The Columbine effect

Hollywood still obsessed with school shooting 13 years later

When Columbine was published, three years ago, Rohrbough and other parents were incensed to learn that Oprah Winfrey was going to feature the author, along with Battan and Fuselier, on a show marking the 10th anniversary of the shootings. Contacted by a producer for photos of his son, Rohrbough suggested that Winfrey was making a terrible mistake.

"I said, 'I'd be happy to pay for my own plane ticket and be part of this,'" he recalls. "'If you're going to put these liars on, someone needs to be there to refute them.' She was horrified."

An appearance on Oprah virtually guaranteed a dramatic rise in sales for any author. Winfrey decided to shelve the episode on Cullen's book, issuing a brief statement: "After reviewing it, I thought it focused too much on the killers. Today, hold a thought for the Columbine community. This is a hard day for them."

In Bowling for Columbine , director Michael Moore took aim at America's gun culture—and broke all box-office records for a documentary film
Mary Lynn Gillaspie
In Bowling for Columbine , director Michael Moore took aim at America's gun culture—and broke all box-office records for a documentary film
Columbine grad Sam Granillo is making a documentary about the long-term trauma inflicted by the shootings
Mary Lynn Gillaspie
Columbine grad Sam Granillo is making a documentary about the long-term trauma inflicted by the shootings

"Focused too much on the killers" is a frequent rap on Cullen's work. Jeff Kass, the author of Columbine: A True Story, another 10th-anniversary release that made less of a splash than Cullen's book, recently wrote an op-ed piece about the miniseries flap, suggesting that his competitor's psychological approach presents a distorted view of "two teens who wanted to kill almost everyone they met...and wanted to keep hurting people even after they died."

"Lifetime may have every right to make a Columbine miniseries," Kass writes. "But it also has an obligation to make it the right way."

But what's the right way? Cullen points out that his book also deals with the recovery process of survivors and victims' families, especially Patrick Ireland, the badly wounded youth who crawled out of the library window into the arms of rescuers, and the wife of Dave Sanders. His book was positively received by some of the Columbine families, as well as by thousands of people affected by other shootings and forms of trauma. He insists the producers he's working with are as committed as he is to honor the victims and not glorify the killers.

At the same time, he concedes that he doesn't have an easy response for people concerned about the trauma the miniseries might trigger. "Of all the anger and reasons for protest, that's the one that gnaws at me the most," he says. "That's the one I'm really worried about. You'd think I had a better answer for that by now. I don't know how to answer it without sounding like an asshole."

Cullen says he recognizes that the post-traumatic stress experienced by many of the survivors is genuine and ongoing. He had two diagnosed bouts of "secondary PTSD" himself while researching his book, one of which was triggered by a series of school shootings in the news in a matter of days. The two most emotionally trying chapters to write, he says, involved the death of Sanders and, oddly, Klebold's funeral.

"I couldn't get any work done," he recalls. "I was pretty much crying every day. I thought I would get over it. I was about three weeks into it when I realized I was in trouble. I was kind of a mess."

But he believes the downside to revisiting the shootings is outweighed by the good that a thorough, honest treatment of the event could do. He likens the project to Vietnam movies of the late 1970s, which distressed some vets but helped the nation come to terms with the war's legacy. "The whole country did go through Columbine and really needs something that will help them," he says. "So I think we need to do it."

Sam Granillo and other petition signers don't agree. Many of them have strong notions about what constitutes PTSD and what sort of catharsis might be helpful.

"I don't doubt that he went through emotional hardships," Granillo says of Cullen, with whom he's exchanged a few emails. "But he didn't witness anything. He probably read a lot of horrible stories, but he did that to himself. None of us chose what happened to us."

The miniseries controversy has only strengthened Granillo's resolve to pursue his own documentary about how his classmates have dealt with the long-term legacy of the shootings. He recently launched a website to promote the project, now called Columbine: Wounded Minds, and has a fundraiser planned for next month.

"There's no reason to relive the tragedy endlessly," he says. "What needs to be done now is, how do we get people help? How do we prevent this from happening in the future? There needs to be a new perspective of the situation, from us—and that has not been done yet."

"For the people who've struggled over the years with flashbacks and nightmares, maybe this film can help motivate them to get help," says Hochhalter, who's a strong supporter of Granillo's project. "Other people have had struggles and gotten help, and it really did improve their lives. I'm happy with my life. I have a really good support system, and I think that's key."

Many of the people Granillo is interviewing for his documentary have never talked publicly about the attack before. It's difficult work, he says, and easy to get off track, as subject and interviewer start reminiscing about various friends they lost, or share little stories about life at Columbine before everything was utterly transformed. "It's so close to home," he says. "I can ask questions nobody else can even think of."

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