The Life And Death Of Cassie Bernall
Reverend George Kristen of West Bowles Community Church in Littleton, Colorado, described Cassie Bernall’s funeral as a “graduation ceremony,” a day “to celebrate”; Minister Dave McPherson of the same congregation likened the service to “a wedding.”1 Their opprobrious remarks remind me of a man who, in a botched demonstration of anti–anti-Semitism, wished me “Mazel Tov” at my grandmother’s funeral. Unlike Reverend Kristen and Minister McPherson, this man had misspoken and regretted the egregious error.
Cassie Bernall was the student victim of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings who, according to witness accounts, was confronted by pubescent madman Dylan Klebold with this question: “Do you believe in God?” From the barrel-end of his gun, Cassie said, “Yes,” and was fatally shot. Though Klebold needed little or no provocation to kill her, it is within reason to suggest that Cassie’s life may have depended on her answer to the gunman’s question. (Was it really, “Do you want to knock this chip off my shoulder?”) At the very least, Klebold’s challenge implied a potential opportunity for her escape. Cassie refused the opportunity. (Whether or not this opportunity actually existed we will never know.)
Visitors to YesIBelieve.com, a tributary and informational Web site dedicated to the martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, are encouraged to follow Cassie’s example. A challenge is posed: “Are you willing to take a stand for God today?”2 On the site, beside a photo of the Bernall family (parents Misty and Brad and their son Chris), appears the “Bernall Family Endorsement.” It begins: “Our Cassie was the young woman who boldly answered to a gunman ‘YES’ when he asked if she believed in God, prompting him to pull the trigger.”3 Like the more commonplace parental gloats of Ivy League acceptances and athletic scholarships, their words seem to ring with pride; the statement of the fact carrying a weight of impressiveness and beckoning congratulations. A nearly audible drum roll leading up to the phrase, “ . . . prompting him to pull the trigger,” reinforces that the fatal consequence—the pulling of the trigger—is what sealed her badge of honor. (Indeed, Valeen Schnurr, the surviving student who also reportedly told Klebold she believed in God, even after being shot, remains a mere mortal.4)
That Cassie’s actions are exemplary is an overriding theme in the New York Times bestseller, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall (Simon & Schuster, 1999), written by Cassie’s mother, Misty Bernall. Despite substantial evidence of her daughter’s emotional problems, Misty claims, “[Cassie] didn’t have a death wish and it would be obscene to suggest otherwise.”5 After reading the book, one cannot help but wonder if she protests too much.
The disparity between the generous and friendly high-school student who wore Doc Martens and wrote poetry and the suicide bombers of terrorists groups like Hamas is obvious beyond comment. But the underlying psychological mechanism that allows people to defy that most basic of all human instincts, self-preservation, may be a point in common. Philosopher-psychologist Alan Watts’s implication that religious fervor is a response to fear and helplessness is clearly applicable to terrorist groups:
For man seems unable to live without myth, without the belief that the routine and drudgery, the pain and fear of his life have some meaning and goal in the future. At once new myths come into being—political and economic myths with extravagant promises of the best of futures in the present world. These myths give the individual a certain sense of meaning by making him part of a vast social effort in which he loses something of his own emptiness and loneliness. Yet the very violence of these political religions betrays the anxiety beneath them—for they are but men huddling together and shouting to give themselves courage in the dark.6
Though Cassie had never suffered under the rule of a malev-olent political regime, she inarguably experienced extraordinary levels of pain, fear, and hopelessness. The myth of finding happiness in the afterlife may have provided the comfort she needed.
In December of 1996, Misty and Brad Bernall found letters from Cassie’s best friend (the likes of which, it was later found, Cassie wrote back) suggesting that Cassie kill her parents and offering creative illustrations of the imagined results. One letter depicted “Ma and Pa” strung up by their intestines, daggers puncturing their hearts; another, a bloody knife dripping with “parent’s guts” beside headstones reading “Ma and Pa Bernall.”7
An excerpt from one of Cassie’s notebooks dated January 2, 1999, in which she reflects on this difficult period, offers insight to readers of She Said Yes :
I cannot explain in words how much I hurt. I didn’t know how to deal with this hurt so I physically hurt myself. Maybe it was my way of expressing my sadness, anger, depression . . . I would lock myself in the bathroom and hit my head on the counters. I also did this on the walls of my bedroom. Thoughts of suicide obsessed me for days, but I was too frightened to actually do it, so I “compromised” by scratching my hands and wrists with a sharp metal file until I bled. It only hurt for the first couple of minutes, then I went numb. Afterwards, however, it stung very badly, which I thought I deserved any-way. I still have scars.8
In the book, Brad Bernall recalls how “[Cassie] would cry and scream and yell, ‘I’m going to kill myself! Do you want to watch me? I’ll do it, just watch. I’ll kill myself. I’ll put a knife right here, right through my chest.’”9 A school friend also remembers that Cassie “was really struggling with suicide” and “had a problem with cutting herself.”10
Misty Bernall writes that Cassie’s eventual commitment to Christ (dated March 8, 1997) “. . . meant the end of wallowing in anger and emptiness, confusion and despair, (and) the chance to begin a new chapter.”11 But excerpts from Cassie’s journals document her profound despair and preoccupation with death right up to the time of her murder two years later. After finding the sinister letters, Misty and Brad subjected Cassie to a new authoritarian regime that included constant supervision, daily backpack searches, and the installation of telephone recording devices. They isolated Cassie from her old friends (upon the Bernalls’ request, a restraining order was issued against Cassie’s best friend, the author of the mentioned letters) and transferred her to a private Christian school. Gradually Cassie began to relinquish the material vices—the thick black eyeliner, Marilyn Manson CDs, and occult-inspired artwork—that marked her macabre rebellion. Even more promising, Cassie began connecting with her Christian peers, attending youth groups, and musing about her love and dedication to Christ. Eventually, pleased with Cassie’s progress, the Bernalls granted her request to transfer from the private Christian school to Columbine High. Despite these positive steps, Cassie’s inner turmoil remained.
