Parkland Survivors Changed the Narrative for America's Shooting Expert - Rolling Stone
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How Parkland Survivors Changed the Narrative for America’s Shooting Expert

Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, was the media’s go-to expert for school shootings. Then Parkland happened

Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Alex Wind. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, and mass shooting survivors, from the left, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Alex Wind, participate in a panel discussion about guns, at Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, in Cambridge, Mass. The Feb. 14, 2018 attack in Florida killed 17 people, 14 of them students. The students have become vocal advocates for stricter gun lawsSchool Shooting Florida, Cambridge, USA - 20 Mar 2018

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, and mass shooting survivors, from the left, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Alex Wind, participate in a panel discussion about guns, at Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, in Cambridge, Mass.

Steven Senne/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Six weeks after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. represented a culminating moment. High school students had taken the fear, grief and anger that the February 14th, 2018 shooting forced into their lives and mobilized these emotions, resulting in a full-fledged political movement. The March would not only provide a necessary catharsis for their community of survivors, but signify the Parkland teens’ mission and give it clarity moving forward. For America’s mass shootings expert, the March for Our Lives was culminating, liberating and offered a potential promise of change.

In the decade since the publication of his 2009 landmark book Columbine, Dave Cullen has become the man to call after events like those in Littleton, Colorado, and Parkland. He’s been tapped by dozens of TV and radio shows, podcasts and documentaries for hundreds of appearances explaining mass shootings and providing guidance to an exhausted and worried national audience. The day of Parkland alone, he was tapped for six TV appearences and a podcast — he calls these days “Groundhog Day.” During these gauntlets, Cullen is an advocate, educater and town crier. He takes umbrage with the too-common breathless and undisciplined speculation of shooters’ motives, as well as unrestrained focus on things like body count instead of the survivors.

I’d been Cullen’s researcher when I was in graduate school, and always known him to be devastated after each new shooting, every event bringing back the sorrow of his time with victims in Littleton and the horror of studying the killers. Going on Anderson Cooper 360 and New Day constantly to answer questions about dead high schoolers is a wearisome existence, and it was beginning to wear him down.

But at the march, Cullen was enthusiastic and optimistic. The Parkland students had, in a matter of weeks, threatened to change the conversation around mass shootings, and even Cullen was starting to believe. I was invited to help with additional reporting on a story following a Parkland freshman — Daniel Duff, a survivor — around D.C. for his first political protest. Cullen was reporting on the Parkland kids and their journey from shooting survivors to activists, and had also just agreed to spend the next four to six months reporting and writing Parkland: Birth of a Movement, out this week with Harper Collins.

The day was more for Cullen than a scene in his upcoming book: It was a celebration of a change in the two-decade story of gun violence in America’s schools. Reported stood in the press row, collecting quotes from Parkland survivors and filing their stories in the press tent, Cullen was out in the audience, exchanging hugs and high fives from MSD students and sharing gossip and anecdotes about the kids on stage with anyone who would listen. We took a walk around the perimeter of the estimated 200,000 in attendance at the rally before Cullen realized the time, rushing us back to the press tent for Emma Gonzalez’s now-famous six-minutes-of-silence speech. “We have to see Emma!” he said, not with the urgency of a reporter, but with the familiarity of a friend. Hopefully, his buddy Emma could pull it off.

Dave Cullen. Photo credit: Justin Bishop

Dave Cullen. Photo credit: Justin Bishop

Before gunfire was reported at a suburban high school in Colorado in April of 1999, Cullen had thought very little about the psychologies of mass killers or their victims. An army stint led to a career as a systems analyst, where he made enough just money to drop everything at 33 and pursue an MFA in at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he studied creative writing with his early mentor Lucia Berlin. Cullen was still out west and covering the Matthew Shepard trial for Salon when he heard news of the events of Columbine High School.

Columbine was the first mass shooting of its kind, and so it was impossible in the moment to know how quickly coverage would become plagued with bad information. According to early reports, the shooters had been bullied, and were targeting specific students. “I felt like the journalists had already decided what the scenario was,” says Paula Reed, a teacher and Columbine survivor. “If you told a different story, they just ignored you.” The perpetrators of the shooting weren’t loners, and they weren’t goths, and no one listened to Marilyn Manson. Still, the profile worked as a narrative, and that speculation built a regressive loop. That default understanding of the school shooter became a template.

Cullen, living in Colorado, was sent by Salon because of his proximity to the event, and though the national media soon left Littleton, Cullen stayed. He describes being struck how quickly the survivors’ grief had transformed to shock. It was a catalyzing moment. Cullen needed to see how everything would play out, but also why it had happened: “I didn’t know then that I was going to write a book, but I knew it would be years before we had the answer,” he says. “And I knew I would keep coming back there, because I just needed to know.”

