Does 'Mental Illness' Explain Elliot Rodger's Murder Spree?


Elliot Rodger's "Day of Retribution" video has been widely described as "chilling." Judging from his intermittent movie-villain-style laughter, that is the effect he was trying to achieve. But he ended up with something much more banal. "Tomorrow is the day of retribution," Rodger says, "the day I will have my revenge against humanity, against all of you." But he says this with such a lack of conviction that most viewers probably would not take it seriously if they did not already know about the six murders he committed in Isla Vista, California, on Friday night. Combine the wooden delivery with his whining about all the girls who would never give him the time of day ("I'm the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman"), and the overall impression is not chilling so much as pathetic and ridiculous.

There is a lot more such whining in Rodger's 140-page autobiography, which further illuminates his motivation, although to call it a "manifesto," as many have, is a bit of a stretch. In his telling, a happy childhood was followed by a confusing and frustrating adolescence from which he never emerged. He was socially awkward, depressed, and desperately lonely. These feelings left him angry at "those evil, slutty bitches who rejected me" and the "obnoxious jock[s]" they preferred. You can ascribe this attitude to "mental illness" if you like, but it was an understandable reaction to the situation he faced. Having decided that he no longer wanted to live as a 22-year-old virgin who had never so much as kissed a girl, Rodger resolved to kill himself and take as many of his tormentors with him as he could. In short, he was pissed off about never getting laid, and he took out his anger and frustration on a bunch of innocent people.

If we instead say that Rodger was in "an early phase of pre-psychosis," as a psychiatrist interviewed by Los Angeles Times suggested, does that add to our understanding? Psychosis is usually defined as a break from reality. But judging from his autobiography, Rodger had surprisingly strong self-insight and a pretty clear (perhaps too clear) sense of what was going on around him, despite his occasional flights of grandiosity and magical thinking. Although he keeps buying lottery tickets in the hope that riches will be the key to attracting women, for instance, he acknowledges how unlikely that scenario is. He also concedes that his plan to free men from their baser instincts by banning sex, perpetuating the species by artificially inseminating enslaved and segregated women, is an impossible dream, not least because no one would ever trust him with such dictatorial powers. Furthermore, he admits that his political fantasy grows out of his own bitter experience (or lack thereof) with the opposite sex.

Having despaired of attracting women or reorganizing the world so that his inability to do so would not matter so much, Rodger settles on murder and suicide. He admits that he will not be able to kill as many people as he would like (and in the end his crimes fell far short of the elaborate, gruesome plan outlined in his autobiography). But he expresses the hope that his homicidal rampage will show that he mattered after all, that he was not a "mouse" but "a living god" with the power of life and death. "At long last," he concludes, "I can show the world my true worth."

There are many depressed, lonely, and alienated people in the world, of course, and almost none of them do anything like what Rodger did. That is one of the reasons identifying mass murderers ahead of time is so difficult. Although Rodger's awkwardness and isolation were obvious to relatives, neighbors, acquaintances, and therapists, none of them seems to have recognized the depth of his anger or had an inkling of his homicidal intent. The cops who interacted with him after he was injured in a drunken fight and after his mother reported her concern that he might be suicidal perceived him as harmless. And despite the hindsight-aided criticism they have received for being too easily reassured, they did not have enough evidence to force him into a psychiatric evaluation or to search his apartment, where they would have found his pistols, knives, and ammunition, along with "my writings about what I planned to do with them."

Since the vast majority of people diagnosed with mental disorders (including psychoses such as schizophrenia) never commit violent crimes, giving someone like Rodger a psychiatric label hardly qualifies as an explanation. His emotions were common, but the way he dealt with them was rare. We can call his murder spree the symptom of a mysterious and unverifiable disease, or we can call it an evil response to a recognizable human condition.