Dave Cullen has been known, for better or for worse, as the ‘mass shooting expert’ in media circles for decades. His book Columbine, published in 2009, was a decade-long effort that provided one of the most arresting and exhaustive looks at a school shooting that defined a generation of kids and the way the media would cover mass shootings for decades. But being the guy who jumps into zones of trauma, where people are reeling from grief, anger, an frustration, has not been easy on him. Cullen struggled with PTSD symptoms after Columbine and other events and stayed away from covering more recent shootings such as Sandy Hook and Pulse Nightclub. He could not handle another month of reporting about carnage and broken families and asking the same questions again and again.
Then, not long after, he saw Parkland-survivor David Hogg on the television. And then he saw other kids like David on the television turning their grief into action. He was impressed, inspired, and, miraculously, filled with hope. When Cullen went down to Parkland, it was not to cover the shooting, it was to cover what happened next. And over the next five weeks, a book — never the intention of his trip — came into being. That work, Parkland, comes out this week in honor of the one-year anniversary of the events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. Fatherly spoke to Cullen about his time covering school shootings, what he’s seen in the aftermath of Parkland, and about the power of hope.
It’s clear that by reading your book that the March For Our Lives movement was really powered by the kids who went through the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. What do you think about that?
It’s not that they have a distrust of adults. They don’t want adults telling them what to do. They want to run this themselves. They did [a meeting] with their parents one time, and every parent was like “Oh, I’ve got an issue with that.” Everything took four times as long. [But when] the kids talked through their ideas, I was shocked that the kids said “no” to most things, but they knew each other, and they had a process. They had an unwritten language and could do it really, really quickly. So if someone brought something up, but it was too much, like making fun of Marco Rubio or something, the group would just be like “Ehhh,” and the whole group knew pretty quickly that, yeah, that’s too much.
They know that adults are the media. They are very, insanely media savvy. Better than most of us. And they knew what we needed for our stories. What they didn’t know, they learned very fast, and they got some advice.
What’s the benefit to it being a largely kids and teen-led movement, to you?
After these shootings, I do all these TV interviews. The international ones are completely different from the U.S. ones. All of the international ones that I’ve done, the first question that I get is, “What the hell is wrong with people in America? Why do you have all these guns? Why don’t you fix that?”
And I’m always kind of like, “Well, you have this NRA… You have these parties that are stuck in this stalemate.” I try to explain why. “We have a second amendment, and a horrible Supreme Court that has been reinterpreted for the past 20 years, in this sort of insane way that it never was for 200 years, and we still have Republican presidents who keep appointing people who say they are traditionalists and originalists and yet, are doing just the opposite.” So, in my head I have all these reasons why we can’t, why we can’t, why we can’t.
And the kids from Parkland didn’t do that.
These kids are just sort of like, not just “Fuck that,” but they’re like, “That’s the problem with you adults. You bought into that. You’ve accepted all the reasons we can’t.” And they’re just saying, “No, we’re not accepting this. We’re dying. What are you doing?”
[They] think outside the box. “Think outside the box” has been a huge thing of the last 30 years or something.
I didn’t go back down [to Parkland] to document the horror and the grief and what it’s like for someone to live through one of these things, which is what I would have done if I had gone to Sandy Hook or Pulse. These kids were just staggeringly different.
But the box is…
…high school kids have not yet constructed the box they need to escape. A lot of adults are like, “Okay, they’re 17. Do I need to take what they say seriously?” Yes! There are a lot of things they don’t know, but there are a lot of really powerful things on the plus side. And I think most adults often just see the negative half of that equation. And I don’t.
Why did you decide to cover Parkland and not, say, Sandy Hook or Pulse?
Because those were horrible, and they were only horrible things going on there. I made a deal with my shrink. It was pretty serious. Seven years out [of covering shootings] was really bad. I had suicidal ideation. After that, I was having a lot of trouble with suicidal thoughts. I went on antidepressants, which I hated. It has occurred to me that, like, I might not live through a third bout. I have to take this seriously. I had to. I have these pretty strict rules with my shrink that I adhere to. Going back to [Parkland] was so far over the line, not just crossing it. I just didn’t tell my shrink.
What about Parkland was different for you?
