I Could Have Been Elliot Rodger

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 31 2014 4:55 PM

I Could Have Been Elliot Rodger

Many men—including me, once upon a time—know what it’s like to be young, frustrated, and full of rage toward women.

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.

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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.

Since you can't understand girls, it's easy to turn them into fantasy creatures, whose love has the healing power of unicorn blood. The bliss you'd share would render popularity irrelevant. It would validate your intelligence, sensitivity, and kindness. In short, it would prove—to you and everyone else—that you're a person, like other people.

Of course, you can’t apply juvenile logic to the concepts of sex, love, and relationships. In fact, you haven’t really grown up until you realize that these concepts tend to have no logic at all. Since lonely psychos don't understand this, the unending futility of their efforts drives them to deeper levels of despair.

If you believe that love is the answer to all life's problems, but also that you're incapable of being loved, violence becomes tempting. And directing that violence toward others means you’re entitled to a few fleeting moments when, at long last, you have total power over who wins and who loses the incomprehensible game.

To me, the most chilling line in Elliot Rodger's manifesto is this: "After I picked up the handgun, I … felt a new sense of power. 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."

I can’t explain the reason the vast majority of lonely young men turn into relatively normal humans like me, while others become entries in Wikipedia’s “List of American Spree Killers.” I was just as messed up as Cho, Rodger, and Klebold. I was humiliated by my weight, which bordered on morbid obesity. I fancied myself an intellectual, but would’ve traded an acceptance letter to Harvard for one magical kiss from a classmate I’ll call Cynthia. I was a virgin until a year after I graduated college.

Klebold and Rodger had friends; Cho had a family who clearly loved him. Why did these guys pick up guns, but I never did? Maybe it was my parents: Like many liberal, urban baby boomers, they detested weapons and violence. I wasn’t allowed to play with guns, or even watch the G.I. Joe cartoons my friends adored. Maybe it was the era when I grew up, before Columbine, when mass murder hadn’t yet become such a popular mode of self-expression.

But before you let me off the hook, I have to confess: I was violent. I never physically hurt anyone, much less anyone female, but I emotionally abused every woman who rejected me. In high school, I called Cynthia a disgusting whore after seeing her snuggle with her boyfriend on a field trip. In college, I showed up drunk at another woman’s door the night after she ended our two-week relationship, pounding and screaming until she threatened to call the cops. And just two months after graduation, a nasty dispute with a female co-worker cost me my first job, at a daily newspaper in the Midwest. I'd worked toward a career in journalism since grade school, but I couldn't get hired anywhere with that incident on my record. So I spent the next 15 years daydreaming about what might've been, and hating myself for my childish anger and misogyny.

Things are much better now. Age and antidepressants have mellowed me, therapy has led me to develop coping strategies, and a healthier diet and regular exercise have imbued me with greater self-confidence. My first romantic relationships opened my eyes to the battles that women wage against loneliness and low self-esteem, and gave me the sympathy and understanding I lacked as a teenager. But as Paul Schrader—who created Travis Bickle, the ultimate lonely psychopath—once said, “You never outrun your childhood.”

So while my anger has subsided, it has never completely gone away. I can manage it, but I live every day in fear of the Elliot Rodger who still lurks inside me.

This article has been modified since it was originally published.

Brian Levinson is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn.

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