Sunday, May 25, 2014

Elliot Rodger - "Toxic Male Entitlement" or Mental Illness?

Elliot Rodger as a child
It did not take long for some "journalists" to take the easy path and blame "toxic male entitlement" for the shooting rampage of Elliot Rodger. Katie McDonough, a "lifestyle" editor at Salon has made the first move (of which I am aware). I have no doubt that "toxic male entitlement devalues women's and men's lives," the subtitle of her article. But, one must wonder, Did you WATCH the video this kid left behind?

Did anyone notice the delusional grandiosity in his video and manifesto, or the impotent rage, both expressed through ideas of omnipotence and entitlement? Did you notice how calmly, even calculatedly, he spoke in his final video statement, all the way down to the attempted "villain" laugh? Do you understand what it takes for a person to write 137 pages explaining his pain and his plan to kill those he blamed for his suffering?

This is not merely "toxic male entitlement," this is severe mental illness.

The record of events that is emerging suggests that people in his life have been concerned about him for some time. According to ABC News:
Brown said cops have had three previous contacts with Rodger before Friday's shooting, including when a member of Rodger's family asked police to check on him because of alarm over his behavior and videos. Brown said the cops found no reason to take further action on Rodger.
One of the other incidents occurred in January when he made a citizen's arrest of his roommate for allegedly stealing three candles, and again in July 2013 when he claimed he had been assaulted. Police determined that Rodger may have been the aggressor, Brown said. 

* * *

Schifman said in recent weeks that Rodger’s parents were concerned for their son's well being and reported his disturbing YouTube videos to police, which lead to an investigation. According to Schifman, police interviewed Rodger and found him to be “polite and kind.” He did not specify which law enforcement division conducted the interview. 

A social worker also contacted police about Rodger last week, said Schifman.
If you pay attention to his language, both in the video and in his manifesto, you will notice that his issues are all externalized, it is women who do not like him and there is no awareness of his own part in this issue. We call that an external locus of control, he is at the mercy of "powerful others," in this case attractive women.

Julian Rotter is the architect of the locus of control theory - this is from the Wikipedia entry on this topic:
Externals attribute outcomes of events to external circumstances. People that have external locus of control believe that many things that happen in their lives are out of their control.[9] They believe that their own actions are a result of external factors that are beyond their control. Rotter in his study suggested that people that have external locus of control have four types of beliefs which include the following: powerful others such as doctors, nurses, fate, luck and a belief that the world is too complex to predict its outcomes. People that have external locus of control tend to blame others for the outcomes rather than themselves. ... Due to their locating control outside themselves, externals tend to feel they have less control over their fate. People with an external locus of control tend to be more stressed and prone to clinical depression.[10]
What follows may be disturbing for some readers - these quotes are from the manifesto he left behind, 137 pages of rage and delusions, of blaming others for his suffering.

This first quote is about his plan to kill the men who have had successful sex lives, to even the score in his warped perspective:
All of that pleasure they had in life, I will punish by bringing them pain and suffering. I have lived a life of pain and suffering, and it was time to bring that pain to people who actually deserve it. I will cut them, flay them, strip all the skin off their flesh, and pour boiling water all over them while they are still alive, as well as any other form of torture I could possibly think of.

When they are dead, I will behead them and keep their heads in a bag, for their heads will play a major role in the final phase. This First Phase will represent my vengeance against all of the men who have had pleasurable sex lives while I’ve had to suffer. Things will be fair once I make them suffer as I did. I will finally even the score.
That is "phase one" of his plan. In "phase two," he goes after the women to punish them for denying him sex.
I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. They have starved me of sex for my entire youth, and gave that pleasure to other men. In doing so, they took many years of my life away.

I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts. I will attack the very girls who represent everything I hate in the female gender: The hottest sorority of UCSB.
Again, notice that he is blaming all of his pain, all of his loneliness, all of his frustration on the men who are successful with women and on the women who have denied him sex and love. I could go on quoting passage after passage, but this is already sufficient.

For the final phase of his plan, he believes he must, "kill my little brother, denying him of the chance to grow up to surpass me." This is indicative of someone who has split, whose ego no longer experiences dissonance between his beliefs about the world and the world itself.

He goes so far as to suggest that after he has murdered all of these people, "everyone will fear me as the powerful god I am," clearly a grandiose delusion of power and control, the things he has never felt himself to possess in his own life.

And there is the crux of this kid's mental illness. His reality, and his understanding of his reality, became so intolerable, so painful, that his psyche split into two separate parts: (1) the lonely, depressed, and socially impotent young man who once believed he could change his situation, and (2) the angry, rageful, and delusional rampage killer. This second persona became his sense of self, to the point that he acted on all of the fantasies he had been experiencing of making other people suffer as he has suffered.

