Monday, January 11, 2010
Are Your Memories of the Columbine Shooting True?
When you hear "Columbine school shooting" what memories about the event come immediately to mind? I think these two things: (1) Cassie's declaration that she believed in God--just before being shot. (2) Two picked-on, unpopular boys who finally snapped and went on a rampage in revenge.
Did we not hear about these two elements of the horrible shooting over and over? We did. Both are false.
Over Christmas vacation I read Columbine, a book ten years in the making by Dave Cullen. Fascinating, chilling, well-done book. Cullen, in straightforward reporting fashion, tells us what happened--and even more importantly, why. Along the way he dispels the media-driven myths about the shooting--myths that became so prevalent that even the declared truth couldn't dispel them.
At the heart of these myths lie two facts that stood out to me. The first is that, contrary to popular belief, eyewitness accounts of tragedies are not reliable. Too much emotion is raging, with horrific events happening too fast. A vision of something true can be set in the brain inaccurately--wrong time, wrong person, wrong color. But that inaccuracy becomes truth to that person, who just knows he's remembering right. In my own research for writing suspense novels, I've seen this phenomenon over and over again. Even those sure fingers pointing to a defendant in the courtroom--"That's the man who attacked me!"--aren't always accurate.
Second is the sound-bite-hungry, get-the-story-first mentality of the media. It's understandable but unfortunate. Reporters need to file that story--and it better be good. And on TV everything's reduced to soundbites, as there's not much time to cover a story. But often the result is a report highly skewed.
My first published book (1994) was A Question of Innocence, the only true crime I've written. Originally I attended the trial in the Bay Area of California as research for my novel Eyes of Elisha. I ended up writing a book on the nation-watched "Diary Girl" case, obtaining the exclusive story of the defendant and her family, and having access to attorneys on both sides. What I learned of the media was fascinating--and again, chilling. I'd be in court each day, learning the background information on the defense and prosecution. I'd watch the testimony, be in the halls during break. Then I'd come home and watch the coverage on the nightly news. Those sound bites were often night and day from what I knew to be the truth of the case. (A Question of Innocence is my only book that's out of print. You can buy it from used book sellers here.)
For those who like to know the story behind the story--and are willing to revisit a terrible event in our country--I recommend Columbine. It is a tale of tragedy but also one of hope, as symbolized by the cover: the site of the tragedy is small; the open sky large.
What do you remember most about Columbine?