How do we solve a problem like Elliot Rodger?
If you’ve heard about the Isla Vista Rampage, you’re probably wondering the same thing.
It’s a complicated tale which is being caricatured by the media as misogynistic, told from the perspective of an alienated young man.
In its simplest narrative, Elliot Rodger took the lives of six others and wound up dead himself. Supposedly, this rampage was motivated by the fact he was a “kissless virgin” who was deeply upset by his prospects with girls. In his YouTube videos, posted just two days ago, he speaks on this. He makes the point he doesn’t understand how girls like the types of guys they do and that “this is a problem.”
Clearly, Elliot was delusional in many ways. One of his videos is called, “I am awesome.” He frequently points out that he is “beautiful,” “fabulous,” “magnificent,” and also “sophisticated.”
To justify his excellence, he points out how he has a nice car, nice clothes, is well-read, and has traveled the world. He says he has “a lot to talk about” and that girls, in a very explicit way, owe him their love. He even says, “life is unfair because girls don’t want me.”
In his mind, or at least in his words, there was a strong disconnect with the world around him and the world he had imagined and fashioned for himself.
Indeed, this is a terrible crime and is undoubtedly motivated in part by sexual frustration which he chose, at least in his words, to lodge against women and men of a certain type. He has murdered many people and is clearly indicative of a broader culture and worldview, not one which is exclusive to men’s rights activists, misogynists, and others who fit the bill. Actually, it is one which is nearly omnipresent in the world today.
People will say Elliot was mentally ill, maybe they will say he was gun-crazed and we need to regulate access to them, or maybe they will suggest he was a closeted homosexual acting out of sexual frustration or repression. Maybe they’re right. Who really knows.
There is another way to interpret these events, however. One which I think might delve deeper into the culture he had been raised in. If you read his manifesto, he tells the story of his whole life up until the point of the “Day of Retribution.”
The manifesto is called “My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger.” It begins:
“Humanity… all of my suffering on this world has been at the hands of humanity, particularly women. It has made me realize how brutal and twisted humanity is as a species. All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.
This is the story of I, Elliot Rodger, came to be. The story of my entire life. It is a dark story of sadness, anger, and hatred.”
Right away, it is easy to see how we can say he was motivated primarily by misogyny, or the hatred of women. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. After having read this long (maybe long-winded) manifesto, I think Elliot was motivated by more than hatred of women, but hatred of everything.
Especially of himself.
The first part is titled “A Blissful Beginning.” He tells the story of his parents, where they came from, and how they came to be the people they are. He recalls how his father, Peter Rodger, “[hails] from the prestigious Rodger family,” and how they lost it all during the Great Depression. His father, now a man in Hollywood, has worked on many titles and made many friends. His mother, a Chinese Malaysian woman, was also someone who worked in Hollywood. After moving from London, they made friends with luminaries such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Now, one of the first tidbits of information to come out relating to Elliot’s life was that his father recently was assistant director on The Hunger Games films.
Elliot was raised in the Hollywood culture and talks a lot about his love of media. Throughout his narrative he describes many great experiences and also how these experiences came to pass, how he once cared deeply for them, and eventually grew to be apathetic about them.
As he got older, he found a growing love of videogames in particular. He describes how he loved Pokémon and especially loved his Nintendo 64. As a mixed-raced, London-born boy, he found videogames and media culture were the ways he could identify as an “American kid.”
He describes Pokémon as one of those things in his life, especially as he grew up, which gave him joy and made him very happy. As he got older, however, he started to catch on to the fact there is a social hierarchy. As it does with many people, this can feel alienating and cause an unstable sense of self and deep resentment of people in general.
Moving on to his childhood, he started to sense a need to belong. This wasn’t just motivated by the hierarchy itself, but by the sense that in order to fit in at all he had to be “cool.”
Being cool is something which is generally sold to us through packaged memes. Someone who smokes cigarettes is cool. Someone who plays football is cool. Someone who rides motorcycles is cool. And, much to Elliot’s distaste, someone who can “get girls” is cool.
He realized this pretty quickly. And also realized quickly that he just wasn’t the type that was “cool” in these ways.
In a very real way, Elliot in the current world seems like someone who physically and superficially could have been attractive to the opposite sex. He isn’t ugly, he has nice clothes, he’s obviously privileged through his wealth and connections to the industries many people want to break into. He very well could have turned the narrative of himself around to “fit in.”
