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Comprehending Columbine [Illustrated] [Paperback]

Ralph W. Larkin

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Book Description

28 Jan 2007 1592134912 978-1592134915
On April 20, 1999, two Colorado teenagers went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School. That day, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve fellow students and a teacher, as well as wounding twenty-four other people, before they killed themselves. Although there have been other books written about the tragedy, this is the first serious, impartial investigation into the cultural, environmental, and psychological causes of the massacre. Based on first-hand interviews and a thorough reading of the relevant literature, Ralph Larkin examines the complex of factors that led the two young men to plan and carry out their deed. For Harris and Klebold, Larkin concludes, the carnage was an act of revenge against the "jocks" who had harassed and humiliated them, retribution against evangelical students who acted as if they were morally superior, an acting out of the mythology of right-wing paramilitary organization members to "die in a blaze of glory," and a deep desire for notoriety. Rather than simply looking at Columbine as a crucible for all school violence, Larkin places the tragedy in its proper context, and in doing so, examines its causes and meaning.

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"Larkin creates a powerful lens to examine the complexities of the socio-cultural and psychopathogical forces which contributed to the Columbine tragedy... he does an excellent job of situating school shootings in the larger cultural landscape of violence in America. Larkin's book is destined to be the definitive work on the Columbine shootings." Raymond Calluori, New Jersey Institute of Technology "This book is not just about Harris & Klebold's motivations . . It is about the influence of social structure on those labeled as outsiders . . about structurally entrenched sources of gendered violence and degradation." Peter Freund, Montclair State University "Think you know all there is to know about the Columbine school massacre (4/20/1999)? Think again. Larkin covers known and little-known details, aiming to answer why Eric Harris and Dylan Keble went on their shooting rampage...Some will say that Columbine doesn't need any more scrutinizing. But after the recent Virginia Tech shootings, people will be looking for more insights into youth who feel ostracized and ways to help them avoid feeling so alienated in the first place. There is an audience for this book, which should be considered by public and academic libraries." Library Journal "Larkin's book is obviously the result of a great deal of research... He provides interesting history and details of both the perpetrators of this horrendous shooting, Harris and Klebold." Metapsychology Online "Larkin has undertaken an important task in this work. He deconstructs the Columbine High School tragedy, attempting to reach an objective understanding of a complicated event that has become tangled in myth and emotion. He presents the events at Columbine carefully before examining the influences that may have contributed to this crisis... The author pulls the reader closer to the situation by including narrative from his interviews, quotes from important sources, and specific examples. The resulting work is well organized and written...The content of this book should be required reading for school administrators, educators, counselors, and others who work regularly with young people" Choice

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dispassionate Exploration of Columbine 21 Aug 2009
By M. Hill - Published on
I was led to this book after reading Columbine by Dave Cullen. For me, that book raised more questions then it answered. Ironically, I live in the community and had resisted reading any of the books on the subject. Locally, the coverage of the murders was relentless and I had read and seen enough to last a lifetime. I thought I never wanted to hear about it again. Then I saw the press release for Cullen's book and decided that after ten years perhaps it was time to read a comprehensive exploration of the subject.

I found Cullen's book a great disappointment. There are so many factual errors and assumptions throughout the work that at the end I felt I had to do more reading. I checked my library's catalog to find other relevant material on Columbine which is how I found this book, along with Jeff Kass' book and Brooks Brown's memoir. So, I started out reluctant to read even one book on the subject and in the end read four.

Brooks Brown's book is a heartfelt book by a boy trying to sort out unfathomable events caused by people he knew. It is worthy of a read, but it is not, nor does it claim to be, a thorough exploration like Cullen's, Kass' or Larkin's work. Of the group I feel Larkin's book is the most objective. It has a clear academic perspective in its execution but unlike a dry thesis it reads well. The logic isn't faulty and the evidence for statements and conclusions is provided. There is little opinion offered without substantiation. I read the book from cover to cover.

Unlike the other two author's, Larkin does not have an obvious agenda -- except to find answers. Kass' book focuses too long on the racial aspect of one child's murder which is a worthy subject but throws the balance of the book off in its length. It becomes distracting. Cullen's book offers blatant errors about the killers' -- Dylan and Klebold were not popular or ladies men (read Brooks Brown's book -- he was a friend.) Worse, Cullen is intent on simplifying the story -- he claims it was all the fault of mental illness. Well, there are plenty of mentally ill people who do not commit crimes, just as there are plenty of kids who are bullied that do not murder. Many more factors are clearly at play in the "why" of what happened.

