Archive for September, 2012

On April 20, 1999, four years and one day after Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in Oklahoma City (the date was no coincidence), Columbine stopped being the name of a high school in Colorado and took on a new meaning – a horrifying American tragedy, a deadly school shooting, a massacre. I did not hear about Columbine or the Oklahoma City Bombing until years later, when other school shootings were referred as ‘Columbines’. Or, I might have heard about a shocking shooting on the other side of the world, but the word ‘Columbine’ never really registered. In 1999, I was in high school myself, and can hardly imagine an 18-year old cooking napalm on his stovetop, or having the imagination and brains to envision and plan a massacre, and be consumed with so much wrath as to desire to blow up a school full of people. For that was their vision – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not intend to kill twelve students and a teacher, but wipe out the entire school. Columbine was a bombing that fizzled out.

In a perfect world, Eric would extinguish the species, Eric was a practical kid, though. The planet was beyond him; even a block of Denver high-rises was out of reach. But he could pull off a high school.

They had a plan: A diversionary bomb in nearby park to keep the police occupied while they detonated bombs in the school cafeteria during lunch break (for maximum impact), manned exits to shoot down any escapees, and finally kill themselves. Fortunately, Eric’s bomb making skills were not top-notch and all of the bombs failed to detonate. The guns worked, though. Eric and Dylan shot at students and teachers, killing thirteen and grievously injuring many more, before blowing their own brains out.

Dave Cullen’s account of the shooting, Columbine (2009), was published a decade after the event, fleshed out, he says, from official documents, journals and videos made by the killers, police records, summaries of counseling sessions, and memory of the survivors, with any remaining gaps (and there were some) filled by criminal psychologists. Cullen starts out describing the shooting as it played out from the victims’ point-of -view, and weaves back and forth between Eric and Dylan’s evolution to becoming partners-in-crime, to the aftermath – a stunned community, the media frenzy, the investigation, and the survivors’ lives. Cullen also aims to clear up myths that sprang up easily and abundantly in the hysteria and confusion that followed the incident, and to paint a profile of the killers. Eric and Dylan, he concludes, did not kill because they were part of the ‘Trench Coat Mafia’ (although they did wear trench coats that fateful day), or because they were Goths, or listened to Marilyn Manson, or because they were outcast loners who were bullied by rich, snotty jocks. The killers had no specific trigger, they had no specific target. They dreamed of making a large, indiscriminate kill and ending their own lives.

Eric, Cullen writes, was a textbook psychopath, “charming, callous, cunning, manipulative, comically grandiose and egocentric, with an appalling failure of empathy”. Eric killed for two reasons – “to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it”. Dylan, was depressed, angry, and suicidal. Together, they formed an effective dyad – “the psychopath and the depressive“, a murderous pair who fed off each other.

An angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair, The psychopath is in control, of course, but the hotheaded sidekick can sustain his excitement leading up to the big kill.

Eric’s psychopathy had been simmering for at least two years before the shooting, and he was convinced of his own superiority over the witless idiots all around him. He didn’t snap, but an incident did set his plan in motion: Eric and Dylan were arrested in their junior year for breaking into a van (they’d got into trouble earlier for vandalism and such). Eric’s contempt grew into a seething rage, but, he maintained a cool and charming, even repentant, exterior, as most psychopaths do. Nobody – his family, his psychiatrist- had a clue. Dylan, on the other hand, was painfully shy, but prone to angry outbursts. His parents thought he might be suicidal, but certainly not homicidal.

Cullen devotes a considerable part of Columbine to the post-shooting years. The mourning, the slow recovery, the post-traumatic stress disorder, and the paranoia that seeped into the entire community. Eric and Dylan’s parents were blamed by many for raising killers. But Cullen says that parenting might not be responsible.

It also appears that even the best parenting may be no match for a child born to be bad.

But the parents still faced a horde of lawsuits.

After years of wrangling, most of the fringe cases were dismissed…That left the killers’ families. They wanted to settle. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had insurance. It turned out their home owner’s policies covered murder by their children.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that about home owner’s insurance.

