“To start with, every human being should be considered sane/accountable before law.”
—Anders Behring Breivik, court statement, 2012
“In the case of evil, as in that of dreams, there are not multiple readings.”
—Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
Last week in Santa Ana, California, two convicted sex offenders who were being tracked by multiple agencies, and who had nevertheless spent much of their parole together, violating it, and who had even gone together to the Santa Ana police, in 2011, to seek protection from a third, also male sex offender, were arraigned in the killings of four women: Kianna, Monique, Martha, and Jarrae, all of whom had histories of sex work. Police said they suspected there was a fifth, unidentified murder. Federal probation officials said nothing. In Los Angeles, a man who played a cop on television was held in the fatal shooting of a woman named April, his wife, and at the end of the paper’s breaking story—after it was noted that the man, Michael Jace, had no arrest record, and after a detective was quoted saying the man’s 911 call (and confession) to police was the first ever made from that house, and after a neighbor was quoted saying the Jaces “were the Huxtables on the block”—the Los Angeles Times reported that his previous wife, Jennifer, had claimed in their 1997 divorce that he, the man, had physically attacked and threatened her. Later, it was reported that in a 2005 custody case concerning Jennifer’s and Michael’s son, a friend of Jennifer’s had testified that in one such attack, “[Michael] was raging and out of control,” and that “the extent of his anger” was “one of the most terrifying things” she’d ever seen. In Isla Vista, on the front lawn of the Alpha Phi sorority house, a boy with a black BMW and three brand-new guns shot two young women, Katie and Veronika, then got into his car and drove, opening fire into the IV Deli Market and killing another student, Christopher, before crashing his car into a Jeep. When the police went to his apartment, they found his two roommates, George and Cheing, lying knifed to death and ditto their friend, Weihan, and although the boy’s killings were briefer, more desultory than planned, the sum of his victims still got up to six, or one less than the number of police officers who had: showed up at his door some months ago; asked some questions about the disturbing, antisocial nature of his YouTube “vlog”; found his answers unwarranting of precaution; left, without searching his bedroom.
Reports on the last of these three atrocities had it that cops thought the boy, 22, was either “polite and courteous,” or “polite and kind,” or “polite and charming.” Certainly, he was polite. From what we’ve seen, if one thing he said about himself was true, Elliot Rodger was a gentleman. Michael Jace was a law-abiding citizen whose second, now-dead wife testified in the 2005 custody case that he was a “good dad” and a “provider.” Steven Dean Gordon and Franc Cano, the two parolees, did the time well enough to end it. Now they are homeless, unable to work. Jace is bankrupt. He listed his debts in the 2011 filing to be between $500,000 and $1 million, and agreed to a payment plan on which he’s fallen behind. Rodger was spending hundreds and more hundreds on lottery tickets in the California Powerball, so sure he was born to win that when he lost it felt like being robbed, and as he lost, he compensated with a plan: to rid us of “attractive young couples,” “the popular young people who never accepted [him],” and “all women,” for not being attracted to him. In sum: get rich (quick), or kill trying.
No doubt the various law enforcers of California are trying, too. Still, it’s hard not to think these killings might have been slowed, might even have been stopped, if more members of what is generously called “the system” had the slightest acuity, maybe a little bit of feeling for a pattern, when it comes to fallen, immobilized men and their as-ever easiest targets. When the blood dries, the events described were predictable, are familiar, are above all unapocalyptic.
We live in nothing too new, nothing too near a revelation. Just plain old American noir.
What Elliot Rodger wrote of his life, all 107,000 words or 141 pages of it, is too personal to be a manifesto and not sympathetic enough to be a memoir, and so I could accept it only as a manuscript for fiction (his mother, who suggested he try becoming a writer, must have felt the same after reading his emails about women). Most of my favorite novels are unpublishable autobiographies. And, syntactically, the kid’s alright. His style is as literal as a cop’s, and he’s forever casting a long foreshadow over events he clearly got wrong, but he is not unpromising—or compromising—in his chilling variations on a theme.
