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?


Peggy Blann Phifer said...


Like you, those are the two key memories that stick with me. I remember the shock of the news as I heard it. The heart-breaking tears I wept for those children and their families. Yes, even for the kids that pulled the trigger.

I wrote a 'letter to the editor' of our local paper (Las Vegas Review Journal) but it never appeared. My guess is it was too Christian for them.

I hate how the media cominates America's perception. Truth or not, seems what "they" say is waht "we" believe. That's so wrong.

BTW, I found a copy of your book "A Question of Innocence" on Paper Back Swap. (I hope that code works!)

Anonymous said...

I remember being in my car and hearing about the kids running out of school with their hands raised--because the SWAT team told them to. That was to make sure that the ones leaving the school were NOT the shooters.

I also remember where I first heard the Cassie Bernall story--it was from NBC News. But given the confusion and absolute terror of that day, I am not surprised that so many details were incorrect, nor do I believe that Cassie's family deliberately fostered a lie.

I've read Columbine and it's a excellent, well-researched book that I'd recommend.

Leslie said...

I remember walking into one of my college history classes and the teacher mentioning it - and being in shock because I had just been to Columbine that previous October for Fall break.

(I also remember the jerk who said something jerky when I said that I'd been there - my mind was on the new friend that I had made and the fact that she taught the youth at her church and therefore likely knew these kids)

I read about this book awhile back - and that a lot that we think we know we really don't. I don't think I could handle reading the book though.

And I agree Tina - They were a grieving family grasping at what was left of their daughter - there was no ill intentions there.

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks very much, Brandilyn. I really appreciate when someone takes the time for such a thoughtful read, and write-up.

It was interesting to hear your similar experiences. This case was also the first I learned about how unreliable witness testimony is. Since then, I learned that every cop and lawyer is aware. Leslie Stahl did a great two-part piece on 60 Minutes about it last year: on how the brain is so suggestible and thinks it is creating accurate memories.

BTW, I agree with Tina and Leslie on the Bernalls. They were in grief and went with the same story as everyone else did. It was understandable.