Even mental health specialists are no match for psychopaths – Eric convinced his own therapists that he was contrite and well on his way to turning over a new leaf. So, what should adults look out for?

  • Leakage – Cullen says that 81% of shooters confided their intentions, which were not vague, implied or implausible. “The danger sky-rockets when threats are specific and direct, identify a motive, and indicate work performed to carry it out”.
  • An unhealthy, morbid preoccupation with death, destruction and violence. Repetitive violent fantasies with mutilation, guns, brutality and a vivid imagination

As with other works of journalism, I’ll have to take Cullen’s word that his hypothesis is the product of comprehensive research. Columbine is certainly gripping. And scary. I hope that the any lessons that were learned from the shooting would never have to be put to use.

Other works about true-crime that I (and many others, I’m sure) have read and enjoyed:

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

In True Blood


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The Marriage Plot wasn’t as unequivocally applauded as Jeffrey Eugenides’ earlier, more popular works, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Luckily, I was spared the mental chore of subconsciously examining The Marriage Plot to see if it lived up to the high expectations set by the others, because, I am ashamed to admit, I don’t remember much about either of his earlier books. I could refresh my memory by reading up a plot synopsis on Wikipedia or some such source, but it wouldn’t help me recollect my uniquely subjective response to them. These lost thoughts are precisely the impetus behind Happy Reading. And Happy Thinking.

I know I enjoyed The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, and was intrigued by the mixed response to The Marriage Plot. It is entirely possible that I was expecting a mediocre to above average reading experience and that might have contributed to how totally enjoyable I found it. Well-constructed, engaging, and a very pleasing read.

The Marriage Plot is a rather un-classic love triangle, and an un-classic coming-of-age tale that follows the lives of three Brown graduates in the early 1980s. Madeleine Hanna is a pretty, privileged English major in love. Leonard Bankhead, the object of her affections, is brilliant, utterly charming, poor, and a manic depressive. Mitchell Grammaticus pines for Madeleine, as he ponders his relationship with God, and in some ways, the meaning of is life. The ‘marriage plot’ in the title refers to Madeleine’s honors thesis, as well as an honors seminar that she takes in college, both of which deal with mainly Regency and Victorian novels that revolved around the ‘marriage plot’ – “the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings”, the wedding itself, and reached their artistic peak when the heroines faced their disappointing married lives with admirable fortitude. So, yes, The Marriage Plot is about courtship, unrequited love, marriage, and disappointment.

Leonard’s mental illness, and Mitchell’s obsessive yearning for Madeline are two parallel themes that run through the story. I did not fully understand Mitchell’s preoccupation with faith and its relation with his excessive affection for Madeleine, and am not  familiar with the ways in which manic depression manifests itself, but I did enjoy Eugenides’ treatment of the subjects.

With three fairly brainy main characters, a lot of the story involves academic chatter, often about philosophy and God (that students of the subjects will better be able to appreciate), such as a student’s contention with Barthes that “that the act of writing is itself a fictionalization, even if you’re treating actual events.”

Madeleine is a budding Victorianist, and her love of books and women writers, in particular, is apparent right from the first page. She realizes why Victorian women writers were such pioneers:

Women were restricted from owning and inheriting property in early Victorian Britain. They were restricted from participating in politics. And it was under these conditions, while they were classified literally among idiots, that Madeline’s favorite women writers had written their books.

Seen this way, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, especially that written by women, was anything but old hat. Against tremendous odds, without anyone giving them the right to take up the pen or a proper education, women such as Anne Finch, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, and Emily Dickinson had taken up the pen anyway.

Leonard clearly has an exceptionally brilliant and well-informed mind, so while it does not surprise me that he knows the origin of the word ‘paradise’…

“You know what paradise means?” he asked.

“It doesn’t mean ‘paradise’?”

“It means ‘walled garden’. From the  Arabic…”

…I am a little intrigued. Leonard is presumably referring to the Arabic word firdaus, which I understand means something like ‘the highest level of paradise’. In The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Hooman Majd talks about paradaeza, high walled Persian gardens, as the origin of the word. If they are both correct, as Persian and Arabic certainly have influenced each other, which way is it? Did firdaus come from paradaeza or vice versa?