His work culminated in a report about the investigation, subtitled “Everything you know about the Littleton killings is wrong.” It contained the first leaked passages from shooter Eric Harris’ journals, the first public statements from lead investigator Kate Battan, and struck down popular rumors like the targeting of jocks and Christians by the killers. But debunking the myths had only give Cullen a new puzzle to solve.

“The [sub]headline was true — all these myths were wrong, but I didn’t really replace them with anything,” says Cullen. “I finally realized, I’m never gonna figure this out. What am I doing?” Reporting could only get Cullen so far — he needed to enlist experts. Over the following nine years, authorities like Dwayne Fuselier (the FBI’s domestic terrorism head in Denver at the time, whose child was a survivor) and Frank Ochberg (a psychiatrist credited with helping to define both PTSD and Stockholm Syndrome) welcomed Cullen into their ranks, email lists and conversations as he searched for answers. Cullen describes the experience of writing the book like getting his “PhD in killers.” “I think Dave has an accurate, intelligent appreciation of science, including behavioral science,” says Ochberg. “He gets it, and that’s where truth lies for him.”

For almost 10 years, Cullen worked relentlessly on Columbine, developing himself into the expert he’d once sought out — not just on shooter psychology, but also on victim psychology. “Other people had the access to do it, but nobody had Dave’s tenacity,” says CNN’s Joan Walsh, then his editor at Salon, “and also his compassion and ability to get people to really open up to him over time.” The book is the result of this doggedness, but also of his patience and empathy with the community of survivors. “We had been so maligned and presented in a way that I thought was untrue that I was very skeptical,” says Reed. “I felt like he really got it right.”

When Cullen is on television, he is replete with adages and advice, sharpened over the decades. Most school shootings are also planned suicides, so instead of blaming “mental illness,” he notes, we can screen for teen depression. He cautions hosts against jumping to conclusions, yet when he’s asked some variation of, “Why do they do this?,” his answer never wavers: Almost all killers are men, he’ll say, humiliated by a failure or loss, all with easy access to guns, and all seeking attention. We can’t eliminate men or failure, and so if politicians won’t take guns off the table, the least the media can do is not stop glorifying and validating killers with media attention when they murder. The theater, of which he’s a part, is the foremost target of his ire.

“He doesn’t get calls about any kind of good news. He gets calls when the news is terrible, and I think it’s sometimes a struggle for him to compose himself,” says Walsh. Cullen has been diagnosed with secondary PTSD, suffered from years of listening to victims’ accounts and watching shooting footage, not to mention studying psychological profiles of killers. He has been cautioned by therapists to limit his exposure to specific types of footage, but the “Groundhog Day” treatment of most events allows for a sad loophole: whether he’s seen the coverage or not, his TV advice remains the same.

For two decades, he’s also contended with a network of online trolls — admirers of the Columbine shooters who send him threatening videos or messages predating our current landscape of alt-right meme hell, going all the way back to his first Columbine reports. He has to sweep his social media regularly, as there’s an unending supply of disaffected young boys and girls in love with the killers and mad at Cullen for telling “lies” about them. The universe of mass shooting survivors grows yearly and needs people in support roles like Cullen, but nothing had been done by legislators after Sandy Hook, Orlando, or Las Vegas. Cullen was starting to notice his second- and third-day appearances would get cancelled — the news was moving on. Maybe Cullen was ready to move on, too.


After the Parkland New Day appearance, Cuomo told Cullen
he had quit doing on-location reporting after shootings — it was too much and too hard over time. Cullen sympathized. Being the mass-shooting guy was finally taking its toll on him. “I think I’m done after this,” he recalls telling a friend. On New Day he went through his typical beats, and while leaving he happened to catch the news, live, in an elevator monitor. “I watched David [Hogg] on the elevator down,” he says, referring to activist David Hogg’s viral first television appearance. “And I stayed in the elevator! I stood there and watched the rest of the interview, which I’ve never done before.” Less than two minutes into his MSNBC interview, Hogg was talking about how people at home could call their Congresspeople and demand action. “What the fuck. This is not a first-day survivor,” Cullen recalls thinking. This was not the kind of survivor video his therapist has cautioned against viewing. He rushed home and watched more of the kids. “They don’t act like this!”

The Parkland survivors on TV weren’t crying, or shocked, or shook — they were angry. Brian Williams had Cullen in for the 2 p.m. slot, so he sat with Williams and Nicole Wallace and watched tape of the survivors in real time. Already the kids were echoing Hogg’s earlier interview, and a half-hour later, Cullen was on the Nicole Wallace 4 p.m. slot, thinking these kids are crazy, and for the first time, he had something new to say, and about survivors, not shooters’ motives or lockdown drills. Someone was changing the conversation in real time. He told Wallace: “These kids are my new heroes.”

