Most of us think we understand what happened on April 20,1999, at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. Around lunchtime, two teenage boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, entered the school where they were soon to graduate, intent on killing the maximum number of students, teachers, and school administrators and staff and destroying the school with bombs and guns. Their plan was to carry out an attack that would top any other event, even the Oklahoma City bombing. We remember the grainy videos of the two weirdly dressed killers moving through the school coldly and deliberately trying to maximize their body count. We listened to "experts" try to explain why two apparently normal teenagers would want to carry out such a diabolical attack against their schoolmates. They hated and felt wronged by other students, especially athletes, evangelicals, and adults in authority? They were a part of a goth-like group, The Trench Coat Mafia, who wanted to punish the mainstream?
Dave Cullen, who was on the scene as a journalist from day one of the attack, has spent the past ten years refuting the myths surrounding Columbine. On his Columbine webpage Cullen says that he wanted to answer two questions by writing this book: 1. what drove these killers? 2. what did they do to their town? By the time I finished reading Columbine, I thought that he had answered these questions. The answers will astound you, especially the motivations of the killers. His reporting should change the way school personnel, law enforcement, and even parents monitor teenage behavior, maintain vigilance and intervene before teens go into such a downward spiral that they can't see any way out. As to the second question, the effects on the people of Littleton, Cullen tells the story of the victims, the survivors, the students and teachers who had to return to the scene of horror, the parents who wanted justice and remembrance, the church leaders who chose either to heal or capitalize on the tragedy, and the investigative team that did its best when many were plainly out of their league, and the media which didn't always get its facts straight before reporting, especially when they were trying to meet the demands of 24 hour a day reporting.
A great strength of this book is that Cullen tells the story without inserting himself in it. This is a real talent. I had no idea until I read the chapter notes at the end of the book exactly how much access he had to the principals in the story. He did the interviews, read the reports, consulted the experts, attended the public meetings and church services. He truly understood what the Columbine massacre and its aftermath had done to the town. He reported the facts and left his own feelings out of the narrative. That demonstrated great respect for his readers. Columbine was published in April and debuted at #7 on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction (it rose to #3 and now, after nine weeks on the list, is at #21). The style of writing and compelling subject makes it a great read any time of the year.
Part 2 KittyHawk and Wednesday with Oprah
(Photo--Kate Battan, Dave Cullen, Oprah) I learned about Columbine from my longtime friend, KittyHawk. She has been friends with the author Dave Cullen for several years and collaborated with him on another book. That experience whetted her appetite for book writing and publishing, so over a year ago she started helping Dave with the myriad number of tasks that must be done to get a book to the publisher. Like me, KittyHawk is retired. Unlike me, her idea of a diversion is not watching several seasons of Robin Hood! She loves a project that challenges and teaches her something new. Helping with Columbine has fulfilled that need for her. Dave's appreciation of her assistance is pretty evident in the acknowledgements for Columbine. He writes:
"Lydia Wells Sledge stands alone. She devoted a year of her life to serve as
full-time unpaid reader, proofer, fact checker,researcher,organizer,assistant,
and tackler of every conceivable odd task. She claims to have
One great perk for all her help with the book was to be invited to a taping of an Oprah show observing the 10th anniversary of the Columbine massacre. Columbine had just been published in early April and was getting a lot of attention and favorable reviews. Dave asked her and several members of his family to fly to Chicago on April 15 for the show--with guarantees of good seats! Of course we were all excited for her, but, more importantly, we wanted the lowdown on the behind the scenes action at an Oprah show. Here's KittyHawk's (in fuschia sweater with Dave's family) first hand report so you'll know what to expect if you ever go:
- Wednesday I had my alarm set for 4:45 am. At 4:30 the closet
door fell out of the frame in the guest room. So I was up in plenty of
time to drive to Louisville to catch my flight to Chicago.
- I was worried about getting from O'Hare to Harpo Studio and back again. Peggy, one of Dave's six sisters, invited me to meet up with the family members in the American Airlines terminal and travel downtown with them. Problem solved!
- Met up with Dave's mom and dad, five of his six sisters and two brothers at about 11:00 to stand in the line at Harpo while the audience for the first taping let out.
- Once inside, the standing continued. There was a coat check and then we were all checked off as the "Cullen party". At the point we got a blue form on which to sign our life away! Then it's on to a purse check where I had to surrender my book (Run by Ann Patchett), cell phone. Other people had ball point pens and even eyebrow pencils confiscated. Who knew?
