Anyone can find plenty to hate in the 141-page manifesto by Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six people and wounded 13 more last week in Isla Vista, California. The manifesto’s blend of misogyny, racism, self-pity, entitlement, and violent fantasy would make Patrick Bateman blanch.
Of course, I’ve got my own reason to hate the manifesto: Elliot Rodger could have been me.
I could’ve written an identical screed as a teenager or college student. In fact, I did write crappy stories about popular jocks getting pushed off cliffs by vengeful nerds, and sad sacks who commit suicide after whining about the happy couples slow-dancing at junior prom. So after I finished Rodger’s opus, I started reflecting on the boy I used to be: a boy whose emotional pendulum swung constantly between misery and anger; a boy who thought all his problems would be solved if he got a girlfriend; a boy who took grotesque pleasure in unleashing his rage against the girls he could never have and the boys he could never be.
Rodger and I fit the profile of a handful of other lonely psychos: John Hinckley, who shot Reagan in a bid to impress Jodie Foster; Dylan Klebold, the lovelorn, less-psychopathic half of the Columbine shooters; Seung-Hui Cho, whose morbid short stories foreshadowed the Virginia Tech massacre.
Let me explain.
Everyone gets lonely sometimes. Everyone’s had moments of inadequacy, envy, and self-doubt. Everyone gets pissed off sometimes, and everyone’s felt unloved. Especially during adolescence, when hormones, relentless social pressure, and newfound independence bang around inside us like billiard balls.
For most people, these feelings are like weeds. They sprout, raise their ugly heads to the sun, and die away. But for certain young men, they’re like kudzu. They creep through you unchecked, until your entire personality is buried beneath layers of ugly, nasty shit. You become (as a high school friend once described me) a crackling ball of negative energy. And it all sprouts from just one seed: the fact that life isn't fair, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Childhood is simplicity defined: Obey your parents and teachers, and everything will be OK. But adolescence is an entirely new game. Nobody tells you how to play, so the rules are incomprehensible, and you can’t win. You've left The Berenstain Bears Go to School, and entered Lord of the Flies. And chances are, you're Piggy.
All your life, your parents and teachers told you that you were unique and wonderful, that you could accomplish anything if you tried hard enough. But after puberty, effort actually makes things worse. The harder you try to ingratiate yourself with the popular kids, the more obvious it is that you'll never become their friend. The harder you try to impress a girl, the more you sound like Ralph Wiggum walking Lisa Simpson home on Valentine’s Day. (“So … do you like … stuff?”)
Since you don't understand them, the rules of adolescence can turn a lonely mind into a warren of contradictions. You hate the popular kids for rejecting you, but you'd still do anything to be one of them. You hate yourself for being a solitary freak, but you also think you’re better than everyone around you—smarter, more sensitive, and attuned to truths they couldn’t possibly understand. And the biggest contradiction is love, and/or lust. Adolescent sexuality is an unsolvable maze, and you're Jack Torrance, screaming impotently into the storm as you limp toward one dead end after another.
It's easy to mock Rodger's assertion that he "deserved" a girlfriend. But the only system he understood was one in which good behavior was rewarded, and bad behavior was punished. Do your chores, and you get your allowance. Break a neighbor's window, and you're grounded. When Rodger found himself punished for what he thought was nice-guy behavior, he responded with self-pity, which gradually gave way to anger.
But how could Rodger—or any lonely psycho—react differently? During adolescence, hormones turn your body into a walking Viagra disclaimer, and your thoughts into a pornographic loop. But girls perplex and terrify your childish mind. They're just so different—as Jeffery Eugenides wrote, they're "women in disguise" who are impossible to fathom. Often, they don't even seem human; like Prufrock, you can only comprehend them as collections of parts—faces, voices, arms, and, of course, the eyes that pin you, wriggling, to the wall.