It turns out, Parkland actually was different. First, active shooter drills developed after Columbine encourage children to run, hide and fight — in that order — and as a result, most shootings are over in a matter of minutes, not hours. Kids run, get away, process grief, and never spend much time in the emotional space of anger. But because responders weren’t sure of the shooter’s identity and so kept the doors locked and the children inside, many of the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas were locked into rooms for hours, some next to their dead and injured classmates, communicating through Snapchat and Instagram. Cullen points out in Parkland that because of this, many of these kids rushed through the adrenaline that helps survival and is later connected to PTSD episodes, and instead were left to stew in anger. Parkland also is a large, rich school, with a TV station, AV club, and the exceptionally privileged students that attend such an institution. Talented, angry kids are everywhere, but these ones had the resources to make a statement. Throw in Charlottesville and Trump and the national anger had been brewing, and it was a perfect storm. The shooter hadn’t been the focus of all this coverage—David Hogg, Cameron Kasky and Emma Gonzalez would command the cameras.

Within the week, Cullen was in Parkland, sent by Vanity Fair. “I think that it was pretty clear right away that that what was happening was not the familiar depressing aftermath story,” says Mike Hogan, his editor. “He could see this kind of spark — this electric thing that was happening.” Cullen had promised his therapist that while TV appearances or reporting on killers were okay, he couldn’t go back into the raw scene of a crime. This one was different, he told himself. It had been 10 years since he’d spent so much time with victims for his reporting, which was slow-going at first — kids can be cryptic over text messages. Either Cameron or David had left him a dubious address for a meetup including “trails end amphitheater,” and so with no other leads, Cullen headed to one of Parkland’s main sites of mourning, where he encountered flowers and teddy bears and 17 angels on a pavilion stage. His PTSD triggered an anxiety attack.

“I thought, what am I doing? This was stupid. Okay, I have to get outta here.” And he almost did. But Hogan was convinced Cullen would have “something to offer that nobody else did.” Cullen took copies of Columbine — taught in high schools across the country — but handed none out. “I didn’t want to be an ambulance chaser,” he said at the time, before realizing that his book didn’t have to be a calling card; it could just be something to maybe help a teenager suffering shock or grief.

Cullen quickly integrated himself again into the lives of the survivors of a mass shooting, but this time no one was looking backward for answers. The beginning of Parkland covers this first trip, where he rode in a gaggle of reporters to Tallahassee, following the kids for their first advocacy mission at the state capitol, but by his second trip, he was comfortable giving copies of Columbine to not just the kids but their parents. Cullen was hanging out backstage at Cameron Kasky’s rehearsal of Spring Awakening, and his first interview with David Hogg was followed by an off-the-record, three-hour “leisurely hang” with Hogg’s mom and dad, a retired FBI agent. He said they had lots to talk about. Cullen took a group of freshmen out for mozzarella sticks, an event that both he and now-sophomore Daniel Duff have told me was “cool.”

Duff was the freshman we’d eventually shadow at the March for Our Lives: “[Cullen] didn’t even really feel like a reporter as much kind of like being seen like he was,” says Duff. “He was genuinely interested in the things that I was saying as opposed to listening to it all for the story or for what he had to write.” Hogan’s gamble that Cullen would help the community as much as they’d help him was paying off. “He has so much authority but also so much empathy,” says Hogan.

The need to wait for satisfactory answers following a tragedy is something Cullen has been arguing for since the first week of Columbine, and after two 10-year writing projects and swearing to never write about a shooting again, there’s a bit of change in the story of Cullen, too: Parkland was written and reported entirely in the six-month period following the attacks. “I thought I was going into this with a big risk” says Cullen, “and that it might really fuck me up. It’s the opposite. It freakin’ cured me.” His panic attacks decreased from three on the first visit, to one, to none. Parkland spends more time on the history of the school’s namesake than on the shooter or his motives, and of course doesn’t mention him by name. Cullen is a character and participant, and nakedly honest about the prospects of what lies ahead for these victims and the country, and clearly an advocate for change. Says Duff: “the organization sees him as a friend because he’s done so much for us and he’s always been positive and always been there for us.”

At the March for Our Lives, I lost Cullen for about 45 minutes before he showed back up with a young girl from Connecticut, Julia Walker from East Lyme High School. Julia was a sophomore, and had snuck in to the press gaggle with a laminated green construction-paper “press pass” from her high school newspaper, Viking Saga. She would have stuck out in any press tent in the world but the one run by children, and Cullen had spent the better part of the last hour talking to Julia about reporting, inspired by her moxie. He told her he was going to sneak her into the even more exclusive interview tent, and slung his real event pass around her neck, telling her to “stick close.” Terrified, Julia followed us right to Emma Gonzalez, Delaney Tarr, and the slew of celebrities. Julia didn’t have her questions ready, and Cullen assured her it was fine — neither did we! Just ask questions! Be interested! He let her keep the pass, because as Dave Cullen he could come and go, and at the day’s end she excitedly caught back up with us. Near tears, she let us know she’d interviewed David Hogg for The Viking Saga. “Of course you did,” said Cullen. “You’re a real journalist now!”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify Cullen’s professional life before the Columbine shooting. 

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