just asking questions

Author Dave Cullen on Finding Hope in Parkland, 20 Years After Columbine

A Teens for Gun Reform protest in front of the White House. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

On Valentine’s Day one year ago, a former student of Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School murdered 17 classmates with an AR-15, following the blueprint laid out by the Columbine killers 20 years and more than 200 school shootings ago. When the “Breaking News” banner flashed about Parkland, journalist Dave Cullen went on CNN to comment yet again on the slaughter of American children.

Cullen had written Columbine, an account of the April 1999 murders that ranks with In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter as one of the best nonfiction books on American crime. It turned Cullen into the go-to talking head on mass shootings, a distinction that took a severe emotional toll. I’ve spoken to him about it, being one of a handful of others (along with British journalist Dan Hodges and The Onion) whose work pops up whenever there’s another massacre. In 2017, Cullen sounded heartbroken, utterly defeated by the unending carnage.

Which is why he surprised even himself by going down to Florida a few days after the Parkland murders to cover the aftermath for Vanity Fair — an assignment he’s expanded into the book Parkland, out this week from HarperCollins. This time, his focus wasn’t on the killer or the dead but on the group that arose out of the tragedy, March for Our Lives. David Hogg and Emma González would become the faces of a massive gun-safety coalition that spawned more than 450 rallies involving 1.2 million marchers a mere six weeks after the murders. I spoke to Cullen about his new book, his enduring personal trauma, Louis C.K.’s vicious “joke,” and something different about Parkland, which he calls hope.

Not sure this is the right choice of words, but Parkland feels like the perfect companion piece to Columbine …
They are companion pieces, and thinking of them in that way gave me the focus I needed. When Parkland evolved into a book project, I forced myself to ask, What is this book about? I had a realization: Oh fuck … Columbine was 20 years ago, and an entire generation has lived through the “school-shooter era.” It’s an idea I had never heard or used before. Even while working on Columbine, I didn’t see this as a definitive, interconnected era. It takes distance. It’s similar to the “Forever War,” which began on 9/11 and will continue until all the troops come home. And the kids of Parkland may finally show us a way out of this national nightmare. It’s why Parkland has a disappearing subtitle, “Birth of a Movement.”

Before we get into the new book, I wanted to ask, have the Columbine killings receded in significance two decades later?
A month after the shootings, I wrote a piece for Salon about Littleton’s Evangelical community. I thought it was already old news, but I kept quietly working on Columbine stories. In 2004, I wrote “The Depressive and the Psychopath” for Slate, the first piece that explained the killers. It got a lot of play, but I only got one nontrivial book offer. I was told, “Nobody wants to read about dead children,” and, “It’s too late.” Of course, we were all naïve; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold set the template. Nearly every shooter harkens back to them as the founding fathers — citing them by name, taking inspiration in their writings, and modeling their costumes, tactics, weapons, etc. The Columbine death toll isn’t even in the top ten anymore, yet sadly it’s grown in importance.

When we talked in 2017, following, well, I don’t even remember what shooting it was —
Happens to me all the time. Isn’t it hideous, living in a culture where mass shootings run together?

Dave Cullen. Photo: Justin Bishop

It was Las Vegas. You were despondent.
At least four or five times over the last 20 years I’ve said I’m never writing about school shootings again. When I signed off on the first book, the crying fits stopped immediately. But, of course, the shootings escalated and I became the fucking go-to murder guy. I have PTSD rules with my shrink — to not watch survivor stories. I can feel when it’s spiraling out of control. I’ve never really talked about it, but I’ve been suicidal.

Then why continue making TV appearances?
I don’t get paid for commenting; I feel like I have to do it. One week I did a bunch of shows, probably after Newtown, and a friend sent me screenshots from the beginning of the week to the end. It was like one of those presidential before-after shots. The sagging strain and vacant eyes made it look like I’d aged five years in a week. But I feel like it’s a public service. I feel obligated to give back. It’s different after Parkland though. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m falling off the cliff again.

What’s different this time?
Following Las Vegas, I cut way back on media appearances and was toying with a clean break. The morning after Parkland, I acquiesced again, and did New Day with Chris Cuomo. I was surprised to see him, he’s usually on-site. Cuomo said he wasn’t doing mass shootings live anymore because they’re too horrible and nothing ever changes. I agreed and swore I was calling it quits. Five minutes later, going down the elevator at Time Warner Center, David Hogg is being interviewed. I was floored. I’ve seen a million first-day survivor interviews and I was like, This is different, what the hell is going on here? I went home and watched the news, one kid after another. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’ve been working on a book about gay soldiers, and without telling my editors, I set it aside to dive back in. My psychiatrist would have been horrified, but the Parkland kids triggered something. These kids were my new heroes.

I set aside five weeks for Vanity Fair and this is where all the years of experience helped. I’m kind of a Method writer, so I take on all the grief following trauma. This time, it was about covering the response, a completely new phenomenon, unheard of throughout the school-shooting era.

