Author Jeff Kass on how his Columbine theories differ from Dave Cullen's
Local author Dave Cullen's book Columbine has received an enormous amount of media attention -- far more than another recently published tome, Columbine: A True Crime Story. And Jeff Kass, the ex-Rocky Mountain News reporter who penned the latter, has definitely noticed the discrepancy. He's not surprised that the national press gravitated toward Cullen's offering, which was issued by Twelve Books, a growing publishing powerhouse. (In contrast, Kass' effort comes courtesy of Ghost Road Press, a modest, Denver-based outfit.) But he's more bothered by inattention from local outlets. For instance, although Colorado Public Radio aired an enormous number of Columbine-related reports around April 20, the tenth anniversary of the attack on the high school, he notes that "they never interviewed me, and as far as I know, never mentioned by book."
Adding to his frustration is the willingness of so many reviewers and observers to accept Cullen's conclusions as definitive. In Kass' view, "Columbine is a major social issues, and it deserves a lot of books to be written about it -- a lot of serious books." Moreover, he says, "I have issues with some of the things he says in his book. I just don't find the attribution for a lot of it. There's room for contradictory and conflicting opinions as long as they're backed up by facts -- and I feel I'm able to back up everything in my book."
Of course, the authors agree on plenty of things, including the relative unimportance of bullying as a motivator for the killing spree launched by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- a major bone onetime Columbine parent and activist Randy Brown has to pick with Cullen. Kass bases his beliefs in this area on diaries kept by the murderers. "They write about everything from losing their Zippo lighter to not being able to get a date," he points out. "But they barely talk about bullying, period, and they never talk about being bullied themselves. And you'd think they would have if it had been such a factor for them."
Likewise, Kass concurs with Cullen about Klebold's depressive tendencies. But he's not as willing to suggest that Klebold merely followed Harris' orders. "Dylan's writings show him to be pretty entranced by the plan. And their code word for the shootings -- NBK, which stood for Natural Born Killers, one of their favorite movies -- came from him. He was the first to mention doing an NBK, going NBK. That says to me that he wasn't such a secondary participant."
Kass and Cullen also have slightly different takes on Harris. Both argue that he was probably a psychopath -- although Kass acknowledges some evidence to the contrary. "The trademark of a psychopath is that you have no emotion, no feelings. And in Eric's diaries, he does have emotion. For one thing, he worries about what's going to happen to his parents, and he feels bad about not being able to bond with his father more. And he feels devastated that he has no friends and that people ignore him and he can't get dates."
This last point is a key one from Kass' perspective. "He says Eric Harris was this wildly popular student, especially with the girls -- that he's dating or having sex with all these girls at school. And I totally disagree with that. I don't find any attribution in his book or in the end notes for that. I don't know where it comes from. I'd like to know. And he says similar things about Dylan. He says Dylan had all these friends, and that he was well-connected at school and at least was more popular than we thought he was. And I don't know where he comes up with that, either.
"Now, maybe you can find a study showing that if you have five close friends, you're a normal high school student in America," he goes on. "But even if you could prove that Dylan had five close friends, that doesn't mean he was a normal high school student, because Dylan didn't believe that himself. Dylan was blinded to friends by his depression, and Eric was blinded to any friends he had by his rage. So I think you're in this academic situation. You could say, 'Gee, Eric and Dylan, you had a lot of friends, and you lived these great middle-class lives.' But that didn't get through to them. They thought their lives were miserable. So it's a classic case of perception versus reality."
As for Kass' perceptions, he says, "I think both Eric and Dylan died virgins. And even though it's sort of a weird topic to get into -- their sex lives -- I really think it's illustrative of how well-connected, or not connected, they were to the school community. I feel they were outcasts. I feel they were among the most unpopular kids in the school -- and my evidence is their diaries. Pick up almost any page and all they talk about is how much they are outcasts, how they don't feel part of the school or any community."
More distinctions between the books crop up in terms of the topics the authors tackle. Cullen focuses almost entirely on the crime itself, whereas Kass devotes his epilogue to what he describes as "the cover-up" conducted by Jefferson County law-enforcement officials. He also attempts to find links between Columbine and other school shootings around the country, and his research leads him to conclude that the vast majority take place in suburban communities in the southern and western parts of the United States. He's also come up with a theory to explain the regional nature of the phenomenon.
"I found studies done before Columbine and with, from what I could tell, no notion of school shootings in mind that talked about the culture of honor," he says. "It's a well-known concept in the South, but also in the West, where, if you feel your honor has been violated, you feel the need to retaliate to defend it -- and you feel that it's okay to do that with violence. That's seen as an acceptable means of avenging your lost honor."
For Kass, getting this information out to the broader public remains important -- and even though Columbine's tenth anniversary has passed (with Cullen grabbing the vast majority of spotlight time), he hasn't given up on reaching readers. He's hoping to arrange a book tour to other places that have suffered through mass shootings at schools, such as Jonesboro, Arkansas, Blacksburg, Virginia and West Paducah, Kentucky.
"I think there's still a window of opportunity to promote the book, and really, it's always going to have relevance," he says. "Even if all of this was to stop tomorrow, people would still want to know about what happened and why."