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Sara Zarr

Columbine by Dave Cullen

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News of the changeover to Image sponsoring A&F got me cruising over to look at my profile and update some stuff. Since registering in 2005 I have averaged .15 posts per day. Shoddy! I'd like to get that number up to at least .5

And so:

Reading Dave Cullen's book on the Columbine High School massacre, appropriately titled: COLUMBINE. I'd avoided other books on the tragedy, though it affected and fascinated me (as it did most, I'm sure) because I just wasn't ready or was waiting for a really good, non-hysterical look at it. I heard from many sources that this was the most even, complete look at the tragedy to date. I'm about 2/3 of the way through, but so far it really is a well done examination.

Particularly related to A&F, I think Cullen (who has written for Salon, Slate, and the NYT) managed to be very fair when looking at the evangelical community's various responses to the tragedy. He clearly has deep respect where he saw genuine faith, but also doesn't shy away from talking about the way some churches seemed to exploit or mishandle what was going on. One of the most interesting things is how the Cassie Bernall "she said yes" story started, how it picked up momentum, and what the real story probably is. He's hard on the media (while admitting that he is one of them), and does a good job tracking how stories got distorted so quickly.

This book has been compared to IN COLD BLOOD, and though I haven't read that in 20 years, I can see why the comparison is made. It's a good, non-linear, non-sensationalized rebuilding of what happened before, during, and after. The event itself is sensational and emotional, and Cullen doesn't try to pile on as far as that goes. He's not looking for a scapegoat, either (bullying, bad parents, Marilyn Mason, video games, gun laws, etc).

For any of you who live in the Denver or CO Springs area, I'm curious if there's been any community reaction to this book, and if it's been overall positive, negative, or if everyone just wants to move on...


Sara Zarr

author, person.

sarazarr.com

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The book's designer, Henry Sene Yee, writes about the thoughts and process behind the artwork:

In the end, I didn't want to say anything or felt the need to frame the book in any Point-of-View. What really needs to be said? The Publisher had already set the tone for me. As far as the cover copy, there was no author's name, no descriptive subtitle, no high school, just the word COLUMBINE on the front cover. That said it all. So I pulled all the way out of the school's interior and used an exterior news photo of the high school that photo-researcher Laura Wyss found for me. I made it as small as I could and cropped out any distracting elements and set it low on the page. I extended the gray skies heavenward and set the title small and floating in knock out white from a light sky. The contrast was subtle. K.I.S.S. Keep It Subtle Stupid. Hopefully the dramatically haunting spareness will draw you in. The final has a matte lamination with the title in spot gloss to punch it out a little. Because you still gotta read it from across the room.

I was told that the Sales department wanted to change the type solution to make it more legible because they were worried that the cover wouldn't reproduce well in Amazon. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. But thankfully the Publishers loved it just the way it is. Me too.

You can also find some of his other concepts and mockups for the cover. Personally, I love what he finally settled on. From a design standpoint, the sparseness and starkness of the image comments on the gravity and tragedy of the event without being heavyhanded. It's subtle and haunting, but doesn't downplay or make light of the event either.

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"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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I listened to an interview he did with BookTV's _AfterWords_. Kinda interesting how the final stories come about, especially from the Evangelical circles, as people search for solid storylines and inspirational undertones behind this national tragedy, all with good intentions. When the legend is bigger than the fact, print the legend.


Nick Alexander

Keynote, Worship Leader, Comedian, Parodyist

Host of the Prayer Meeting Podcast - your virtual worship oasis. (Subscribe)

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...You can also find some of his other concepts and mockups for the cover. Personally, I love what he finally settled on. From a design standpoint, the sparseness and starkness of the image comments on the gravity and tragedy of the event without being heavyhanded. It's subtle and haunting, but doesn't downplay or make light of the event either.

I totally agree. It's a perfect cover for what's inside.

(BTW, booksellers have SO MUCH POWER over covers. About half my writer friends have had their covers changed after B&N buyers said, "If you go with this cover, we won't carry this book.")

I listened to an interview he did with BookTV's _AfterWords_. Kinda interesting how the final stories come about, especially from the Evangelical circles, as people search for solid storylines and inspirational undertones behind this national tragedy, all with good intentions. When the legend is bigger than the fact, print the legend.

Yes - and it was fascinating how QUICKLY people try to find meaning. Most of the stories that became "fact" for so long, started within 24 hours of the event. I don't know if that's just due to the post-internet news cycle, or a human nature thing. Probably both.


