Objectivity Is My Enemy: A Conversation with Dave Cullen
Dave Cullen has spent two decades as “the mass murder guy,” as he’s called himself. One of the first people on the scene at Columbine High School in 1999, he went on to write the New York Times bestseller, Columbine, and is widely acknowledged as the expert commentator on school shootings. But the work has taken its toll on Cullen, who has suffered two debilitating bouts of secondary PTSD and says he doesn’t think he can survive a third. When news came of yet another shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, on Valentine’s Day of 2018, Cullen was initially reluctant to get involved.
But this time was different, radically different.
In the aftermath, Cullen met a remarkable collection of survivors—victims refusing victimhood— who began by calling out Adult America for letting kids die. Quickly, the Parkland kids seized control of their story, galvanized a nation, and built a movement to capture that energy. The result, the March for Our Lives (MFOL) Movement, was the first substantial hope for a road out of the school shooter era, and started a revolution.
In his new book, the New York Times bestseller Parkland: Birth of a Movement, Cullen takes a page from the New Journalist school of writing, calling himself a “method writer,” insisting “objectivity is my enemy,” as he gives us an intimate account of the birth of the MFOL movement and its stunning metamorphosis through 2018. Cullen spent a year following the Parkland kids, by embedding as a “cultural translator” to pull back the curtain behind the movement to reveal ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. Ultimately, the book demonstrates Cullen’s own affection for teenagers fighting a “generational campaign” to ensure their own children won’t have to fear going to school.
Parkland bookends Cullen’s experience covering mass shootings, offering both inspiration and a message of hope that the school shooter era can be a thing of the past. I spoke with Cullen about his own trauma, his role as a writer who “sometimes plays a journalist,” how the Parkland kids healed him, and why he thinks this time is different.
The Rumpus: You didn’t set out to be the go-to guy on school shootings. What effect has writing about this had on you?
Dave Cullen: It completely redirected my life. Driving out on Denver’s Highway 6 that morning, toward reports of shots fired at Columbine High School, I had no idea I was taking a huge detour in my life. I didn’t realize the effect it would have on me, including two bouts of secondary PTSD, the second of which was really bad. I went on antidepressants. I had a whole month where I barely got out of bed. I would sob for the whole day. I could not do any work, could not do anything. I don’t ever want that to happen again. I don’t think I’ll survive a third time. The PTSD was so much deeper than I realized. I broke up with Greg, my boyfriend at the time, and my relationship with my family was terrible. I wonder now if both were because of how I felt. I’m a happy guy and that guy went away for many years. The PTSD made my entire life fragile. It brought everything down around me.
Rumpus: Why did you decide to write Parkland, given how much school shootings have weighed on you?
Cullen: One of the things I noticed in my coverage of the movement for Vanity Fair last spring was the sense I got from kids across America that they were amazed by the Parkland kids and they were inspired, but they had no idea how to do it themselves and they didn’t have the confidence. One of the most often asked questions of the Parkland students from other students was, “How did you do this?” So, I wrote this book in part to answer that question, to pull back the curtain, to show what it took to pull something like this off and what it was really like behind the scenes.
I hoped that in reading the book, high schoolers would feel empowered. I also wanted to them see the ups and down of the Parkland students, so that when they’re trying to do it for themselves, they could see the MFOL kid’s failures and breakdowns as well as their successes. I wanted them to understand, on a visceral level, “Oh, Emma sometimes fails, and Jackie sometimes fails.” I wanted them to see that’s part of how it goes. Any adult can tell them this a million times, but it’s very different to read the story of Cameron and Jackie and Emma for themselves.
Rumpus: Do you think writing Parkland made you happy again or had you become happier before Parkland?
Cullen: Some of each. I thought I was better. I didn’t realize how much further I had to go until this year when I had a long conversation with Parkland survivor Alfonso Calderon, where he confessed he had to come to grips with the fact that he wasn’t doing as well as he thought he was. He’d put on weight and he wasn’t feeding his pet lizard or giving it water. When his father mentioned the pet, Alfonso realized, “Wow, this is affecting others in my life.” The lizard was a metaphor for how what he was going through affected his relationships. It was his wake-up call. I realized then that the Parkland kids healed me. I told this to Alfonso and he said, “Really?” and got choked up.
