Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Isla Vista

This blog tends to err on the side of humor, unless the topic is so dire that it renders snark inappropriate. True, the TV show “M*A*S*H” hung its collective hat on its ability to deal with dire topics by specifically using humor.

You’ll forgive me if I can’t do humor too well tonight, though.

This past Friday night, in Isla Vista, California, there occurred yet another in what appears to be a steady stream of incidents that have rendered the term “mass-murder” unnervingly commonplace.

Quickly, pundits went on the chat shows and pontificated. “We must figure out what is responsible and fix it!” cried the pundits (and, movingly, the family members of people gunned down for no very good reason). But somehow there isn’t the political will (or the resistance to lobbyists, or adequate available money) amongst our elected officials or other policymakers to actually make the changes that would help. And the 24-hour news cycle churns on with more important celebrity news – until the next rampage happens. Rinse, and repeat.

This one, though … this one is a remarkable aggregation of things we gotta deal with somehow.

And in this case, as distinct from many others, there was some first-person writing available that shed a whole lot of light on a whole lot of dark stuff.

I just spent most of my free time in the last couple of days being unable to stop reading this piece of writing – even though I thought I knew what the ending was going to be.

Elliot Rodger, the young man who last Friday night shot up several blocks’ worth of Isla Vista, wrote half-a-novel worth of excruciating detail about just how it had come to this, at least according to his understanding of the world around him.

It’s a hundred and seven thousand words of writing that, in the past few days, I’ve seen described (by journalists and those who aspire to be) to as a “rambling manifesto”. I can promise you one thing: it’s very long; it’s remarkably detailed; and repeatedly returns to a central theme, so often that at times it gets tiresome. But it’s not a ramble.

It’s a spiral.

Beginning with Rodger’s earliest memories – age three; who remembers things clearly from when they were three years old? – the reader is introduced to his insecurities about his height, his lack of prowess in sports (skateboarding and soccer, particularly), and numerous other subjects of early-childhood drama which, for a great many American children, are very commonly felt. Nearly no children are immune from having to deal with playground arguments, or bullying, or moments of jealousy, or not getting the toys they were hoping for. There are plenty of pre-adolescent issues which later seem fairly small, but which at the time seem like the end of the world, or at least seem like insurmountable problems. They, along with how our wiring allows us to perceive them, all contribute to our development as humans.

By the time Rodger hits the fifth grade, in his narrative, just about everything he experiences points back to two inescapable truths: [1] girls won’t talk to me, but they’ll talk to all the other boys; and [2] those other boys are not nearly as deserving of the attention (and, by the time high school has arrived, the “sex and love”) that the girls heap upon them, as I am. Over and over and over, it all comes back to a version of this phrase: “why them, and not me?”

I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I took one Psychology course in high school and one in college. I know just enough to know that I’m utterly unqualified to analyze or diagnose anything to do with matters of the mind – and this is no knock on the teachers of those courses. They just helped me to see that the mind is a staggeringly complex thing, and that I should not just toss around hypotheses willy-nilly.

That said … the 137 pages of this young man’s writing suggest to me that there was a bit of nurture and a bit of nature, each, involved here. At numerous points in my reading of this manifesto, I had to pause, catch my breath, and consider how one person’s brain can be wired one way, and another’s can be wired another way. (And wonder, with each passing anecdote, how the events would have been described by someone who lived outside of Rodger’s head. The same? Differently? VERY differently? And how did that affect the people around him who might have gotten him help earlier, or treated him differently, had they understood? And when would none of that have mattered anyway?)

His extended narrative contained, at least to my perception(!), a number of very clear moments where that spiral began to accelerate. And accelerate again. And again. And then teeter on the edge of out-of-control.

Just about two-thirds of the way through, Rodger uses the term “Day of Retribution”, and it’s a harrowing moment for all of its relative offhandedness. If you’re reading the thing at this time, rather than, say, three weeks ago, you know that the Day of Retribution happens, and that it involves more than one hail of gunfire, and that it kills six and injures 13 others. Foreshadowing is unavoidable. The final corner that Rodger turns – which has not been widely reported – is startling. Not because there’s no way he could have achieved it, but because for 135 pages his sole focus has been about how unjust the world has been to him in terms of social success and then suddenly (and I mean that) it gets global.

By which point, the use of the term “Day of Retribution” has become not offhanded at all.

By the end of the thing – fortunately only within the last three pages – Rodger is offering his visions of what a proper version of society and civilization are, and he’s casting himself as a worthy dictator, and as a divine creature, i.e. a god. Even if his visions hadn’t included internment camps in which to keep and eventually starve all the women in the world (i.e. just punishment for having collectively starved him of love and sex for all 22 of his years on Earth) … his last three pages no longer have anything to do with middle-school crushes or frat-boy pickup artists or aloof blonde women or his self-image as alternately a “magnificent gentleman” and an unsuccessful still-virgin full of “desolation and despair”. That corner has been turned, and now Nothing Is Going To End Well, even though it wasn’t going to anyway.

One (me) could still not stop reading, though.

I finished the thing not more than two hours ago, and as I did so, my head was figuratively spinning – though not necessarily due to the writing’s gradual and relentless descent into depths from which only the most skilled mental health professionals had a prayer of rescuing him. And there were those that tried.

Instead, it was the sheer number of issues that had been raised, issues that currently dog America and its policymaking leaders; issues for which there are either no easy answers, or no answers that will easily be agreed upon by members of our representative government or the media (some of whose livelihoods often seem to depend upon not agreeing on things, or understanding issues, or even recognizing that those issues exist).

