Author discusses book detailing life and death of Feb. 14, 2008 gunman Steven Kazmierczak

By Kyla Gardner

The Feb. 14, 2008 shootings were the most tragic event NIU and the DeKalb community has witnessed, leaving five students dead and 17 wounded.

In the newly published Last Day on Earth, author David Vann investigates the life of the sixth person left dead that day – gunman Steven Kazmierczak – “a life that was perfectly shaped for mass murder.”

Vann spoke with the Northern Star about the positive power of education, the broader implications of Kazmierczak’s story for the United States and human nature and why he’ll never tackle a similar story again.

Northern Star: What originally drew you to this story?

David Vann: I pitched a story to my editor at Esquire about how armed suburban youth are. I inherited all my father’s guns after his suicide when I was 13, and I had a very scary three years of aiming at the neighbors and shooting down the street lamps and such. And I wanted to write a magazine feature investigating how much access kids have to guns, basically, in suburban America. So that was my idea. And then my editor said that instead of writing that story he wanted me to think about if I’d want to write about the shooting at NIU because he said the guy, Steve Kazmierczak, was an “A” student, and so he saw a similarity between Steve’s story and mine. And in the book, I did end up including my own memoir along with Steve’s story as an attempt to try to understand him and not make him a monster – try to get as close as possible to understanding how it is that I had all the guns and such and not hurting anybody, and why he did cross the line and do that.

NS: A lot of people in the NIU community were, and are, sensitive to attention focused on Kazmierczak; you write about how, in the memorial put up after the shooting with the six crosses representing the deaths, Kazmierczak’s cross was removed. So, what would you say to someone who might see your book as erecting that cross again, someone who finds a portrait of Kazmierczak offensive?

DV: I think they need to wake up. It’s not a book that glorifies him in any way. It’s a book, in fact, that he would have hated, a book that exposes him. He was a very private person, and he didn’t want his private life exposed. Jessica, his girlfriend, didn’t want him exposed either. And she helped clamp down the story and make sure that it wouldn’t be told, so it’s very important to tell the story and important to reveal who he was. So anyone who thinks that we should just put our heads in the ground and not know the story really needs to wake up.

NS: What were the different approaches you took to the article and the book, if there was a difference?

DV: There was no difference. Actually, the article was really long. I wrote 22,000 words in six days for the article…22,000 words is a third of the book. And then I wrote the rest in six weeks. So I wrote the whole book in seven weeks. And the reason I did it so quickly after that deadline was I just wanted the story to be finished. I just wanted it out of my life. It was a very ugly story, something that is not something I really would have ever chosen to write or investigate; it was assigned to me. I’d never had any interest in school shootings or mass murders. I’d never read a single book about any of them. I never imagined writing one, certainly. And I’ll never do anything like it again…But I was able to get all the files, and I think the book is worth reading because it has all this information. I gained the full information…it’s the most complete portrait that we have of any school shooter…What the teacher and TA from the classroom told me is that they preferred to know the truth, even though it was ugly…And in some ways, the story becomes less scary when you know that you have all the information. you can understand who he was and why he did it and all that. But it also becomes more scary in a way which is that his story implicates America; it’s not just a story about Steve Kazmierczak. It’s a story about all the currents in his life that led to that final event becoming possible. And those currents included his time in he military, his time in the mental health system, his libertarianism [and] his love of guns. There are certain qualities and narratives in his life that he shared with other shooters.

NS: You said it becomes a little less scary when you know that you have all of the information, but do you think in some ways its something we still can’t understand – what actually causes someone to commit mass murder? And what implications does that have for catching warning signs?

DV: I think that all we can do is understand how something was possible. We can’t ever understand it to the point of making it inevitable. That’s the big distinction. And that’s true for my father’s suicide, too. I’ve been writing about him for a long time and trying to understand his suicide, and I can understand how he got to that moment where it was possible, that that was one way he could go. But I can’t get to the moment of why he had to do that.