Readng Brooks Brown's book makes the trauma of on-going bullying and the outcast status in school clear.Some kids are going to handle the erosion of their self-esteem better than others. Cullen's determination that it wasn't a factor is a bizarre assertion. One of the other reviewers here mentioned that the bullying theory had been largely debunked -- huh? Where did that come from -- the school administration? All the pieces of the puzzle must be examined to get a complete picture of what caused those two boys to commit such a horrific act -- it is the only way to learn from Columbine and it is what Larkin does in his book. The adults in the lives of the children failed them. It wasn't one thing or one event that caused this act. This crime was planned and kept secret for a year -- a staggering fact.

My hope in reading Cullen's book was that a complete story would be told, not one that was whitewashed by the school (what bullying?), hidden by the sheriff's department (what gross mishandling?) or hijacked by the evanjelicals (it was religious persecution.) Unfortunately the author twisted information to make the story reach a pre-determined conclusion of his own making. That is not the case with Larkin in this book.

If you are looking for one book to read on the subject I would recommend this one. If you have time for two I'd read this one and Jeff Kass' book. If you have time for three, definitely add Brooks Brown's book to your list.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thorough book but has some issues 1 Jun 2009
By A. Koutsunis - Published on
This book is very thorough and written in a scholarly manner. However, the author seems to want to support the bully hypothesis so badly that he insists on claims which are unsupported. The claim that bothered me the most was that Klebold was bisexual. The only evidence the author provides for this is that a reporter came forward after the shooting and said he encountered Klebold in a chat room, where he identified himself as bisexual. Besides this book, I have never read this anywhere else, and the claim seems unreliable to me. Also the author insists that the Klebolds are a dysfunctional family because Dylan and his brother argue; the parents have different religious beliefs; and they are not very touchy. The Klebolds do not seem any more dysfunctional than any other family. Most siblings fight; a home where religion is a choice seems healthy; and affection comes in many different forms. I don't agree with some of the claims in the book but if you're curious about it, I would suggest getting a used copy and making your own judgments. Best Wishes -A. K.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A few issues, but overall a solid book on the subject 15 Aug 2009
By Lasha - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you are looking for a book with new theories, FBI reports, shocking pictures, then this is not the Columbine book for you. However, if you are looking for an academic book on the subject with an author who conducted numerous hours of research in the field that has a solid basis in empirical evidence, then you should read "Comprehending Columbine." Dr. Larkin presents scholarly approach to topic that can be controversial.

As a former high school social studies teacher, now full-time graduate student getting my second Masters in Criminal Justice, my topic is homophobic bullying and how it leads to school violence. Hence Columbine is a part of my thesis. In the past four months gathering research for my thesis, I have read nearly every book and academic article on school shooters and "Comprehending Columbine" did give me some useful insights into Klebold and Harris' motives, Columbine's toxic atmosphere and added more infomation to my own research. My only complaint and the reason I did not give the book 5 stars is that Dr. Larkin in the first six chapters of the book kept referring to Eric Harris' web site as the "Trenchcoat Mafia" web site, which is not correct. As Dr. Larkin explained in later chapters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not members of the Trenchcoat Mafia, they only knew people who were. That incorrect fact was my one pet peeve with the book.

So, if you are looking for a book the Columbine tragedy that has solid writing, excellent resources and examines the shooting in depth, I suggest buying Dr. Larkin's book. If you want to read more on the topic, then buy others like Dave Cullen's or Jeff Kass' as supplemental reading on the subject.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 10 Years On - Yet So Many Conflicting Views 24 Feb 2012
By Observer - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
So much psycho babble from psychiatrists/psychologists/FBI profilers and all from a distance no doubt. Do any two of these people ever reach the same conclusion? All the evidence seems to point to the isolation of the so-called loser students and to their denigration by those at the top of the pile, yet it is continuously denied. For sure 90% of the bullying must pass beneath the radar but it is shocking to learn that some of the bullying took place in front of teachers or coaches, who turned a blind eye to it. And what's more, in the event of some confrontation, the attacked rather than the attackers were brought to book. I would say that the Headmaster has got off very lightly in this tragedy.