I didn’t go back down there to document the horror and the grief and what it’s like for someone to live through one of these things, which is what I would have done if I had gone to Sandy Hook or Pulse. These kids were just staggeringly different.
I actually wrote a piece for Politico, that first week. I’m not sure whether the question was “Is this time different,” or “Why is this time different?” I started [writing that piece] at noon the day after [the shooting.] Politico had an editor there, he emailed me the afternoon it was happening, asking me if I would write a piece for them. I said, “Ugh, I don’t think I want to.” The next morning, I saw David Hogg, and then other kids.
On the television?
I was like, wow. My first response to David was he’s not a first-day survivor. They don’t act like that. I had literally never seen someone like this get to that place of taking action past all their grief and horror and shock and move right to the active stage of doing something about it under 24 hours. That just doesn’t happen. I was like, this is unbelievable. It’s amazing, but unbelievable. I thought it was this one in a million thing, and then I turned on the television, and they were all over. All the kids.
If you’re a kid going to high school, you don’t suddenly feel like it’s your fault. You don’t even have the right to vote yet. You didn’t elect any of these spineless assholes who have done nothing. But if you’re an adult you are responsible. You are sending your child to a possible death sentence
I’m only 25. I basically got through high school just before school shootings started happening regularly. I missed it by years. I have to think about these kids who have been growing up in the school system through all of these actual shootings, not just drills, like I did. The exhaustion and the frequency, just kind of turned into, ‘well actually, fuck this.’
Exactly. They were ready. That whole generation — your generation plus — they were at the breaking point and they were ready to go. There were a lot of other things that contributed.
When I saw it, I said, “Wow. This is really amazing.” I emailed the editor back and said, “You know what?Actually, I’d be interested in doing a piece on why this is suddenly different and what’s going on here.” Because suddenly, after being really despondent after these things, thinking that nothing is going to change and that we’re locked in this horrible political system that we can’t fix this, suddenly it was like Wait, there might be a way out?
These kids just punched a hole in this rat maze that we’ve been trapped in. The one we thought there was no way out of. They said: “Yeah there is. It’s right here. Just follow us, dammit, you idiot adults.”
And then, against your shrink’s wishes, you dove in.
I wrote that piece that weekend and as we were still editing it my editor from Vanity Fair called. “I know you’re not allowed to go down to these things… but would you be willing to go down to this thing?” I thought about it. I felt like, Okay. I’ll go down there. I still thought it was pretty risky, and maybe crazy. But I went down to tell the hopeful story. To see what was really going on. How big this was, if so, how they were doing it, and what all was happening. I didn’t go down there to do a book, I went down there to do a series of Vanity Fair pieces. We agreed to a deal of five weeks. On Sunday, when we were still working out how I would do this, they announced the march that morning. So I was like, Okay, that’ll be the end date.
I think that’s why David Hogg was an overnight sensation. He said things that adults were already feeling themselves. We were already angry. I was fucking pissed off. Nothing had changed.
So how was it, actually being there?
I underestimated that until I got there, when I found myself in the middle of that trauma. Cameron [Editor’s Note: Cullen is referring to Cameron Kasky, a March for our Lives member and survivor of Parkland] gave me the most comically absurd one-line text of where this place was, somewhere in South Florida. I got to the park [Editor’s Note: Cullen is referring to the location of the first rally after the shooting] and was just frantically trying to find this meeting.
At once point I decided, Okay, slow down. Stop. Take a good look at all the surroundings in the park. Try to figure out what it might be. And so I did. I took everything in. And then I was like, immediately aware that there’s a cross ten feet from me. A huge cross in the ground, with flowers and teddy bears. I knew, instantly. All this paraphernalia, I knew what it was. There was another one over there and each one was different. Usually, when they have the crosses, they’re all together. This is different. They spread out, and each one had come up with their own thing. And I was like, “I’m standing in the memorial. I’m inside it right now, with the grievers.” Columbine washed over me. I was back in Clement Park, 19 years earlier, with these Columbine survivors. All of these people around me are all grieving and falling apart inside and barely keeping it together and I fell apart. I was like, “What the fuck did I just do?”
