Elliot Rodger, Male Entitlement, and Pathologization

Three years ago today Elliot Rodger killed six people and himself.

In his manifesto, which he calls My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger, By Elliot Rodger, he recounts, with embarrassing grandiosity, the narrative of his life leading up to the decision to carry out what he calls The Day of Retribution.

In this 146 page autobiography, he uses the word “girls” 294 times.

If you get absorbed enough in the clumsy, dramatic voice of Elliot Rodger, it’s possible to forget, for a moment, that he was real and that he carried out—to an extent—the threats looming over the text. It’s possible to laugh, sometimes, at his megalomania—his choice to include bitter memories of not getting the first slice of birthday cake at his own party as a toddler or the way he refers to “Mother” in the fashion of Buster Bluth or Norman Bates.

His obsession with justice and retribution, as well as his diction when discussing them, seem pulled straight from the medieval power porn of Game of Thrones, and it’s unsurprising to find out halfway through reading that they sort of are.

It’s not long, though, before you encounter a tossed off sentence that casually foreshadows his goals and, arguably more disturbing, his motivations, and you remember that this kid was not funny at all.

It’s almost boring, from an analytical standpoint, how straightforward it all is. Rodger confesses his emotions, reactions, and delusions without taking any care to conceal or rationalize their obvious problems where a defensive or dishonest patient might. He discloses completely, guilelessly, and is nearly self-aware at times, describing the emotional chain reaction from desire to rejection to violent anger. He makes no effort to conceal the classically narcissistic oscillation between feelings of inferiority and superiority. There’s no deliberate obfuscation of the contradictions in his worldview. He describes his metonymic projection of individual rejections onto women as a group with a calm straightforwardness.

Where, then, is the magic ingredient? Where’s the switch that’s flipped off where it should be on? What basic delusion does this kid contain that enables him to look over these feelings and conclusions without realizing their flaws?

Oh, here it is:

“I desired girls, but girls never desired me back. There is something very wrong with that. It is an injustice that cannot go unpunished. (p. 135)”

(The words “injustice” and “unjust” appear over 40 times.)

If you pay even a little attention, it’s hard not to notice that whenever Elliot makes the leap from recounting his individual experiences to making assertions about the objective rightness and wrongness of things, out comes his casually axiomatic belief that the discomfort of desire—specifically his desire—morally necessitates its gratification.

This is the nasty little pinhead upon which most rationalized male sexual violence is balanced.

- It hurts me how badly I long.

My eight-year-old self had no inkling of the pain and misery girls would cause me once puberty would inevitably arrive and my sexual desires for girls would develop. (p. 13)
Going through puberty utterly doomed my existence. It condemned me to live a life of suffering and unfulfilled desires. (p. 47)
Girls dressed up in extremely revealing outfits, and the sight of them filled my sex-starved self with hunger and desire that I knew I could never quench. (p. 94)

- People in pain deserve relief. Because I long, I deserve gratification.

I was desperate to have the life I know I deserve; a life of being wanted by attractive girls, a life of sex and love. (p. 81)
They have no sexual attraction towards me. It is such an injustice. (p. 117)

- Those who could relieve me but don’t are responsible for my pain.

Knowing that they gleefully show off their desirable forms, yet they would never give me a chance to be their boyfriend only increased my already boiling hatred towards all women. (p. 118)
You girls have starved me of sex, enjoyment, and pleasure for my entire youth. You’ve taken 8 years away from my life, 8 years I’ll never get back (“Life is so unfair because girls don’t want me,” YouTube)

(Bonus tag: If I can’t relieve my pain, the closest approximation would be punishing those who refuse to.)

Because of how little Elliot has to say and how much he likes saying it, there are countless excerpts to support every suspicion you might have or extrapolation you might make about the terrible and familiar vines that use this basic entitlement as a trellis.

An easy example: the heterosexual male resentment that women, as the source of and potential salve to their desire, hold power that they don’t. The diversion and sublimation of that sexual desire, combined with a sense of helplessness and shame, into violent attempts to reclaim power.

This was the way all girls treated me, and I was sick and tired of it. In a rage, I made a U-turn, pulled up to their bus stop and splashed my Starbucks latte all over them. I felt a feeling a spiteful satisfaction as I saw it stain their jeans. (p. 100)
After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past. (p. 113)

A more complicated example: the conflation of non-sexual or parasexual desires with a sexual desire for women. Elliot can’t identify whether he wants status as a means to influence women—

As I saw all of these successful young men with their beautiful dates, I became even more convinced about how important money and status was in attaining a desirable life of love and sex. It made me even more obsessed with my goal of becoming wealthy at a very young age. (p. 103)
I wanted a way out, but I saw none. I had already spent two years in Santa Barbara, and I was still a virgin. There was no way I could ever attract a girl without becoming extremely wealthy. (p. 119)
It is such an injustice. The slob doesn’t even have a car, and he is able to get girlfriends, while I drive a BMW and get no attention from any girls whatsoever. (p. 129)

—or if he wants women as a means to influence his status.

It was that pathetic feeling of not having a hot girlfriend on my arm while some other boys in the theatre did. What I truly wanted… what I truly NEEDED, was a girlfriend. I needed a girl’s love. I needed to feel worthy as a male. (p. 94)
I had to suffer the shame of other boys respecting me less because I didn’t get any girls. Everyone knew I was a virgin. Everyone knew how undesirable I was to girls, and I hated everyone just for knowing it. I want people to think that girls adore me. I want to feel worthy. (p. 135)

To Elliot, women represent the only pathway to fulfilling the natural desire for worth and adequacy as well as the narcissistic, if equally common, desire for superiority. He could have everything in the world besides female attention and it wouldn’t feel like one thing was missing. Everything would be missing; everything would be hollow.

