BOYS WITHOUT A STORY:
Broken Boys in the World
Boys reveal their broken condition in two ways. They tell us how they feel in written and spoken utterances, and they act out their inner state in increasingly dramatic and violent ways. If the broken boy’s connection to what sustains him has been severed so completely that he can no longer even recognize it or long for it, he fills the void of what has been lost with visions of negation. He alternately wants to destroy himself, to destroy others, and to destroy the world in which his life grows increasingly desolate.
Boys entering junior high school and on the brink of biological puberty are profoundly aware that the days of their true boyhood, such as they might have been, are numbered. They know just as surely as Peter Pan what the story of their future promises to be: an increasingly consequential progression of school requirements and then work. They feel the looming weight of the unstated expectation that a boy will one day assume domestic responsibilities as a husband and a father as well as civic responsibilities as a citizen, perhaps a community leader, and, if needed, a soldier. These prospects carry no allure or romance. Boys are more or less aware of them, but, except for certain fantasies of soldiering and combat, they do not long for them. Boys with nothing to long for attempt to fill the void with intense, reality-obliterating stimulation. They seek it with whatever materials are at hand: street drugs, liquor or pharmaceuticals filched from their parents, toxic inhalants, violent fantasies, and, once they are able to amass a suitable arsenal, violence itself.
Perhaps the least remarked aspect of the grim progression of American schoolyard shootings in recent years is that many of the young perpetrators had hoped that, in addition to drama, catastrophe, and annihilation of the people and things, their outing might provide some “fun.” Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson were 11 and 13 when they bundled a collection of rifles and handguns pilfered from Andrew’s grandfather into one of the Johnson’s vans and drove off to shoot their classmates and teachers at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro Arkansas, March 24, 1998.
Neither boy was an innocent. Andrew, his schoolmates claimed, had previously tortured and killed a friend’s cat and had shot another child in the face with a pellet gun. Mitchell boasted that he had formerly been a member of a violent gang, talked about getting high and “having a lot of killing to do.” At the time of the shootings, he was awaiting trial for having molested a little girl while he was visiting his estranged father.
The morning of the shooting the boys, dressed in army-fatigue outfits, drove to school and parked the van nearby. While Andrew ran inside and set off a fire alarm, Mitchell hauled the guns into the woods directly across from the school entrance. As the children streamed outside, the boys opened fire, killing four girls, a teacher, and wounding nine others before fleeing back to the van, where they were overcome by police.
In their school photographs the boys look, if anything, younger than their years, but each had already developed a canny sense of what he needed to do to appear to meet adult expectations. After their arrest, when their parents and other adults were present, they wept, expressed remorse, and asked for bibles and a chance to see their minister. With the other young inmates and out of their elders’ view, the boys talked excitedly and boastfully about what they had done, especially shooting a teacher Andrew particularly disliked.
Because of Arkansas’s relatively lenient sentencing laws for juvenile felons (since revised), Andrew and Mitchell were detained in juvenile detention facilities until their twenty-first birthdays. Mitchell was released in 2005 without a public record as a felon, legally able, if he should so choose, to purchase firearms. One New Years Day, 2007, he was arrested, along with another young murderer who had been convicted and released, for possession of marijuana and illegal possession of a loaded handgun. Andrew was released from detention on his birthday in May, 2007.
Six weeks after the Jonesboro school shootings, Kip Kinkel, 15, shot and killed his mother and father at home after they found out he had been expelled from school for having a stolen handgun in his locker. The following day, he packed up an assortment of his pistols and rifles and opened fire on his classmates at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon., killing two of them and injuring 25 before being subdued by police.
Kip’s mother and father were high school Spanish teachers. The Kinkels lived in a commodious suburban house where Kip was virtually an only child, his older sister by six years having departed for college. The extensive media coverage of the massacre stressed how unlikely it seemed to those who knew him that Kip would be capable of such brutal murders. Teachers and schoolmates described him as “boyish and likable.” His parents were reported to be attentive and loving. Commentators searching for possible psychological factors in the outburst pointed out that in a family of achievers, Kip was dyslexic and had to struggle scholastically, also that he was physically awkward in a family that prized athletic prowess.
In a journal he kept and in some of his assigned school writing, Kip tried to express what he was feeling about himself and his place in the world. These documents make clear he was suffering miserably, even as he presented a “boyish and likable” face to the world. He is boyish and likable in the note of confession he left after shooting his mother and father: “I have just killed my mother and father! I don’t know what is happening. I love my mom and dad so much. I just got two felonies on my record. My parents can’t take that…I’m so sorry. I am a horrible son. I wish I had been aborted…I don’t deserve them. They were such wonderful people.”
