It’s been two weeks since the rampage in Isla Vista that left seven people dead and 13 more wounded. Since that time, the perpetrator of those attacks, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger — who killed himself in the assault — has been dissected in the media, largely via a 137-page document he left behind called “My Twisted World,” popularly branded his “manifesto.” Via that manifesto, we’ve seen examples of Rodger’s blatant racism or misogyny (of which there are many) cherry-picked to the point that the mere mention of Rodger’s writing brings up almost universal disgust — the idea of reading it, to many, even more so.
I couldn’t disagree more. Failing to understand Rodger seems a good way to ensure his return in the form of another tortured soul. So I took the time to read the document the other day, and I came away thinking it was one of the most important things I’d seen in some time.
The language is clear and precise, the misery palpable. Rodger was no crank philosopher. Instead, he was a memoirist, able to describe the details of his sad, lonely world with surprising candor. In the process, his story touches on almost every corner of American society — race, class, gender, divorce, sex, bullying, entitlement and empty materialism.
His racism, for instance, was obvious: “How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?” he wrote at one point, a much-cited example of his supposed feelings of racial superiority.
After reading the memoir, however, it’s clear Rodger’s racial contempt is thinly veiled posturing to cover up the self-loathing of his own ethnic identity.
“I am half White, half Asian,” he wrote, “and this made me different from the normal fully-white kids that I was trying to fit in with.... I had to make every effort to rectify this. I had to adapt. My first act was to ask my parents to allow me to bleach my hair blonde. I always envied and admired blonde-haired people, they always seemed so much more beautiful.”
Racism, like his hair bleach, was nothing more than a sad, misguided tool to fit in with a white majority that he never truly felt a part of.
In almost every instance, Rodger’s anger follows a similar tract — poorly masked compensation for his own perceived shortcomings.
He was wealth and status-obsessed, regularly deriding those of little means as “low class,” boasting of his name-brand apparel. And yet Rodger himself was teased for living in a “ ‘poor’ house” after a school friend saw his mother’s modest Canoga Park apartment.
He was fixated on sex but simultaneously hated those who had it — mirroring America’s lecherous yet slut-shaming tendencies. He was bullied on a regular basis at school and railed against the Darwinian cultural values that considered him weak, yet judged those he deemed inferior to him by the same warped criteria.
And, yes, he was certainly a misogynist. Women, in his mind (his own mother included), existed to service his needs, and should suppress their own desires to placate his.
He also rarely, if ever, had a social interaction that wasn’t facilitated by his parents. Even during his high school years, he referred to his meetings with friends as “playdates.” Friends, in Rodger’s world, were something to be arranged by adults. Is it any wonder he had difficulty speaking to women later in life?
Rodger’s solution to this quandary was one Madison Avenue has been selling us for decades — adorning himself with status symbols. When that didn’t work, rather than acknowledge his complete lack of social graces and work to improve them, Rodger simply assigned blame to the “popular kids,” both women and men, for ignoring his implicit worth.
Rodger’s story reads like a cautionary tale — of a young man who swallowed every poison pill our culture could throw at him and was outraged when he became sick. To be clear, he was no victim. But he was no megalomaniac either, as media-curated readings of his manifesto would imply.
It’s easy to dismiss someone like Rodger as a monster, but the reality is more troubling.
There are likely millions more out there like him — lonely, angry and uncritical. Rodger’s memoir should serve as a living reminder of how not to navigate the land mines of American culture.
Matthew Fleischer is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @MatteFleischer.