Elliot Rodger haunts us as a list of grievances. In his 141-page autobiography as well as his YouTube confessions, the Isla Vista killer expressed an open hatred of women, the rich and the poor, anyone with a girlfriend, African Americans, Mexicans, Asians, members of his own family, childhood friends, his roommates. He also appeared to hate himself.
How do we make sense of these animosities? Why are we drawn to the possibility that such interpretation is even possible? I currently have a dozen browser tabs open, each page shading in a different aspect of Rodger’s madness. Many of these analyses echo the initial accounts that mistakenly identified Rodger as a white male, slotting him within the larger phenomenon of white, male mass murderers. Rodger’s whiteness matters, two sociologists explained to the New York Daily News, though the piece goes onto quote an excerpt from his manifesto in which he self-identifies as “half white.” A piece in Salon absorbed Rodger into a broader wave of “white guy killer syndrome,” despite casually noting his “mother of Asian descent.” Does it actually matter that he was half-Asian?
It’s impossible to divine where one pathology ends and the next one begins. Rodger drew on his identity selectively, much as we do in our search for answers. Sometimes he embraced his privilege, other times it haunted and gnawed at him. One can imagine a situation where Rodger couldn’t make sense of his mixed race heritage—“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,” he wrote. With the comfort of distance, we might suppose that he felt scorned by some abstract sense of the “normal” rather than realizing that the word describes nothing. We can read his envy of the blonde-haired as a counterweight against his hatred for “ugly black filth,” “full-blooded” Asians, “inferior” Mexicans, anyone who didn’t fit within his perverse sense of racial hierarchy—a hierarchy he tried in vain to shoehorn himself into. Maybe whiteness does explain something, but in an indirect, unconscious, aspirational way. Perhaps, in this reading, he was not a benefactor of “white privilege and entitlement” but someone vexed by its seeming elusiveness. There’s no sympathy in this here projection, only sadness. And it is, after all, but one speculative projection among dozens—none of which delivers us toward the answers that clear, precise, passionately written sentences suggest possible.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Rodger’s astonishingly meticulous, year-by-year autobiography is how aware he occasionally seemed of the corrosive hold that jealousy and envy had over his life. Maybe it was his intense narcissism, his belief in “fate” and “destiny” that suggested a deep, dark sense of entitlement. His rage vented in infinite directions. He aspired toward a standard of “coolness” that was constantly in flux. He hated the rich yet he was entranced by the possibility of quick fortune and fame, driving to Arizona a few times to buy lottery tickets. His well-documented attitude toward women was spurred by a similarly hateful yearning. There were the attempts to reboot his life, from bleaching his hair to creating a new Facebook profile. As testament to a young man’s mounting disappointments and mental instability, these 141 pages offer a range of interpretations.
As a reason for why any of this happened, though, the document offers little. Throughout his tract, Rodger never loses grip of the narrative, though a reader struggles to fathom the themes holding these pages together. There were the concrete markers along the way: the legally obtained gun, the policemen who thought he seemed normal and polite after his parents reported his YouTube videos, a culture Arthur Chu compellingly describes as one of entitlement and wish fulfillment, Rodger’s mental illness. Everything else is subject to scrutiny. Ascribing reason to Rodger’s actions feels necessary. And then it feels futile. There’s no way to reconstruct the pathologies that converged in his spree; there are only narratives, theories and guesses, many of which stress one aspect of his twisted worldview over another. Does it matter that he was half-Asian? It means everything and it means nothing.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.