It always seems possible to me that he could have decided not to at the end, and Steve also came very close to not doing the shooting. He came in at the very, very end of class. If he had waited just a couple more minutes, it would have been too late. And he certainly knew when the class was meeting, so it seems to me that he sat in his car and thought about not doing it. I think that he almost didn’t do it. And he just, at the very last minute, went and did it. So to me it doesn’t ever become inevitable. He’s someone who had reshaped his life and had a lot of success at NIU, and NIU had actually been really good for him. And he almost managed to not become a mass murderer. He’d had a terrible past, a life that was perfectly shaped for mass murder. And he had a really kind of amazing attempt to reshape his life and came very close to succeeding at that. So I think for warning signs we should look for people who are suicidal, not for mass murderers. We need to look for someone suffering whose life is falling apart because those are the people who are most likely to decide to take other people with them before committing their own suicide.

Steve was someone who had tried to kill himself half a dozen times before and his life had gotten better but then he had recently had a transition moving to University of Illinois and that transition and his mother’s death were two things that pushed him back toward being who he had been before all of the success at NIU.

NS: You said NIU was the only place Kazmierczak had success – an opportunity to turn his life around. And then he became miserable and reverted back to that old self at the University of Illinois, so why did he return to NIU for the shooting?

DV: This I have to borrow from Jim Thomas, who was one of his teachers. I think Jim’s idea was that Steve came back because his final act of murder and suicide was an act of self-erasure that he was…not only killing himself but also eliminating everything that had been good about him and everything that had been his success. And so since NIU is where he had been closest to people and had the most success. It was really, by far, the best part of his life. Going back and doing the shooting there erased all of that so that no one would be able to even like him anymore…It’s only a theory, no one knows…This is one of the reasons I don’t just think we should forget and erase his story. What’s great about NIU is that these were the best years of his life – almost made him not a shooter. NIU showed the power of education, how it can reshape someone’s life and really improve things for them. So there’s something great there, in the story, about someone who came from this terrible, terrible background…all the mental health history and the family history…really it got a lot better at NIU. So it’s good to know that. I think it’s good to know that there wasn’t something about NIU that made him become a shooter, or something about NIU that failed. That’s why no one at NIU should be resenting my book. My book shows that NIU was great, it was a really positive influence in his life. And if he had just spent more time there and not moved to UI he probably wouldn’t have become a shooter.

NS: You also write about your own life in the book: your childhood around guns and your father’s suicide. How did you come to understand Kazmierczak through your own life and vice versa?

DV: In the book I was trying to understand why he crosses the line and why I didn’t. And what I found was that there were huge differences, that actually, I didn’t come very close at all. He spent years, tremendous effort, trying to escape being a mass murderer, but he had so much of his life heading toward that. It was very hard to resist that. But it was helpful as an approach, to just try to think as a mass murder as a suicide…and trying to think of him also not as a monster but as a human being who is suffering because, really, we can’t understand people unless we take that approach. If we just think of him as a sadistic, killer monster then we don’t understand him at all; we don’t learn anything. And In that denial and not learning anything, we’re destined to just repeat history over and over. So it’s only through trying to understand and connect that we have a chance of having a different future. [That’s] my belief.

NS: After studying more in-depth than anyone else the life of Kazmierczak, or like you said, any school shooter, what does his story tell us about human nature?

DV: One of the things it tells us is that when you take drugs, your human nature becomes something other than human nature. It’s one thing I see in the book, that’s one of the times that he goes off the map, when he gets all the prescription drugs in the mental health system. So it’s hard to know after that point which problems are his and which problems are the drugs. So that’s one thing that was very clear to me in writing the book that hadn’t been as clear to me before that. Another thing that is very clear to me is that it’s dangerous when we separate ourselves emotionally and psychologically from the suffering of others…So those are interesting things. In other words, human nature is corruptible in that way. We can be broken, our lives can be broken, and we can be trained to not care about each other.

NS: You’re coming to speak Nov. 8 at the Barnes and Noble in DeKalb. Can you tell me a little about what that event will entail?

DV: I tried to come speak at NIU and NIU didn’t want me. So I’m going to the Barnes and Noble instead. I’m not looking forward to it, and I don’t really want to do it. But I feel that I owe it to the community because for three years [NIU Police] Chief Donald Grady wouldn’t release the report and the info and when he did releases the report it had lots of omissions and errors. It’s not a good report; it doesn’t tell you anything about the shooting. In fact, the federal report about the shooting just used my account, so my account is the only account of what happened. I feel that I owe it to the community to be there to answer questions…because I’ve seen everything; I’ve seen the whole file. And no one else has. So this is the one chance people have to ask questions.