The motifs being money, cars, hard-bodied blondes, exclusive invitations, pop music, and proper nouns, I thought immediately of Bret Easton Ellis, but there’s no humor, no shine in what he titled, perhaps expecting an E! adaptation, My Twisted World. In fact, the adamant lack of lyricism and tourist-on-a-sidewalk pacing puts all Knausgaard’s Struggles to shame. Could it be parody? Many sentences begin with incisive, timeless, and true generalizations (“The most beautiful women choose to mate with the most brutal of men”) before withering into sly hilarity (“instead of magnificent gentlemen like myself”), but often the boldest lines fall flat (“the vast majority of the female population will be deliberately starved to death,” as if we don’t have enough bad jokes about the fashion industry). Is it all an ambiguously self-reflexive melodrama? Or is it just a draft of what could someday be a 21st-century noir masterpiece, and, like all noir masterpieces, a grim and slippery indictment of American masculinity? As advance praise, we have Barack Obama’s answer-containing question—“why did [a young man] who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities, resort to such violence?”—and although the president said it after and about the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, nobody fact-checks a blurb.
Rodger writes in the voice of a boy who’s had everything, especially therapy. Not even “millennial narcissism” explains the mediated recounting, up from age zero, of every shift and vicissitude in his fortune and emotional state; nor does it tell us why a 22-year-old would describe arguments as “conflicts.” Whatever “help” we wish young white male murderers had gotten before it was too late, the character of Elliot Rodger had in spades. He lived in the state with the strictest gun-control laws in the nation. He’d never been abused, or developed a drug problem. He drank red wine and vanilla lattes and listened not to Southern rap or Swedish metal or whatever else you might think is sexist, but to 1980s pop stars on hetero, sexual love: Belinda Carlisle, Whitney Houston. The Police. Even his participation in the dank forums of PUAhate.com—a Men’s Rights-type site—seemed to follow from, not form, his misogyny. And while most Men’s Rights types spend their days baiting outspoken feminists, Rodger, in his “final solution” for a “pure,” “fair,” sex-free, vagina-free planet, wasn’t targeting Women’s Studies majors. He was going after the “stuck-up blonde sluts” at “the hottest sorority house at UCSB” (many of whom might also have been Women’s Studies majors, but Rodger seems incapable of that thought, and he’s hardly alone). He lived in a Disney dreamland. More American Pie than American Psycho, his so-called manifesto feels written not by a criminal, not by a sociopath, but by a child of Hitler and Coca-Cola who took this country a little too seriously.
On Facebook, he liked Starbucks, Armani, tourism, sunsets. He was obsessed with The Secret. Then the lottery. He thought a beautiful blond woman was the prize he deserved for being such a good boy—as if, at the county fair, he could shoot enough ducks to win a girlfriend. He was so committed to exceptionalism that he applied it all only to him. He once used the phrase “less white than me.” Less white. In fact, the more I read, the shakier all the causality felt and the more common, at core, his interpretation of “believing in himself” seemed, until I just couldn’t get over a line on the fifth page, age 5, when his family moved to Cali from England: “I now considered myself,” he writes, “an American kid.”
In America, two kinds of people are considered innocent: children and victims. Rodger, an innocent who never quote-unquote became a man, therefore wrote himself out as a victim—a laughable thought, when you see him IRL, on video, pouting like ’99 Ryan Phillippe in his golden-hour Gucci shades. But if he’s not your natural-born outcast, neither is he an outlier. Nor do I think he’s insane. Elliot Rodger is a logical extremist; his logic, that of the American electocracy. By this I mean what electocracy always means—a political system that lets its citizens vote, but leaves all actual decision-making power in the hands of an arbitrary, irresponsible group—but also what it connotes, a way of ruling derived from the Puritans’ self-satisfying notion of the pure and justified “elect.” In Rodger’s world, you were either among the elect, the elite, or you were in hell.
