& The Abuse of Tragedy for Ideological Agendas
“If I cannot join them, I will rise above them; and if I cannot rise above them, I will destroy them.” – Elliot Rodger
The latest mass murder tragedy to splash across television screens, newspapers and websites in the United States is the May 23, 2014 killing spree in the California college community of Isla Vista, about 100 miles northwest (up the coast) from Los Angeles, where Elliot Rodger grew up.
Almost as soon as details of the event began to lead the television and internet news cycle, pundits and commentators offered a multitude of simplistic “explanations”, each one distorted through an ideological prism and serving someone’s pet agenda.
Both the father of the perpetrator, the Hollywood director Peter Rodger, and the father of one of the victims, Richard Martinez, blamed the NRA and spineless politicians and called for better gun control laws – such as the ones proposed and almost universally supported after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of elementary school children, but ultimately defeated by intense gun industry lobbying and political fear-mongering.
Many talking heads (almost all women) insist that this bloody event was the result of a misogynist culture which devalues women and creates the myth of male entitlement to women’s bodies.
A few, from Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday all the way to Rush Limbaugh, placed the blame on Hollywood for it’s promotion of “escapist fantasies [that] so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment” (Hornaday) or the Hunger Games co-directed by Elliot Rodger’s father Peter: “It’s teenagers killing other teenagers. It’s a survivalist game” (Limbaugh).
The usual chorus of voices pointed to mental illness and the failure of the American health care system to adequately address it.
Almost without exception, it was asserted with blind conviction that the premeditated perpetrator, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, was “obviously” mentally ill and that years of red flags were ignored by his parents and more recently by the Santa Barbara sheriff’s deputies who performed a “welfare check” on Elliot after his mother became concerned about the 22 videos her son had uploaded for public consumption in the weeks prior to his lethal rampage.
These voices included that of Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, who said “When you read his autobiography and manifesto that he wrote, it’s very apparent that he was able to convince many people for many years that he didn’t have this deep, underlying obvious mental illness that also manifested itself in this terrible tragedy.”
Unfortunately, the only thing that was “obvious” was that almost no one was willing to consider the complex matrix of psychological, sociological, familial, developmental, interpersonal, academic, cultural, and legal influences which conspire together to create what Jonathan Fast, PhD calls “ceremonial violence“, or the acting out of cultural scripts following a prolonged period of ostracism, teasing, bullying and disempowerment of adolescent and young adult males desperately seeking acceptance and status in the extremely competitive milieu of America’s school environments.
Such disempowered individuals look to Hollywood movies, television programming, Madison Avenue enticements, and video game role modeling for the “scripts” or hero/anti-hero templates that our society offers for achieving celebrity status – whether through fame or infamy.
These identity-seekers may exhibit signs of apparent narcissism or grandiosity – as Elliot Rodger’s video tapes clearly depicted – but such behavior is a compensation and mask for low self-esteem and a perceived lack of self-worth within the communities that are important to them – their peers – and within their own minds.
When these troubled young people have the means, as Elliot Rodger did, they may seek acceptance and status through the purchase and ostentatious display of clothing, cars and style that every commercial message insists is the surefire way to success. Those with fewer financial resources might choose one of the available youth subcultures, such as jock, artsy (theater or band), nerd, stoner, goth, or gangbanger – often hanging at the periphery of those cliques or shifting between them.
The Cliff Notes Version
For those who need a simple story about these complex and troubling events and perpetrators, there is one that at least tells an essential truth at the core of most school-related student rampage events. But before I offer this short story, please commit to reading the rest of this exposition, so you can leave with a broader and deeper understanding of this tragedy and others like it.
The single most common denominator to school rampage killings is a young person, almost always male, who has experienced marginalization, or has perceived themselves as marginal to the youth (and perhaps also adult) culture they so desperately seek to be part of as they develop their own sense of self-identity and self-worth – a fundamental purpose of adolescence and early adulthood (with the autistic, in important ways, still children in adult bodies).
The central plot element of the majority of school rampage events (as well as many other public mass killings) is the intent to commit suicide – to terminate one’s suffering in, and apparently from, a world which ignores, dismisses, excludes, harasses or otherwise diminishes one’s social standing and value.
In one study of 104 “active shooter events” from 2000-2010 that involved four or more casualties, not including the shooter, and that were not domestic or gang-related (J. Pete Blair, PhD, Director of Research, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, Texas State University), it was found that 42.3% ended in suicide and another 25% were likely “suicide by cop” (2/3 of all the events). Only 4.8% ended with the perpetrator departing the scene, and another 5.8% in surrender. The rest were subdued, mostly before police arrived.
To a person who feels already invisible to his world, to simply slip into the void unnoticed and unheralded would be the ultimate defeat. And these protagonists, more then their peers, feel themselves to be victims of the “normal” people who have ostracized or bullied them. And they want both to achieve what they understand as justice and to go out with a splash that cannot be ignored – that will give them one last chance at fame and glory, even if it will be infamy.
So they carefully plan their final departure from the world in such a way as to achieve retribution – not necessarily aimed at anyone in particular, but towards the social world that is perceived as having injured them – and to depart with a bang, so to speak, and finally get noticed as “special”.
For Elliot Rodger, this core plot line of suicide is evident by the ridiculously complex plan for his death – a plan that was no more rational or realistic than the elements of his homicidal revenge, but needed to be certain in its outcome. Somehow, while driving through a crowded town in a possibly damaged vehicle and chased by police, he would swallow handfuls of pills, pull out two handguns, and shoot himself in both sides of the head simultaneously. This was not a practical plan, but Elliot didn’t want to leave room for error.