How did you go about embedding with the Parkland kids?
When I got to Florida, a journalist from the Times of London I’d helped in the past gave me Hogg’s phone number. We talked for a little while; he gave me other names and numbers — today’s teenagers give everyone their number — and it quickly snowballed. I knew the media horde would leave after a few days and then I’d have a chance to understand what these kids were doing and how rapidly things were changing. When I first talked to David, he was a bubbly, silly guy and not just the angry young man he became known as soon thereafter. Angry David was authentic, but I’m glad I got a glimpse of the playful kid. Emma was the face; David was the mouth.

While reporting, were you fully aware of what these kids were accomplishing?
I was in awe. Within a few days of the shooting, planning for the caravan to meet with legislators in Tallahassee and the March for Our Lives in D.C. was underway. My editor at Vanity Fair asked me to be on the lookout for who was really pulling the strings. Are Obama people down there? A group of high schoolers can’t be this smart and organized. I had feelers up for a few weeks, but I realized, yes, they can. Watching the Parkland students figure it out as they went along was incredible. They took a hundred people to the state capital as a dry run for the 800,000 who showed up in Washington.

A similar thing happened after Columbine. Officials believed the attack was too sophisticated to be pulled off by a couple of high-school doofuses. The FBI wasted a week looking into a bigger conspiracy. We adults underestimate our kids, for good and bad.

You don’t mention the killer’s name in Parkland — and it dawns on me that I don’t know it either.
I had the same experience recently, a conversation where neither of us knew the names of the shooters in Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs. That’s how it should be. The media has been unintentionally complicit in these spectacle murders, which is what these are, performances that require an audience. It’s drastically important that we stop. I didn’t want to contribute to it anymore, so I left the killer out.

Photo: HarperCollins

Conversely, until reading Parkland, I’d forgotten there was another school shooting in Texas last May, and the recent murders in the Florida bank haven’t gotten a lot of coverage.
We’ve had multiple mass killings in the past two weeks! I’m conflicted on this because when spectacle killings cease to become news, it will dissuade gunmen. On the other hand, potential killers have already figured out the only way to get media coverage is to break the body-count record, or do something we haven’t seen before, dressing up like the Joker or carrying out the murders on live television. I recoil at the idea of ignoring the crimes because they aren’t spectacular enough for television. We should be screaming from the rooftops, demanding more of our elected officials, without rewarding the perpetrators. It’s exactly what the Parkland kids are doing.

There are so many wonderful little moments in Parkland. What’s one of your favorites?
On the day of the school walkout, a sixth-grade girl named Aaralyn, who had rabbit ears on her head, came up and quietly asked me if she could talk during the speeches. I tried not to laugh when I said, “I’m not in charge here,” and directed her to the high schooler who was an organizer of the rally. Aaralyn mustered up all her courage to ask if she could say something. And then her speech was fantastic. “I’m only in sixth grade and I’m tired of watching the big kids cry!” I almost lost it. The applause for Aaralyn was louder than David Hogg’s.

A video popped up earlier this month in which Manny Oliver — whose son Joaquin was murdered — took on Louis C.K. mocking Parkland survivors. What do you think of it?
I think YouTube finally justified its existence. When the Louis C.K. thing happened, I expected to be ashamed at myself for giggling at whatever horrible thing he said. But it was just horrible. Louis wasn’t even trying, not even really telling a joke, just a perplexing lashing out. I love Manuel Oliver. He is the most creative activist I’ve ever come across. And that’s incredibly valuable. The trouble with activism — and the dirty little secret of anyone supporting them — is that it can grow tiresome. We can only hear your pleas so many times without wanting it to stop, or we just lose interest. The Parkland kids are good, but Tio Manny is the master. He keeps blowing me away with his audacity, which he has standing to do in a way that even the kids don’t. I don’t think they could or would cross the line to Manny’s morbid territory (like painting gun scopes on kids and then bashing holes through their hearts and spattering red paint). Because they had friends die, but not their own child. Manny can go there. And he does. God bless him. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Compared to our first conversation, you sound rejuvenated, which also comes through in Parkland. Are you?
Definitely. I had a couple of brief freak-outs the first time I went to Florida, maybe one the second time, and no more. In fact, my PTSD was getting cured. I feel better than at any time since April 20, 1999. Their enthusiasm was contagious, everything the kids were doing had a palpable joie de vivre. Changing gun laws will take years, but politics is a momentum game and it’s now on our side. The 2018 midterms called bullshit on the NRA as the big, scary boogeyman. The House was holding hearings on gun violence last week. Elections matter. People in the United States are finally tired of this horrible fucking tragedy we’ve let go on for 20 years. These Parkland kids literally healed me. And what they’re doing for me is what I think they’re doing for America. I do truly believe this is the beginning of the end. The heart of the Parkland story is hope.

This interview has been condensed and slightly edited.

20 Years After Columbine, Dave Cullen Finds Hope in Parkland