Of the four or maybe five women killed around Santa Ana, the body of only one—Jarrae Nykkole Estepp, 21, a pretty-faced white single mother—was found. It was found in Anaheim, on a conveyor belt, at a trash-sorting facility, and when I read this I quietly screamed. A useless scream, because of course, the word for these women is disposable. Because the state won’t nanny them and the cops won’t leave them alone and the robbers of their lives feel like, well, she was selling it anyway, it wasn’t like breaking into a home. Not like killing someone’s wife, for example. And, at the same time, a lot like a man killing his wife. For she whom the gods would destroy, they first make a “whore.” Ask a man who’s hit a woman, if he’ll tell you. Ask a woman who’s been hit, and she will: “whore” is the oldest name in the book and the first one said when a man feels his worst feeling, which is humiliation, or the shock of not being a man. Not all men, don’t worry, only all the men I’ve known, and all the men my friends have known, and not only them, but all of us, all of us who think strippers and sex workers and suburban wives and/or stuck-up blond sorority girls are something less than or betraying either the feminine or feminist ideal, all of us who make these crimes by emasculation feel as common, and unstoppable, as acts of god.
In OJ Simpson’s glassy-eyed memoir, If I Did It, he recalls “running into” a sex worker who told him she saw Nicole Brown Simpson, by then his ex-wife, at some wild parties, running with a pretty rough crowd. “This stand-in was basically a part-time hooker,” OJ sighs, and “here she was, a call girl, telling me that my ex-wife was partying with a ‘rough crowd.’ I was pretty upset, as you can imagine, and after the shoot I drove over to Nicole’s house and read her the riot act.” When Nicole tells OJ her friends are “nice people,” he replies: “You better open your eyes, Nicole. Nice people don’t go around getting themselves knifed to death.” And, then: “Nice people don’t turn into whores.” What a shock to find that his prize, a Baywatch blonde, had not only come to life but was pushing, hard, a status-sanctioned way of living it. The man, threatened by association, sounds like a murderer in defense of his pride. He also sounds like a lot of our mothers, which is why, thirteen years later, he remained sure enough of the national consensus on Nicole Brown’s behavior to, however slantedly, tell us with confidence that he premeditated and justified the killing. She had sinned.
Before noir was American, it was French. Unsurprising, then, that the closest antecedent to My Twisted World isn’t by Ellis or Ellroy, but by Michel Houellebecq. In Whatever, written the same year OJ did it, Houellebecq posits that “sexuality is a system of social hierarchy.” Here’s how: the narrator, a “pathetic creep” and Parisian government worker who is and is not Michel Houellebecq, realizes that his good-guy co-worker, middle-class compatriot, and friend, Tisserand, is slowly and surely “losing it.” Having just suffered a break-up, Tisserand lives in a fog. At breakfast one day, he sighs: “Fuck it! I’m twenty-eight and still a virgin!”
Michel goes home, thinking. “It’s a fact,” he muses to himself, “that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. . . . The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market.’ . . . Sexual liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and classes of society.”
This theory, which explains why a reasonably good-looking, articulate, and privileged American kid could fully believe himself an underdog, would be almost productive had its false premise not been laid out a minute earlier, when Tisserand explains “that a vestige of pride had always stopped him from going with whores.” To an astonished Michel, he continues: “I know that some men can get the same thing for free, and with love to boot.”
Likewise, in My Twisted World, Rodger is assigned a female social worker he finds attractive. He enjoys his time with her, but the rare pleasant mood is ruined when he realizes that, because she has been hired to hang with him, “it’s like going to a prostitute. It feels good for a while, but afterward, you just feel pathetic.” The thought of paying for sex isn’t the rub; he has the funds, after all. What enrages him is the thought of other men not paying for sex.
So much male jealousy, competition, and bitterness springs from this one funny fact—that they think any kind of love comes for free. That there is ever a time when even sex qua sex don’t cost a thing. Money or no money, the rest of us know we have to pay.