That minority of school rampage shooters who do not manage to off themselves or get themselves shot by responders, are more like the attempted suicides who engage in a desperate effort at attention, acting out a message that says “I am in pain and need to be noticed.”
Elliot Rodger’s epic-length memoir, titled My Twisted World, details the story of his life and his perceptions about life, told with remarkable detail and often with uncanny insight, with the one blindspot being his own role in his life-long social isolation. He apparently emailed the memoir to a couple dozen people, including his parents and one of his therapists, just moments before his deadly rampage, and it was soon leaked to the media and went viral.
He begins with this plaint:
“Humanity… All of my suffering on this world has been at the hands of humanity, particularly women. It has made me realize just how brutal and twisted humanity is as a species. All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.”
“This is the story of how I, Elliot Rodger, came to be. This is the story of my entire life. It is a dark story of sadness, anger, and hatred. It is a story of a war against cruel injustice.”
“This tragedy did not have to happen. I didn’t want things to turn out this way, but humanity forced my hand, and this story will explain why. My life didn’t start out dark and twisted. I started out as a happy and blissful child, living my life to the fullest in a world I thought was good and pure…”
This “war against injustice” is a common thread in school rampage killers, as they perceive their well-planned acts as a form of justice rather than as a crime of violence – a settling of the score for years of perceived injustice against them – and engage in it as if it were an all-out war, often with full military or “ninja” regalia (which is why assault weapons are used in 3/4 of these events) and intending maximum casualties, typically of strangers since the target is society rather than specific individuals.
The Biographical Backstory
Elliot Rodger, having been born in the outskirts of London to a family once among the lesser aristocracy, was raised to be a sophisticated gentleman, and he adored and craved the high life of opulence and conspicuous consumption, even though his family experienced financial booms and busts. He knew that members of that elite culture achieve great personal success and social acceptance and he could never understand why he seemed forever blocked from that road.
His “high-functioning” autism-spectrum developmental disorder, called Asperger’s syndrome (see Epilogue below), deprived Elliot of the perceptual and affective capabilities to read others’ emotions and to relate easily in social settings. He always felt awkward in the company of others, exacerbated by his small stature and lack of physical prowess. That he was half-Asian (his mother was Malaysian Chinese), also contributed to his convoluted sense of himself as inadequate.
Elliot’s constant change of address as he was growing up and continual change of school did not help him establish a fixed sense of himself nor assist him in developing peer relationships (this mirrored Nancy Lanza’s repeated shifting of her son Adam from one school to another and then to home schooling).
Elliot Rodger was born in a London hospital on July 24, 1991 and his family soon moved to a country estate in Sussex. His paternal grandfather, George Rodger, was a well-known photojournalist who documented the D-day Allied invasion of Normandy and was one of the first journalists into the liberated concentration camps.
Elliot’s mother, Li Chin, was a nurse who worked on film sets and befriended George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. His father, Peter Rodger, was a commercial photographer who later became a movie director after the family moved to California when Elliot was five. Before his fifth birthday, Elliot’s parents gave birth to his sister Georgia.
During Elliot’s formative years, his family lived in the Woodland Hills and Topanga Canyon outskirts of Los Angeles until his parents’ divorce when he was seven, after which his father and mother each lived in a number of different homes in that hilly and wooded upper-middle class landscape, and Elliot was shuttled between the two households.
Almost immediately after his parents’ divorce, his father was involved with French-Moroccan actress Soumaya Akaaboune, with whom Elliot had near-constant conflicts as the “evil step mom”. Peter and Soumaya got married, and later had a son, Jazz, when Elliot was 13.
His mother, on the other hand, dated some wealthy men, but was not interested in remarriage, even though Elliot regularly pressed her to take a rich husband so that Elliot could have a life of luxury and ease. Elliot, oddly, considered his mother “selfish” for not putting his own needs ahead of hers, suggesting that he saw himself at the center of a universe which was meant to revolve around him.
At times when his father’s fortunes flagged due to bad investments or other circumstances, Elliot thought less of him. When his mother was forced to move into a small house and then an apartment, Elliot was embarrassed for her and refused to bring his “playdates” home.
Elliot preferred living with his mother, as she catered to his whims (much like Adam Lanza’s mother did for her autistic son), while his father often gave in to his new wife’s demands and allowed her to impose strict rules and limits on Elliot’s behavior when he was staying with them. When he turned 18, in fact, his step mother threw him out of his father’s home and refused to allow him even to visit for some time.
Elliot began preschool at an all-boy’s private school in England called Dorset House. After the move to the US, he attended kindergarten at two private schools outside of LA, with his parents giving in to his discomfort at the first by moving him quickly to another. Similarly, Elliot began primary school at one public school and almost immediately transferred to another.
When he was 9, his parents began enrolling him in summer camp, often over Elliot’s objections, and that was about the time when it was first suspected he had Asperger’s (apparently, he was never diagnosed). New settings were scary to Elliot, and yet his parents were regularly moving him from one school or camp to another. He often came home crying or cried when he was dropped off at a new school. His bouts of crying at every discomforting experience continued throughout his life, even as a young man living on his own.
Elliot enjoyed his elementary school years, but when he entered middle school at age 11, he began experiencing the social stratification and competition that is all-too-common in American youth and adolescent culture. Being always shorter and scrawnier than his peers, including the girls his age, Elliot had increasing difficulty fitting in, and found himself the subject of teasing and occasional bullying, at least in his own perception.
His experience in middle school was so traumatizing, particularly because of his awkwardness around girls as his interest in them developed, that he feared high school, and insisted on attending an all-boys Catholic school, which he did for 9th grade. But he started 10th grade at a large and rowdy public high school, before quickly transferring to a smaller “continuation school” that required only 3 hours per day of attendance.