He is boyish and likable in his statement of contrition to the survivors of those he killed at school. “I have thought about what I could say to make people feel just a little bit better. But I have come to the realization that it really doesn’t matter what I say. Because there is nothing I can do to take away the pain and destruction I have caused. I absolutely loved my parents and had no reason to kill them. I had no reason to dislike, kill or try to kill anyone at Thurston. I am truly sorry this happened…”
It is almost unbearable to look at the photographs of Kip Kinkel’s face that appeared in the press at the time of the incident. Dark bangs fall over the forehead of a troubled, wistful boy’s face. It is a face one cannot help liking. It is a boy one somehow wants to embrace. His dark and desperate journal entries indicate no viable path forward in his school life or beyond. At one point he remarks that he would be unthinkable as anyone’s father. He reveals a powerful infatuation for a certain girl whom he is sure will never really know him and penetrate his isolation. He cannot imagine easy, satisfying friendships. He cannot imagine succeeding on the school’s terms or his parents’ terms. There was never for him a secret garden or Neverland or any kind of boy-realm where he felt invigorated, inspired and secure just as he was. The only way ahead he acknowledges is the world’s way, and toward that world he feels no tug or welcome, only alternating waves of murderous anger and self-loathing. And while he cannot see a place for himself within it, he does not fault the world of his family or the world of school. “They were wonderful people. It’s not their fault…My head just doesn’t work right…I wish I made my mother proud. I tried so hard to find happiness. But you know me, I hate everything.”
Kip Kinkel was by no means an eloquent or practiced writer, but in the personal journal found in his room, he may have come very close to realizing what was at the heart of his dreadful impulse to hate and to harm. “I don’t want to see, hear, speak or feel evil, but I can’t help it. I want to kill and give pain without a cost. And there is no such thing. We kill him—we killed him a long time ago.” The transition from expressing his desire to kill and give pain to the statement, “We kill him—we killed him a long time ago,” is surprising, seemingly irrational. That transition is revelatory, however, if one assumes, as Kip Kinkel quite possibly did, that the “him” referred to is boyhood itself.
On April 20, 1999, a little less than a year after Kip Kinkel opened fire on his classmates at Thurston High, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, both seniors at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, entered the school in late morning heavily armed and dragging duffel bags filled with home-made explosives. Over the next 55 minutes, they wandered about the cafeteria, library and corridors of the school, tossing bombs and firing rifles and handguns at students and faculty. At times the shooters seemed to be firing randomly at display cases or banks of windows. At other times they would focus murderously on students they knew, taunt them and ridicule them before shooting them at point blank range. A little after noon, the school had grown quiet. Twelve students and a teacher lay dead. Twenty-four others were wounded. What students and staff remained were either silently hiding or dead. Police S.W.A.T. teams were massing outside, preparing to storm the building. A school surveillance video captured the final moments of the assailants’ lives as they paced agitatedly about the library before sitting down and shooting themselves fatally in the head.
Of all the school massacres of the past decade, none has been more troubling or gruesome than the Columbine shootings. The killers were older, farther along in their personal development, more effective, better planners. Both boys were facile with computer technology and shared a passion for firearms and explosives. Neither came from abusive or especially troubled households. Neither expressed hostility to his family. In documents discovered after the shootings, both boys stated explicitly their families were in no way at fault. On a calendar kept by Harris and found after his death, he wrote “good wombs have born bad sons” in the Mother’s Day square. Of the two friends, Harris was the more volatile and angry. Earlier in high school he had posted on his computer what appeared to be death threats to a former friend but local police did not see grounds for a formal response. At the time of the shootings Harris was taking a prescription drug, Luvox, to treat depression.
Klebold, best friend to Harris throughout high school, was quieter, harder to read. Some of his classmates thought him merely shy, but others, including some of his teachers, were aware of an angry, rebellious streak. He was inclined to inappropriate language in class, and one of his senior year creative writing assignments was felt by his teacher to be violent and mean-spirited enough to warrant a concerned conference. Klebold served for a time as a technology aide in Columbine’s computer facility, but he had to be disciplined for stealing one of the school’s lap tops and taking it home. In January of their junior year, Harris and Klebold were arrested for breaking into a car to steal computer equipment, for which both were required to undergo psychological counseling and to perform community service. Both boys complied and expressed contrition in the course of their mandated rehabilitation but secretly vowed to wreak a terrible “judgment” on those who had caught and disciplined them for what they cryptically called “the incident.”
The massacre appears to have been planned for over a year. Not old enough to purchase firearms legally, they found intermediaries through whom they could buy shot guns, pistols and semi-automatic weapons. On the internet they learned how to make pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails, and other explosives, more than a hundred of which they brought to school on the day of the attack. They kept meticulous track of their growing arsenal, including a video inventory. They logged time at a nearby firing range to practice shooting, also documenting these outings with video recordings. The boys periodically exchanged coded messages about the apocalyptic event they had conceived. The attack they were planning was sometimes linked to the film Natural Born Killers, in which a deranged young couple goes on a cross-country shooting spree.
There is a decided grandiosity in the way the boys referred to the impending event. The date of the shooting, April 20, seems to have been a last-minute postponement; the boys had hoped to launch their attack on April 19, commemorating the Branch Davidian shootout in Waco, Texas, the Oklahoma City bombing, and Hitler’s birthday. A year before the massacre, Klebold referred to it as the “holy April morning.” The day prior to the event he filled up pages of his school notebook with excited musings: “About 26.5 hours from now the judgement will begin. Difficult but not impossible, necessary, nervewracking & fun.”
