What a close read of the Isla Vista shooter’s horrific manifesto, “My Twisted World,” says about his values—and ours

May 26, 2014
May 26, 2014

I truly didn’t want to read Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto,” in which he told the story of his life and rationalized the horrific acts with which he allegedly ended it in excruciating detail. I certainly didn’t want to write about it. It’s exactly what he wanted, after all: A chance to be noticed, to be recognized—perhaps even to be empathized with.

But after seeing him consistently described as fitting the “typical mass shooter profile” of a young, mentally disturbed white loner, I realized that both the conventional news and much of social media were making a profound and possibly important error. Because if you’re Asian, a single look at his picture is all you need to realize that Rodger was not white.

A little research exposed what should be obvious: Rodger is biracial—the son of British-born filmmaker, Peter Rodger, best known for assistant directing The Hunger Games, and Lichin “Chin” Rodger, a Malaysian Chinese nurse for film productions who met and befriended Hollywood royalty like Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas (whom she briefly dated), and, of course, Rodger’s father. And reading the 141-page screed shows that this identity played a deeper and darker role in Rodger’s pathology than anyone has been discussing.

In fact, based on the memoir-cum-confession that he left behind, Rodger’s murderous rage was rooted in an obsessive self-hatred, born from his belief that he was entitled to, and thwarted from obtaining, a trifecta of privileges: Race, class, and gender. He saw himself as not quite white enough. Not quite rich enough. Not quite “masculine” enough, in the toxic, testosterone-saturated way that that term is defined in our society.

Rodger grew up as a child of prosperity, if not extreme affluence. He’d traveled to four countries before his fourth birthday. He attended good private schools (though not the finishing academies of the elite; his school Pinecrest had as its motto “Where excellence is fundamental…and affordable.”) He was always just a receiving line and handshake away from wealth and celebrity. But as he grew older, he found himself staring with ever-growing resentment and rage at the things he could see, but not have.

Women in particular became his fixation. No one can ever know for sure what seeded the seething hatred that led Rodger to declare that he would “wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to [and] slaughter them like the animals they are.” But the first disturbing signs of Rodger’s deeply misogynistic worldview emerge in his description of how his father left his mother when he was just seven, and a few months later moved into his home the woman who would eventually become his stepmother, French-Moroccan actress Soumaya Akaaboune.

According to Rodger, this is what underscored to him the degree to which women were markers of status:

“Because of my father’s acquisition of a new girlfriend, my little mind got the impression that my father was a man that women found attractive, as he was able to find a new girlfriend in such a short period of time from divorcing my mother. I subconsciously held him in higher regard because of this. It is very interesting how this phenomenon works…that males who can easily find female mates garner more respect from their fellow men.”

Rodger grew up in the shadow of Hollywood, a place where terms like “trophy wife” and “arm candy” and “casting couch” are thrown around with glib abandon. It’s a culture that has mainstreamed the notion that women are accessories, party favors, tools for sexual release, not just behind the scenes, but in front of it, particularly within the genres most likely to shape the worldview of young males.

How many “coming of age” movies have supported the idea of loss of virginity as a rite of passage, and used lack of sexual experience as code for subnormal masculinity? How many have underscored the status divide between sexually active jocks, bros and studs and socially invalidated, sexually frustrated nerds, freaks and geeks? I’ve admittedly watched—and enjoyed—many of them myself, from vintage entries like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Revenge of the Nerds to more recent ones like American Pie and Superbad.

There are stretches of Rodger’s memoir feature monologues that could have easily come from films like these. Here’s Rodger sharing his envy of a popular boy from his childhood, whom he’d accidentally seen making out with a pretty girl when both were just 12 years old:

“I kept thinking about Leo Bubenheim, and how he kissed that girl Nicole at the Sagebrush Cantina when he was only 12. Twelve! He was able to have an intimate experience with a girl when he was only 12; and there I was at 18, still a kissless virgin.”