Elliot finished high school as quickly as he could, and began a series of community college experiences close to home, typically dropping out because of social difficulties, particularly the emotional turmoil he felt in the presence of the pretty (typically blonde) girls he desired but did not know how to reach, or when witnessing young couples in friendly or passionate embrace, which he could only long for.
Though he was a B student and had little academic difficulty, Elliot’s reason for attending college classes was to create the opportunity for relationship, primarily with attractive young women – an outcome devoutly to be wished but never consummated.
Ever since middle school, Elliot found himself both desiring and hating the girls who ignored or rebuffed him, and continued this love/hate non-relationship with girls and then young women throughout his short and abruptly truncated life.
He also grew to despise his step mother and lose respect for his primary role model – his father – because he subordinated himself to his new wife’s demands. Elliot hated what he perceived as weakness in men, probably because he hated it in himself.
He tried to compensate for his physical and emotional limitations by spending considerable sums of money on clothing, hoping that his appearance would attract the attentions he so desperately craved. His mother even bought him a BMW coupe, after he broke his leg, to improve his morale.
To retreat from a world which seemed to reject him, Elliot developed an addiction to console and then computer and internet games and first-person fantasy role-playing competitions. He also attempted to develop skill at some of the “cool” things such as skateboarding and hacky sack, but was never able to achieve any significant level of expertise (with the sole exception of the World of Warcraft, into which Elliot escaped for hours on end because he could live as his self-created powerful avatar, or alter-ego, without any of his real life limitations).
Yet hope seemed to spring eternal in Elliot’s troubled breast, and he (and his parents) thought that living on his own in a college town full of young people might open up doors previously closed to him. So, at age 19, and finally with a driver’s license and a car, Elliot took a student apartment in Isla Vista, near the University of California at Santa Barbara campus, and enrolled in Santa Barbara City College, where he spent the next – and last – 2½ years of his life.
However, living in a paradisiacal seaside setting full of scantily-clad young women and buff men only exacerbated Elliot’s desires and sense of isolation and rejection. Nothing he knew how to do brought him any closer to his dream of having a beautiful blonde girlfriend and losing his virginity in sexual ecstasy (he had never even kissed a girl).
Elliot was as addicted to masturbation as he had been to fantasy role-playing, but this was a poor substitute for the love and affection that was at the heart of his desires. While Elliot thought incessantly about sex, what he really lacked and needed was the respect and affection of a woman and a sense of belonging in the world.
In his desperation, Elliot convinced himself that the only possibility for achieving his hopes was to become instantly wealthy, and he wasted a lot of money and effort on Megabucks and then Powerball lottery tickets, each time believing it was his destiny to be the winner. Yet this, too, left him feeling even more of a failure.
From the time Elliot was 18, he began to develop a “philosophy” about the unfairness of life, the inherent faultiness and evil of women (who seemed always to be attracted to the “wrong” kind of men), and the need for drastic “solutions”, including the elimination of most women, procreation through artificial insemination for the eugenic engineering of a superior race of humans, the end of “animalistic” sex, as well as the “benevolent” oversight of all this by none other than Elliot himself, as god-like and omnipotent.
Yet even Elliot, who exhibited an unusual degree of insight, wisdom and self-reflection, understood that such fantasies were just that, and he began to realize that “If I cannot join them, I will rise above them; and if I cannot rise above them, I will destroy them.”
Elliot, in desperation and hopelessness, began to create a plan for a Day of Retribution, on which he would become god-like and exact both revenge and “justice” on those whom he believed left him in such intense and prolonged pain, misery and loneliness. He believed that he had no other way to prove himself to be the “alpha male”.
The Three (really Four) Phase Plan
“This First Phase will represent my vengeance against all of the men who have had pleasurable sex lives while I’ve had to suffer. The Second Phase will represent my War on Women. I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. The Final Phase of the Day of Retribution will be my ultimate showdown in the streets of Isla Vista… to ram the SUV into all of those groups of popular young people [acting] as if they are better than everyone else.”
And this was more or less what Elliot Rodger ultimately did on that last Friday of the college term, May 23, 2014 at 9 PM. For a short ten minutes, the powerless Elliot Rodger acted out his final fantasy of omnipotence: the willful and terroristic destruction of human life. Even in his final well-planned act, Elliot was unable to perform the grandiose role he had imagined for himself, “to destroy the entirety of Isla Vista, and kill every single person in it”.
He did, however, manage to slash his three roommates to death, kill three others with one of his three semi-automatic handguns, wound eight more by gunfire, and injure another four or five by hitting them with his black BMW 328i Coupé (he had planned to use his father’s Mercedes SUV after killing his little brother and his “evil” step mom, but skipped that step).
Even his final act of violence – his suicide – was apparently less than he had imagined it. He planned to take mouthfuls of medication (Xanax and Vicodin) and shoot himself in the head simultaneously with two handguns to make certain that he would not be taken alive and go to jail. It appears he died, just before or after crashing his car, from a single gunshot to the head, as prosaic as that might be.
Oh! What a Tangled Web We Weave
The necessary but never sufficient causes of school rampage shootings, were fully present in the case of Elliot Rodger.
In one of the most comprehensive studies of school rampage (SR) shootings, Katherine Newman, a Princeton sociologist, and her colleagues identified five conditions common to SR shooters.
First, the SR shooter perceives himself as “socially marginalized”. He is the brunt of bullying, teasing, the target of negative rumors, and other exclusionary behaviors.
Second, he suffers from psycho-social problems – learning disorders, psychiatric disorders, dysfunctional families, and the like – that “magnify the impact of marginality” and render him more vulnerable.