When Klebold was confronted by his parents about the violent fantasy he had handed in to his Creative Writing teacher, he protested, “It’s just a story.” There is a clear sense in the documents they left behind that both boys were hungry for a story; more specifically, that their own lives might rise to story quality. But besides Natural Born Killers, the only stories in which they could locate themselves were those structured into their favorite video games, Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. In both games, one set on Mars, the other in a kind of Nazi prison, the challenge is for an armed and embattled individual to prevail against a teeming onslaught of attackers. In both games the embattled individual is decidedly righteous, and the attackers—sinister humans, extra-terrestrials, demons—are evil. In both games the world in which the combat is carried out is utterly spoiled. Combatants battle on ramparts suspended over putrid seas of toxic waste. No better world, no prior world awaits the lone victor. He exists to prevail in an endless and escalating succession of violent encounters in which one can either kill or be killed. Crucial for survival in each game is the acquisition of ever more lethal weapons.
Klebold and Harris seemed to be arming themselves for such a contest. A few generations earlier or in the cultural context of another hemisphere, their fantasizing might have been played out on the open range, with a lone cavalry officer on horse back confronting an Apache war party ascending the ridge before him, or perhaps with a masterfully skilled martial artist leaping, kicking and chopping his way through a never ending swarm of deadly attackers. But for Klebold and Harris, the story they were attempting to compose was an angry, ugly blend of Doom and Wolfenstein and Waco and Oklahoma City and Jonesboro. In their story they would be the lone, pitiless, against-the-world combatants, and their enemies would be all who had ever slighted them, ignored them, shamed them, or irritated them, even if the provocation was no more than living, looking, behaving and believing as they did.
The ruined world was school, Columbine High School. In it, as Klebold inscribed in Harris’s yearbook, “my wrath will be godlike.” Harris confided in his journal, “Before I leave this worthless place, I will kill whoever I deem unfit.”
Since the inception of the plan to attack their school, both boys were aware that one way or another they would lose their lives. Harris pledges he will “leave this worthless place” without regret. Three years before 9/11 he mused about hijacking a plane in Denver and crashing it into a building in New York City. The day before the shootings, Klebold wrote in his notebook, “It’s interesting, when I’m in my human form, knowing I’m going to die.” Elsewhere in the same notebook he hopes that the rampage might be at least “fun.” “What fun is life,” he wrote, “without a little death?”
In the event, the Columbine school massacre was, even by the perpetrator’s standards, a terrible story. Sensational as the breaking news of the shootings was, the attack did not go as planned. The initial event was to have been the detonation of two substantial propane bombs in the cafeteria. The bombs they assembled were to have been powerful enough to blow up the entire cafeteria and cause the library above to collapse over the wreckage. The attack plan called for the boys to plant the bombs, withdraw to their cars to observe the devastation and then to open fire on students and faculty as they fled from the building. When the bombs failed to detonate and Harris and Klebold reentered the building, students were slow to realize their gun-toting classmates posed a danger.
As the two armed shooters ranged through the building, they shot some students at close range. They spared others. They fired idly in the direction of distant students, missing most of them. They shot out banks of windows, prominent display cases. Every few minutes they would toss an explosive—pipe bomb, Molotov cocktail—over a railing or under a desk where students were cowering, but most of the bombs failed to explode. A boy who knew Klebold asked him what he was doing. Klebold answered, “Oh, just killing people.” To a girl he encountered praying out loud that she would not be killed, Klebold pointed his gun at her and asked, “Do you believe in God?” He taunted her for a while and then apparently lost interest.
There were brutal, cold-blooded moments. Discovering a tangle of students hiding under a table, Harris said “peek-a-boo,” then shot and killed them at point blank range. At one point in the library, the shooters demanded that “all the jocks” stand up so they could shoot them. None did. Witnesses report another girl was asked if she believed in God and was shot when she answered affirmatively.
In less than an hour the school was quiet. The gunshots and a few of the explosives had damaged the facility, but it was not the smoldering ruin the boys had envisaged. Twelve students and a teacher lay dead in or around the building. Twenty-four others had been hurt. As police SWAT teams positioned themselves outside, Harris and Klebold paced distractedly about the library. Harris was bloodied and suffering from a broken nose caused by the recoiling stock of his rifle. Sensing there was nothing more to do, the boys sat down and shot themselves. No one can know their final thoughts, but they would have been aware that the attack had not gone very well, that they had failed to cause the kind of devastation they had imagined. There is no indication that either boy experienced any kind of revelation, however dark. Klebold was not seen to have had any “fun,” sadistic or otherwise. The events combined to no coherent story.
At seventeen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were as tall and rangy as men. Unlike Kip Kinkel, they could not have been—and in fact were not—called “boyish and likable” by anyone. And in fact they were not at all like boys; they represent, rather, something vacant and devastating that boys might become.