Thursday, January 14, 2010

45. Columbine: A True Crime Story by Jeff Kass

A few months ago, I read and reviewed Columbine by Dave Cullen. As you may or may not remember, the review was fairly glowing. I rarely get comments on my blog posts (I find that people usually prefer to discuss books with me in person) so I was surprised and happy to get the e-mail notification that someone commented on the Columbine post. The anonymous commenter copied and pasted quotes from two positive reviews of another book about Columbine without stating who they were, why they were commenting, or adding any thoughts of their own about either book. It was weird and creepy. I placed a request at my library for the other book, Columbine: A True Crime Story by Jeff Kass, and considered it a recommendation. The book finally came in and I read it over a weekend. I started to get really curious about the anonymous commenter, mainly because I thought that Cullen's book was vastly superior to Kass's. I did a lot of searching online, and found eight other blog posts about Columbine by Dave Cullen that received the exact same comment that I did, sometimes signed with initials and sometimes not. Eventually I found one that also had a comment from Dave Cullen, explaining that the anonymous comment was from the founder of the publishing house that put out the Kass book -- it seems the guy has a Google Alert for Cullen's name and has been leaving similar comments for months. I cannot tell you how much this pissed me off. If someone had commented that they knew of another book about the subject and thought it was better researched or more comprehensive or whatever, I still would have been interested. Why go for creepy and weird -- and anonymous? I don't get it and I don't appreciate it.

I'll be honest, I was not excited to read this book when I picked it up. I hate the cover, especially because I thought the cover of Columbine was flawless. I was interested to find out what the sub-sub-title meant -- the title in full is Columbine: A True Crime Story: a victim, the killers and the nation's search for answers. Why "a" victim? As I read, I grew more confused about this. Once I had finished, the only conclusion I came to was that Kass was referring to the family of Isaiah Shoels, who he profiles in detail. But I'm not even sure that I'm correct; maybe I'm just missing something. And while we're on the topic of the Shoels family, I'm not sure why he chose them to represent the victims' families. Because they're the most controversial? Because they believe the tragedy was part of a larger conspiracy? Maybe Kass felt the Shoels' story had not been told properly -- but I'm sure families of the other victims have stories that are just as compelling. Why not tell them?

The book opens with a foreword by Douglas Brinkley (something touted on the front cover). This foreword is also included verbatim on Kass's website. Um, just one thing: Who is Douglas Brinkley? There's no explanation as to who he is or why he's qualified to the write the foreword anywhere in the book or on that page of Kass's website. According to Wikipedia, he's a noted historian and professor. I felt really stupid for having had to look the guy up on Wikipedia, and I resented it. Seriously, is this guy so well-known that it's not necessary to identify him in any way? Is it just me being ignorant? In his foreword, Brinkley writes, "Like any journalist worth his salt, Kass provides lots of minute detail which adds immeasurably to the saga..." Sounds promising, yes? Kass begins the book with a cursory overview of the events of April 20, 1999. Throughout, he adds some humanizing information about each victim -- that minute detail we were promised, I presume. Here's one example: "He wears glasses, and loves homemade tortillas and cats." Um... really? That's the most ridiculous sentence that I've ever read. It's not quite as humanizing as one might think.

When I described Kass's overview of the events of the day as cursory, I really meant it. This was a very brief rundown of the action, so to speak. For example, Kass states at one point, "When did teacher Dave Sanders die? Police interviews of the two students who tended to Sanders -- whose death remains among the most controversial -- are among the briefest." Rather than going into actual detail concerning Sanders' ordeal or explaining exactly why it was controversial, Kass tells us what his outfit looked like. The story of Patrick Ireland's escape from the school library is given a short paragraph. There is no mention of the widespread myth that Cassie Bernall said yes when asked if she still believed in God. After reading this chapter, I found myself wondering when Kass would revisit the events and fill in the gaps. He never did, in my opinion. When compared with Cullen's Columbine, there is very little information provided on what exactly happened in the school; the stories of Dave Sanders, Patrick Ireland and Cassie Bernall are told with much more background information and detail by Cullen. The conclusion that I came to is that Kass must have felt it would be redundant or exploitative to write about the events of the day in detail. He may have thought it unnecessary considering the ten years' worth of reporting the events that has taken place. I can't say that motivation isn't valid. But when reading something billed as "A True Crime Story" I would have preferred more information about the actual crime.

Kass and Cullen appear to agree on one thing: Bullying was not the one motivation behind the killers' actions. Both explore the mental history of the two boys, but Kass also presents another theory. He begins his first chapter after the overview of April 20th with background information on the attitudes toward honor and violence in the American West and South. He makes an argument that you can attribute school shootings, at least in part, to these traditional attitudes. I don't think he sells this theory effectively. In my opinion, that would have been a great premise for a book on its own. But the theory isn't given enough attention for me to have been convinced. Kass also provides more background information on the two boys' families -- going back to one's great-grandfather. I didn't find this to be very effective either. I didn't think it added anything to the book, although I'm sure many people will be interested in the mental health history of one of the boy's mothers.