Here’s Rodger channeling Sixteen Candles:

“My 19th birthday passed by sullenly, and it caused me to feel even more defeated. Nineteen and still a virgin, I miserably proclaimed on that day. My father didn’t even deign to give me a phone call. Instead, he sent me a letter wishing me happy birthday and telling me that he wanted me to apologize to [my stepmom], which of course I refused to do.”

But Rodger’s pathetic sexual pining and whining takes on a more insidious cast when it intersects with race and class. As a child of just nine years old, Rodger has a “revelation”:

“At school, there were always the ‘cool kids’ who seemed to be more admirable than everyone else [and] I realized, with some horror, that I wasn’t ‘cool’ at all. I had a dorky hairstyle, I wore plain and uncool clothing, and I was shy and unpopular.”

All of these things, Rodger realizes, can be altered. What can’t be changed is that the kids that he’s dubbed “cool” are white, and Rodger is not:

“I was different because I am of mixed race. I am half White, half Asian, and this made me different from the normal fully-white kids that I was trying to fit in with.”

Rodger’s fixation on whiteness as the ultimate prize leads him to try to remake himself, asking his parents for permission to bleach his hair:

“I always envied and admired blonde-haired people, they always seemed so much more beautiful. My parents agreed to let me do it, and father took me to a hair salon on Mulholland Drive in Woodland Hills….Trevor was the first one to notice it, and he came up to me and patted my head, saying that it was very ‘cool.’ Well, that was exactly what I wanted. My new hair turned out to be quite a spectacle, and for a few days I got a hint of the attention and admiration I so craved.”

But his bleached hair soon loses its novelty, and Rodger once again finds himself on the outside looking in. He realizes that while he can never be—in his own words—a “normal fully-white” person, he can prove himself equal to or even superior than those who were born to that birthright, if only he “acquires” the right girlfriend: someone whiter, blonder, more beautiful than the girlfriends of his peers.

He sees wealth as one sure way of making him more attractive to the white, blonde women who would validate his identity. But his father is not rich, and after an unsuccessful attempt to produce a movie of his own leaves him bankrupt, cuts child support payments to Rodger’s mother. Rodger pushes his mother to remarry someone with money:

“She dated [men] of high class. She had a special way of charming them. I continued to pester her to get married so that I can be part of an upper class family and enjoy all the benefits that would come with that, but she always refused, claiming that she never wants to get married due to her unpleasant experiences with my father. I told her that she should suffer through any negative aspects of marriage just for my sake, because it would completely save my life.”

Her understandable refusal to wed a rich man just to provide her son with the ability to impress sexy, white blonde women leads Rodger to decide there’s only one option remaining for him—not studying and getting a high-paying job, not launching a business of his own, but winning the lottery:

“[The] older I grew, the more I realized how important money was, and the more obsessed I would become about getting rich. This obsession, which was barely taking root at the time, sparked a long relationship [with] the lottery that would only end in disappointment and despair.”

“It would be possible for me to get a tall, blonde, sexy girlfriend if I was a multi-millionaire! Oh yes, it would be very possible. Becoming a multi- millionaire is the ONLY way I could have such an experience, and winning the lottery was the ONLY way I could become a multi-millionaire at my age. As I stared at the Powerball jackpot that was over $500 million, I knew that I HAD to win it.”

He doesn’t, of course—and once again, the instant gratification of what he sees as his due remains out of reach. Failure to win the lottery, failure to be embraced by the white “cool kids,” failure to have white, blonde women at his side at the snap of a finger, Fonzie-style—all of these grievances fester, curdling his self-hatred and turning it into a venomous spew aimed at those around him.