- Next, we headed upstairs to sit with 322 other people who are attended the same taping.
- As you might guess, in a room filled with mostly women and a handful of men there were only six restroom stalls for women. Not enough because you were told you wouldn't be excused once in the studio. What's with this, Oprah?
- We had no idea what was going on with Dave and the other guests in the green room. He later said that it was pretty intense.
- The head crowd control person finally ushered the Cullen party of 12 into the semi-circular studio and into some really good seats. Eyeball to eyeball view of the stage!
- There was an extra seat next to me for the fellow who "does hair". I quizzed him on a lot of things. He doesn't do Oprah's hair. There's a full time Oprah hair dresser and make-up artist. We could all use a team like that. Those two guys came out several times during segment breaks to be sure Oprah was perfectly arranged.
- From getting in line to seated in the studio it was probably close to two hours. Which would explain my slight impatience with the warm up and welcome. Who had traveled the furthest to attend the show (Northern Ireland, Australia for show and visit friends), birthday? warm climate? I was astonished at what people were willing to share. Guess they feel that close to Oprah.
- Next came the commercial! Freddie, another Oprah person, came onstage. She told us about the Oprah store and how great it was. I was afraid we'd be lined up and made to go through the store and shop, but they missed that opportunity. They did go through the inventory and had models come out sporting Oprah stuff. People were going "Ohhhh! That's so Chanel!"I might have sprung for a key chain. Talk about commercial. Talk about merchandising. Talk about cash cow! I'm getting cynical by now. . .
- After the shopping commercial, stage managers and prop handlers arranged the stage and set the cameras--nine in all. Amazing amount of attention paid to even the most minute detail--a water glass might be moved a centimeter. Cameras and lighting was carefully checked for each chair on the stage.
- By now it was about 1:20pm. All of a sudden the energy level in the room changed. I figured O was coming out. Cameras moved and the lights went up. But no! Dave came bounding out on stage laughing like he was having the time of his life. Then the lights got brighter and the energy level really went higher, people stood and cheered and O came out. She shook hands with Dave and sat down in the other chair.
- But first the shoes weren't right. They were much too glittery for her beige pantsuit (Wonder why she can wear beige and the audience can't? We were told no beige, wear bright solid colors.) So immediately out came another pair of shoes. Much better. Beige platforms with heels at least 4 inches tall.
- So she started chatting informally with Dave. We heard him ask where he should look, into which camera, and she grabbed him and said "Look at me. You are having this conversation with me!"
- The actual taping is done in segments and then edited into a continuous program. O first talked with Dave, then Kate Battan (lead investigator for Columbine) joined them. Then Dwayne Fuselier (FBI psychologist and hostage negotiator who provided the most revealing profiles of the killers) joined them. Between segments O talked to the audience, but because of the topic understandably there was not a lot of hooting and hollering "YOU get a car and YOU get a car!"
- There were large monitors overhead, not to mention the giant one behind the stage where we could see the "b-roll", I think it's called--the photos and videos taped in Littleton, the memorials to the kids who died, and the Skyped-in version of Mr. D, the principal of Columbine High School.
- I won't go into the program itself. You can see on TV (note about that later).
- O got down from her chair, picked her shoes up, someone asked what size, she said 11, and poof she was gone.
- We exited the studio "in an orderly fashion" and reclaimed our confiscated belongings. Everything about the "Oprah Experience" was very controlled. We got a copy of Columbine, but I found out that Oprah gives away NOTHING. Any giveaways come from the publisher, manufacturer or advertiser. I probably knew this, but it always seems like it's Oprah who's giving away the stuff.
- We all walked to a nearby restaurant for drinks, photos, and book signings. Cary, the publicist for Twelve, Dave's publisher, announced that Columbine would be debuting at #7 on the New York Times bestseller list the following week!
- My flight left about a minute early. I found my car, drove home, changed my shoes, took out the garbage, and went to bed. A memorable day for sure!
Well, now you know whether it's worth the effort to attend your favorite TV show taping. A downer was the decision to not show the program on Columbine. Cullen was contacted by the Harpo Studio producers soon after the taping and was told that, regretfully, they had made the decision to not air the show. It was feared that it might be perceived as recognition of the killers. And on the 10th anniversary, it was decided that any public commemorations should be for the victims and survivors.
I hope you will read Columbine. We all need to understand better why these tragedies occur and what we can do to prevent them in the future. Columbine may be that tool that we need.
(Photo Credits: Magazine cover--photographer Ruven Afanador; Oprah Show Stage--promotional video at Oprah.com)