Third, he follows “cultural scripts” for problem-solving, meaning that he buys into the machismo mythology of violence as a problem-solving strategy. If people are treating you badly, make them respect you through a show of force.
Fourth, he “flies beneath the radar”, meaning that his seriously problematic behavior goes unidentified by the traditional gatekeepers: the teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, and social workers. His parents collude by being secretive, isolated or in denial about his problems. The shooter himself may have several strategies for avoiding detection. He may be the class clown, whom no one takes seriously; a practical or skilful liar; or a boy who keeps to himself. He may be avoided by otherwise helpful adults because he gives off a strange, menacing “vibe”.
Fifth, he has access to firearms. Without the availability of guns, there are no SR shootings. Places with more guns have higher rates of adolescent suicide, homicide and injury than places with fewer guns.
Or, as Ceremonial Violence author Jonathan Fast puts it: “Regardless of our beliefs about the advisability of gun control laws, it is a simple fact that school shootings are impossible without guns that are affordable, available, easy to load and fire, and capable of firing many rounds within a few seconds.”
That Elliot Rodger also used a knife (and possibly a hammer and machete) and a car as weapons, doesn’t alter the fact that he went to the trouble of acquiring three semi-automatic firearms, 40 magazines, and more than 400 rounds of ammunition to fulfill his plan. The fact that he discharged “more than 50 rounds of ammunition, changing magazines more than five times during the shooting spree”, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, makes this event primarily a mass shooting incident.
1 Glock 34 Long-Barrel Target Gun and 2 Sig Sauer P226 – 9mm Semi-Automatics
Those five contributing factors are common to virtually all school rampage perpetrators, though they are not predictive because they are not sufficient as causal factors.
As Katherine Newman, author of Rampage, concludes:
“We will never be able to profile the kind of person who becomes a mass shooter in our schools: they come from stable two-parent households and families that have been through divorce. They are often very bright boys, but not always. So we cannot generalize or pinpoint young men who have all the necessary conditions when we don’t really know what those conditions are.”
“Prevention thus depends on encouraging kids to speak up when they hear rumors. And it depends, even more, on our willingness to commit resources to the mental health needs of our young. Finally, keeping guns, especially assault weapons, out of the hands of civilians is essential, overdue by decades. The ambivalent shooter is less likely to act on his darkest fantasies if it’s hard for him to get his hands on the weapons he needs to carry them out.”
A 2002 report by the Secret Service that examined 37 US school shootings, found that in over two-thirds of the SR shootings examined, “attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident. A number of attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was longstanding and severe. In those cases the experience of bullying appeared to play a major role in motivating the attack at school… In a number of cases, attackers described experiences of being bullied in terms that approached torment. They told of behaviors that, if they occurred in the workplace, would meet the legal definitions of harassment.”
Intense and persistent bullying, teasing or other forms of social punishment and marginalization are the most common precipitating factors in all such events.
Dismissing the Simple Answers
1) Guns & Gun Control: As all studies have concluded, the easy availability of firearms, particularly assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, is a sine qua non of rampage shootings, as they offer the opportunity to enact the cultural script that criminologist Park Eliot Dietz has labeled the “pseudo-commando”. But how we can improve gun control laws to keep them out of the hands of troubled but not institutionalized youth is a challenging enterprise without easy solution, particularly given the absolute resistance to ANY gun laws by the most powerful lobby in the nation: the NRA (see addendum below for proposed gun laws in response to this tragedy).
2) Patriarchy and Misogyny: While it’s easy to superficially read Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto” as a treatise on misogyny, such a reading ignores the real message of the story. While it’s obvious that Elliot developed a hatred of girls and women, we tend to hate what we fear or hate what we long for but cannot have. Hatred is a secondary affect.
At 10 years old, Elliot “feared that the cool kids didn’t regard me as one of them”; “Middle School life… filled me with fear”, “on the first day, I was shaking with anxiety and fear”; when young Elliot first saw pictures of naked girls “ominous fear swept over me”; “my experience during Middle School…sparked an intense fear of girls”; when Elliot finally left home for Santa Barbara, “I felt a sudden sense of anxiety, fear, and trepidation”; at 20 years old ” I saw one of the prettiest girls I had ever seen in my life…her beauty was so intimidating that I couldn’t bring myself to sit near her, out of fear of her judgment”.
The core message of a man desperate for attention is not hate, but longing and fear of rejection. In the very last paragraph of the “manifesto”, Elliot admits “All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back.”
It’s also important to acknowledge that Phase 1 of Elliot’s Plan of Retribution was an assault on men, Phase 2 was an assault on women, and Phase 3 was an assault on popular young people. Men – Women – Popular People, not simply women. Though it may have been as much circumstance as design, it’s also important to note that Elliot killed twice as many men as women.
To claim this as an act of misogyny is not only factually incorrect but so ideologically skewed as to miss the essence of the event and misrepresent the man who perpetrated it. It also ignores the fact that rampage killings are directed not at specific individuals but at institutions or society as a whole.
Elliot Rodgers certainly held hatred toward women, but only as a subset of humanity. He was a misanthrope more than a misogynist:
“All of my suffering on this world has been at the hands of humanity…”
“It has made me realize just how brutal and twisted humanity is as a species.”
“I didn’t want things to turn out this way, but humanity forced my hand.”
“I always wanted to exact my revenge on humanity for forcing me to live such a life.”
“The plan was to destroy the entirety of Isla Vista, and kill every single person in it, or at least kill as many popular young people I could before the police arrive and I’d have to kill myself.”