Sara Zarr

author, person.

sarazarr.com

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I haven't thought about Columbine in years, but I remember the huge debates that took place when Cullen first questioned the "orthodox" stories about Cassie Bernall etc. Wendy Murray Zoba, who covered the Columbine story for Christianity Today, disputed Cullen's claims in November 1999. She addressed those points again in a one-year-anniversary piece in April 2000, and then she and Cullen (and one other person) had an exchange in July 2000. For whatever that's worth.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I haven't thought about Columbine in years, but I remember the huge debates that took place when Cullen first questioned the "orthodox" stories about Cassie Bernall etc. Wendy Murray Zoba, who covered the Columbine story for Christianity Today, disputed Cullen's claims in November 1999. She addressed those points again in a one-year-anniversary piece in April 2000, and then she and Cullen (and one other person) had an exchange in July 2000. For whatever that's worth.

Thanks for those links - the July 2000 one is especially great, and moving, and I think accurately analyzes what (at least one piece of) the culture war is about.

What I feel like I'm getting from Cullen's book is information. There is no "this absolutely didn't happen" or "this absolutely did." There's room even after you read for your own conclusions, and it looks like time and interaction has softened Cullen. Or, maybe he just writes in a different voice here than he does for Salon. I'm definitely feeling a lot of compassion for all parties, and a sense of fairness in the way he treats everyone. (With the possible exception of some of the local authorities who really did step in it in horrifying ways a few times.)

While reading the book, I've been looking up stuff online, too, and it's amazing how many conspiracy theories still abound...I'm fascinated by conspiracy theories! Hello, time suck.


Sara Zarr

author, person.

sarazarr.com

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Sara, thanks for starting a thread on my book--and for the great introduction.

I was not aware of this site--(got a google alert)--but I'm honored.

I'd be happy to answer some questions, though if my presence gets in the way, I understand, and will scoot. Feel free to let me know.

Thanks.

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Welcome to ArtsandFaith.com, Dave! Please stick around! As some of us have only just become aware of your book, the questions may be slow in coming. But we're honored to have you visit.


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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. . . it looks like time and interaction has softened Cullen. Or, maybe he just writes in a different voice here than he does for Salon. I'm definitely feeling a lot of compassion for all parties, and a sense of fairness in the way he treats everyone. (With the possible exception of some of the local authorities who really did step in it in horrifying ways a few times.

That's really interesting--the "softening" idea. It took me by surprise when I first read it, but I think you're probably right. I haven't gone back to read my Salon stories in years, and I thought I was trying to be fair at the time, but I have seen a lot and felt a lot in those ten years, and I think it has taught me a lot more compassion.

You're right: time and interaction with the survivors was key. (The passage of time, and getting older was huge, but also time to spend on the telling, time to reflect and think about how my attitude might affect other people. Time to rework and rework and rework it until I was satisfied with it.) Also, I did a fellowship with the Dart Center For Journalism & Trauma (I'll find a link), and have stayed active in the group over the years. They have taught me a great deal about how to cover victims and survivors--about what they want and need from writers/reporters.

And for the book, I had the gift of distance. Priceless.

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Welcome to ArtsandFaith.com, Dave! Please stick around! As some of us have only just become aware of your book, the questions may be slow in coming. But we're honored to have you visit.

Thanks, Overstreet.

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Sara, thanks for starting a thread on my book--and for the great introduction.

I was not aware of this site--(got a google alert)--but I'm honored.

I'd be happy to answer some questions, though if my presence gets in the way, I understand, and will scoot. Feel free to let me know.

Thanks.

Great to have you here.

I just placed my order and will probably start reading your book this weekend.

Hope you stick around.

Thanks!


"If the Christian subculture exists primarily to condemn the world, you can be sure that Jesus is not having any part of it." - John Fischer

"Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an axe, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed." - Flannery O'Connor

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Dave - very cool of you to jump in, thanks.

I think you're so right about distance, not just for you as a journalist, but for the readers. It's easy to get cynical, fast, about any tragedy once everyone piles on. And the short news cycle leads us to think we've processed and understood everything that has happened, even days later. It's crazy the way we've gotten into this "let the healing begin" mindset about so much tragedy, so soon after it happens. I do it, too, in handling both personal and public tragedies. I want to move on quickly, and think I'm ready.

I came to the book just expecting a close look at something that's very hard to understand, but as I read I'm realizing that I'd forgotten or never really grasped the real lives behind this tragedy. The lasting pain and PTSD fallout for the entire community is something the 24 hours news cycle could never capture, but is probably, in the end, the most important part of the story and could be the biggest motivator for people and lawmakers and communities to act preventatively if they understood it.


