On Reading a Killer’s Manifesto

Over Memorial Day weekend, I enjoyed an idyllic three days with friends. When they left on Tuesday, I returned to the world and caught up on the news I’d been missing. I’d heard of the Isla Vista shooting, but it wasn’t until Tuesday where I finally learned of all the details. While I had been blissfully bouncing my friends’ new baby on my knee, letting him wrap his tiny fingers in my hair, the citizens of Santa Barbara—along with much of the rest of the country—were trying to make sense of the killing rampage that left 7 people, including the perpetrator, dead. As 20,000 people gathered in Santa Barbara for a memorial, I was reading Elliot Rodger’s 141-page manifesto. I just wanted a look—what was this person like?—and found myself spending the next three hours reading the whole thing.

It wasn’t that I was wowed by his narrative abilities (except for his strong grasp of grammar, Rodger’s prose wasn’t much different than what I’ve seen from my college freshmen) or moved by his story. It was that I started to see a pattern unfolding. This story really did explain the “why” behind the murders, and it isn’t because humanity—especially women—is evil, as Rodger would have us believe. But reading the story of this kid of Hollywood producers, the narrative of his obsession with wealth, status, and materialism slowly took hold. I could see the breadcrumbs that led from this kid feeling out of place, to frustrated, to angry, to violent. I could see that he’d spent nearly two years plotting his “Day of Retribution,” and how he came to live out a phrase he’d (oh so proudly) “coined”:

“If I cannot join them, I will rise above them; and if I cannot rise above them, I will destroy them.”

When my boyfriend returned home later that day and I confessed as to how I’d spent my afternoon, he said, “Well, that’s exactly what the killer was hoping you would do. You and the rest of the world.” I hadn’t really thought of this while I was reading, and now I found myself wondering if I was just a dupe who’d succumbed to a narcissist’s final wishes. There was probably part of me that was being voyeuristic, that wanted to crawl inside the mind of a man sick enough to think his sexual frustrations and social isolation were important enough to kill six people—he first stabbed his two roommates, and then set out on the streets of Isla Vista with the intention of gunning down the women he could not have and fulfilling visions he’d had of driving over the “obnoxious boys walking around with their beautiful blonde girlfriends.” After any catastrophe, the obvious question is why. Here were 141 pages (well, 137, actually—the last few are blank) essentially saying, “Here’s why.” Of course I wanted to know.

To read a killer’s manifesto is to grant his ultimate wish. In this case, it was the wish for attention that Rodger felt he’d never had. It was his way to grab the attention of a world that he felt had not only ignored him, but had hurt and shunned him. From his writing, it’s clear no one ever intentionally shunned him—but that years of being a social misfit had caused this belief to form in Rodger’s mind. He was going to force us into noticing him. In the days following the murder, some refused to even acknowledge him by name. An LA Times article quotes Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social work and education at USC, who gives good reason not to grant killers like Rodger attention: “Knowing that people will talk about you afterward is a very important component for these mass murderers.” Many, I can imagine, won’t ever bother to read it because we know he was emotionally unstable, we know he was deeply misogynistic, we know he’d been plotting to kill for years—so why give him what he wants? He’s clearly a very bad person. What is there to learn?

What felt more important in the days after the killing, as Santa Barbara mourned, as our shock turned into grief and our grief into anger, was for people to come together. It was important to pay attention to Richard Martinez, father of the victim Christopher Michaels-Martinez, as he took his grief and turned it into a platform advocating for gun control. Soon, the conversation shifted to the binary that helps us simplify (or perhaps quickly focus on the most pressing elements) of mass shootings: guns and mental illness. Of guns, I have nothing to add that hasn’t already been said. I stand with the others who are disturbed by our nation’s particular breed of denial that people kill people especially when they have access to guns. A quote from comedian John Oliver has been making the rounds on social media lately: “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns.” I admire Martinez for turning his personal tragedy into a national discussion.