I didn’t know how much Columbine and the last twenty years affected me until they were lifted off me. I’m a happier guy again. I first noticed it in March and April of 2018, when I was following the Parkland kids around, doing Instagram stories on them. I was bouncing up and down because they are such amazing kids who really want to make a difference.
Rumpus: It’s clear from the book that you admire them and what they’re doing, but what is that inspires you and what do you think is going to continue to inspire the nation?
Cullen: Well, kids are underrated. We put them into this category and it’s almost like they’re dogs or cats or another species. We adults treat them that way, as if adults and children are different things. And I don’t identify with that perspective.
Plus, I’ve done more than a hundred appearances at schools and I’m constantly amazed by high school kids. You know how people talk about thinking outside the box? Well, kids are already outside the box. In fact, they haven’t yet constructed the box. And that was the key thing about the Parkland kids.
In America, we’ve been making excuses for years about why we can’t manage the mass shooting situation—because of the NRA, because of the Second Amendment, which has been reinterpreted to mean all these things it really doesn’t, because of the Republican party, because of even the Democrats, because of politics. All these reasons why we can’t fix this horrific situation. But these kids said, “Really? Just fucking do it! Politicians need to grow a spine and do something about this or we will get your ass out of there. And we’re going to rally the country, especially young people.” And they already had most people in the American public on their side. According to polls, more than ninety-five percent of people are for universal background checks. The kids asked, “How has the five percent been leading the ninety-five percent on this for decades?” It’s so refreshing to see them in action.
Rumpus: The Parkland kids seem to have particularly impressive organizational capacities, and while you document the first year of their movement you also say they’ve launched “a generational campaign.” How did that happen?
Cullen: Conventional wisdom said there was a quick window for action after Parkland, a window we measured by Newtown. One of the things we thought we learned from Newtown is that you must act fast. You have a maximum one-month window of outrage to get something passed. This thinking came from the fact that everyone thought Obama waited too long—about a month—to try to address the situation. Of course, there was pressure on him not to politicize a tragedy. His strategy failed, and it might have been the timing, but I also think it because a politician was leading it.
What happened with the Parkland kids is that they weren’t buying the conventional wisdom about time frame—or anything else, for that matter. These kids made a conscious decision to put their ducks in a row, figure out what policies they wanted to address and what they wanted to oppose, and then do this right and get something passed.
They said, “To change the legislation, we have to change the legislators.” They knew Phase One would be the midterms. And Phase Two wouldn’t happen for two more years—the presidential election in 2020—three years after Parkland happened. They said, “We need to be realistic about how long this will take, and it’s going to take some time.” Jackie Corin said to me in our first in-depth interview, “Yeah, what we’re doing is going to take years.” She’d just met John Lewis and she said that the Parkland movement was in it for the long haul, just like civil rights battle. All of the Parkland kids saw what they were doing in those terms. John Lewis told them they were an extension of what he was doing when he marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s funny, even at the March for Our Lives event in Washington, DC in March 2018, everyone—the press, the media—was treating the event like the swan song of the movement, the final curtain, the culmination of outrage. Having spent so much time already with the kids, I knew it was the opening act, the big launch pad. The first five weeks on the ground was simply building the rocket and this was the big lift off day. They were still far from their destination.
Rumpus: You identify as a journalist in the book, yet you earned your MA in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado Boulder where you studied with Lucia Berlin. How did you end up a journalist and how did creative writing help your work?
Cullen: I fall into journalism because there’s this category for what I do but really, I break all the journalistic rules. I’m part of the media and the press and when I am writing for Vanity Fair and other outlets, it’s journalism. What I would say is I’m not a journalist, but I do play the role of journalist some of the time. I really think of myself as a writer, and journalism is only part of what I do. Instead, I’ve always seen myself as a participant observer. When I first heard the term in an anthropology class, I realized, that’s who I am. That’s what I want to do.
It’s part of the reason I joined the army in the ‘80s, which was this whole thing that was so alien to me. I was asking what kind of guy did I want to be and here were all these guys-guys and what did that mean? So, I was just going to hurl myself in. I’m not going to report on what it’s like, I’m going to drop out of college and be a soldier and dig fox holes and then later I went to Kuwait right after the war to help the oil company reorganize. I’ve always been an experientialist.