All of this points to a paranoid psychosis. The DSM-IV recognizes paranoia as a personality disorder (possible here), as a subtype of schizophrenia (it seems that he has been in this space for less than 6 months, so it would be schizophreniform disorder), and "the persecutory type of delusional disorder (coded: 297.0), which is also called "querulous paranoia" when the focus is to remedy some injustice by legal action" (quite likely here, except that his delusions include himself as judge, jury, and executioner). He certainly experiences himself as persecuted.

It's far too easy to blame the PUA and MRA groups Rodger was interested in for spreading hateful misogyny, although they are loathsome in doing so.

The tougher, more relevant question is to understand how this young man who comes from a family of wealth and privilege became so alienated, wounded, and violent. For sure there is mental illness here, but mental illness does not grow without some fertilizer. What were the events and experiences that sent him into an alternate world where he can become a god through the murder of those he blames for his suffering and isolation?

In looking at this honestly and with a wider lens, we are confronted with the possibility that he could be anyone's son, or brother, or friend. But for different early life circumstances, different brain wiring, and different maturational experiences, I could be Elliot Rodger.

This is a reality too troubling to look at, so the media will take the easy way out and blame "toxic male entitlement."

Below is the article from Salon mentioned above. Is this the way we want to view this tragedy as a nation, or would we rather struggle to fathom the events as indicative of a young man whose soul became infected with pain, isolation, and rage?

Elliot Rodger’s fatal menace: How toxic male entitlement devalues women’s and men’s lives

In moments after unspeakable tragedy we must not rush to conclusions. But here's one thing we already know too well

Katie Mcdonough
Sunday, May 25, 2014

Elliot Rodger (Credit: YouTube)

We don’t yet know much about the six innocent women and men who were killed in Isla Vista, California late Friday night, but we have come to know a few things about the man who is alleged to have murdered them. Hours before he is believed to have fatally stabbed and shot six people and wounded 13 others in that coastal college town, Elliot Rodger filmed a video of himself — palm trees behind him, the glow of an orange sun highlighting his young face — and vowed to get “revenge against humanity.”

There’s a lot more in the video, and the 140-page “manifesto” he left in his apartment. Rodger felt victimized by women, whom he appeared to desire and loathe simultaneously. He expressed anger and resentment toward other men, often because of their relationships with women. He seemed to be a profoundly troubled, profoundly lonely young man. According to a statement from the Rodger family’s attorney, he was receiving care from mental health professionals after his parents were alarmed by his Internet footprint — a series of YouTube videos and men’s rights chat groups where he expressed his violent views about women, men and himself.

It’s hard to say what any of this actually tells us. Maybe nothing. I won’t pretend to know. What role did Rodger’s misogyny play in this tragedy? And what about his apparent struggle with mental illness — that big, blanket term we never talk about except to throw it around as if it explains why someone would murder six people? And what about guns? What of our cowardice — the cowardice of our elected officials — when it comes to regulating deadly weapons so that we stand a better chance of keeping them out of the hands of men like Elliot Rodger? What about these things? As a friend and I discussed earlier while trying to grapple with the tragedy as we learned each new chilling detail, all of these things matter, but none seem sufficient to explain what happened. They couldn’t possibly, and yet they’re all we have.

It would be irresponsible to lay this violence at the feet of the men’s rights activists with whom Rodger seemed to find support for his rage. Rodger is alleged to have murdered six women and men. No amount of Internet vitriol — no unfulfilled threats of violence — can equal that. But it also denies reality to pretend that Rodger’s sense of masculine entitlement and views about women didn’t matter or somehow existed in a vacuum. These things matter because the horror of Rodger’s alleged crimes is unique, but the distorted way he understood himself as a man and the violence with which discussed women — the bleak and dehumanizing lens through which he judged them — is not. Just as we examine our culture of guns once again in the wake of yet another mass shooting, we must also examine our culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which devalues both women’s and men’s lives and worth, and inflicts real and daily harm. We must examine the dangerous normative values that treat women as less than human, and that make them — according to Elliot Rodger — deserving of death.

There is an angry part of me — a frightened part of me — that wants to tear Rodger’s video manifesto apart in the pettiest terms imaginable. Point to how cliched it all is — the tired self-importance, the god comparisons, his lazy use of “sluts” and “brutes” to describe the women and men he would allegedly target and murder only hours later. I have seen these videos before. Women have heard these threats before, and been forced to consider how seriously they should take a man who tells them on Twitter that he knows where they live and that, “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you.” If Rodger had posted his angry monologue to YouTube or fired it off in an email to a woman online and then gone about his day — seething privately and without violence about his wounded sense of entitlement and the sting of having his resentful and warped desires unfulfilled — the country wouldn’t be talking about him. Because until the moment that he is alleged to have killed six women and men, Elliot Rodger was every bit the same as the other men who are defined by their resentment toward women and their sense of bitter victimization in the world. Men who threaten women in person and online in an attempt to control their lives. Men who feel that girls and women owe them adoration, sexual gratification, subservience. Men whose sense of rage and entitlement has rotted their brains and ruined them.