Instead, his tale is a sad, long sentiment that he suffers because people are unable to see the value in him. Rather, I think he was unable to see it in himself.
It all starts to go downhill, in Elliot’s telling, as he entered middle school and his parents got a divorce.
“My mother decided to move to an apartment in Woodland Hills. I reacted indignantly. An apartment! I had never lived in an apartment before, and I always thought of apartments as being poor and low-class. I would be embarrassed to admit it to anyone.”
To anyone who ever grew up in an apartment, they know exactly what kind of social shame Elliot is describing. There is a hierarchy surrounding the image of one’s home. If you live in a nicer house, you probably are perceived as wealthy. If you are perceived as wealthy, you are probably perceived as more valuable. If you are more valuable, chances are strong you will be more popular.
While Elliot is wealthy today, indicated by his BMW car, his nice clothing, and access or ability to afford a University of California education, this may not have always been the case.
There is a sense stringing through his manifesto that his value is associated or attached to or enabled by various things. Especially things which indicate wealth (such as a beautiful girlfriend). He had grown up in a blissful beginning, as he said, and it came crashing down on him as his wealth was cut, his parents divorced, and he was forced to move away from various friends and social activities he had grown accustomed to.
To many people, this is a breaking point. One from which it is very hard to recover.
One of those social activities he had very much enjoyed participating in was at an internet cafe where he and his friends could play the latest online computer games. He lived close to this place before and with the move to his mom’s apartment, he was separated from that.
This caused him, at least from his telling, to immerse himself in the world of digital communications. And for a lot of people, this is where it starts to get really weird.
“The world that I grew up thinking was bright and blissful was all over. I was living in a depraved world, and I didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t want to give any thought to it. That is why I immersed myself entirely into my online games like World of Warcraft. I felt safe there.”
I have been reading a lot of people, especially people I know personally, saying they think he did it “because of the internet.”
Somehow, the internet’s culture is one which is alienating and also drives people to disassociate from reality itself. Indeed, there is some truth to this. But there is also another side which makes precisely the opposite point.
Elliot grew older, and his distaste in social activity, people, and society at large grew into frustration.
His frustration came as he began to develop a sex drive. He realized that the social hierarchy he had already felt was against him was going to push up against him further. There were certain guys who could “get” certain girls. And those certain girls were the types Elliot came to develop a taste for.
If you’ve seen his recent YouTube postings, he talks a lot about this. In fact, this seems to be the central motivation for the “Day of Retribution.”
In his early teens, he also developed a regular habit—perhaps even an addiction—of masturbating. He says:
“My sex drive was at its peak at this age. Whenever I got back from school, I had to masturbate. The urge was too strong. During my masturbation sessions I often built elaborate fantasies in my mind that I had a hot, blonde-haired girlfriend to have passionate sex with; almost like an imaginary girlfriend. I told no one about this.”
This is becoming increasingly common with young males in our society today. I have even heard some describe the pornography habits of young boys as a silent “health epidemic.”
What has happened should not be particularly hard to follow. If a young boy is initially sexualized through images of extreme or hardcore pornography, he may develop an unreal image of sex itself. Not only will he develop an unreal image of sex, but he will develop an unreal image of females in general.
In nature, it is unlikely that a man would have had a set criteria to ‘turn him on.’ Rather, it would have been whatever presented itself to him and was naturally appealing in the most basic forms. Before any semblance of social hierarchy would have been imposed on sex, there would have been some natural attraction he would have developed. Be it to females, males, or certain types within each of these categories, it would have been a lot less particular than it is today.
Today, however, Elliot was persuaded by what he thought was “hot.” Namely, a blonde-haired white girl.
He speaks many times about this particular type of girl and in a variety of circumstances. Mostly, it is in relation to how he doesn’t like the types of men this particular fantasy of a woman typically chooses instead of him.
Variously, he talks about how many of the men she may choose are ‘losers’ when compared to him. He even makes the point of expanding his disliking in this sense to race, saying:
“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. I tried not to believe his foul words, but they were already said, and it was hard to erase from my mind, if this is actually true, if this ugly black filth was able to have sex with a blonde white girl at the age of thirteen while I’ve had to suffer virginity all my life, then this just proves how ridiculous the female gender is. They would give themselves to this filthy scum, but they reject ME? The injustice!”