Whereas I completely sympathize with those who refuse to read the manifesto, who believe it grants the killer his wish or that it might incite future acts of violence, I find this document of value. It’s not a reflection of, but rather a glimpse into the larger cultural setting that informed Rodger’s twisted mindset. To keep manifestos circulating and available like any document, whether of killers or not, is important. “There’s a democratic value to publishing and referencing Elliot Rodger’s manifesto. The 22-year-old mass murderer left us a 141-page window into his deranged thinking,” writes Kelly McBride. She then goes on to urge for context: “Perhaps the most valuable thing journalists can do would be to get psychiatrists and psychologists to annotate the document.” I agree with McBride’s urging for annotation—the more insight, the better. But, I don’t think it’s worthless or dangerous to read the document as is, for some of us to draw our own conclusions. In many ways, context is implied. Much of the reasoning for Rodger’s hateful, devious, misogynistic outlook on life is self-evident within his narrative. As I see it, this manifesto isn’t just a glimpse into Rodger’s deranged mind, but a glimpse into the shallow, materialistic culture that Rodger had been immersed in for all of his life.

I know this is a tricky argument. Because nobody—no individual—is to blame for the deranged thoughts and actions of a killer except the killer himself. I want to be clear—in no way do I empathize with Rodger. Reading his manifesto, and tracing his sad, narcissistic ranting back to the isolation and frustration he felt doesn’t have to mean I am in any way letting him off the hook. I do, however, think it’s a reasonable argument to think that if he’d not been raised in Hollywood culture, in a city where his schoolmates didn’t have the latest everything, in a culture where sexism is still rampant even though too many people—especially college students I’ve taught—like to think that we’ve attained equality, where masculinity is equated with power and control, that maybe—maybe—things could have gone differently. Maybe if he didn’t live in a country where it’s more common—and much easier—for kids to just stay home and play video games than to hang out with friends, regardless if it’s a first-person point-of-view killing game or not. It’s not that he was stupid enough to think his video game fantasy was reality—it was because he didn’t have any, or at least had very few, friends.

Rodger himself refers to one of the only moments where he almost felt happy in life was when he traveled to France to visit an exchange student his family had previously hosted:

For those three weeks, I had the faintest taste of what life was like for normal young people. The experience of hanging out with a group of young people, boys and girls, and enjoying life was something I never did before. It really turned my whole world around, for that short amount of time. So this is what everyone else gets to experience, I thought to myself with jealousy. I felt a sense of happiness and bliss that I hadn’t felt since childhood, when life was good.

Not that the answer is France, necessarily. But would it have been different if he easily could have had access to “normal” social situations? If he’d had just one friend who could have introduced him to other friends?

In her powerful essay “Words are Weapons,” Rebecca Solnit recounts the events, focusing on the #YesAllWomen outpouring that followed, referring to the social media event as a “watershed moment.” May 2014, she claims, represents a time when the term “sexual entitlement” entered our cultural vocabulary, adding to our arsenal of weapons to combat sexism. Rodger’s main reason for killing was that he felt humanity had spurned him because he was entitled to sex, to women. Solnit writes: “It will help people identify and discredit manifestations of this phenomenon.” By giving such things names, we can begin to identify them, and we can prove that not just sexism, but misogyny is alive and thriving in our culture. That harmful words lead to violence. Giving names to things makes it easier to identify them. “Words matter,” says Solnit.

She also points out that, in cases of mental illness, cultural context makes a difference:

In a fascinating op-ed piece last year, T.M. Luhrmann noted that when schizophrenics hear voices in India, they’re more likely to be told to clean the house, while Americans are more likely to be told to become violent. Culture matters. Or as my friend, the criminal-defense investigator who knows insanity and violence intimately, put it, “When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever it’s immersed in—the surrounding culture’s illness.”

She goes on to connect this idea that culture matters to point out that the violence was not just the result of one, sick man, but it is “all around us, most notably in the pandemic of hate toward and violence against women.” Although it’s unknown if Rodger suffered from mental illness (he was not diagnosed with Asperger’s as was claimed by some media outlets), he was clearly emotionally unstable, and Solnit’s comparison holds up.

I have much love for the #YesAllWomen movement, that in the light of tragedy this incident has created a space for women to share their stories. That it has created a platform for women to remind the world that when one person hates women, all women are implicated. In the many articles I’ve read in the past week, most reference the epilogue of Rodger’s manifesto—the part that actually feels like a manifesto, and not just the whining autobiography of a sexually frustrated loner—where he envisions a world where women have been quarantined in concentration camps, citing starvation as “an efficient and fitting way to kill them all off,” while he stands in a tower over them, watching. Only a few will remain for reproduction. Right before this, he compares women to beasts, describing how they are flawed creatures incapable of morals and reasoning.