You could say the trouble for Rodger started when, around puberty, he began to know—and, in writing, recite—the first and last names of every boy he considered a sexual competitor, while at the same time referring to girls almost always collectively. Girls. Pretty girls. Pretty blond girls. Only three girls (or perhaps, by this time, women) are listed by name in My Twisted World, vis-a-vis dozens of boys (I’m not including family members). By the end of his writing and life, he’s failed to distinguish between any groups of humans at all, to the point where he considers his 6-year-old brother yet another budding Romeo who, because “he will grow up enjoying the life [Rodger has] craved for,” must die. “Girls will love him,” Rodger says. “He will become one of my enemies.” Rodger begs our most individuating question—“why don’t you love me?”—by proving himself repeatedly unable to individuate another. In erotic coupling, the ego finds relief in its equal. But had Elliot Rodger ever found his equal and opposite in another human being, he would, by all indications, have been repulsed. Reading him, I kept remembering Rooney Mara’s kiss-off in The Social Network: “You are going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd.1 [Or short. Or half-Asian. Or bad at football, or not a real ladies’ man, or somehow else disappointing to the ur-dads of America.] And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that isn’t true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
Which is why, for me, the trouble got interesting when Rodger finally reveals the one-word password to all of his dreams: Zuckerberg. By this point in My Twisted World, he’s dropped out of Moorpark and landed at the better, i.e. better-looking, Santa Barbara City College. Having researched what it takes to be a famous and wealthy writer of “epic” stories and discovered that it takes “twenty years,” a lot of hard work, and maybe even some in-between jobs (which, like many of his fellow self-described intellectuals, he categorically abhors), Rodger decides he needs to invent something big—like Facebook, the utility he wields to stalk and obsess over the classmate and California dream girl whose verifiably symmetrical, wealth-signifying face breaks his heart.
It is true that Facebook is the biggest social ranking system in the States after the IRS, and equally as hated and invasive. It is true that Facebook made Mark Zuckerberg staggeringly rich and perhaps that way more attractive to his beautiful wife, Priscilla (who, incidentally, looks more like Rodger’s Chinese mother than like any of the girls he stalked on Facebook). It is both true and factual, even if much of The Social Network isn’t, that when Zuckerberg started (or stole) this empire, it was a sexual ranking system. A hierarchy of beauty and supremacy. You know, a Hot or Not kind of thing—to which the first photos uploaded, by these lonesome, rejected nerds, were of sorority girls.2
There are many extensions of the weapons of struggle. Manufactured, then programmed, these weapons are arguably helpful to those who do struggle in what is—this bit of child morality holding fast—an unfair and massively garbage world, but they are provably harmful in the hands of ailing, flailing young men who tend to put “my” before that “struggle.” If you’re going to go for these boys’ guns, never mind their knives, you might consider seizing their computers while you’re at it.
I am, of course, not long considering seizing any computers (likewise, I’ll join the “conversation” on gun control when cops start dropping their Glocks). For one thing, internet porn is as free as it gets for the desirous, and what I do dead seriously want to consider is why the messy, shockingly diverse, and sometimes parodically sexist world of pornography—and not the Puritan, hierarchical, and secretly sexist world of Facebook—will indubitably be blamed for the way it makes some boys see women.