Even more pernicious than the pigeon-holing of this person and this event into the ideological box of sexism, is the equating of Rodger’s professed beliefs with the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM). Though ideological feminists dismiss the MRM as anti-feminist, reactionary and often misogynist, it is no different in kind to, and no less progressive in nature than, the Black Civil Rights, Women’s Rights or Gay Rights movements – with this one exception: The MRA has never developed an ideology such as what lies at the core of the Feminist Movement, redefining human history and culture through a narrow lens that colors one gender as victim and the other as victimizer. The MRM recognizes that women have been disenfranchised in many ways, but refuses to turn a blind eye to the fact that men’s cultural roles and expectations are at least as damaging to the psyches and prospects of men, and that our nation’s laws are often biased against men and fathers – from rape laws to divorce and child custody laws. The MRM does not believe in male entitlement, other than the universal entitlement to justice and equity. The American Men’s Rights Movement began in 1925 and was NOT a reaction to recent feminist advances.
In fact, the philosophical “father” of the Men’s Rights Movement is Warren Farrel, PhD, life-long feminist, Women’s Studies professor, and the only man to be elected three times to the Board of the National Organization for Women (NOW), NYC chapter. Farrel demonstrated that the Men’s Rights Movement was a necessary compliment to progressive feminism, and a threat only to regressive ideological feminism.
3) Hollywood: While it’s simplistic to blame Hollywood for providing the cultural stories that so many Americans attempt to act out since very few take them all the way to lethal violence, and the right wing likes to cast shadows on every “liberal” segment of society, most studies of school rampage killings have concluded that these “cultural scripts” – whether from movies, TV, Madison Avenue or fantasy role-playing games – offer the templates for personality and action that youth, particularly male adolescents seeking to establish an identity, look to as a model.
As Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman (author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings) wrote: “He follows ‘cultural scripts’ for problem-solving, meaning that he buys into the machismo mythology of violence as a problem-solving strategy. If people are treating you badly, make them respect you through a show of force.”
James Garbarino, a psychology professor at Loyola University, says that when people do “crazy” things, they always do it in a particular cultural framework and context. America’s cultural framework is largely created in Hollywood.
4) Mental Illness and Mental Health: The first and most common response to every instance of rampage violence is “he was crazy, as only a crazy person does such things”. That is convenient Monday-morning quarterbacking or after-the-fact assumed diagnosis from action rather than from symptoms.
The psychiatric profession doesn’t consider mass killers to be necessarily insane. Park Dietz, MD, PhD, MPH, a forensic psychiatrist and criminologist who has consulted or testified in many of the highest profile US criminal cases including Jeffrey Dahmer, The Unabomber, the Beltway sniper attacks, and Jared Lee Loughner, coined the term “pseudocommando” in 1986. Dietz says that, for pseudocommandos, a preoccupation with weapons and war regalia makes up for a sense of impotence and failure. He wrote that we insist that mass killers are insane only to reassure ourselves that normal people are incapable of such evil.
The tragic fact is that it’s not just “criminals” or the “insane” who commit murder, but spouses, domestic partners, relatives and friends as well as strangers. “Normal” people are capable of great evil.
James Knoll, a forensic psychiatrist at SUNY, has written that school rampage shootings convey a message: “I carry profound hurt – I’ll go ballistic and transfer it onto you.”
Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia, notes that half of all mass murderers commit suicide in the act, and many others are possibly “suicide-by-cop”. Indeed, Paul Appelbaum views such cases as “suicides with murder as an epiphenomenon, rather than murders that happen to end in suicide”.
The motive is to end one’s troubled life and to do so in a way that the perpetrator believes will manifest the attention and social status that has eluded them all their lives.
What is generally agreed upon by the experts is that such an apocalyptic act of self-destruction, which requires meticulous and long-term planning, is not indicative of the kind of dissociative psychosis that we generally refer to as “mental illness” or “crazy”.
Marianne Kristiansson, PhD, professor of forensic psychiatry at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and author of one of the few studies on violence and autism, says “A psychopath would never commit such a crime, because a psychopath commits crimes that he receives some benefit from, and he would not commit suicide after a crime.” Nor would one with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. “The motive of the crime is to communicate that you yourself are very offended. Other people have treated you in a very bad way and you want revenge. You want to communicate that on a very global level to lots of people.” Since the high-functioning autistic has trouble with verbal communication, he may act out what he wants to communicate.
A more accurate term for the kind of dysfunction that is common to mass killers might be psychopathy (or sociopathy), which is a personality disorder characterized by antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited behavior. Autism, or Asperger’s Syndrome, similarly includes diminished empathy, poor verbal communication skills, and inability to understand social rules.
But elements of psychopathy are also common among high-functioning adults such as corporate CEOs, political leaders and military field officers. It is called “sick” only when it falls outside of accepted societal roles.
To further complicate the simplistic assertion of “mental illness”, often “undiagnosed mental illness” (meaning that it becomes evident only after it manifests in a dramatic way, and we project it backwards in time to satisfy our need for a “cause”), the prior abnormal behaviors of rampage perpetrators are not recognized as sufficiently problematic by any of the traditional gatekeepers, such as parents, teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, and licensed therapists. The common refrain is “there were no red flags”.
Even the six law officers who made a welfare call on Elliot Rodger just 23 days before his Day of Retribution, saw nothing in his demeanor to justify concern of a threat, either to himself or to others, and had no probable cause to intervene further.
The simple truth, if there can ever be a simple truth, is that while there is no way to predict an apocalyptic rampage event or profile a rampage shooter with any certainty, the two most important things that can be done to reduce the probability of the next deadly rampage event are:
1) Enact policies and educational curricula to address and reduce the prevalence of school bullying at all levels, from teasing to social exclusion to physical violence. We often do this well in elementary school, but fail utterly in middle and high school, which is then carried over into the college campus as well as the corporate world.