These last few pages I must have skimmed over in my initial reading. Or perhaps they just seemed so ridiculous, as twisted as a Game of Thrones episode (a favorite show of Rodger’s). It reads like a frustrated boy’s temper tantrum gone awry. It’s hard to take this kid seriously—except, then I remember, he was serious. And so yes, the epilogue is the most disturbing part, where we really get to glimpse what’s inside his head. But what struck me the most as I read were the details for Rodger’s life growing up. The details about not fitting in. About the little temper tantrums when he didn’t get what he wanted. His repeated frustration about not being good enough. He wasn’t a good enough skateboarder, so he decided he would hate the sport. “Humanity has rejected me,” he wrote. Repeatedly he wrote about how women found him “unworthy.” “Why do women hate me so much?” he titled one of his YouTube videos. He was starved for social attention, and even though he thought the counselors he saw could never help him, he enjoyed the social outlet they provided. Any social interaction is limned as a shining triumph—including a drunken night where he introduced himself to some other students when he first moved to Santa Barbara, and then proceeded to drink so much he vomited. “At least I did something more social than anything else I’ve done in the last few years. That was some progress, I supposed.”

He was obsessed with wealth, constantly comparing his own situation with others’: “They owned a sprawling mansion in the countryside. Where’s the justice? I thought. Why couldn’t I have been born into that life? I envied Max so much. His life must have been heaven on earth.” The word “wealthy” appears 31 times. “Superior,” 11. Rodger doesn’t leave us to do much work in drawing the connections on our own: “Wealth is one of the most important defining factors of self-worth and superiority,” he wrote. He grew up in the Santa Monica Mountains and went to private schools. If he had conflicts with teachers, his parents would take him out of school and move him to another. He was obsessed with his shortness as well as being half-Asian. He was obsessed with the “cool kids,” particularly the “fully-white” kids. At nine years old, he bleached his hair (after he got his parents to take him to the “right” hair salon), and loved the attention this got him. He was obsessed with blondness, as it always seemed “so much more beautiful.” His stepmother—whom he blamed for so much of his hatred towards women—starred in the French version of the Real Housewives. Not that that necessarily has to mean anything, but living on the edge of Beverly Hills, in the heart of flagrant wealth, where anybody with enough money can have the perfect body, it doesn’t seem likely that his white-superiority attitude and penchant for blonde hair—attributes that would play into his plotting for his Day of Retribution—had much to do with any burgeoning mental illness. The culture in which he was steeped laid the seeds for what would later obsess him to the point of violence. Culture matters.

Am I saying that wealth alone  is to blame? No. But he lived in a materialistic culture, where everything is seen as a possession for attaining—including women. Combine this with his emotional issues (into his 20s he would still break down in tears and call his mother whenever he felt spurned by someone), which made him act impulsively, and then throw in his easy access to illicit weapons. No one entity is to blame, but I don’t think we should turn away saying, he was just some sick psycho who would have done it anyway.

About two months before the Isla Vista rampage, right after the Fort Hood shooting in early April of this year, psychologist Laura L. Hayes published an article on Slate claiming “Mentally ill people aren’t killers. Angry people are.” Again, we don’t know what, if anything, Rodger was diagnosed with. But to try and put the blame on his mental state, on the fact that his mind was unwell, is to stigmatize mental illness, which is wrong. What he did is not indicative of what someone with emotional instability or mental illness might do. People with “unhealthy” minds can go on to live healthy, productive lives, and often do. Hayes quotes Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as saying, “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.” Violence isn’t caused by mental illness; it’s caused by anger. “We are a culture awash in anger,” Hayes writes. When anger becomes so bad that it can be considered a disorder, chronic rage is repressed. Without a “socially acceptable outlet,” there “is no appropriate model for the safe or constructive expression of anger.” That rage has to go somewhere.

Leading up to his rampage, Rodger recounts several instances of drive-by coffee-spillings of people who angered him, of women who did not look at him as he drove by. When happening upon a group of college kids playing kickball in Girsh Park, he became so enraged that he drove to K-Mart, bought a Super Soaker, filled it with orange juice, and returned to the site and unloaded on the group before driving away. (This scene is disturbingly similar to one in the film We Need to Talk About Kevin, where a frazzled woman’s young sociopathic son unleashes a Super Soaker filled with paint onto her freshly wall-papered office; spoiler alert: the kid later plans and executes an attack on his high school, killing and injuring multiple classmates with a bow and arrows after killing his father and sister in his own home.)