Sara Zarr

author, person.

sarazarr.com

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What I feel like I'm getting from Cullen's book is information. There is no "this absolutely didn't happen" or "this absolutely did."

I haven't read enough literature in this vein to offer any similar examples, but I really appreciate the way he has woven this massive amount of data into a readable narrative that doesn't seem to be pushing me particularly moralizing directions. It seems like the sheer amount of notes for this book must have been massive, and the easy tack would have been to organize it in ways that would flatten some characters (wrong word, but...) into plot devices (also wrong word, but...). So far, it has been a rich experience.

I'd be happy to answer some questions, though if my presence gets in the way, I understand, and will scoot. Feel free to let me know.

Please don't scoot! Thanks for popping in. My wife and I are in the midst of wading through this one together, and have had a lot of questions about how you gathered all the backstory info, and what sort of reactions you have had from people involved with the tragedy.

We have been very intrigued by the way you demonstrate how trauma affects our memory of tragedy. Is this a field of study that you became acquainted with in the process of writing on Columbine?

(Ditto comments about the jacket design. Haunting. It accords well with the way Cullen describes the school and mesa early on.)


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Thanks, Sara.

Another one for Dave: Can you talk a bit about Van Sant's Elephant? Especially regarding the subtexts he develops in terms of first-person-shooter video games and homosexuality? Each of these issues were critiqued pretty heavily when the film came out, but I am curious as to how you take the film. (Apologies if you cover this in the book, I am not that far into it yet.)


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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Thanks again for all those warm welcomes.

I only learned about witness testimony and the biology of memory once I got involved in this book. Once I started talking to cops and shrinks and lawyers about it, I felt like I was the last to know. They all certainly know. The general public does not, though.

MLeary, I'm glad it came through without feeling like pushing toward moralizing, or distorting the story. I felt there was no need for any of that. On the story, there was so much to work with. And on the moralizing--well, there's way too much of that in the world already, too, right? Who needs more of that? Or of me telling you what to think?

(In grad school, we used to sometimes discuss who we were writing for, and while I never pictured anyone and found the question a bit puzzling, I learned a lot from one answer, which was attributed to Ezra Pound: Write for the smartest person you know. Great advice. I figure my readers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions. From me, they want lots of information, good characters, a good story, vivid scenes, etc.

There were a ton of challenges in this book, though. The structure was the biggest for me--in terms of the writing, I mean, once I did the research. And then what to cut. Ugh. There was SO MUCH material. Even after I narrowed it down to a modest list of ten major characters who I decided to follow, there was enough for a few thousand pages. It was hard figuring out what to leave out, and of course I did that really poorly, and wrote way too much and then had to cut like crazy.

I wanted it really tight, and with this particular topic, I also knew that it couldn't be too long. Columbine is such a traumatic subject, that it was asking a lot of the reader to pick up a book about that subject. Could I really ask them to pick up an 800-page book? That would seem too daunting. (Even though I think/hope that large stretches of the book are filled with upbeat moments and redemption, the reader doesn't necessarily expect that going in.) Some topics you can hit the person with 800 pages. I don't think this was one of them. And I think it moves along better at 360 or whatever it ended up.

Did I answer your questions?

Ask away.

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Thanks, Sara. I was just trying to figure out where I'd posted that. I wasn't sure if that had been in an email to you.It all starts running together.

Another one for Dave: Can you talk a bit about Van Sant's Elephant? Especially regarding the subtexts he develops in terms of first-person-shooter video games and homosexuality? Each of these issues were critiqued pretty heavily when the film came out, but I am curious as to how you take the film.

Well I really disliked Elephant. I thought two other films were excellent: "Zero Day," on the killers, and this years' "April Showers," about the survivors.

I thought Gus completely duct the interesting question: of what drove the shooters. If he had no opinion on that, why make the film? I also found it incredibly self-indulgent and boring: endless stretches of nothing happening but kids walking down hallways, the camera trained on their back.

But my biggest complaint took me years to sort out. Something bothered me deeply, but I couldn't figure out what. A few years later, I read something somewhat unrelated, and it clicked. To my memory, no high school kid says one particularly intelligent/insightful thing during the film. (That's probably a slight memory exaggeration, but by and large, they're treated as kids having shallow, meaningless chatter about nothing.)

That is so offensive. And such utter nonsense. I was stunned by how articulate the Columbine kids were about what they were going through. I'm always taken aback listening to kids, even my grade school nieces and nephews. There is all sorts of silliness from teenagers, mixed in with endless flashes of brilliance.

