She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall
Nashville: Word Publishing, 1999, 142 pages.
This is the story of the 17-year old high school student who was killed when she answered “yes” when asked if she believed in God. This of course occurred during the April 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The person asking the question was one of the two troubled classmates who entered Columbine with the intent and purpose of killing as many of their fellow students and teachers as they could. Before ending their own lives, they killed Cassie plus 12 others.
The book was written by Cassie’s mother, and I read it on September 18, 1999, only a few days after a similar incident occurred at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, TX. In that latter incident, a troubled man entered that church and began shooting randomly, ultimately killing seven before turning the gun on himself. Reading about Columbine in the shadow of the recent incident made it even more chilling.
But the heart of the book is not the story of Cassie’s death, but rather her deliverance from an even more fearsome fate: unbelief and rebellion against God. It was this earlier deliverance that transformed (and perhaps led to) her martyr-like death. For before she died, Cassie had entered that relationship with God which deprives death of its sting.
The events that led to her transformation began about two and a half years earlier when Cassie was in the ninth grade, with her teenage rebellion growing more serious. One day her mother found in Cassie’s room some letters written by Mona, Cassie’s best friend. What she found horrified her. The letters contained unprintable sex talk, along with Mona’s expressed desire to murder one of her teachers, inviting Cassie to help her. There were other allusions to occult symbols and spells, drugs, self-mutilation, and the adventures of a classmate who went to a satanic church. One of the letters advised Cassie to kill her parents, and had grisly drawings portraying them being “strung up” and stabbed. Misty later learned from Mona’s mother that Cassie had written similar letters to Mona.
Having found the letters, Misty and her husband Brad were shocked into the realization that there was a whole side of Cassie’s life that they knew nothing about, although there had been signs. In fact, she said that Cassie “had been sliding away from us ever since the fifth or sixth grade, when she first began latching onto Mona and ignoring her other friends” (page 41). Earlier attempts to restrict contact between Cassie and Mona had met with opposition from Cassie and had been dropped.
This time though, Misty and Brad took action, contacting not only Mona’s mother, but also the sheriff’s department and their pastor. The letters were filed with the sheriff’s office.
They then confronted their daughter with their discovery of the letters. Her response was extreme anger, as to her mind her parents had overreacted, violated her privacy, and showed they had no love for her. She then said she would relieve them of the burden by running away and killing herself.
Pursuing their course, Misty and Brad met with Mona’s parents at the sheriff’s office. The detective supported their desire to obtain a restraining order to bar Mona from further contact with Cassie. Unfortunately, the response of Mona’s parents to the revelation was hostility toward Misty and Brad. In fact, it was later learned that they were ready to take Cassie into their home if she decided to run away.
The next months were rocky. Her parents immediately removed Cassie from the public school she was attending and put her in a private Christian school. They also imposed constraints on her activities, and even decided to move (ending up in a smaller home) in hopes of keeping Cassie away from her former friends. Misty later found vindication for their actions from Jamie, a friend Cassie met at the private school:
According to Jamie…Cassie herself said that her violent fantasies were more than talk. She felt gripped by a very real power of darkness, and it had taken her months to break free. Part of it was that she had apparently given her soul to Satan (page 63).
Although Jamie said she didn’t know if the transaction was real or symbolic, she said it didn’t matter, because in Cassie’s mind she had really put herself into that bondage. In fact, in an autobiographical essay Cassie later wrote, she said that during that period of her life “she hated her parents and God with the deepest, darkest hatred” (page 63).
When Cassie first met Jamie at the Christian school, her parents were somewhat uncomfortable at Jamie’s appearance: “Jamie had a short, bleached-blonde haircut, and big chains and metal beads around her neck, and was wearing the sort of grungy attire that alternative types buy from places like Goodwill”. Jamie was, according to Misty, “not my idea of a nice Christian girl” (page 72), and seemed to represent the “alternative” lifestyle that they were trying to get Cassie away from. However, in this case, appearances were deceiving, as it was Jamie’s invitation to Cassie to attend a youth retreat sponsored by her church that provided the circumstances that God used to cause a complete turnabout in Cassie’s life.
The themes of the retreat were overcoming the temptations of evil and breaking out of the selfish life. During a nighttime praise-and-worship service, Jamie recalls that “it was the singing that for some reason just broke down Cassie’s walls…it really seemed to change her” (page 81). Cassie was crying and asking God for forgiveness. After the service, Cassie, Jamie and several others went up the road, and stood out under the stars, “totally in awe of God…the bigness of God was so real” (page 82). Jamie later said that “Cassie’s whole face had changed…there was something new about her” (page 82).
When her parents picked her up after the retreat, Cassie came to her mother, hugged her, and said: “Mom, I’ve changed. I’ve totally changed. I know you aren’t going to believe it, but I’ll prove it” (page 82-83).
Her mother was at first skeptical, but later recalled:
From then on, Cassie became a totally different person. She never talked much about that weekend, and we never pressed her…Cassie still wore her heavy bead necklaces and her old clothes, but somehow those things didn’t matter much anymore. The important thing was the change in her spirit—her gentleness, her humility, and her happiness. She seemed to have found a freedom she had never had before. (page 85).
Cassie even regarded the date, March 6, 1997, as a sort of second birthday—the day she was ‘re-born’ (page 89).
It’s not that she was all-of-a sudden perfect. But she was all-of-a-sudden changed. There were the normal struggles, but her parents were spared further drama, and the last two years were uneventful. At the end of the summer of 1997, her parents had allowed Cassie to transfer from the private school to Columbine High. As she told her mother, she could witness and reach out to more kids in a public school than in her Christian school.
She also was active in the youth group at her family’s church, and was profoundly moved by some of the books on discipleship that they studied. She was well aware of her own imperfections, and a saint would likely have been the last thing she would have called herself. But the person who faced her killer on that fateful date in April of 1999 was a radically different person than she had been only slightly more than two years before. In fact, in a note written to a friend the night before she was killed, and handed to her friend the next morning at school, Cassie said: “Honestly, I want to live completely for God. It’s hard and scary, but totally worth it (quoted from preface).
As her mother said:
To lift up Cassie as a martyr…is unnecessary. It won’t change the facts of her life. For Brad and me it is enough that, whatever the reason, Cassie stood up for what she believed…The real issue raised by Cassie’s death is not what she said to her killers, but what it was that enabled her to face them as she did….She didn’t have a death wish, I’m sure, and it would be obscene to suggest otherwise. Yet when tragedy struck her out of the blue, she remained calm and courageous. She was ready to go (pages 118-119).
This is a timely book with a timeless message of what God’s grace can do in the most hopeless of situations. No one is so far lost as to be out of the reach of the Great Shepherd’s searching arms.