Last Day on Earth, by David Vann
On Valentine’s Day 2008, Steve Kazmierczak killed five and wounded eighteen at Northern Illinois University, then killed himself. But he was an A student, a Deans’ Award winner. How could this happen?
CNN could not get the story. The Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and all others came up empty because Steve’s friends and professors knew very little. He had reinvented himself in his final five years. But David Vann, investigating for Esquire, went back to Steve’s high school and junior high friends, found a life perfectly shaped for mass murder, and gained full access to the entire 1,500 pages of the police files. The result: the most complete portrait we have of any school shooter. But Vann doesn’t stop there. He recounts his own history with guns, contemplating a school shooting. This book is terrifying and true, a story you’ll never forget.
When David Vann set out to write about Steven Kazmierczak, he intended to write a sympathetic piece that focused on Steve’s suicide rather than the homicidal acts that directly preceded it. But then the author discovered that Steve was not a polite, summa cum laude graduate student who simply snapped one day, and I think this seriously messed with Vann’s head.
See, Vann’s father committed suicide when Vann was thirteen, and if you’re familiar with Vann’s work at all, you know that suicide is a big theme in most of his writing, from Legend of a Suicide to Caribou Island. The first sentence of this book is “After my father’s suicide, I inherited all his guns.” And it turns out that this so-called “portrait of the NIU school shooter” is as much about David Vann as it is about Steve Kamierczak. It seems to me, in fact, that Vann’s insertion of himself into this narrative is almost pathological, and it leads to some unforgivably lazy thought — unforgivable because of the subject we’re dealing with.
According to Vann’s “portrait”, Steve grew up watching horror movies with his “not mentally right” mother. His grandma was an alco. His father a depressive. In third grade, he had “poor impulse control”. By middle school, he was viciously abusing his dog (either by slamming it against the wall by its back legs or actually raping it), shooting at neighbor dogs with his pellet gun, and putting Drano bombs under neighbor porches. Of course, these and other antics land him in some kind of youth home, in addition to being doped up on drugs, which makes the situation worse. Anyway, you get the picture, and if you want the gritty details, you can read the book. My point is that Steve seemed to deal with serious mental illness from the very beginning.
Which is why it’s so bizarre to me that Vann then seems to, throughout the book, blame horror movies, the American military, guns, first-person shooter video games, interest in serial killers, and Marilyn Manson for turning Kazmierczak into a mass murderer. Vann doesn’t say this directly, of course; it’s more like he makes snide or pointed comments that are supposed to lead the reader to enlightenment. Like this doozy: “The military trains all its troops to kill without feeling anything, and so we should fear every American who has served in the military.” Obviously, this is Vann’s own prejudice or pathology sneaking in, as it does several times throughout the book in equally tasteless and misinformed remarks. (He repeatedly accuses Steve’s “libertarianism” and actually says stuff like “I know this ideology sounds like it’s radical leftism but it is actually ultra right wing” [paraphrased]. I’m not a libertarian at all, and even I know this isn’t true. From Wikipedia: “Such scholars of politics as Noam Chomsky assert that in most countries the terms “libertarian” and “libertarianism” are synonymous with left anarchism. It is only in the United States that the term libertarian is commonly associated with those who have conservative positions on economic issues and liberal positions on social issues, going by the common meanings of “conservative” and “liberal” in the United States.” Obviously, Vann’s own bias strikes again!
And I do think that this kind of rampant bias and lazy thinking is unforgivable in this book because this is too serious and tragic a subject to obfuscate. It’s not that I don’t hurt deeply for Vann’s own personal traumas and pain; it’s just that this is supposed to be a journalistic work, which ideally should provide clarity or insight, and should not conflate the author’s feelings with the subject’s. But after reading this, I think I know more about Vann’s motivation than Kazmierczak’s.
A good foil for this book is Columbine by Dave Cullen, which is well-documented, very detailed, and fully retains its journalistic integrity.