Program avoids too easy answers

Preview: `Frontline' takes a reasoned and careful look at one teen-age killer, and from it, maybe we can get a better understanding of why other, seemingly OK, kids kill.

January 18, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Finally, a television report that makes some sense out of the epidemic of kids going on killer rampages in suburban high schools.

"The Killer at Thurston High," which airs tonight as part of the "Frontline" series on PBS, does not try to explain all of the carnage at schools in places like Littleton, Paducah and Jonesboro. It seeks only to tell the story of Kip Kinkel, a 15-year-old at Thurston High in Springfield, Ore., who killed his mother and father and then drove to school and killed two classmates while wounding 25 others.

The focus is narrow, but it is also laser-like as it cuts through all the usual media-babble that surrounds such stories and takes us to the core of this boy's worldview. In helping us understand Kinkel, "Frontline" does a better job of helping us understand the larger problem than any other television report to date. There are no easy answers here, and the truth is scarier than many of us thought.

As correspondent Peter Boyer says at the start of the report after the litany of school shooting is sounded, "In homes across America, there was an awakening to the most unwelcome thought: Our schools are not the safe havens we comfortably assumed them to be. And there was something even more disquieting: Some of us are raising killers in our homes."

The arc of the 90-minute report is then described by Boyer as he asks: "What would you find if you opened the door into a young life that had produced such a horror? Surely a domestic landscape of dysfunction -- physical or mental abuse, neglect, a trail of psychic woundings.

"But what if you found a nurturing home, a comforting community and loving parents recognized for their special way with children -- by all accounts an ideal American family? Perhaps nothing could be more frightening than that."

Kinkel was not an All-American boy. He had a learning disability, dyslexia, for one thing. And he didn't have the perfect home life. His parents, both successful and respected high school Spanish teachers, expected their two children to be achievers. While his older sister, Kristin, was a great success at school, he wasn't.

He was held back in first grade, and his disability was not diagnosed until two years later. Even with constant coaching from his parents, just getting passed from grade to grade was a struggle for him.

A loving home

But, as a boy, Kinkel fell well within the parameters of what mainstream society thinks of as "normal," and he was surrounded with love and all the support and advantages of an upper-middle-class family.

As his sister, who provides remarkable testimony in this film, says, "There was no way we could have seen something this huge coming."

Through interviews with Kristin and a neighbor girl who grew up as Kinkel's best friend, "Frontline" makes us care about this boy despite the horror for which he was ultimately responsible. Without such empathy, genuine understanding is impossible.

Yes, what Kinkel did was monstrous, but "Frontline" does not deliver him up as a sideshow freak at which to marvel the way network newsmagazines often do when profiling young killers.

The fact-gathering and reporting is astonishing compared to the usual hit-and-run standards of the commercial networks and CNN on such stories. "Frontline" gained access to notes and reports written by a psychologist whom Kinkel was seeing on a weekly basis. The producers also have letters and a journal that Kinkel kept.

"I sit here all alone. I am always alone," one entry begins. "I don't know who I am. I want to be something I can never be. I try so hard every day. But, in the end, I hate myself for what I've become."

The report traces how he became interested in computers, guns and explosives, and how all that came together to give him an identity at school as someone who was a little dangerous. It also traces how he became enamored of a girl at school, his first love.

"Every time I talk to her, I have a small amount of hope," Kinkel writes. "But then she will tear it right down. It feels like my heart is breaking. ... I need help. I think I love her. But she could never love me."

`Romeo and Juliet'

It also traces his fascination with a film version of "Romeo and Juliet" starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which Kinkel saw in freshman English. Kinkel connected with the exceptionally violent, modern-day version of the Shakespearean love story. He played the operatic soundtrack from the film over and over on his CD player the night he killed his parents.

When police entered the Kinkel home the next day to find his dead parents, they were greeted by the music. Kinkel had set the CD player on continual-play before leaving for his final day at Thurston High.

"Frontline" has the police video from that eerie, grisly morning. It makes for one of the most intense yet responsible re-creations you will probably ever experience in front of a TV screen.

In the end, the very best thing about this report is that it refuses to offer a simple answer by pointing a finger at Kinkel's online life or the CDs to which he listened, for example.

"One of the things we noticed with Columbine and with the Kinkel case is that there's a new kind of kid in society who doesn't usually meet the usual test of juvenile delinquency," said Michael Kirk, the producer of "Killer at Thurston High," during a press conference promoting the film last week.

"Ten years ago, we thought they were listening to Ozzy Osbourne records and that's why they were killing. ...

"Now I think we know there are many more deep and profound influences, not the least of which is a lifetime of tiny bruisings and woundings that get contained within a family and are not observed by the authorities, and finally break out in some horrible, violent or self-destructive act."


What: "Killer at Thurston High"

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

When: 10 p.m. to 11: 30 p.m.

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