Just Another Young White Male Nutjob? The Isla Vista Killer and His Discontents
When the Isla Vista massacre story broke last week, I was about to file it under “So what else is new?”: antisocial young white male loses marbles, arms himself with a semiautomatic and goes on a shooting spree in which he blasts multiple individuals he doesn’t know personally. Typical American news event, repeated like old episodes of “Friends” on late-night TV. Except that 1) it’s no laughing matter, 2) we should never let ourselves grow numb to such events simply because they’ve become part of the American cultural landscape, and 3) this particular rampage was especially instructive about the current state of life in our republic.
So why did the late Elliot Rodger enshrine his name in perpetuity with all the other young male maniacs by acting out his homicidal fantasies in public? Opinions sprouted like spring dandelions: it’s all about guns, shouted the anti-gun activists. No, it’s about the breakdown of marriage and morality, lamented the conservative Family Research Council. No, it’s more about our faulty mental health system, noted the well-meaning “therapy cures all” contingent. No, it’s about misogyny and white male privilege, scolded a black female columnist who (somewhat predictably) also teaches both gender studies and “Africana” studies.
I don’t entirely dismiss any of the above explanations for the Isla Vista massacre. The problem is that these explanations more accurately reflect the biases of the explainers than the motives of the murderer.
The guns-gone-wild explanation. Granted, the murderer had bought three handguns, including a Glock semiautomatic pistol, and used them to spray bullets at a sorority and a deli, killing three college students. There’s no doubt that the guns in his possession emboldened him, and that semiautomatic weapons in particular tend to bring out the worst in mentally unstable American gun owners. And yes, we need to ban those deadly ammo clips, which have no place in the homes of American citizens unless they’re planning to join a “well-regulated militia” to defend their country. (Second Amendment diehards can look it up.) But Rodger also stabbed three young men to death in his apartment and used his BMW to ram several unsuspecting pedestrians. This was a mixed-media massacre.
The morality explanation. Sure, the prevailing culture in the U.S. has tended toward decadence and dissolute behavior for decades now — but Western European culture is at least as decrepit as ours, and yet the annual gun-related death statistics there are minuscule. (In the U.S. recently, there were 3.6 gun homicides per 100,000 people; in the U.K. that same year, the figure stood at a barely perceptible 0.o4.)
The mental health explanation. The believers have a point here about our tendency to let American psychos fall through the cracks, but not in the case of Elliot Rodger. Quite the contrary. The lad had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (high-functioning autism) and had been undergoing intensive therapy since the age of eight. Anyway — and more to the point — we can’t start locking up every post-adolescent American male with maladjustment issues, and therapy obviously isn’t a cure-all.
The misogyny-and-white-male-privilege explanation. Please, enough with the defamation of white guys (and remember, I’m a former white guy, so I no longer have a stake in this issue). So the murderer felt entitled as a white male to take the lives of women and nonwhites? First of all, Rodger’s parentage was half white and half East Asian, which makes him genetically as white (or nonwhite) as Obama. Second, he murdered four males and two females, so there goes the misogyny angle. Yes, Rodger frequented some anti-feminist websites, but he clearly resented sexually active young men as much as he hated the young women who accommodated them.
Elliot Rodger left behind a rambling 140-page manifesto to recount his frustrations and account for his motives. I haven’t read it; I’d rather not spend that much time locked up inside the mind of a psychopath. But I did the next best thing: I watched his infamous 10-minute “day of retribution” video on YouTube. It was a fascinating experience, something akin to watching a Shakespearean villain stripped of his throne and plotting a bloody revenge — except that we’re talking about a 21st-century suburban kid from Southern California.
Seated inside his BMW, young Rodger preened for the camera and delivered a creepy but surprisingly articulate video soliloquy — a speech full of self-righteous bombast, apocalyptic threats, more than a little self-pity, and an appalling sense of entitlement. And yet his manner was soft and deliberate, as seamless and controlled as an actor reciting his lines onstage.
This was no grotesque, wild-eyed madman like Newtown butcher Adam Lanza or Jared Lee Loughner, the Tucson shooter. There was nothing weird about
his appearance, unlike the carrot-topped James Holmes, who gunned down all those unsuspecting moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. He punctuated his diatribe with an occasional villainous chuckle, but even his sinister laughter seemed civilized. He was no ruffian.
No, Rodger came across as a dreamy-eyed young gentleman, obviously angry but refined and almost languid in his demeanor. I thought there was something a little too pretty and passive about this “kissless virgin” — especially for a young buck who purportedly lusted after all those young blonde sorority sisters who had eluded him or scorned his advances.
