making fun of me because of how I look, how f—— weak I am and shit, well I will get you all back: ultimate f—— revenge here. you people could have shown more respect, treated me better, asked for my knowledge or guidence more, treated me more like senior, and maybe I wouldn’t have been as ready to tear your f—— heads off.” There is an arrogance there. People do not give him the respect he is due. He is smarter than everyone else, and they don’t properly acknowledge that. That’s not a self-esteem issue.
Of course, he also says, “then again, I have always hated how I looked, I make fun of people who look like me, sometimes without even thinking sometimes just because I want to rip on myself. Thats where a lot of my hate grows from, the fact that I have practically no selfesteem, especially concerning girls and looks and such. therefore people make fun of me… constantly… therefore I get no respect and therefore I get f—— PISSED.” He knows he doesn’t fit the ideal looks-wise, but there’s still a real focus on the lack of due respect. That’s pretty normal, actually, but when you pair it with other writings, like how he had every right to break into someone’s car, how he had every right to decide who should live and who should die, it’s more complex than that one statement alone. “I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things. And no don’t fucking say, ‘well thats your fault’ because it isnt, you people had my phone #, and I asked and all, but no. no no no dont let the weird looking Eric KID come along, ohh f——- nooo.” You point out that this was written on April 3, 1999. Eric had very much resolved to come in and kill people. He wasn’t about to back out. It’s no surprise that he was actively feeding his anger and hatred.
I’ve done a lot of research into psychopathy, and while the jury is still out, it’s looking very much like it is a neurological disorder, one the person is born with. I’ve heard many people talk about the fact that they so hated high school that they fantasized about killing people, but they never would have actually done it. Is it possible that the reason they didn’t do it and Eric did was because of a physiological difference in their brains? At the very least, is it possible that they didn’t have a psychopathic best friend egging them on?
Part of the Columbine myth is that teachers and administrators did nothing. By law, we cannot tell anyone, least of all the press, what was done to discipline bullies. We can not say a word, even now, about whether any problem athlete had been suspended, much less whether he had been suspended numerous times. To this day, confidentiality laws prevent that. I just have to let you draw your own conclusions about why I bring it up at all. We could not tell the press whether or not a student’s father came in with lawyers and bailed his kid out as often as he possibly could. I can tell you that the grounds for kicking a kid out of school are pretty tight, and they were even tighter before what happened to us. You can’t permanently kick a kid out of school for being an asshole. Now we have “habitually disruptive” policies and things like that, but they were put into place by school districts in direct response to us. They did not exist then. You could suspend repeatedly, nothing more.
In the end, it was a microcosm of life. People don’t all get along anywhere. Everywhere you go, there are assholes who seem to get away with all kinds of things. They cut in front of you in traffic, rip you off in business transactions, cheat on their spouses. I figure I have to leave them to cosmic justice. There are good people who feed coins in your meter to keep you from getting tickets and who love you for who you are. Most people understand this basic principle of yin and yang. I told Oprah Winfrey that Columbine was a largely homogeneous school where most kids fit in; that made it really hard to be an outsider. Brooks agreed with that assessment. I spoke to someone about that statement last week, and she asked whether it was still like that or had we gotten better? I don’t understand the question. Was she asking me whether we had become more fragmented so that fewer kids feel they belong? Is that what we should be trying to accomplish? Was she asking whether we’d found the magic elixir that could make 1,600 kids get along in perfect harmony? I would say that most kids at Columbine feel they belong, and some do not. There are some very unconventional kids who would tell you they feel very much a part of the school and some “average” seeming ones who feel they don’t. We’re not perfect; we never were.
The key is this: your average kid, no matter how disenfranchised he or she feels, does not stage an event like Eric and Dylan did. The boy I knew in high school wasn’t bad looking. He could have had a girlfriend if he didn’t get so frighteningly possessive and threaten violence. I didn’t make him that way. No girl did. And if he had killed me, it wouldn’t have been my fault.
The media painted a caricature of a school where jocks roamed the halls intimidating at will. Then they spun the idea that fairly normal kids could be made into killers in such an environment. Columbine101 is right: “You can also bet good money that this sort of event is going to happen again because the basic, underlying causes are not being addressed particularly well anywhere.” As long as we think that we can make human beings get along 100% perfectly in adolescence when we can’t even make them do it as adults, we will miss kids who present real danger for reasons that have less to do with school than with psychological or neurological issues. That doesn’t mean schools have no responsibility. Of course we should have consequences for bullying. Of course we should continue to keep our eyes and ears open for whatever problems kids may have. Just don’t delude yourself into thinking there’s a utopian experience out there that will solve the problem.