“Mom, I’m not afraid to die, because I’ll be in heaven,” is what Cassie said while sitting at the kitchen table about a week before her death, according to Misty’s account in She Said Yes. Misty told Cassie she couldn’t bear to lose her. “But Mom, you’d know I was in a better place. Wouldn’t you be happy for me?”12 Though Cassie writes that she is dedicated to Christ, she also writes of feeling inferior in per-sonality, weak in spirit, unloved, depressed, hopeless, and uncertain about her purpose on Earth and her future. In an unaddressed letter dated January 2, 1999, she laments her inability to find peace with God, to stop being “a negative person . . . a crybaby,” and to take her mother’s advice and, “think positive and smile.” Four and a half months before her death she writes, “. . . I have become the type of person I never wanted to become. I am depressed.”13
Apparently no one refuted Cassie’s belief that devotion to Christ precludes emotional problems; or, that clinical depres-sion is evidence of spiritual inadequacy. Maybe instead of local pastor Dave McPherson, a mental-health professional should have been consulted. Maybe instead of wondering “What Would Jesus Do?,” someone should have wondered what a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor would do.
On an undetermined date in 1998, Cassie wrote, “I will die for my God. I will die for my faith. It’s the least I can do for Christ dying for me.”14 Later, her mother echoes the underlying sentiment:
That is why I am able, ultimately, to see the loss of my daughter not so much as a defeat, as a victory. The pain is no less. It will always remain deep and raw. Even so, I know that her death was not a waste, but a triumph of honesty and courage. To me, Cassie’s life says that it is better to die for what you believe, than to live a lie.15
Though Cassie never could have predicted what would happen on April 20, 1999, her sang-froid in the face of death hints at a girl primed for her mission. Depressed about life, quixotic about the afterlife, and desperately wanting to prove her worth to her family and to God, Cassie was prepared to die for Christ. Dylan Klebold was the last, but not the first, to ask Cassie if she would stand up for Christ in the face of death. She had asked herself the same question many times before—and every time she had answered, “Yes.”
Shari Waxman is a writer living in New York City. Her articles have appeared in Skeptic magazine and on Salon.com.
1. Carla Crowder, “‘Your Courage and Commitment to Christ Have Gained You a Special Place in Heaven,’” Denver Rocky Mountain News, April 27, 1999, http://denver.rockymoun-tainnews.com/shooting/0427bern5.shtml.
“Retailers Marketing Martyrdom
2. http://www.yesibelieve.com. The yesibelieve.com Web site has since been revised. It now links directly to http://www.spir-itualwear.com a retailer of religious products. Jody Veenker, to Teens,” in Christianity Today http://christianity today.aol.com/global/pf.cgi?/ct/1999/145/51.0.html, notes the commercialization of martyrdom and considers whether wear-ing religious products, such as those endorsed by the Bernall family, is a meaningful demonstration of faith.
3. http://www.yesibelieve.com. The “Bernall Family Endorsement” appeared on the original yesibelieve.com Web site. This endorsement does not appear on the revised site. For additional Cassie Bernall sites see http://www.cassiebernall.org. and http://www.baptistfire.com/articles/other/cassie.shtml.4. Dave Cullen, in “Who Said ‘Yes,’” Salon, 9/30 (1999), http://www.salon.com/news/feature/1999/09/30/bernall, consid-ers the assertion of student witness Emily Wyant that the exchange between Cassie and Klebold never occurred. Some have suggested that Valeen Schnurr’s declaration of faith was mistakenly attributed to Cassie.
5. Misty Bernall, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom
of Cassie Bernall (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 136.
6. Alan W. Watts. The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (New York: Vintage Books, 1951), pp. 18–19.7. Misty Bernall, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), pp. 45–46.
8. Ibid., pp. 57–58.9. Ibid., pp. 56–57.10. Ibid., p. 83.11. Ibid., p. 99.12. Ibid., p. 139.13. Ibid., pp. 117–18.14. Ibid., p. 140.15. Ibid., pp. 159–60.