"If a thermometer could measure their psyches, Eric would shoot the mercury up. He had a hot anger. Dylan's sadness would drop the mercury to negative. But they were joined at zero -- touching each other in their disillusionment, and their social standing."

This is one example of Kass's writing that I shook my head at. (It's a bit of a reach, isn't it?) I don't think the book is particularly well-written. Kass obviously has passion for his subject, but that doesn't necessarily translate into good writing. I was also very put off when he criticized both the police department and social workers for their bad spelling and grammar. Normally, this would not be off-putting for a professional proofreader and copy editor. Normally, I might even applaud. But Kass himself could have benefitted from better proofreading and copy editing. For example, on page 41 Kass writes, "...his smile appears contended..." Although that would pass a spell-check, Kass clearly means "contented." I also noted inconsistent use of both "Web site" and "website" as well as usage of "victims families" and "victim's families" when "victims' families" is the intended meaning (don't worry, he used that one a few times too). I made note of other examples, but I won't bother listing them all here. For someone who calls into question the intelligence of social workers (stating "Their written notes that have been publicly released are full of misspellings and might show them to not be too bright."), Kass's own work should have been above reproach. Sadly, it is not. Also, his use of [sic] seems fairly arbitrary (which I found odd), to say the least. I noticed typos in quoted materials that went without the [sic] and yet when quoting one report, he inserted it after "self motivated" -- I don't find the lack of a hyphen to be so incorrect or unusual, but that's just me. And from a typesetting point of view, this book is sorely lacking. The length of em dashes and the spacing around them are totally inconsistent, there are random extra spaces throughout, and at least two paragraphs with line breaks that I can only describe as seriously wonky.

As you can probably tell, I had a very strong reaction to this book. I'll try to wrap this up soon, so I can close the book on this one (so to speak).

I don't think that book contains any significant information overlooked by Cullen. I think that Kass had more of an ax to grind, and was less objective. I don't think this book is well-written. I don't think Kass has a clear enough focus in this book; I don't have a good sense of what his objective is in writing it. In my opinion, it's not worth the time it takes to read. But I have to say, I don't get any enjoyment out of writing such a negative review. I have no desire to trash someone's life work, and it's not as though I consider myself a Columbine expert. It is simply my opinion that your time is better spent reading Columbine by Dave Cullen, which is elegantly written and certainly at least as well-researched as Kass's book.


Lisa said...

When I first read Columbine by Dave Cullen I thought it was a great book too. I think that's probably because it was the first book that I read on the subject. I was impressed with much of the book; the writing was smooth and engaging and (I thought) it seemed as though a lot of research had been done by Cullen on the attack and also on the two boys who were the perpetrators. I recommended the book to many of my friends and coworkers.

Then I started reading other books on the Columbine attack including the one that you mentioned, the Jeff Kass book. Also making it onto my reading list was Brooks Brown's book No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death At Columbine" and Comprehending Columbine by Ralph Larkin. I think it was the latter book in particular that really got me to start looking at Cullen's Columbine in a much more critical way, and to find it wanting and lacking. It's my opinion that Ralph Larkin has done a superb job in analyzing and dissecting what some students referred to as the "toxic" atmosphere at that high school; he seems to have spent a great deal of time interviewing former and current students of Columbine High School to get their various opinions on what it was like to attend school there, and whether or not their experiences at Columbine could have contributed, in any way or degree, to the reasons why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold decided to attack their school.

By comparison Cullen seems not to have spent much or any time at all looking into the school or interviewing any of Harris and Klebold's friends and classmates. To me Cullen fell in love with the whole "Eric Harris was a psychopath" angle early on and wrote the book from that viewpoint and that viewpoint only, which I disagree with and I feel limits and ultimately hurts the book. By the way Larkin, in his book, also does a very good job of making the case for Harris being misdiagnosed as a psychopath. I know you didn't care for Kass's book but if you can stand to read one more Columbine book then I urge you to read Comprehending Columbine.

What also helped to change my opinion on Cullen's Columbine from a positive to a negative one was a message board that I frequent whose board members are all amateur researchers on the Columbine attack. They too have a negative opinion on Columbine and their opinions and analysis of Cullen's book are much more informed than mine. They've spent a great deal of time with their own research and have discussed on the message board the various errors in and problems with Cullen's book. If you're interested I can post the links to the threads in which the book is discussed. I didn't want to do that now because I wasn't sure if you wanted links in any of your blog's comments.

Anyway, regardless of what people's opinions are on all these books I'm just glad that even though it's now been almost 11 years since the Columbine attack happened people haven't forgotten, and still care and are still asking questions.

starviego said...

Both Kass and Cullen missed what happened at Columbine by a mile. But so did the cops and newsmedia. The big secret about Columbine is that there were more involved than just Harris and Klebold. Don’t believe me? Just ask the eyewitnesses:

starviego said...

whoops, try this--

Magnolia said...

Thanks for the responses, guys! I will take your recommendations if I want to revisit the topic again later. For now, I'm going to move in to other subjects for awhile.

Lisa, thanks especially for your thoughts. Please know that even though I was wowed by Cullen's book, I do realize that reading one book doesn't mean I am completely informed on the matter. I respect your efforts to become more well-informed!