But wait a minute… had he actually been rejected, or had he never even approached a young woman with an awkward request for a night on the town? I heard him say that they “would have” rejected him — important phrasing here. Apparently Elliot Rodger never moved far enough outside his own head to test the waters of post-adolescent social and sexual combat. Was he unready for sex, or latently gay, or just too socially clueless to convert his fantasies to action?
No doubt his Asperger syndrome tripped him up as he struggled to master the intricate unwritten code of interpersonal relations. And it could well be that his effete, petulant personality radiated negative vibes that caused his peers to shut him out. But in the end, all those imagined rejections by comely blondes enabled him to transfer the blame for his nonexistent sex life from himself to the outside world… to the upscale, well-adjusted kids he observed cavorting in public and enjoying the tempting fruits of youth.
Ah, those upscale Southern California kids. Now we’re moving closer to the epicenter of Rodger’s fury. It turns out that his father, Peter Rodger, is a Hollywood director and photographer — surely a ticket to fame, wealth and an enviable social life. But, in fact, the elder Rodger was struggling — roughly a million dollars in debt as the result of a failed documentary he had filmed and produced. (It netted just $38,000 at the box office.) He and Elliot’s mother were divorced, and the son was acutely resentful of his family’s precarious finances.
Over and over, in his video, young Rodger repeated the mantra that he deserved to live the high life… that his good looks should have catapulted him to the glamorous top tier of Southern California society… that as a “beautiful Eurasian,” he should have enjoyed an unfair advantage when it came to attracting those desirable California blondes. Yet those blondes never swooped into his orbit. He’d see them lavishing their attentions not only on rich white frat boys, but on “ugly” (his word) full-blooded Asians and (can you believe it?) even “inferior” (his word again) Mexicans and African Americans. Admire ME, he seemed to be screaming (though he never raised his voice). They wouldn’t listen.
The postmortem portrait of Elliot Rodger reveals a young man so obsessed with looks, money, status, race, glamor and sex that he could almost serve as a funhouse mirror reflection of contemporary American popular culture. Distorted, yes, but a reflection all the same.
He had more material goods than most (how many 22-year-old kids drive a BMW?) — but not nearly enough to please him. He saw himself as a sexual and financial have-not in a society that worships sex and money. He had been transfixed and permanently warped by the gaudy images of celebrity life and conspicuous wealth that bombard us daily in our homes.
Above all, Rodger was a 24-karat narcissist. Here was a young man so thoroughly consumed by that deadly mix of self-love, self-aggrandizement, self-entitlement and self-loathing that he could serve as a textbook example of the disorder in its most lethal form.
Here’s how the Mayo Clinic website defines narcissistic personality disorder:
…a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
Wikipedia adds that narcissists are “excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity, mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and to others in the process.” You could probably tag most writers, artists, tycoons and politicians with the narcissist label, at least casually. But I think it’s spreading to the general population.
Our culture encourages and feeds narcissism now more than ever: our social media make mini-celebrities of us all. Our Facebook profiles look and read like amateur editions of People magazine. If we’re in therapy, we enjoy the attentions of a paid professional who listens raptly to our life stories. If we still read the news, we can gravitate to online articles that flatter our own political biases — and ignore everything that doesn’t. Even our schools help feed the notion that self-esteem is paramount. It’s all about us.
Of course, self-esteem can be a good thing, as long as it doesn’t cross over into arrogance or trump the needs of others. As with just about everything else in my peculiar view of the world, it’s a matter of moderation. And as I’ve discovered through hard observation and experience, moderation isn’t an especially American trait.
Americans have always been a little too enamored of “the good life,” the notion of winning big, being “king of the hill, top of the heap” (to quote a song made famous by one Francis Albert Sinatra, a working-class kid from Hoboken). In the financially unregulated, decreasingly middle class America of the early 21st century, we’re more conscious than ever of the difference between winners and losers. The difference is more visible — and more insurmountable — than ever. There’s less middle ground to support us if we don’t make it big, and we’re desperate not to be trodden under with the losers, the weak and infirm, the sad sacks, the bearers of substandard genes.
As a poor stepchild of Hollywood, Elliot Rodger probably smarted more than most of us when he glimpsed the difference between the elect and the damned. He felt entitled to live in paradise, but it was tantalizingly, exasperatingly just out of reach. And it drove him mad.
Six innocent young people had to pay for his madness. To Elliot Rodger, they were simply interchangeable symbols of his frustrations. To their parents and friends, they were everything.
Elliot Rodger’s infamous “day of retribution” YouTube video has been taken down, but you can read the full transcript here, courtesy of CNN. If you have the stamina and intestinal fortitude, you can read his complete 140-page manifesto here, brought to you by ABC.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.