2) Enact and enforce rational gun-control laws and regulations combined with more accessible mental health care and more proactive and mandatory mental health reporting, even if that requires that the NRA be forced into bankruptcy by the kind of lawsuits that have effectively eliminated the KKK – as they are both hate-based terrorist organizations that have no place in civilized society (though our hunting and sport shooting traditions can still be supported in the rural areas that can accommodate it).
These are not easy “answers” to a complex and entrenched cultural problem, but nothing less will have any significant impact on the epidemic of school and public rampage events that plague America today.
Legislation has been put forward to address some of the shortcomings in existing law.
Hours after the Isla Vista shooting, Nancy Skinner, a California state assemblywoman from Berkeley, drafted a bill that would create a system for “gun violence restraining orders” in which relatives, friends and intimate partners could ask a judge to temporarily block someone who is exhibiting violent tendencies from getting a firearm. Skinner said her new bill included due process protections that allow subjects of restraining orders to challenge them.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), a child psychologist, has introduced federal legislation that would push states to change involuntary hospitalization standards from “danger of imminent harm” to “need for treatment”, a standard now used by only 18 states.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) proposed the The Pause for Safety Act, which would:
- ensure that families and others can go to court and seek a gun violence prevention order to temporarily stop someone close to them who poses a danger to themselves or others from purchasing a firearm.
- ensure that families and others can also seek a gun violence prevention warrant that would allow law enforcement to take temporary possession of firearms that have already been purchased if a court determines that the individual poses a threat to themselves or others.
- ensure that law enforcement makes full use of all existing gun registries when assessing a tip, warning or request from a concerned family member or other close associate.
Epilogue – Adult Autism and Violence
There have been at least three rampage killing events in recent years, including the two most deadly, in which high-functioning Autism may have played a central part:
Virginia Tech massacre – April 16, 2007 : 33 deaths (including suicide of perpetrator), 23 non-fatal injuries (17 by gunfire).
Sandy Hook elementary school shooting – December 14, 2012 : 27 deaths (including suicide of perpetrator), 2 non-fatal injuries (both by gunfire).
Isla Vista rampage – May 23, 2014 : 7 deaths (including suicide of perpetrator), 13 non-fatal injuries (8 by gunfire).
Autism Spectrum Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome
Autism is one of the five pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), which are characterized by widespread abnormalities of social interactions and communication, severely restricted interests, and highly repetitive behavior.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, included several different categories of such disorders in the previous version – DSM-IV – but have subsumed them all into Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the latest 2013 DSM-V.
Autism affects approximately 1% of children in the US and is now the most commonly diagnosed developmental disability in the world. Unlike with autism, people with what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome have no substantial delay in language development.
The term “autism” was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 to mean morbid self-admiration, referring to “autistic withdrawal of the patient to his fantasies, against which any influence from outside becomes an intolerable disturbance”.
The word “autism” first took its modern sense in 1938 when Hans Asperger of the Vienna University Hospital adopted Bleuler’s terminology, though for various reasons it was not widely recognized as a separate diagnosis until 1981. Starting in the late 1960s, it was established that autism was distinct from schizophrenia and other developmental disorders, because it is lifelong.
It is now labeled Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ranging from the nearly-catatonic to the high-functioning. From 50-80% of the autistic are mentally retarded (IQ < 70), but those with Asperger’s may have normal or above-average intelligence.
High-functioning autism, sometimes also known as Asperger’s Syndrome, may include:
- delay in motor skills
- lack of skill in interacting with others
- little understanding of the abstract uses of language, such as humor or satire
- obsessive interest in specific items or information
- strong reactions to textures, smells, sounds, sights, or other stimuli that others might not even notice, such as a flickering light
Characteristics of Asperger Syndrome in Adulthood:
- limited social relationships – social isolation
- awkward interaction with peers
- unusual egocentricity, with little concern for others or awareness of their viewpoint
- little empathy or sensitivity
- lack of awareness of social rules; social blunders
- obsessively pursued interests
- very circumscribed interests that contribute little to a wider life
- unusual routines or rituals; change is often upsetting
- problems in communication, including
- talking ‘at’ (rather than ‘to’) others, with little concern about their response
- superficially good language but too formal/stilted/pedantic
- difficulty in catching any meaning other than the literal
- lack of non-verbal communicative behavior: a wooden, impassive appearance with few gestures; a poorly coordinated gaze that may avoid the other’s eyes or look through them
- awkward or odd posture and body language
– Gillberg, C., Rastam, M., et al: The Asperger Syndrome (and high-functioning autism) Diagnostic Interview (2001)
“Besides an innate link with varied co-morbidity, there is the stress of growing up with Asperger Syndrome that arises from unrecognized disability, limited achievement and a sense of failure, often revealed by an increasing contrast with more autonomous and successful siblings or peers. In addition, the syndrome distorts relationships with family and peers, who can be infuriated by the person’s self-centered insensitivity, obsessiveness and rigid inflexibility. All this can add secondary disability and result in a degree of dependency that is out of proportion to the person’s intellectual ability.”
– Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., et al: Adult Outcome for Children with Autism, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines (2004)
The shooter was identified as 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho, a South Korean citizen with US permanent resident status, and at the time an undergraduate at Virginia Tech.
Immediately after the incident, reports carried speculation by family members in Korea that Cho was autistic. However, no known record exists of Cho ever being diagnosed with autism.
The Virginia Tech Review Panel report, released in August 2007, determined Cho was diagnosed with selective mutism (an anxiety disorder in which a person who is normally capable of speech does not speak in specific situations or to specific people, even when the consequences of their silence include shame, social ostracism or even punishment) in the spring of his eighth-grade year, and his parents sought treatment for him through medication and therapy. In high school, Cho was placed in special education under the ’emotional disturbance’ classification, was excused from oral presentations and participation in class conversation and received 50 minutes a month of speech therapy. He continued receiving mental health therapy until his junior year, when Cho rejected further therapy.