I'm not an American but I find it truly amazing the extent to which sporting prowess, good looks, social skills and MONEY play a part in the hierarchy of the students. The parents must surely be held accountable here. What values do they inculcate in their children? Judging from the literary skills of the students interviewed by the author, maybe some of the emphasis should shift from football to the English language.

I won't comment on the behavior of the evangelical Christians in the Columbine community. It boggles the mind of an outsider.

A very instructive book.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Questionable Research, Subjective Conclusions 28 Jan 2013
By Jeff Doyle - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Within the first couple of chapters of Mr. Larkin's book, I began to find uneasiness with his conclusions. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, other than in several places where he would quote interviewees and then come to a conclusion in contradiction to what the interviewees said (" spite of this, it is obvious that..."). Then in his chapter on the influences of the evangelical church community around Columbine I had it. Mr. Larkin was injecting subjective opinion into his narrative. The invective and almost lurid condemnation of the influence of right-wing churches caused me to step back from conclusions I might otherwise agree with. Once I recognized this propensity to inject himself into his work, I began to see it everywhere.

For example, Mr. Larkin states in multiple parts of the book that Dylan Klebold was a bisexual or that he was unsure of his sexual identity. He returns to this over and over to make conclusions. But, his evidence for this is a claim by a single reporter that Klebold told him he was bisexual on an Internet chat board. No other evidence is presented, and no similar speculations are presented in the many other books I've read on this incident. Larkin makes significant conclusions based on little more than speculation.

One of the best books I've read on Columbine is Dave Cullen's "Columbine." Cullen, a journalist, had deep access to investigators, evidence, the culprits' "basement tapes," and to almost all the significant people involved in this tragedy (Harris' parents apparently being the rare exception). His narrative of the attack itself was riveting, and he let the experts talk through him to explain the causes and the aftermaths of the tragedy. Cullen, too, describes the domineering influence of the area evangelical churches and their bad influence over the months following the attack. But, he reports all of this in the matter-of-fact style of journalism.

Mr. Larkin, in his book, dismisses Dave Cullen and his book as the work of a "non-professional." Okay, let's compare Mr. Larkin's approach.

Larkin apparently had limited access to the key persons involved in the case and much of the evidence of the case. Certainly less than Cullen, who spoke to almost everyone and had insights into the personal lives of victims, survivors, and even some of the investigators. Larkin, on the other hand, appears from his own descriptions to have gathered many of his interviews by haunting the periphery of the Columbine community, ambushing kids on their lunch breaks in nearby restaurants. Kids who often had little or no direct involvement in the shooting, and only had opinions about the school's social environment.

The results of a couple of incidents when he did have access to important persons are also telling. In one, he describes how his wife tried to sell Columbine Principal DeAngelis on a violence intervention program she had instituted elsewhere. He noted that DeAngelis became unresponsive, with little description of why that might have been. In another incident, he describes having an interview with the Jeffco Superintendent of Schools; when he asked about violence intervention programs in Jeffco schools she abruptly halted the meeting and had him escorted off the premises. He mentions this incident at least twice in the book, with no explanation of why she reacted as she did. There had to be more to the story, and I'm pretty sure I know what it is:

Multiple books on Columbine, particularly Cullen's, describe the exasperation of the faculty and the survivors with the number of self-serving sociologists and psychologists swarming around the community in the aftermath of the tragedy. Larkin describes in his methodology persuading a university to sponsor his work in order to give himself validity and gravitas with the people he wanted to study. Sounds very much like one of the swarm, to me.

Larkin was not always picky about the sources he used, either. He wrote at some length about "ceremonial violence" as hypothesized in a book by Jonathan Fast. The problem is that Fast's book has been discredited for lifting entire passages and narratives from Gregory Gibson's "Gone Boy" without proper attribution. Gibson himself dismisses Fast as a "hack sociologist."

While Larkin does extensively cite other books and studies as sources, one must wonder, based on discomfort with his methods and inadequacies of his interviews, how much of his book drew on those sources rather than his own legwork. There a far better books out there on Columbine, and the psychological conditions and sociological environments out of which school shooters emerge. This is not the book to read.
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