It wasn’t just misogyny. Although it is a ton of that, no matter how Rodger arrived at it. Nearly from the beginning, he swerves back and forth, from worshipping girls and women (hoping they would bestow even some small bit of attention or approval upon him), to rage and hatred (when they don’t), and back again. And again, it all spirals downward until with about four pages to go he declares that “women are all mentally ill”. By which point, Rodger had dipped his figurative toes into the pool of the men’s rights movement, by way of visiting an Internet website whose purpose was to decry both women and the male “pickup artists” who deprive other, more deserving men of those women’s attention.

It wasn’t just materialism and its effect on someone’s sense of self-worth and on their public image (real or imagined). Although throughout his manifesto, Rodger is convinced that the latest videogame system, or a “cool” hairstyle, or expensive clothes, or higher-status cars, or multi-millionaire status, by turns, are the gateways to others’ acceptance, admiration, and sexual attraction.

It wasn’t just entitlement. Although Rodger’s upbringing does feature a remarkable array of overseas family vacations, new gift laptop computers, birthday and holiday gifts of money, and the like, all of which could contribute to an impression of what has been glibly named “affluenza”. Pundits have referred to Rodger dismissively as “just another whiny rich kid” – well, maybe, but scratch that surface and I think you’ll find there’s more going on here …

It wasn’t just bad parenting choices. Although quite early in his life, Rodger’s parents’ marriage did break down. And their parenting styles didn’t just differ from one parent to another – each parent, and later each step-parent (at least according to Rodger’s understanding), veered from tough-love to spoil-and-enable. By the end, one can imagine each parent trying to figure out just what in the world they are going to be able to do to help their son, and every single time seeming to choose poorly.

It wasn’t just the schools. It wasn’t just educators lacking the ability to spot signs of distress, or to engage Rodger in some way that would help him overcome what started out as social anxiety. Although – and I am a teacher, so I tread carefully here – there isn’t any indication that almost any of his teachers, public-school, private-school, or community-college, tried to help him figure out what he might be good at, if it wasn’t sports. (If there had been a videogaming club anywhere handy, that might have been the ticket – for the second quarter of Rodger’s manifesto, playing “World of Warcraft” is practically all he does.) On the other hand, Rodger doesn’t stay at any one school for very long – he’s able to convince his parents to move him from each school because his social interactions there are such a disaster. One can imagine harried school officials being willing to have Rodger’s parents simply take him off their hands. We got enough of our own problems.

It wasn’t just mental health issues. Although, early media reports identified Rodger as having Asperger syndrome, and then as having been suspected of it by his family, and then, oh never mind, it must have been someone flailing for quick and easy answers. As I’ve documented hereabouts, I’ve taught students with Asperger syndrome. It’s difficult to say “no one with Asperger syndrome would get to the point of shooting up a neighborhood”, but it’s also difficult to say what other behavior tendencies the typical Asperger social-skill-deficiencies might exacerbate. Again, I emphasize my total lack of professional expertise in this matters; but as I read these 137 pages, I couldn’t help thinking that some part of Rodger’s mental wiring had failed him, and in a cascading way.

It wasn’t just issues of race. Although the longer Rodger writes, the more often he expresses disgust about other men of darker complexion (black, Asian, Hispanic) getting female attention of which he, a clean-cut white male, feels he is more deserving. These expressions aren’t pervasive, but it’s not just the California beach bums and frat boys he spends time calling out.

It wasn’t just issues of mass-media messages. Although for a very long time, the American public has been made to understand that certain attributes are more attractive than others; that you must have these certain things, buy these certain products, look like these certain supermodels, make at least this much money every year, in order to be seen as attractive or successful – by others, or by your own self.

It wasn’t just about guns. Although at the end it was that, in spades.

It was about all of these issues and probably a few more … all wrapped up in a completely untidy package. This story, if you scratch the surface even a little bit, has revealed and highlighted one fact that I think is undeniable:

We got work to do. And I’m not naturally a pessimist, but I’m genuinely not sure how we’re going to do all that work.

It’s undoubtedly too much for any single person to try and wrap their arms around and deal with. We can try to convince our elected leaders to do their gosh-darn jobs and work to deal with these issues (although it seems that we’d have better success if we were corporations with access to lots of persuasive money). All we can do … is all any individual can do, particularly those of us who are not Congresspersons or world leaders or corporations. We can try to make some small difference within our small sphere of the world, and hope that lots of other people do the same, and hope it approaches enough.

It means that I’ll pay yet closer attention to children of any age who are my students. Not to jump at shadows; not to see impending Isla-Vista-grade disaster lurking where it’s actually not. But I certainly never want to turn on the news and hear a shooter’s name with a familiar ring to it. For my students’ sake, not mine.

It means that this summer, I’ll spend two weeks working with future high school drum majors, and I’ll [1] appreciate them that much more, and [2] that much more enthusiastically encourage them to go find that kid who’s about to quit band and make sure they don’t.

And it means that the next time I see my niece and nephew: I’ll keep an eye on ’em, I’ll frankly admire what kind of kids they’ve turned into so far, I’ll nod admiringly at their parents too … and I’ll give them an extra firm hug.

It’s somewhere to start.

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May 28, 2014 - Posted by | current events

2 Comments »

  1. Almost as chilling as the act itself: a NY newspaper that found it necessary to put the fact that he was a virgin in its headline about the incident, Aspergers mentioned as a factor in the shooting (a branding of the autism spectrum as leading to murder); and the fact that the murders by this young man did not make the radio news on the hour after Monday — shootings have become that common that other events push it off the list of what is important to learn and talk about.

    Good writing and philosophizing, as always, Mr. Hammerton.

    Comment by DD | May 29, 2014 | Reply

  2. […] After the mass-murder committed in Santa Barbara last month by Elliot Rodger, Samuel J. Wurzelbacher (better known as “Joe the Plumber”) addressed the […]

    Pingback by Have A Care « Editorial License | June 26, 2014 | Reply


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