When the Rodger of My Twisted World watches his first porno, he has the usual feelings of arousal, confusion, and shame. Only his shame is laced with disgust. Yet even for the hottest, most stereotypical porn stars (who are in turn usually playing stereotypes), sex is hard to separate from abasement. As Wayne Koestenbaum reminds us in his 2011 book on the subject, humiliated means to be made humble, to be lowered in the rankings. Some porn is dehumanizing, as is some sex. But pleasurable sex among equals, or good masturbation to porn, is—I believe—rehumanizing. “What is humiliating,” says Koestenbaum, “is the sexual body itself, its humors and swellings, its pulsations and emissions.” Almost no sex won’t get you dirty. No desire to fuck someone won’t, if you hunt it down long enough, make you feel as “vicious [and] barbaric” as Rodger wrote all women were. And there is no way a biological man, naked and shrinking after sex, could feel, as Rodger describes himself, like “a god compared to” literally anyone. When Koestenbaum imagines “a society in which humiliation is essential—as a rite of passage, as a passport to decency and civilization, as a necessary shedding of hubris,” he is making the world’s best case for promiscuity. As for our virgin suicide, his frigidity and ensuing hysteria had less to do with women “not being attracted to” him than it did his not finding remotely attractive the risks of humiliation, abasement, and animal glory that multiply so quickly when you take off your clothes and just ask.
Consensual sex is no cure for misogyny—especially when misogyny is itself a side-effect of the need to be king, to have no equals—but it does, in my experience, have a way of putting men in their place. There is evil—the incapacity to love our shared fate—in each of us. But vulnerability and evil cannot coexist. In the bedroom, everyone’s needy. And though it’s not much like sex, pornography yet presents a universe with more alternatives to white supremacy, compulsory heterosexuality, and standards of beauty than television, film, contemporary art, or advertising; literally anything you need, anything you find attractive, you can find in porn.
If Rodger had a problem with porn, it was that he didn’t see nearly enough of it. If he had a problem with America, same thing.
In Sterling Ruby’s 2009 video installation, “The Masturbators,” male porn stars jack off alone. Recently, while interviewing him for an unrelated magazine piece, I asked Ruby what it was like to work with the men. He told me that when the porn stars came in, they were mostly full of bluster, like—you want me to what? That’s it? Ruby nodded. Then watched as, one by one, the professionals couldn’t finish the job. Some of them broke down, almost crying. One screamed repeatedly to turn off the camera. Another got so upset he threatened to break down the door between him and the smaller man, the artist, and beat him up.
Ruby said a smart thing: that it was embarrassing to be a man, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He also said he thought the US porn industry, a phrase I can’t tell if he meant synecdochically, was cruel for telling men to come on command. I agreed, but I also thought the men broke down in their small white rooms, one at a time in front of one camera, because they’d never before had to be the lone objects of a gaze. And, lacking the feminized receptacle without which the dick can’t exist, they began to feel, for perhaps the first time in a while, the embarrassment of just being human.
After Elliot Rodger knifed and shot six people, tried to kill more with his car, and finally, prematurely crashed, he must have looked up through his window and realized that, after all these years of feeling himself invisible, he was suddenly being seen from all angles. Nobody wasn’t paying attention to him. The cops weren’t there yet; he could have basked for a second. But by the time they arrived, he had shot himself.
Kate Losse’s description of the nerd figure in Silicon Valley can be expanded to fit the “nerd” or “underdog” in many male-dominant arenas: “The problem is that aside from those few guys reveling in their spray-tanned fantasy ‘brogrammer’ masculinity, very few people in programming identify with the term ‘brogrammer.’ The brogrammer is always someone else—he is THOSE Facebook guys who yell too loudly at parties and wave bottles in the air, he is not the nice, shy guy who gets paid 30 percent more because of his race, gender, and appeal to the boy-genius fetishes of VCs. The loud and tacky ‘brogrammer’ is a false flag—if you are not a brogrammer, the logic goes, you must be an outcast genius who has suffered long and would never oppress a fly. The industry is full not of the former but the latter—programmers who are smart and may present as harmlessly ‘nerdy’ but whose sense of themselves as being ‘the underdog’ means that it is very hard to see the ways in which they participate in unconsciously but potentially harmful ways in an industry that has coded them as kings.” ↩
In 2012, Business Insider reported that Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth had dropped from $17.5 billion, in 2011, to $9.4 billion. The headline read “Mark Zuckerberg is worth less than Michael Dell,” prefaced by three words, in all caps: “THE ULTIMATE HUMILIATION.” ↩