When I joined the army, I hadn’t yet admitted I was gay. But that was a big part of joining, in retrospect. I’d always been called a big fag and I felt like a big fag and I wanted to be a real man. I guess I thought I had to find a way to turn myself into one. When I got back from Kuwait, I wanted to write about that experience and that’s how I ended up in the creative writing program.
Rumpus: But not as a journalist.
Cullen: No. Laurie Anderson says, “What I really consider myself is a spy.” What she means is a cultural spy. I’m halfway between participant observer and a journalist. I’m closer to participant observer, but I’m really a spy.
You should go into an interview with a list of questions but if you come away with all your questions answered, you’ve failed miserably. Because the whole point of an interview—and you shouldn’t think of it as an interview in the first place—is drawing the person out, and going there and experiencing it with them.
Another way to say spy is cultural translator—a liberal going into the army, a white boy in the Arab world, a gay guy embedding himself in the evangelical world after Columbine—a guy who goes into these different places, embeds himself, gets what it’s like to be there. Basically, I’m a method writer. My job is to immerse myself and then translate what it’s like to be that person. I breathe that onto the page, so it breathes off the page and the reader experiences it, too. A reporter, on the other hand, asks questions and transcribes.
Rumpus: What do you think journalists miss that you get?
Cullen: The goal of a journalist is objectivity. You shouldn’t get too close to your subject because you want to treat them fairly or you might not want to say bad things about them because you like them too much. There’s a supposed to be a wall of separation. There are places and reasons where journalists need that distance. But the New Journalists of the ‘60s—Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion—understood that journalistic rules don’t apply to some situations. Tom Wolfe got on the bus with the merry pranksters to write The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This is especially true for longform journalists who don’t need to learn to break the rules, but to set those rules aside. For a lot of what I do, objectivity is my enemy. I’m trying to vaporize that wall of separation. I’m trying not construct it in the first place.
Rumpus: Since we’re on the topic of writing and craft, what was it like to study with Lucia Berlin, to whom you write the sweetest note in your acknowledgements?
Cullen: I had a unique relationship with her because most of her significant relationships with graduate students were with mature strong women and I was the opposite. I was immature and silly and a boy. Maybe those were the qualities she liked in men. She admired the best qualities in women and the worst qualities in me. She was so mischievous.
In terms of writing, she told me: “You just need to feel whatever it is you want the scene to feel like. You need to feel that while you’re writing it.” I first did it with fiction and then later with nonfiction for my thesis. When something wasn’t working, I realized I wasn’t feeling it. So, Lucia taught me to go to the emotional place and that became second nature.
After grad school, I started doing some journalism pieces to build a platform. The first was on the Matthew Shepard trial for Salon. When I drove out to Columbine two weeks later, I wasn’t coming from a journalist angle and I wasn’t trying to be a journalist. But I operated as one.
Rumpus: At one point in Parkland you write, “The kids seemed to have accidentally solved the problem of celebrity shooters by simply becoming bigger celebrities themselves.” And you make a point not to name the shooter in your book. Have the Parkland students changed the media and the media’s coverage of mass shootings?
Cullen: In some ways, yes. But they were also the incredible beneficiaries of luck and timing. I think America was waiting for some leader to lead us out of this. And these kids emerged. The fuse was already lit and burning, by the Resistance movement, by lots of frustration that nothing was being done, but we didn’t have anybody to make something happen.
In terms of the media, they were already getting better about not overly publicizing details about the killers. Since 2015, mainstream media has come on board with the “No Notoriety Movement,” which asks that shooters not be named or pictured.
The public appetite for the details of mass shootings has gone down. For example, we don’t even remember the name of the Las Vegas shooter. The same is true of the Parkland shooter. So yeah, I didn’t mention him either.
All of this reminds me of something Frank Rich wrote about with the gay rights movement. He said there are powerful moments in movements both early and then late in the game. He was talking about Brokeback Mountain, which was a mainstream movie with gay characters, and how the movie wasn’t crucial to the gay rights movement because it started something, instead it was crucial because it ratified something that was already nearly there. The tide had turned and Brokeback Mountain showed us that.
In the same way, the Parkland kids, in terms of timing, came around when both the media and the public had already shifted significantly. The media had changed its practices and the public was getting tired of the fascination with killers. We were ready to be done. Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. The time was right.
Photograph of Dave Cullen © Justin Bishop.