Initially, this is deeply disturbing. He is clearly influenced or by a sense of misogyny, but also of racial supremacy. Where is this coming from?
In a large way, I think critics of internet and gaming culture are on to something. I just don’t think it’s as simple as saying this is the source and therefore should be banned or even censored.
If you read his manifesto carefully, you will realize very quickly he has in fact been deeply influenced by videogame and internet culture. So much so that it seems the internet has, through the majority of his life, been his primary form of communication.
Much of the excitement in his life came from various gaming-related events. He talks about how he got a PlayStation 2 and how that changed his perspective on videogames from the Nintendo 64. There was a deeper form of gaming which could be enjoyed on that system as opposed to Nintendo’s simpler, more carefree kind of gaming.
But it wasn’t until he got Halo: Combat Evolved that he said he really started to care about these things from a more cultural perspective.
He recalls Halo 3’s launch with much approval and joy:
“Halo 3 came out in November. I got my mother to buy it for me the very day it was released. I had a lot of fun playing it while drinking the special mountain dew flavor that was released with the game; Mountain Dew Game Fuel, it was called. The game definitely lived up to its expectations, and to my surprise I found myself playing it more than WoW for the first couple of weeks.”
The cultural frenzy around Halo 3 was undoubtedly remarkable. Anyone who remembers it can tell you the marketing bonanza which took place was unlike any game before it. Elliot called it well when he talks about drinking Mountain Dew Game Fuel, and maybe even had the Halo-related Doritos, although he didn’t mention it particularly.
There was something about Halo 3 which signified to people that videogames had gone mainstream. It was no longer just for the cultural outcast who lived on their computer, but something anyone and everyone was probably going to hear about and maybe enjoy.
But even this was not enough for Elliot. He couldn’t maintain joy in these events, as often as they occurred, and found himself growing more and more apathetic.
It was really World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online game, which took over Elliot’s life primarily. I’ve been hearing people say things like perhaps this is what alienated him from real life social communication and perhaps it’s games such as these which are therefore very dangerous. I don’t agree.
While it is true that digital communication is not the same thing as physical interpersonal communication, it is still by and large done by humans. It is one human or many humans talking to other humans.
People frequently mistake this for something that is other than “real life.” As in, “IRL” (in real life), we have more real interactions than we do on the internet. But that is obviously untrue if you’re willing to give it a moment’s thought.
How is something which exists unreal?
To many people, online communication is precisely a way of socializing people who are otherwise antisocial or nonsocial. If you’ve ever been a part of an internet community, be it an online forum or a videogame such as World of Warcraft, you know there are many people who may be described as “socially awkward.”
Precisely these people are given an outlet to engage with other real-life humans, even if through an anonymous screen name, in a way which they simply wouldn’t get in the so-called “real world.”
While it may be true that some people may lose their sense of the outside world around them through an addiction to the internet, the opposite may yet be true for others. While some may lose their lives, others may be saved.
For some people, even like Elliot, the internet is where they feel safe.
Elliot’s frustration with the world moved from frustration to hatred. In his hatred, he started to find himself so alienated from the world around him that he eventually started to plot and scheme a way out of it.
He reflects frequently how he used new-age techniques such as the “Power of Positive Thinking” to envision a better life and will it into existence , even towards dubious ends such as winning the lottery. But where he really begins to explain his hatred of all things is when he starts to talk about his worldview and how he wanted to do exactly what the Nazis did: weltanschauung krieg.
“I formed an ideology in my head of how the world should work. I was fueled by my desire to destroy all of the injustices in the world, and to exact revenge on everyone I envy and hate. I decided that my destiny in life is to rise to power so I can impose my ideology on the world and set everything right. I was only seventeen, I have plenty of time. I thought to myself. I spent all of my time studying in my room, reading books about history, politics, and sociology, trying to learn as much as I can. I became a new person, furiously driven by a goal. My torment would continue, but I had something to live for. I felt empowered.”
His hatred of the world moved from passive or reflective feelings into something he could be fueled by. He wasn’t motivated or interested in videogames the same way he used to be. Instead, he was passionate about and even emboldened by this sense that he would become a world dictator.