And this anger — this toxic male entitlement — isn’t contained to random comment boards or the YouTube videos of disturbed young men. It’s on full view elsewhere in our culture. Earlier this week, a writer for the New York Post quoted a member of a men’s rights group as the sole source in a report on Jill Abramson’s ouster at the New York Times. Mel Feit of the National Center for Men told columnist Richard Johnson that Abramson was systematically firing men and replacing them with women. He said that our society gives women preferential treatment. On his website, Feit bemoans a culture in which men are subject to the powerful whims of vindictive women who exist on “sexual pedestals.” He argues that men can’t be blamed for rape after a certain point of arousal. These views about women and violence are replicated in our criminal justice system. They filter into our media. This is what makes Rodger’s misogynistic vitriol so terrifying — the fact that in many ways it’s utterly banal.

The news out of Isla Vista is still painfully fresh, and in the coming days we will continue to struggle to understand this pattern of violence. And while we do that — the work of considering what laws, support systems and cultural shifts must be put in place to prevent these tragedies from destroying more lives, families and communities — I can’t help but be reminded of all of the women who have been victimized by a culture and a system that denies their humanity.

I’m reminded of Marissa Alexander, whom the state of Florida is trying to imprison for 60 years because she fired a warning shot to ward off a man who had a history of violently abusing her and had told her that he was going to kill her. I’m reminded of CeCe McDonald, a trans woman of color who was incarcerated for defending herself during a brutal assault. “Her gift for survival was a prison sentence,” trans actress and activist Laverne Cox recently observed. I’m reminded of the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted more than a month ago and remain missing because they had the audacity to go to school.

I think of the millions of other women and girls whose names the public does not know, but who have been forced all the same — by institutional forces larger than themselves, by systemic and enduring misogyny and racism, by the sheer bad luck of being at a given place at a given moment — to become statistics or symbols of our culture’s profound disregard for the humanity of women and girls. I am reminded of all of them and I don’t know where to put the pain and anger that comes with that. There is no possible vessel large enough to hold it all.

Katie McDonough is an assistant editor for Salon, focusing on lifestyle. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at


Monica said...

I like your comments William,

though I don't like calling stuff like this mental illness since no one knows what the fuck mental illness is and all sorts of stuff gets swept up in it to the point of meaninglessness...

rather than think in terms of mental illness, which is a very impoverished view of the human being when it comes from psychiatry and typical western thinking, we need a much larger and nuanced view of the multiple ways things can go wrong in the developing psyche that later leads to all manner of dysfunction across an endless spectrum of possibility...mental illness is far too general and basically includes every human being in some regards...who is not ill in this disembodied, unconnected mass that we are at this time. Who is not traumatized. We all are...but some forms of disconnection are particularly disturbing and difficult.

thanks for your thoughts

Anonymous said...

Even if mentally ill, he didn't attribute his troubles on some random group, but on women. Misogyny remains the organizing principle in this crime.

william harryman said...

I agree Monica - mental illness is far too broad a term. We need some new language to describe the many and varied ways people become wounded.

william harryman said...

Anonymous, if that is your real name, he did not only target women, the first order of business in his manifesto was to kill the men around him who were successful with women, to replace their pleasure with suffering.

Yes, he hated women as a class of people, but he also hated men (thus the need to kill his litter brother so that he could never surpass him).

It's never so easy as your comment suggests.

beetles said...

He wrote of hating women, but he wished they had loved him. He really seemed to resent anyone who appeared to enjoy a relationship with another person, both women and men. he ranted on about his plans to kill women, but his killing was chaotic and indiscriminate, not following his own plan or any plan (or much, he did kill his housemates, all men)and in the end, once his shooting and ramming spree started, it was over in an apparently disorganized few minutes.

The grandiosity, the oddly stilted language of his manifesto, the dramatizing quality of his video, suggests a desperation of losing control, falling behind and grim hopelessness. Sure, he had personality disorders, heaps of those, narcissism, antisocial but there is also the deeper illness of psychotic depression and paranoia from which all his projections of hate, resentment and retribution spring.

Anonymous said...

As Ari Ne'eman once said, people want to blame mental health for shootings because it exonerates hate's real source: a culture that valorizes hatred. Who taught Elliot Rodger that women's bodies belonged to him? Who said it was okay. It wasn't Aspberger's or any mental illness. He heard that throughout our society. He heard that in movies, while growing up, watching generation after generation treat women as subservient to males.

So yes, it was misogyny. Yes, it was toxic male entitlement. But no, it wasn't mental health. Don't degrade other people with real mental illnesses who, despite their trials, never killed out of sheer hatred.