Ten years ago on April 20, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold marched into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. and killed 15 people, including themselves. Since then, scores of journalists and millions of Americans have tried to make sense of a senseless massacre. No one has done so as thoroughly as Dave Cullen. An investigative journalist, Cullen sped to the scene as the shootings unfolded, and has been reporting the story ever since. In Columbine, released this month, he debunks much of the event's mythology, offers riveting profiles of the two very different killers and chronicles a town's attempts to come to terms with an unthinkable tragedy. TIME spoke to Cullen by telephone about the perils of working on a painful project, the problems with assigning blame and what Columbine has taught us.
How did you get started with this project?
When the shooting got started, I saw it on the local news and drove up to the school. I worked about a month on the story for Salon and thought I was done. I really wanted to be done. But it kept pulling me back. The morning after Columbine, the kids had changed. The first day they were hugging, crying, screaming. And the next morning, nothing. The boys were completely blank. It really unnerved me. That's why I kept coming back to this book.
How did you earn the trust of your subjects while reporting on such a painful subject?
After Columbine, there were many kids who wanted to talk. But I approached it gingerly. You have to establish yourself as a human being that cares before you take the notepad out. Don't just plunge in.
What effects did immersing yourself so deeply in such a horrible event for 10 years have on you personally?
I had two bouts of secondary post-traumatic stress disorder during the process. I had a bout for the first year, and then I had a relapse 2½ years ago.
How difficult was the writing?
I tried to pace out writing the hard chapters. The one about the Klebolds' funeral for [Dylan] was really hard, which I didn't expect. To empathize with a killer is hard. You don't want to go there, but you have to. We've all got good and bad and nasty urges in us.
I spent five months just ingesting Eric. All I did was read his journals, listen to his music, and watch some of the movies he liked. Then I spent 4½ months on Dylan. The Eric part was O.K. It was like inspecting a disease. There's one time in Eric's journal it's just a line or two where he talks about turning off his feelings of sympathy. He has some kind of awareness [that what he's doing is wrong]. And that makes it almost a little more diabolical.
In the end I found Dylan far more interesting. Eric started out wanting to become a killer, and became a killer. Dylan started out wanting to commit suicide.
I wonder if you were more interested in Dylan because Eric, as you argue, was a born psychopath, and there wasn't really anyone to blame.
Exactly. I didn't really feel any sense of kinship with Eric. Obviously what Dylan did was wrong, but I could identify with a lot of the things he was going through. I was a teenager too. I remember wallowing in my own self-pity.
One thing I just couldn't wrap my head around was the process by which Dylan went from a depressed kid to one capable of committing mass murder.
I don't know if there's ever any final understanding of that. He didn't ever actually explain to us why he did this.
Why did the killers keep jumping through hoops working their jobs, writing papers, going to the prom right up until the attack? It makes the attack seem more like a performance than an angry act.
Definitely. This is what terrorism is: violence as theater. 9/11 was a performance, a show for America to make us quake. This was a performance for Eric in particular.
You clearly have sympathy for the Klebolds. What about toward the Harrises?
I could see from what Eric wrote about them that they seem very clearly to be good parents. After [Eric and Dylan were arrested in January 1998 for breaking into a van] Wayne Harris' journal was rife with activity. He didn't just send Eric to a shrink. He called a whole bunch of them himself. He was trying to do things right.
So where did they go wrong?I don't know that they did. If someone had told them their kid was a psychopath, they could have done things differently. But how could they ever have known that?
Eric fooled everybody. I just did a reading where someone said she'd worked closely with Eric and had a distinct memory of him being such an impressive young man: polite, charming, deferential to adults. Just like what you wish all the little high school brats were like. She said all the teachers were fooled. When you have someone growing up to be a professional con artist, it's pretty hard for the Harrises to see through that. Parents of psychopaths never figure it out.
And the Klebolds? Why didn't they realize Dylan was so depressed, for starters?
I asked psychiatrists about that. They said, "Oh, you've got a morose 16-year-old boy. Welcome to America." The parents just thought he was going through adolescence, and high school was hard. They knew he was depressed; they just didn't realize how severely. Dylan's dad was close with his son. He knew he had a troubled kid. But Dylan was painfully shy from when he was a little boy. You don't see this coming.
A lot of myths sprang up immediately after Columbine. Why were we so quick to jump on pat narratives?
The problem with Columbine was we felt the need to explain it right away. It was so horrifying, and the public wanted to know why it happened. We in the media wanted to know why too, and we thought we had to answer them. What we should have said was, "We don't have any good information, and it would be irresponsible of us to say why." When you speculate in a case like this, it very quickly morphs into "fact." We started with the assumption that school shooters tend to be loners, outcasts and bullied. That turned out to be a myth: some are bullied, but not even 50%. The majority are not any of those things.