In coming to Parkland, Fla., a year ago, Dave Cullen defied every agreement he had made with his therapist and every instinct he had since his work on the book “Columbine” left him with a form of secondary PTSD capable of plunging him into debilitating darkness.
Days after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, on assignment with Vanity Fair magazine, Cullen raced from the airport in Fort Lauderdale to Pine Trails Park in search of a meeting among the MSD students that had impressed him and his editors in TV appearances.
In his haste, Cullen suddenly looked up from his phone and found himself surrounded by a field of crosses, Stars of David, bouquets of flowers, stuff animals and weeping mourners.
“Columbine rushed back over me like a wave. I was back at Clement Park the day after Columbine. I was at the epicenter of grief,” Cullen says. “My legs collapsed. I was on the ground, on my knees, sobbing, for about 10 minutes. I said, ‘This is dangerous to me. I shouldn’t be here.’”
In contrast to his book about the shocking details surrounding the Colorado school shooting, “Parkland” is a book about what happened next. A fly-on-a-wall account of a student-led gun-safety movement taking hold almost overnight, it is valuable for Cullen’s richly detailed, warts-and-all profiles in individual courage and discipline, and, sadly, as a blueprint for how young people may respond to another school shooting.
The New York Times Book Review called it a book “about the birth of something extraordinary: the birth of a movement, but also the rebirth of hope.”
An affable former second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Cullen is a prolific journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Politico, Slate and Salon, along with numerous TV appearances. When the Columbine shooting occurred in 1999, Cullen was covering the Matthew Shepard murder for Salon.
Cullen tells the story of his Pine Trails Park breakdown not to elicit any kind of sympathy, but to acknowledge the dangers of PTSD and importance of seeking professional help in the healing process. It was something he preached to Stoneman Douglas students as he worked on the book.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to be another adult person telling you to go to therapy. But let me tell you one thing quickly. I’m in Year 19 with the Columbine people, and the one thing they tell me over and over, their one regret, is they didn’t go into therapy sooner.’” Cullen says. “Three quarters of the time I bit my tongue, but they needed to hear it.”
Cullen says he was willing to risk the potential triggers of working in Parkland because of what he saw as a unique, legitimate opportunity presented by the students behind March for Our Lives to change the gun conversation in the country.
Since his Columbine book was published a decade ago, Cullen has been a go-to commentator for TV news shows whenever a mass shooting occurs. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, he told CNN host Chris Cuomo he was ready to end that role.
But seeing David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky and others on TV in the hours and days after the Stoneman Douglas shooting inspired him in a profound way, he says.
“After 19 years of frustration — I was at the epicenter of all these things — there wasn’t anyone more frustrated and angry that we’ve done nothing than me. But this was different,” he says. “We were trapped in a rat maze, and these kids just punched a hole in that maze and said, ‘There’s a way out!’ I figured it was time to throw out my old rule book and follow them.”
Cullen acknowledges feeling “a little trepidation” at the idea of speaking about “Parkland” in South Florida, especially the session at the high school.
“I’ve been through this before. There are people who are angry. Well, then that’s their right, and you need to hear what they’re angry about,” he says. “You’ve got to get down, in the community and hear what they have to say and what their concerns are. I’m eager to have that.”
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