On Friday, a suspect went on a killing rampage in Isla Vista, California, a community closely tied to the University of California, Santa Barbara. Suspect Elliot Rodger killed roommates, sorority women, and random people on the street in his quest for what he called “retribution” for women’s lack of sexual interest in him in a disturbing YouTube video post.
Santa Barbara is relatively close to my home, maybe two hours away in good traffic. I’m a high school teacher who sees students go off to UCSB every year. I have some very special former students who are attending the Santa Barbara university right now, at least one of which I know to be struggling with her own painful demons. This shooting has hit home in an incredibly personal way.
It’s hard to know what to say in situations like this. It’s hard to go beyond the platitudes of “stand strong Santa Barbara,” support for the victims, and perhaps a lament about the mental health system or gun control. I was a teaching credential student during the Columbine shooting, and I’ve lived through so many school shootings as an educator that much of the response is just so automatic.
This tragic shooting comes at the end of a week that included a release of this study, which demonstrated that mental illness can cut a person’s life short up to twice as much as heavy smoking. This study focused on Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, Anorexia, and Depression. We don’t know if any of these diagnoses were attached to the suspect, but the videos he posted on YouTube certainly show some signs of a number of these conditions.
Rodger was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. This developmental disorder is characterized by “the inability to socialize with others.” Given that his complaint was that he was unable to find a girlfriend, his diagnosis, with its emphasis on social difficulties, becomes important. Further, while mental illness is relatively rare, the concept of co-morbidity says that if a person is suffering from one mental disorder, they are significantly more likely to suffer from a second disorder as well.
Most people who live with Asperger’s live happy, healthy lives. There is no causal connection between this developmental disorder and violence. Sure, we hear of high profile cases of violence caused by people who suffer from this illness, including both Rodger and Sandy Hook Shooter Adam Lanza, but we hear about those because they are so rare – and so awful – that they make big news. You never pick up a newspaper or turn on CNN and hear about Person X with Asperger’s who is living a normal life in Anytown, U.S.A., but this comprises the vast majority of those who live with the syndrome.
In the Pagan community, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the evils of patriarchy. Our masculine-run system gave Rodger the expectation that he could get the girl he wanted and, if he could not do so, he had the right to kill. Even our admittedly patriarchal system, though, would certainly never support killing women because they turned you down for a date, nor would it support killing random women because they were pretty and other women had turned you down for a date. And let’s not even go to the fact that Rodger killed two male roommates plus another male victim. Patriarchal thinking is likely part of this issue, but it’s not all of it.
Mental illness? Yes.
But those two things exist without mass murder most of the time. What else is going on?
I’m going to start with privilege. Rodger was the son of Peter Rodger, an assistant director of The Hunger Games. While the job of assistant director isn’t particularly glamorous, it carries with it access to A-list celebrities, glitzy parties, and a degree of wealth. One of Rodger’s complaints was that he had a nice car and $300 Armani sunglasses, yet couldn’t find a girlfriend. He owned a lot. He was used to getting what he wanted. He was never armed with the tools he needed to deal with rejection and disappointment.
Based on his complaints, the young man seemed to think that a woman becomes interested in a man simply because of what he has, what he looks like, and the price tag attached to his clothing. He expressed disgust that a “disgusting loser” at Trader Joe’s had two pretty women at his side while he and his Armani shades had no one. He seemed completely unable to comprehend that women want more than brand names. While there’s definitely an aspect of patriarchy here, there’s also some expectation that “I always get what I want.”
Further, his problems with the “loser” at Trader Joe’s were less about anger and more about life being “unfair.” The privileged get what they want in his mind. That’s “fair.”
Perhaps more importantly, I’d like to lay some blame on our society’s concepts of duality. If you’re not for us, you’re against us. If you’re not wearing nice clothes, you’re disgusting and don’t deserve the women who love you. If you don’t like me, you’re evil and deserve to die. There’s no room here for middle ground. The ideas of black vs. white, good vs, evil, patriotic Christian conservative vs. flaky socialist liberal permeate our culture.
We have very little language of negotiation, discussion, and compromise. More and more, we seem to view the “other” as an enemy to be eliminated rather than a fellow human with valid ideas. Less and less, we listen to opposing, uncomfortable ideas and truly seek a middle ground. For Rodger, the women who were uninterested in him were automatic enemies. Never was there a thought that his intended women could find fault with him that was legitimate, and they perhaps if he listened and made changes to himself he may yet find what he was looking for.
There are plenty of lonely people in this world, especially in college towns. College life is an often painful transition from childhood to adulthood that can leave a previous big fish in a small pond flailing for life as a small fish in a gigantic ocean. Those suffering from mental illness have an even harder time in the transition, but most people- ill or not- make it through this transition with a new wisdom that helps them function in life.
Much like Starhawk does in The Spiral Dance, I find myself fantasizing how life would have been different for Rodger, his victims, and everyone in the UCSB community in a world of Pagan values: no patriarchy, no privilege, and no us vs. them duality. Perhaps in this world, mental illness would no longer be seen as a “weakness” that can just be overcome and there would be no shame in seeking treatment. Even better, research dollars would more likely be funneled toward helping those who suffer from such illnesses.
Perhaps in this world, no one would see themselves as superior to others. Wealth differences will always exist, I’ve seen them even in socialist countries I have visited, but difference in income does not make people better or worse than their brothers or sisters. Perhaps is this word, that truth is more formally recognized.
Maybe in this world we would no longer see the world as a battle between one set of ideologies and another. Ideas would compete, challenging our thinking and creating best-of-all-worlds compromises rather than being mired in the “my way or the highway” mentality that seems to hold our society’s religious, political, and fiscal policies by the neck.
And maybe in this world, eight people who are dead today would be alive.