His pastor at Centreville Korean Presbyterian Church was concerned about Cho’s difficulty in speaking to people, saying that until he saw the video that Cho sent to NBC News, he never heard him say a complete sentence. The pastor told Cho’s mother that he speculated Cho was autistic and he asked her to take him to a hospital, but she declined.
The Virginia Tech Review Panel’s August 2007 report (Massengill Report) devoted more than 20 pages to Cho’s troubled history. At three years of age, Cho was described as shy, frail, and wary of physical contact. In eighth grade, Cho was diagnosed with severe depression as well as selective mutism. Early reports also indicated Cho was bullied for speech difficulties in middle school, but the Virginia Tech Review Panel was unable to confirm this, or other reports that he was ostracized and mercilessly bullied for class-, height-, and race-related reasons in high school, causing some anti-bullying advocates to feel that the Review Panel was engaging in an authority-absolving whitewash.
Several former professors of Cho reported that his writing as well as his classroom behavior was disturbing, and he was encouraged to seek counseling. He was also investigated by the university for stalking and harassing two female students. In 2005, Cho had been declared mentally ill by a Virginia special justice and ordered to seek outpatient treatment.
In the investigation, police found a suicide note in Cho’s dorm room that included comments about “rich kids”, “debauchery”, and “deceitful charlatans”. On April 18, 2007, NBC News received a package from Cho time-stamped between the first and second shooting episodes. It contained an 1,800-word manifesto, photos, and 27 digitally-recorded videos in which Cho likened himself to Jesus Christ and expressed his hatred of the wealthy. He stated, among other things, “You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. … You just loved to crucify me. You loved inducing cancer in my head, terror in my heart and ripping my soul all this time”.
The Virginia Tech Review Panel concluded that because of Cho’s inability to handle stress and the “frightening prospect” of being “turned out into the world of work, finances, responsibilities, and a family”, Cho chose to engage in a fantasy in which “he would be remembered as the savior of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the poor, and the rejected”.
Adam Lanza was diagnosed with a sensory-integration disorder when he started elementary school and was later diagnosed by a psychiatrist with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was thirteen, according to his father, Peter Lanza, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder. He received treatment for his conditions but resisted taking medication as an adolescent.
Sensory-processing disorder does not have official status by the medical community as a formal diagnosis but is frequently one of the characteristics of autism. Kathleen A. Koenig, a nurse at the Yale Child Studies Center, said Lanza had symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder because he frequently washed his hands and changed his socks 20 times a day, to the point where his mother did three loads of laundry a day. In addition, he would sometimes go through a box of tissues in one day because he could not touch a doorknob with his bare hand.
He taped black garbage bags over his bedroom windows. He was fascinated with mass shootings, most notably the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the 2008 Northern Illinois University shooting. He had also chosen to cut off contact with both his father and brother in the two years before the shooting and at one point communicated with his mother, who lived in the same house, only by email.
Except for some drawings and childhood writings, such as his fifth-grade story, The Big Book of Granny, in which one of the characters says “‘I like hurting people … especially children”, Adam Lanza didn’t leave a documentary “manifesto” or other such record of his motivations.
The perpetrator, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, had been either informally or formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at a young age, perhaps 8 or 9. His parents brought him to a psychologist, Dr. Randy Gold, when he was 13 and again at 22. Psychiatrist Dr. Charles Sophy saw him at age 21 and prescribed Risperidone, a dopamine antagonist antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia and irritability in people with autism (but Elliot researched it and refused to take it, calling it “the absolute wrong thing for me to take”). And, from 18 years onward, Elliot was given a series of life coaches and social skills counselors.
Long-time family friend Simon Astaire said that Elliot Rodger was never diagnosed with Asperger’s but that his family “suspected he was on the spectrum”, had no friends, was very shy, and was fundamentally withdrawn. Astaire also said “He was a fragile guy not violent. He was very distant, very reserved. He was so quiet, he never looked you straight in the eye, he would look at his shoes and shuffle and got startled if you started a conversation.”
Astaire said Elliot had been seeing therapists since the age of eight, including virtually “every day” while at high school, though Elliot does not mention these early interventions in his 140-page memoir, that has been called his “manifesto”.
Apparently, Elliot was also helped at California’s Regional Center for Autism Services at age 18.
His “manifesto”, part memoir and part rationalization for his “Day of Retribution”, detailed his sense of marginalization and social isolation since puberty, the familial trauma of parental divorce when he was seven, his unavailable father, his strict and alienating step mother, and his growing need for “justice” in taking from others what he believed was denied him as he reached independent manhood.
Friends and room mates who tried to reach out to him described being rebuffed or ignored and eventually giving up and ending the relationship or moving out to get away from his weird vibes.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders, including high-functioning autism (HFA), have a very high risk of developing symptoms of anxiety. There are a number of comorbidities, or the presence of one or more disorders in addition to the primary disorder, associated with high-functioning autism, including depression, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Several studies have shown that the features associated with HFA may increase the possibility of engaging in criminal behavior. And there have been several case studies that link the lack of empathy and social naïveté associated with HFA to criminal actions.
While the Autism support community insists that those with autism are no more prone to violence than the general population, and studies indicate that is true, it’s also true that studies of those in high-security psychiatric facilities because of violent behavior show a rate of autism that is about 2½ times the rate in the general population.