Rodger’s manifesto isn’t the calculated, social treatise of Ted Kaczynski. It’s a sob story. It’s pathetic. And beneath that, the trace of events, his social isolation and subsequent build-up of anger, is frightening.

Adults who act like bratty kids, who are raised to feel “entitled,” as Ann Hornaday explains it, are dangerous. Hornaday specifically questions if his Hollywood upbringing isn’t really to blame:

He unwittingly expressed the toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA. For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment. … a sexist movie monoculture can be toxic for women and men alike.

She blames Judd Apatow-like flicks with imbuing American youth with a particular narrative: “How many men, raised on a steady diet of…comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair’?”

I wouldn’t say that Hollywood culture is solely to blame, but I think Hornaday touches on something important here. There’s a particular brand of American shallowness that Rodger couldn’t separate from, that had become his reality. The slew of comments on her article are particularly gag-inducing, nearly all (that I had the stomach to read before I stopped) from patronizing men saying things like “The real problem are the female money grubbing ho’s that are cast in those movies.” And, as men scurry to defend themselves (#NotAllMen was the defensive hashtag that evolved in response to #YesAllWomen), there’s the refrain of, “It is a reflection of a mentally ill, pathetic individual. Nothing more.

Except that most of these people were relying on the fact that Rodger was clinically diagnosed as…something. As far as we know, he wasn’t. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that culture—our culture—had plenty to do with this rampage, Hollywood included.

As Rodger says in the beginning of his manifesto: “This tragedy did not have to happen.” But not because the world should have been less cruel to him—no individual owed him anything. Maybe it could have been prevented by stricter gun regulations or by better therapy. Or maybe Rodger could have suffered in a society less self-involved, less isolating, less misogynistic. Maybe if we didn’t promote materialism, shallowness, and status symbols or partake in a culture where some people develop the idea that they are entitled to sports cars, clothes from Nordstrom, idolization, and sex, as Solnit so eloquently points out.

I’ll admit—I’m slightly disturbed with how caught up in this manifesto I’ve become. Again, I understand those who believe it’s not worth the attention, who think people like me are giving his words too much consideration. But I think I’m so caught up because I think it’s important to keep in mind the circumstances, and of what one person is capable of. It’s important to keep in mind what Hayes says—how she calls on psychiatrists to find new ways to deal with the increase of anger disorders. It’s important to keep in mind that behind all that anger is sadness, and behind that, as cliché as it sounds, exists a deep loneliness that can’t be filled with material wealth.

[photo credit: Jim Champion] Facebooktwitterreddit

1 Comment

  • paulhouseman says:

    While it certainly seems true that assigning mental illness as the cause for Rodger’s horrific violence is not backed up by actual fact, it seems equally specious, or at least unfounded, to blame “American culture” (leaving aside whether one can even give a unitary definition of this). Note, for example, the prevalence of rape: Sweden (oddly?) ranks first with 66.5 reported rapes per 100,000 inhabitants; the U.S. is a distant seventh (trailing countries like Bolivia, Belgium, and New Zealand). Is this because of Swedish culture? Or Judd Aptow movies dubbed into Swedish? Or might this be explained by under-reporting in other countries? It’s not completely clear, but you do not address these issues. For example: Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland all have per capita GDP higher than the U.S. yet violence, including violence to women, is much rarer. Yet it would be hard to argue that these rich, Western cultures are any less “materially obsessed.” And the converse also does not hold true: 74% of Malian *women* believe that it is ok for a husband to beat his wife if she refuses him sex, yet Mali is obviously one of the poorest countries in the world. Certainly Malian culture appears to condone violence against women, but there seems to be no link to wealth or status. Nor does it seem to me clear where extremely repressive societies, such as Saudi Arabia, fit in your narrative, much less India, where violence towards women has reached astonishing (and stomach-churning) levels. Violence in a society, as you rightly indicate, is mutli-causal, which is why it seems a shame that at the end of your otherwise insightful piece you seem to fall back on old, and in my opinion not very helpful, scapegoats like “Hollywood” and “American culture.” [Sources almost all found on the UNODC report cited on the Wikipedia page under Rape Statistics, here: “Eighth United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems”. Unodc.org. 2005-03-31.”]

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