Many of Us Were a Bit Like Elliot Rodger

Brian Levinson’s weekend Slate piece on the similarities he sees between Elliot Rodger and himself at a younger age was good, cuttingly honest, and mostly right-on, and I enjoyed it partly because I also saw a bit of my own younger self in the more lucid parts of Rodger’s manifesto.

Describing the ways in which puberty turns the orderly world of childhood upside down, Levinson wrote:

It’s easy to mock Rodger’s assertion that he “deserved” a girlfriend. But the only system he understood was one in which good behavior was rewarded, and bad behavior was punished. Do your chores, and you get your allowance. Break a neighbor’s window, and you’re grounded. When Rodger found himself punished for what he thought was nice-guy behavior, he responded with self-pity, which gradually gave way to anger.

I remember this period well, and I think things were a bit more complicated than this. By the time kids are 12 or 13, after all, most have achieved some level of understanding that just because they want to, say, be a good athlete, doesn’t mean it’ll come to pass. Sex doesn’t fit into earlier and more familiar sorts of logic, anyway — when it arrives, it does so unannounced as an entirely new, imposing category.

The middle school where I attended seventh and eighth grade had what was sort of a mini AOL for students, complete with chat rooms and instant messaging. I have a vivid seventh-grade memory of being in a group chat with eighth graders talking about who had made out or done whatever else with whom, and my reaction was complete despair: Holy crap, people are actually doing that? It was supposed to be the stuff of TV and movies! For a long time, the idea that kids my age were actually engaged in this sort of behavior hurt in a stomach-punch kind of way, almost every time the subject came up. It wasn’t that I felt entitled to girls, exactly, it was that almost everything I heard in the middle-school rumor pipeline was about this explosive new world from which I had been thoroughly excluded.

That’s why I recognized a fair bit of myself in the less abjectly crazy parts of Rodger’s manifesto. When he wrote about feeling a profound sense of being left out as his peers starting dating and hooking up, I could totally relate, and I know a lot of my friends could as well. For kids who are late bloomers or who for whatever other reason feel this way, it’s an incredibly trying, difficult time. Yes, it’s easy to laugh about now as a (relatively) well-adjusted adult. But it’s also easy to remember how sorely lacking in perspective we are as adolescents, how flat the repeated assurances that things will get better in a few years can sound. In Rodger’s case, the wounds this period inflicted on him appear to have festered for years — filtered, as I argued last week, through mental illness — and led to horror. Within a decade, he went from sounding like a lot of us us did at 12 or 13 to becoming a full-blown monster.

Obviously, young women can go through this, too, but it’s young men who are a lot more prone to violence as a result of feelings of frustration and exclusion. Luckily for the world, the vast majority of us once-frustrated and -sad adolescent males find a way through this turbulent time without hurting ourselves or anyone else. Rodger was a horribly grisly exception.