Summary Conclusion: “We have found evidence that suggests a potential risk for aggression (but not necessarily for criminal behavior) in this population and that, when violence does occur, it is often in distinct ways relevant to the symptomatology of HFASDs. Next, there are several core nondiagnostic features, including theory of mind deficits, poor emotion regulation, and impaired moral reasoning, that may interact to potentiate the commission of violent crime by an individual with HFASDs”
– Emerging Perspectives on Adolescents and Young Adults With High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders, Violence, and Criminal Law, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (April 2012)
“Earlier descriptions of ASD/AD did not mention criminal violence as an important feature of these disorders. However, reports began to emerge about two decades ago suggesting that people who have ASD – particularly AD – are prone to violent crime.”
– Is the prevalence of violent crime increased in ASD/AD?, Current Psychiatry (Oct 2013) by Mohammad Ghaziuddin, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Section of Child Psychiatry, University of Michigan
“The motive of the crime is to communicate that you yourself are very offended. Other people have treated you in a very bad way and you want revenge. You want to communicate that on a very global level to lots of people.”
“A psychopath would never commit such a crime, because a psychopath commits crimes that he receives some benefit from, and he would not commit suicide after a crime.”
– Marianne Kristiansson, PhD, professor of forensic psychiatry at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and author of one of the few studies on violence and autism.
Mental Illness and Violence – Little Linkage
As recently as 2013, almost 46% of respondents to a national survey said that people with mental illness were more dangerous than other people. According to two recent Gallup polls, from 2011 and 2013, more people believe that mass shootings result from a failure of the mental-health system than from easy access to guns. Eighty percent of the population believes that mental illness is at least partially to blame for such incidents.
Jeffrey Swanson, a medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University, first became interested in the perceived intersection of violence and mental illness while working at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in the mid-eighties. “Nobody knew anything about the real connection between violent behavior and psychiatric disorders.” And so he decided to spend his career in pursuit of that link.
When Swanson first analyzed the ostensible connection between violence and mental illness, looking at more than ten thousand individuals (both mentally ill and healthy) during the course of one year, he found that serious mental illness alone could explain only 4% of the incidents. When Swanson broke the samples down by demographics, he found that the occurrence of violence was more closely associated with whether someone was male, poor, and abusing either alcohol or drugs – and that those three factors alone could predict violent behavior with or without any sign of mental illness.
In 2002, Swanson repeated his study over the course of the year, tracking eight hundred people in four states who were being treated for either psychosis or a major mood disorder (the most severe forms of mental illness). The subset who committed a violent act that year, he found, was 13%. But the likelihood was dependent on whether they were unemployed, poor, living in disadvantaged communities, using drugs or alcohol, and had suffered from violent victimization during part of their lives. The association was a cumulative one: take away all of these factors and the risk fell to 2%, which is the same risk as found in the general population. Add one, and the risk remained low. Add two, and the risk doubled, at least. Add three, and the risk of violence rose to 30%.
A subsequent study of more than a thousand discharged psychiatric inpatients, known as the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, found that, a year after their release, patients were more likely than the average person to be violent only if they were also abusing alcohol or drugs. Absent substance abuse, they were no more likely to act violently than were a set of randomly selected neighbors. Recenlty, an analysis of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (which contained data on more than 32,000 individuals) found that less than 3% of people suffering from severe mental illness had acted violently in the previous year, as compared to just under 1% of the general population. Those who also abused alcohol or drugs were at an elevated 10% risk.
The same general pattern also emerges if you work backward from incidents of gun violence. Taking a non-random sample of twenty-seven mass murders that took place between 1958 and 1999, J. Reid Meloy, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego, found that the perpetrators, all of whom were adolescent men, were likely to be loners as well as to abuse drugs or alcohol. Close to half had been bullied in the past, and close to half had a history of violence. 23% also had a history of mental illness, but only two of them were exhibiting psychotic symptoms at the time of the violence. When you account for the other factors, mental illness added little predictive value. And the 23% finding was consistent with the general population – according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 20% of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year.
Psychiatrists also have a very hard time predicting which of their patients will go on to commit a violent act. In one study, the University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Charles Lidz and his colleagues had doctors at a psychiatric emergency department evaluate admitted patients and predict whether or not they would commit violence against others. They found that, over the next six months, 53% of those patients whom doctors predicted would commit a violent act actually did, and 36% of the patients thought not to be violent went on to commit a violent act. For female patients, the prediction rates were no better than chance. A 2012 meta-analysis of data from close to twenty-five thousand participants from thirteen countries, led by the Oxford University psychiatrist Seena Fazel, found that the nine assessment tools most commonly used to predict violence – from actuarial ones like the Psychopathy Checklist to clinical judgment tools like the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth – had only “low to moderate” predictive value.
There is one exception, however, that runs through all of the data: violence against oneself. Mental illness, Swanson has found, increases the risk of gun violence when that violence takes the form of suicide. According to the CDC, between 21% and 44% of those who commit suicide had previously exhibited mental-health problems – as indicated by a combination of family interviews and evidence of mental-health treatment found at the scene, such as psychiatric medications – while between 16% and 33% had a history of psychiatric treatment.
When it comes to the other types of firearms fatalities, though, it seems fairly clear that the link is quite small and far from predictive. After an incident like Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech, policymakers, many of whom are afraid to tackle gun availability, often focus on mental health and the reporting of prior records.
But in all of his work, Swanson has found one recurring factor: past violence remains the single biggest predictor of future violence. “Any history of violent behavior is a much stronger predictor of future violence than mental-health diagnosis,” he said. Swanson would rather see gun prohibitions based on records of violent behavior rather than mental health histories – not just felonies, but also including minor disputes such as domestic violence. “There are lots of people out there carrying guns around who have high levels of trait anger – the type who smash and break things,” he said. “I believe they shouldn’t have guns.”
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes