:: Article

At The Broken Places

By Max Dunbar.


Human memory can be erratic. We tend to record fragments: gunshots, explosions, trench coats, terror, sirens, screams. Images come back jumbled, but we crave coherence, so we trim them, adjust details, and assemble everything together in a story that makes sense.

– Dave Cullen, Columbine

There’s a phrase in Dave Cullen’s book: ‘A rush to closure,’ which he uses to describe the national mood after the Columbine killings in 1999. Thirty-six hours after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their high school for the last time, the Denver Post announced: ‘The healing begins’.

For the survivors and the bereaved the healing had barely begun, and might never even start. Anne Marie Hochhalter would not walk again. Dave Sanders bled to death in three hours. Patrick Ireland got a pellet of buckshot tearing into his brain. Before April 20, 1999, his biggest problem was his unrequited love for a girl called Laura. He could not seem to ask her out, not even to the senior prom that took place just days before the massacre. She liked Patrick too, but it never seemed the right time. He was paralysed on the right hand side. Somehow he managed to drag himself to a window and jump out. He would spend the rest of his life recovering from severe physical and neurological damage. Eventually, he married another woman. They would not have met if he had not been shot. Laura came to the wedding.

We all remember the names of the killers, and forget the names of the victims.

People spun the Blame Wheel. Can’t blame the killers. They’re dead. The only indictable individual was the drug dealer who’d procured a gun for Eric Harris. He got nine years, maximum. Who or what else? Marilyn Manson, the Goth subculture, a ‘gay mafia’, a poor SWAT response, the devil itself, Roe v Wade, the NRA? Cullen: ‘Eric did not make the list. Dylan didn’t either. They were just kids.’

Many people see Columbine as a case of two bullied outcasts lashing out in the worst possible way. Except that Harris and Klebold were socially accepted, had been planning the attack for over a year, and killed indiscriminately, opening fire on jock and nerd alike. ‘Neither one complained about bullies picking on them,’ Cullen writes, ‘they boasted about doing it themselves.’

The greatest myth about Columbine is that it was a school shooting. In We Need to Talk about Kevin Lionel Shriver introduces a school shooter who is incensed because his slaying of eleven people is upstaged days later by Columbine. ‘Nothing, not one thing in that circus went according to plan,’ Kevin Khatchadourian snarls. ‘It was a 100-percent failure from top to bottom.’ He was right. Harris built and planted bombs that, in the end, failed to detonate. Cullen estimates the intended body count as ‘nearly 2,000 students, plus 150 faculty and staff, plus who knows how many police, paramedics and journalists.’ The fact is that Columbine was a failed act of terrorism, complete with martyrdom videos.

Cullen’s book took him ten years. The comparisons to In Cold Blood are entirely justified. He begins with the atrocity itself and then moves on to a parallel track, splicing the efforts of a shattered community to rebuild its life with Harris and Klebold’s motivations and preparations. The wealth of journal and website entries the killers left behind gives Cullen unique access into their minds. Harris comes off as a clinical psychopath: inherently destructive and evil, yet managing to manipulate his parents, teachers and peers. Eric had what Cullen calls extinction fantasies, dreams of empty and motionless wastelands where all human life was centuries dead. His journal extracts are terrifying. Cullen: ‘His brain was never scanned, but it probably would have shown activity unrecognisable as human to most neurologists.’

Dylan Klebold was entirely different. Although he shared Harris’s hatred for humanity, we get the impression that his heart was not in nihilism. He too kept a journal, full of reflections on loneliness and spirituality, margined with stars, infinity signs, fluttering hearts and other ‘thought-pictures’. His thing was love, and ‘until his final week, Dylan wrote privately of almost nothing else.’ He’d been suicidal for two years. Harris persuaded Klebold to take others with him. The reader can’t help agreeing with FBI psychologist Dr Fuselier: what a waste.

The killers left tons of information but no insights into how to prevent future atrocities. The FBI recommended that identifying outcasts as potential threats was to be avoided because it stigmatised young people who were, most likely, already going through a hard time. Cullen: ‘Oddballs are not the problem. They do not fit the profile. There is no profile.’

In 2006 a permanent memorial was erected to the thirteen people killed at Columbine. Bill Clinton spoke at the event. He quoted Hemingway’s words from A Farewell to Arms: ‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.’


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is a co-editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 12th, 2009.