So to present the entire class of people in your story as silly nitwits is repulsive to me, and also ignorant. That, I can't forgive the film. It makes me angry thinking about it. If you don't respect your characters, find a different subject matter.

On the particulars you brought up, I found his decision to introduce a sexual attraction between them as bewildering, especially since it fed into some existing myths that proved false. On the first-person shooter stuff, I can't honestly remember the film's take on that. It's been several years.

But I heartily recommend the other two films. Each has something to say, and is so much better at it. "Zero Day" came out about the same time as "Elephant," and was largely ignored because of that, but was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

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I'd never even heard of Zero Day - thanks for bringing that up.

It's been forever since I saw it, but I could sort of appreciate the elegiacal quality of what Van Sant was trying to do in Elephant, and the one long tracking shot (an ode to Russian Ark, maybe? except that came out only a year before so maybe not) and the ordinariness of the day. It definitely didn't have any kind of narrative you could really latch onto or, worse, anyone to care about. And yeah, when the guys kiss, it was a total HUH? moment; made absolutely no sense and was more than irritating.

(Not to hijack my own thread, but: Van Sant's Paranoid Park shares a lot of similarities with Elephant - it almost seems like the movies should be seen as a duo - but in PP there's an actual narrative structure and you kind of feel for the kids. Lots of long tracking and slow-mo shots of skateboarders. Van Sant fascinates me because has made a couple of movies I absolutely love - To Die For and Gerry - but then, those were not written by him. He did write the screenplay for Paranoid Park, but it's adapted from a Blake Nelson's novel which is perhaps why there's the structure to hang on to. /threadhijack. As you were.)


Sara Zarr

author, person.

sarazarr.com

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To continue the hijack briefly, "Drugstore Cowboy" and especially "My Own Private Idaho" are on my all-time favorites list. But since then, I have seen nothing to love from him. (I liked a lot of "Milk," but had big reservations, too. I should say that I liked it a lot, but with reservations and didn't love it. And Sean Penn seemed to bring all the energy to it.)

I was just discussing Elephant with someone who felt it suffered from its structure, too, because it was leading toward one thing: the attack. It put all the narrative weight on that, and it wasn't a very rewarding feeling at the end: OK, so they shot the place up, as expected. Yuck. And no kidding. There was no intellectual or emotional payoff. There was an emotional arousal of intense action, but I think it made a lot of us feel a little dirty for having a response, without anything useful out of it.

I'd had sort of a similar response without completely crystallizing all that. It just felt sort of an unfulfilling ending, on top of an unfulfilling film, and I think that's why.

I can't actually remember how Zero Day (Zero Hour?) climaxed, but I didn't have that reaction.

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I was just discussing Elephant with someone who felt it suffered from its structure, too, because it was leading toward one thing: the attack. It put all the narrative weight on that, and it wasn't a very rewarding feeling at the end: OK, so they shot the place up, as expected. Yuck. And no kidding. There was no intellectual or emotional payoff. There was an emotional arousal of intense action, but I think it made a lot of us feel a little dirty for having a response, without anything useful out of it.

I am being tugged one direction by your book and another by the other two films in Van Sant's death trilogy. One the one hand, Elephant has little to do with Columbine, with trauma, and the kernels of narrative truth that now orbit the historical event. He swallows every myth that the media perpetuated in those early months and tosses them all together in a fetishistic march towards the death of these almost noble savages.

On the other hand, Elephant is bookended by two other films that share an equally mythical and/or media-saturated rendering of two other very public deaths. Gerry re-enacts a possible version of its events that becomes increasingly abstract through the odd dialogue and taxing tracking shots. Last Days is intensely mythical, and nods frequently towards a media system that has a similar effect on those that find themselves part of it. Both of these films question our long-held understanding of the tracking shot as something that breaths a measure of life and reality into a film, as in the death trilogy the tracking shot becomes a way to burden the viewer with the inevitable process of death. We are locked in. Van Sant forces us to feel the weight of time.

All this is to say that I wonder if one can look at Elephant as a document of all the almost fetishistic misperceptions of Columbine, which leads to an implicit critique of this initially misguided hysteria. At the very least, I think Van Sant uses the tracking shot to cut through all the media gibberish and get to the same senses of time and fate that he enacts in the other two films of the trilogy.

At this point I am inclined to take Van Sant's critique of the tracking shot in Elephant as an interesting contribution, and bin the rest. He should have picked a different tragedy.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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