While some of his anger and vitriol is saved for the athletes and frat boys who attract women with seeming ease, despite being less intelligent, genteel and handsome than Rodger himself, the bulk of his hate is aimed at two targets: the women whom he sees as having rejected him and men of color who are able to succeed, socially and sexually, despite their race. These men are offensive both for taking what Rodger feels is rightfully his, and also for giving the lie to Rodger’s belief that it is his nonwhiteness that is to blame for being unaccepted and unattractive. They are the subjects of some of the most stomach-turning outbursts in Rodger’s document, such as this one:

“My two housemates were nice, but they kept inviting over this friend of theirs named Chance. He was black boy who came over all the time, and I hated his cocksure attitude….This black boy named Chance said that he lost his virginity when he was only thirteen! In addition, he said that the girl he lost his virginity to was a blonde white girl! I was so enraged that I almost splashed him with my orange juice. I indignantly told him that I did not believe him, and then I went to my room to cry. I cried and cried and cried, and then I called my mother and cried to her on the phone.

“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more.… If this is actually true, if this ugly black filth was able to have sex with a blonde white girl at the age of thirteen while I’ve had to suffer virginity all my life, then this just proves how ridiculous the female gender is. They would give themselves to this filthy scum, but they reject ME? The injustice!”

And this:

“I saw a young couple sitting a few tables down the row. The sight of them enraged me to no end, especially because it was a dark-skinned Mexican guy dating a hot blonde white girl. I regarded it as a great insult to my dignity. How could an inferior Mexican guy be able to date a white blonde girl, while I was still suffering as a lonely virgin? I was ashamed to be in such an inferior position in front my father. When I saw the two of them kissing, I could barely contain my rage. I stood up in anger, and I was about to walk up to them and pour my glass of soda all over their heads….I was seething with envious rage, and my father was there to watch it all. It was so humiliating. I wasn’t the son I wanted to present to my father. I should be the one with the hot blonde girl, making my father proud. Instead, my father had to watch me suffer in a pathetic position.”

And this:

“I came across this Asian guy who was talking to a white girl. The sight of that filled me with rage. I always felt as if white girls thought less of me because I was half-Asian, but then I see this white girl at the party talking to a full-blooded Asian. I never had that kind of attention from a white girl!

“And white girls are the only girls I’m attracted to, especially the blondes. How could an ugly Asian attract the attention of a white girl, while a beautiful Eurasian like myself never had any attention from them? I thought with rage. I glared at them for a bit, and then decided I had been insulted enough. I angrily walked toward them and bumped the Asian guy aside, trying to act cocky and arrogant to both the boy and the girl.”

By the time the end of the “manifesto” arrives, with Rodger describing his real-world decision to enact a Day of Retribution against those whom he sees as having sinned against him, it does not come as a surprise that of the seven who would die in the terrible, deadly assault Rodger committed according to authorities, two were tall, blonde white women—sorority sisters Veronika Weiss and Katie Cooper—and five were men of color, including Rodger’s three housemates, George Chen, Cheng Yuan Hong, and Weihan Wong, all Chinese-Americans, Mexican-American Christopher Michael-Martinez…and Rodger himself.

Nothing can excuse Rodger’s repulsive beliefs and actions, but digging deeper to understand them exposes the ways in which we, too, are complicit in them—as enablers of a culture where material wealth is a marker for success, whiteness is a badge of prestige, and sexual “conquest” a measure of masculinity.

And the ugly truth is that these are not rare phenomena in our American society—or in rapidly rising societies elsewhere in the world: After all, Chinese consumers now purchase 30% of the world’s luxury goodsSkin-whitening products make up 30% of China’s cosmetics sales. And despite it being officially illegal within its boundaries, China now has the biggest pornography market in the world, with over $27 billion a year in sales (more than double that of the United States, where porn is legal.)

So it’s easy to dismiss Rodger, this alleged murderer and child of privilege, as a product of derelict parenting, of negligent gun laws, of untreated mental illness. It’s harder to explore the degree to which he represents a terrible, twisted mirror of our global culture.

But maybe that’s what makes it so essential that we do just that.

Follow Jeff on Twitter at @originalspinWe welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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