Eugenides takes his time to develop the characters, and builds a rich, layered drama. His writing is smooth and inviting. This is not a book I rushed to finish in a night – I savored it over a week. The Marriage Plot might not be a magical novel, but underwhelming it is not.

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Another impromptu pick at the library, Tangles: A story about Alzheimer’s, my mother, and me (2012) by Sarah Leavitt, may well be one of this year’s most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had.

I tend to stay away from illness memoirs. I don’t have the courage to read them. Even flipping through them and catching sight of painful, hopeless words and phrases here and there throws me into a deep gloom, and an even deeper dread. If I had ever imagined that physical illnesses are in any way worse than mental illnesses, or more painful, or more distressing, was I ever wrong! Illnesses that manifest themselves in the form of bodily pain, and that force us to confront our own mortality, are terrifying to imagine. If a person, because of impaired cognitive ability, is spared the knowledge, is that not a better situation?


The only reason I picked up a memoir about Alzheimer’s, a memoir of sickness and dying and sadness, is because I do not have an Alzheimer’s phobia. I was able to read and weep through the book, and appreciate how utterly beautiful it is in its tragedy, without being struck by debilitating terror.

Tangles is a graphic memoir by writer and cartoonist Sarah Leavitt, whose mother, Midge, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s very young, at 54. Midge’s disease progresses over the next 6 years, and her family (and towards the end, caregivers) care for her as best as they can. Sensing that she is slowly losing her mother, Leavitt begins to take notes and draw sketches to remember her mother before and during her illness.

I often felt like Harriet the Spy, or, in darker moments, like a vulture hovering and waiting for Mom to say or do something that I could record and preserve, even as she slipped away from me. Sometimes she would pull on the page or grab my pen as I tried to write. The pen would skid and make a mark and I’d label the mark: “Mom moved my pen”. I wanted to keep every trace of her.

When my son was born, like many other mothers and fathers, I wanted to capture his every moment. I have little scribbles in my diaries from those years that tell me on which date exactly he made his own little joke for the first time, his cute mispronunciations, the first time he smiled, ate sweet potato, or used words like ‘disappointed’. I like to read them and relive my joy, and feel all the love rush over me, right down to my toes and finger tips. These are little milestone moments that mark his progress, as he learned to think, pay attention, speak, laugh, and dress himself. Tangles, infinitely sad as my diary is jubilant, is also a memoir of progress, the cruel march of the disease, a heartbreaking journey in reverse, as Midge’s abilities are slowly affected, and she stops writing, talking, dressing or feeding herself.

Some things became precious to me, like her poetic mistakes.

Sarah starts by briefly describing her mother’s family and childhood, and draws a picture of a vibrant, passionate, nature-loving and kind kindergarten teacher. Since Midge starts to show signs of the disease at only 52, her family mistakes them for menopause, or stress. She is often confused, forgetful, moody, and angry. Once diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Midge’s deterioration is steady and relentless. As she becomes a shell of her former self, and assumes a different identity, her relationship with her closest family members shifts as they assume new roles.

(Sarah): Waaah! I want my mommy!

As she forgets to read and write, so does she forget to keep clean. Sarah writes of being embarrassed by her mother’s smelly clothes and breath, but soon realizes that her mother’s deterioration will present greater challenges that call for a lot more strength.

(Mom): I’ve lost all my sweetness


Me: Are you OK, Mom?

Mom: No. I just can’t tell what is and isn’t.


Me: Oh, Mom, I thought you were sleeping.

Mom: I don’t know if I am or not.

A few months after moving into a nursing home, Midge, who by now isn’t walking or talking, becomes weaker, stops eating, and dies, although she had stopped living years ago.

Sarah’s drawings and writings are remarkably candid, as she tries to capture moments of joy, and pieces of her mother as she really was, amidst all the anger and sadness.

Heartbreakingly beautiful, Tangles is a testament to the power of the graphic format.

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