(Re)writing Columbine: literary representations of trauma in high school shooting narratives

Thumbnail Image
Mahler, Anne
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University College Cork
Published Version
Research Projects
Organizational Units
Journal Issue
Since its emergence as a critical discipline in the mid-1990s, trauma theory has established itself firmly as a mode of literary interpretation. Yet, because of its initial overreliance on Freudian theory, and the resultant prescriptive postmodern nature of the paradigm, its use soon came under considerable scrutiny. Since the start of the 2000s, an ongoing paradigmatic shift attempts to overcome these existing shortcomings. This thesis critically interrogates and applies contemporary developments and readings within literary trauma studies by using post-Columbine high school shooting fiction as a case study, simultaneously introducing these high school shooting narratives to the existing trauma canon. It aims at furthering literary trauma theory by linking it to other genres, and other branches, of criticism, and is the first comprehensive study to investigate literary representations of high school shootings in light of theories related to the causes, consequences, and evolution of trauma. Defined as a coherent phenomenon in the 1990s, high school shootings have evoked a large number of literary responses and reworkings. The Columbine High School shooting in April 1999 is an especially pivotal event. It has become the cultural touchstone of what is collectively understood as a high school shooting, and has inspired authors to engage with this kind of attack in fictional ways. The corpus of this thesis consists of a cross section of high school shooting narratives published between 2000 and 2009. It includes young-adult fiction such as Todd Strasser’s Give a Boy a Gun (2000), Nancy Garden’s Endgame (2006), and Jennifer Brown’s Hate List (2009), general fiction in the form of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), and the true crime novel Columbine by Dave Cullen (2009). It is the aim of this thesis to analyse how authors of high school shooting literature have engaged with trauma in their writing, both on a thematic, and formal level. This thesis introduces a new model with regard to the representation of trauma in high school shooting fiction to illustrate the different trauma experiences addressed in high school shooting fiction. It is argued that the future shooter is at the centre of this ripple effect. The first level of traumatisation occurs chronically within the home and by parents, or parental figures. This is furthered by the next social group the future perpetrator interacts with, that of his peers in an educational setting. In the third dimension of the model, the trauma endured by the future shooter erupts in a high school shooting, and the focus thus shifts to victims of the shooting, hereby moving from chronic to punctual trauma. As an attack not on individuals but the broader social structure of the community, high school shootings also have a more collective dimension, an aspect which is reflected in the final layer of the model. It is thus possible to address aspects of literary trauma studies that have formerly been neglected, pushed to the margins, or not yet explored in great depth, such as perpetrator trauma, insidious trauma, post-traumatic growth, and collective trauma. By linking other literary modes and different aspects of gender studies to the paradigm—specifically the Gothic, masculinity studies, true crime, and feminine heteronormativity—it is thus possible to open new avenues for interpreting trauma in literature. This thesis demonstrates new ways to read trauma in contemporary fiction by thematising high school shootings in the post-Columbine era. In its contribution to scholarship, it aims to counteract society’s tendency to repress the high school shooting phenomenon, and its cultural representations, into the public unconscious. Through literary trauma studies, it draws attention to the urgent need to address the destructive potential of high school shootings.
Literary trauma studies , High school shooting literature , Gothic literature , Cultural trauma studies , True crime , School shootings , Young adult fiction
Mahler, A. 2020. (Re)writing Columbine: literary representations of trauma in high school shooting narratives. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.