He wasn’t motivated by being merely cool, he was motivated by becoming a god.
Like many young men I meet lately, there is this strange sense of self-worth, fueled by self-aggrandizement, delusions, yet secretly masked self-hatred. Or at least a sense of disappointment in what they have actualized or achieved.
How many people these days legitimately think they are special? Personally, I meet them all the time.
I know people who think they are Bodhisattvas sent on a divine mission to lead humanity out of the darkness and into the light. I meet people who think they are future Fortune 100 CEO’s, presidents, or politicians. I meet people who think they are legitimately the best at their crafts since masters such as Shakespeare or whoever else would be the paragons and masters in their field. Often, these senses coalesce and these people frequently think they will do or are all of these things at once.
But in reality, that’s probably not the case. There have only been 44 Presidents of the United States of America so far. If your last name isn’t Clinton or Bush, get real—better luck next life.
Elliot realized this as time went on. He says:
“As time progressed, I realized how hopeless everything in my life was. The chances that I will ever rise to power and right the wrongs of the world were extremely slim. I had absolutely no idea or plan of how to acquire any sort of power. It was naive of me to think that I could one day become a dictator. The only thing I could do was fantasize about it.”
This was obviously a problem for Elliot, and rapidly propelled him into radicalization.
Elliot’s problem, truly, was that he was impotent.
Elliot was an impotent young man in a world he hated. This was the problem he was going to “rectify” on the Day of Retribution. Not just because of girls, but because of everything.
“My parents quickly took note of how radical I was becoming, and they made a hasty plan to change my life. Of course, that is what they claimed. I think they were just trying to find a way to get rid of me because I was too hard to deal with.”
This obviously led him down a path which was truly dangerous. It was also clearly fueled by a populated imagination with various videogame, movie, and literature themes. He was an avid fan of Game of Thrones and also loved the idea in Conker’s Bad Fur Day of being a “King for a day.”
His YouTube account is particularly interesting. You can see the videos he liked and also commented on. One of them was Rammstein’s Mein Herz Brennt (My Heart Burns) on which he said it was a “great song to listen to while daydreaming about being a powerful ruler.”
But what would Elliot have done if he was a powerful ruler?
“Ever since my life took a very dark turn at the age of seventeen, I often had fantasies of how malevolently satisfying it would be to punish all of the popular kids and young couples for the crime of having a better life than me. I dreamed of how sweet it would be to torture or kill every single young couple I saw. However, as I said previously in the story, I never thought I would actually go through with these drastic desires. I had hope inside me that I could one day have a happy life.”
That is deeply disturbing. It is not motivated merely by hatred of women, either. Further, he says:
“On the Day of Retribution, the tables will indeed turn, I mused to myself. I will be a god, and they will all be animals that I can slaughter. They are animals… they behave like animals, and I will slaughter them like the animals they are.”
“They were the kind of beautiful, popular people who lived pleasurable lives and would look down on me as inferior scum, never accepting me as one of them. They were my enemies. They represented everything that was wrong with the world.”
The Day of Retribution happened. Elliot took six lives and also lost his own. Did he achieve his goal and become a god?
Of course not.
In fact, the way we will tell Elliot’s story is far less complex than he told it himself. We will call him an outcast, maybe even a loser, and say it was all because he was a “kissless virgin” who hated women.
He hated everything, everyone, and if it isn’t clear enough, I believe he hated himself.
This is not going to be the last time we see someone like Elliot Rodger come up, especially one raised on the mythical imagination of American media. He was deeply influenced by the images he experienced and appreciated in videogames, movies, and literature. He was also raised through the culture of internet communication. Especially one which notoriously sexualizes and dehumanizes women. All of these things are true and they’re clearly all correlated to the Isla Vista Rampage.
But is it really so simple?
I’m deeply disturbed by this event because he reminds me of so many young men I know today. So many people who love videogames, spend a lot of time on the internet, and maybe feel like outcasts through alienation in the social hierarchy.
Elliot was impotent as a man, and that’s precisely why he needed to prove he was actually a god.
Elliot’s heart burned with passion, but in all the wrong ways. We need to make sure this never happens again. We need to talk about Elliot. And we need to make sure we don’t reduce him to slogans or politics.
Let’s try to understand Elliot rather than alienate him further even after death.
Perhaps all he needed was a little bit of Love.