This fixation, the filtering of all experiences and value through the presence or absence of a partner, is similar to the romantic analogue sold to women. Yet, contrasting Elliot’s actions with those of a woman who felt similar things reveals a crucial difference in the way men and women are conditioned.

Christine Chubbuck was a newscaster in Florida in the 1970’s. Her story, already well known, was adapted into a 2016 film. At 30 years old she frequently lamented her virginity and general lack of success with men. She made her coworkers uncomfortable with her constant self-deprecation and obsessive characterization of herself as undateable. It’s generally believed that her fixations with unrequited love and her status as an unmarried woman, along with the impact they had on her self-worth, are what lead her to commit suicide during a live television broadcast.

Why didn’t she shoot the coworker, George Peter Ryan, who spurned her affections? Why didn’t she shoot all of the men in the newsroom?

Because Christine Chubbuck didn’t believe she deserved what she wanted. None of her behavior indicates that she believed the world owed her love, that the object or objects of her debilitating longing were wrong to deny her. Rather than project her self-loathing onto her crush(es), she automatically reasoned that her lack of success was due to her own shortcomings.

In short, it’s…probably because she wasn’t a man.

Yes, it’s dubious to compare situations such as these, with so many variables, and draw solid conclusions based on a single one. This isn’t a legal argument or a categorical claim on the essential nature of men and women. This is an attempt to untangle the vines a little bit and understand those variables.

It’s not enough to say Elliot Rodger committed murder because he was mentally ill, case closed, next mass murderer. Many people have similar fixations and don’t process them in the way that he did.

Maybe it’s telling that Christine Chubbuck at least felt comfortable admitting her feelings of inferiority to others, while Elliot festered alone, unable to dissect feelings he was unwilling to share until he found Pick Up Artist forums full of men in the same condition, all of them beyond some critical point.

The question of mental illness and personal responsibility is murky territory—so is even the question of societal conditioning and personal responsibility.

Certainly confounding is the boundary between personality traits and personality disorders, the teetering balance between pathologization and normalization. This is what most of the DSM fights are about.

There a few clear indications that Elliot’s narcissism was pathological, which amplified his sense of entitlement. For example:

I believed that it was destiny for me to win the Megamillions Lottery, particularly this very jackpot. People win the lottery every single month, so why not me? I was meant to live a life of significance and extravagance. I was meant to win this jackpot. It was destiny. (p. 104)

But most of the ingredients in Elliot Rodger’s thought cocktail were incredibly common, household defense mechanisms.

Like Projection, for example. Here’s how his ego protected him from the pain of rejection. Here is how he characterizes the objects of his obsessive desire:

I concluded that women are flawed. There is something mentally wrong with the way their brains are wired, as if they haven’t evolved from animal-like thinking. They are incapable of reason or thinking rationally. They are like animals, completely controlled by their primal, depraved emotions and impulses. (p. 117)

Most of us know boys like Elliot Rodger—grew up with them. Most men recognize the roots of his longing and his rage inside themselves, even though they’ve probably been sublimated or extinguished in acceptable ways, as men and women both have to do. Pathologizing every aspect of Elliot’s personality means precluding introspective men from identifying without feeling accused. It means giving up on untangling the vines.

It’s hard to feel Sympathy for Elliot Rodger. A petty but excusable disgust at his childishness, sure. Righteous anger at the reality of what he did or projected anger meant for the phenomena he represents—those come easily.

It’s easy to pick up things from his manifesto, like his frequent use of “blonde” as a quality signifier, diagnose him as an American Pie-fed objectifier (which he most certainly was), and disengage. But statements like “I feel invisible because none of the girls pay attention to me” and “I want to feel that sense of being worthy of a girl’s love and affection” and “you’ll see that I am worthy of you" are echoes from the beginning of the twisted path he took—the place we all start. Sometimes it’s so satisfying to hate an individual that the comparatively obtuse target of their conditioning can feel like absolution or apologism.

Here are some unremarkable things about Elliot Rodger: He was male. He was rich. He was 13, then 17, then 22. He was lonely. He was horny. He was narcissistic. He was coddled. He was insecure. He was isolated. He was very likely mentally ill. Common attributes, all of them, but they reacted with each other, bolstered and festered each other, and produced rage and violent misogyny.

You have a cousin with some of those pieces. Your little brother has a friend with some of those pieces. There’s a guy you’re nice to, even though most people don’t like him, with some of those pieces. A friend who turns a woman’s cheek kiss to a mouth kiss when he’s drunk, just to grab what he wants for a moment. A friend who finds reasons to denigrate the women who reject him. They’re likely incapable of murder but wholly capable of—for example—joining forums and forming communities that nurture and inspire those who do. They multiply, because under the current conditions—capitalism and patriarchy chief among them—men who feel powerless, obsessed with women, and who are ill-advised by billions of dollars of mixed signals on how to fill their voids are an unlimited resource. They will keep happening. Talk to them. I mean this especially to other men: talk to them. If you can, relate to them, even when their opinions are gross. Gently point out the gaps in reasoning, even if you don’t feel they deserve it. Laughing at them or hating them is not going to work. You can decide that some people are just evil, or you can decide that some people just need help. That help is hard work, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s no other way.