I just dropped to the ground on my knees and I was sobbing. I was going to go back to the airport and get the hell out of there. But I sobbed through it for about 10 minutes, almost remarkably fast. I was feeling better, and I was like, Okay, I should still go home, but I’m here and I might as well go to this meeting. By the end of the meeting, I was like, That was silly. I’m fine. I had about three or four [episodes of that]. That was probably the worst.
What was it like meeting the kids for the first time, and watching them go through their trauma?
I told Alfonso, [Editor’s Note: Cullen is referring to Alfonso Calderon, a March for our Lives member and Parkland survivor] I had a long conversation with him. Almost two hours. He sort of realized over time that he was in a worse place than he accepted. He had to make some changes. He was kind of more messed up [than he realized]. I had noticed him gaining weight. But I was not ever going to say, like, ‘You put on a lot of weight, buddy!’ But those things happen when you’re not paying attention and you’re in high school, and you’re 17. [He realized], ‘Wow. God, I’m doing all this media stuff. I’m not even shaving. I’m not changing my clothes. I look like a pig pen.’ The big thing for him was his lizard. He was like, “My lizard is dying. He’s not getting water. I’m torturing the poor thing.”
I realized, during that conversation, that, Wow, I hate to say this, but [my experience] has been kind of the opposite. Like, you guys have actually healed me. I didn’t realize how much the PTSD was still affecting me. I thought it was all good, except for like, when these things happen and I have some triggers and setbacks. But I didn’t realize that the gloom was still on me until it was lived in. I am a happier person that I have been for 20 years. I am a happier guy again.
I really feel like that’s kind of the story. That they did that to America. That’s the story of this book. Not every person in America agrees with what they are doing but a big chunk of America that was distraught and terrified for their children and themselves, is. The children are more resigned to it. I get much more guilt from parents, because they feel more responsible, because they are responsible.
If you’re a kid going to high school, you don’t suddenly feel like it’s your fault. You don’t even have the right to vote yet. You didn’t elect any of these spineless assholes who have done nothing. But if you’re an adult you are responsible. You are sending your child to a possible death sentence. Because you — and the rest of us — didn’t ever demand this. The kids have been healing all of us.
When historians look back on this, Columbine will definitely be the opening of this era. I predict Parkland won’t be the last one, but it will be the beginning of the end.
During 20 years of coverage of tragedy, of gun violence, what has changed for you?
I would say, right up to this point, that nothing had changed on guns. Until this. Someone interviewed me a couple of years ago, pre-Parkland. He did a long interview with me for something and interviewed me again about a week ago and said, “You’re like a different guy.”
In this interview, he was like, “When I talked to you before Parkland, you sounded depressed. You were despairing, hopeless, angry, reeling.” I’d already forgotten that I was really pissed off about this. I felt like David Hogg. That morning — I think America felt that way. I think that’s why David Hogg was an overnight sensation. He said things that adults were already feeling themselves. We were already angry. I was fucking pissed off. And nothing had changed, [and we were like] “God dammit. It’s been 19 years.” It would be one thing if they were working some change in the system that was going to take some time. Fair enough. Maybe a year or two. But 19 years? We weren’t in the middle of changing things. We’re 19 years in and square one. And that’s a fucking disgrace. So nothing had changed.
And then suddenly, everything is changing. It’s not done, but it’s in the process of changing. I look at the two events. What we’ll see is Columbine wasn’t the first one, and Parkland won’t be the last. But Columbine was the first really horrific one that put this thing on the map for other perpetrators. It really opened this mass shooter era up by inspiring all these people. So when historians look back on this, Columbine will definitely be the opening of this era. I predict Parkland won’t be the last one, but it will be the beginning of the end. Historians will see this as the two major events, and [Parkland] is the beginning of the way out.
Did you think that the first time you saw David Hogg, or when you met the kids?
When I first went down there, that was very much an open question. When I first went down there, I was like, this is really different, but we thought that after Sandy Hook. We thought that a lot of times. That was really the question: Can this be different? Can these kids sustain it for more than like, a month or two of the outrage that always happens? Mass shootings happen. People die. What about the economy, or the war, or healthcare? But the kids did follow through. And I think this is the way out. I think that’s the change. It’s so dramatic and so powerful. We’re not done. [The kids] can’t drop the ball here. And they don’t plan to.
*This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.