I’m not a crime watcher or one of those aficionados with a library full of crime stories. I’m also not a psychologist or an expert on violence or the human condition. Still, as I watched this horrible news story unfold, I was drawn to watching Elliot Rodger’s videos and reading his final 141-page manifesto.
This is the second mass killing in recent times by young men who were supposedly diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, which is something I do know quite a bit about, and I have to wonder: Has Aspergers become the catch-all diagnosis for every child who is socially awkward, regardless of what other problems are present, or is the diagnosis skewed toward middle and upper class children? Would a poor child who was as anti-social as Elliot Rodger be given the same diagnosis? Is the label of Aspergers more likely to be given to affluent boys who show hostility? Is Aspergers perhaps an easier pill for wealthy parents to swallow than, say, a diagnosis of psychopathy?
In reading Rodger’s laboriously self-serving manifesto, I did not see Aspergers. I saw a complete lack of higher reasoning skills, a grandiose sense of entitlement, a below-average intelligence masked by above-average language skills, and a carefully self-manufactured path being set-up, day after day, in order to justify future violence.
While much is being made of Rodger’s gross misogyny, it seems to me that women and girls were more of a means to a violent end — an excuse for the kind of bloodshed that Rodger’s had probably long-fantasized about. He didn’t want just any girl, after all, but the hottest, the blondest, and the most popular. It seems obvious that he made intimacy unattainable for himself so that he could use his lack of it as a reason for the rage he felt and the murders he wanted to commit. Did Rodger hate women? I think there’s no doubt that he talked himself into misogyny, but he also hated any male that he perceived had something he didn’t, including his seven-year-old brother, and many of those who had tried to be his friend.
The same kind of self set-up was apparent in Rodger’s quest for wealth. He didn’t want to have to work for it; he believed that he was too superior for “menial” work; and his one idea (gleaned from his mother) for attaining fame and fortune–becoming a writer–was quickly put aside when he realized that it might take him years of effort to reach any sort of glorified status.
I think it’s natural to want to find the source of this kind of mental illness, but Aspergers isn’t it, and going by Rodger’s own explanation of his background, his family isn’t to blame, either. Yes, Rodger was spoiled. He learned early on that throwing tantrums got him what he wanted. But hundreds of thousands of parents make far worse mistakes and their children do not grow up to be murderers. Rodger’s parents loved him enough to put him in therapy, but at 22-years-old, they could not force him to take medication. They called the police when they believed their son might be planning violence. The police did a welfare check and were satisfied with what they heard and saw.
Seven people are dead and others are wounded. Asperger’s didn’t do that. His parents, stepmother, sister, brother, and extended family didn’t do that. His schoolmates and friends didn’t do that. The privileged culture that Rodger was a part of, while it may have bolstered his feelings of entitlement and fed into his perception that wealth = worth, didn’t do that. Untreated mental illness did that and Elliot Rodger’s was violently, mentally ill.
Mental health care in this country is in a crisis, not only because of over three decades of institution-busting and gutting public services, and not only because of money (both Rodger and Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza had access to treatment), but because every time something like this happens, there’s a lot of finger-pointing, a crush of grief, a mountain of anger…and no changes to a system that waits until violence happens before it even considers preventative actions. Yes, there are fine lines in prevention. We don’t want to lock people up or take away their rights for merely talking, but when a video is posted detailing a violent crime that’s been planned, there should be swift, meaningful, preventative measures taken. There should be a better system in place.
My takeaway is that the massacre in Santa Barbara was preventable. It seems to me that a combination of laws—and by extension social apathy on issues of mental illness—made prevention less likely, but not impossible. Elliot Rodger shared his plans openly, with many people, yet the alarm bells weren’t loud enough to head off tragedy.
They’re ringing louder now, just as they did after Sandy Hook, but will society care enough to demand changes?