Reading Elliot Rodger, Part 2: Memoir and the Credibility Problem

I feel like crap today.  Not just because I’m getting the rancid cold that’s been festering in my house for weeks.  No, it’s because there’s been yet another mass shooting, this time at Seattle Pacific University.  You readers out there probably know all the details by now.  The basic story is the same.  Yesterday afternoon, I was wondering if writing about Elliot Rodger, trying to dig through his psyche and look at our responses to his words, was really a worthwhile thing.  But here we are again.  Seriously, folks, we need to talk about gun violence every damn day.  Otherwise, the dead bodies are just gonna keep piling up, and I really don’t relish the thought of my country turning into an apocalyptic war zone over something as stupid as Wayne LaPierre and his cronies.

On to the topic at hand:

Another thing that really bugs me about the Elliot Rodger “Manifesto” (and I’m always going to put that term in quotes when I talk about Rodger’s long written goodbye; see Part 1 from yesterday) is that for the first week or so after the Isla Vista murders, news outlets all over the Internet were citing him at length for every question anyone might have had about the event.  Why did he do what he did?  Well, it says right there in black and white: girls wouldn’t sleep with him.  How did he pull off such an awful crime?  Here’s a handy timeline.  Why did he really do it?  There are more answers out there than you’d ever have time to read.  He was a misogynist!  A racist!  An elitist! Mentally ill!  Autistic!  (Except maybe not.)  He was a self-hating bi-racial man!  He might have been gay!  He was trying to gain respect from white men!  He was immersed in nerd culture!  I mean Hollywood culture!  And on and on.  Many of these articles quote huge chunks of Rodger’s document as evidence on What Actually Happened and Why, but very few have added any caveats that a) Rodger may not be a reliable source, and b) even if Rodger didn’t purposefully lie about anything, the memories he relates are all going to be colored by his final frame of mind.  (A notable exception is this recent NYT article, which states, “The obsessively detailed self-published account of his life inevitably raises questions of how much was real and how much was hopelessly distorted by the filter of illness.”)  One of the big problems with memoir as a genre is that memory is far more fragile and susceptible to revision than people want to acknowledge.  Literature and writing students all over the country grapple with the problem of uncovering the past using the faulty equipment of the human mind.  These days, memoirists often explore how “my truth” and other kinds of truth interact, how close subjective versions of reality come to actual reality or if there’s an actual reality out there to be found.  But for the most part, the genre of memoir puts its author in a position of authority because memoir requires a first-hand witness to piece together an event or historical period.  This is the way things went down, says the memoir writer.  I know because I was there.

I’m happy to see that a day after I wrote my post criticizing the media’s use of the word “manifesto” to refer to Rodger’s writing, the LA Times posted an op-ed by Matthew Fleischer calling Rodger’s work a memoir and pointing out the importance of reading it.  Clearly, great minds think alike.  Others, however, were out there, too, using the memoir label for Rodger’s work; the first writer on the ball seems to have been Dennis Lynch of the International Business Times, although Lynch calls Rodger’s document a “memoir-manifesto” and doesn’t say anything about the reliability of Rodger’s perspective.  (I should say, too, that I haven’t taken in much of the TV coverage of the shootings, so I can’t vouch for whether, in the constant chatter of the 24-hour news cycle, anyone bothered to mention the issue of Rodger’s credibility.  I’m a cynic, so I’m guessing not.)  I’m concerned, though, that even if we start changing our language–saying “memoir” instead of “manifesto”–without an awareness of the memoir’s conventions and failings, we’re still going to place too much importance on the story itself and continue to ignore the issues that might lurk beneath it.

Let’s look at Fleischer’s op-ed, for example.  Fleischer writes about how his opinion of Rodger changed once he’d read Rodger’s narrative:

The language is clear and precise, the misery palpable. Rodger was no crank philosopher. Instead, he was a memoirist, able to describe the details of his sad, lonely world with surprising candor. In the process, his story touches on almost every corner of American society — race, class, gender, divorce, sex, bullying, entitlement and empty materialism.

Fleischer doesn’t downplay the many noxious attitudes and beliefs that others have criticized Rodger for.  The commentator does, however, point out that picking and choosing excerpts from a 137-page text gives a fairly lopsided view of what Rodger’s experience was.  Fleischer observes that Rodger’s “racial contempt is thinly veiled posturing to cover up the self-loathing of his own ethnic identity.”  He was (and here Fleischer uses the killer’s own words) “half White, half Asian, and this made me different from the normal fully-white kids that I was trying to fit in with…. I had to make every effort to rectify this. I had to adapt.”  Rodger, says Fleischer, was bullied “on a regular basis,” got picked on when he and his mother lived in an apartment (instead of a house, that is), and “rarely, if ever, had a social interaction that wasn’t facilitated by his parents.”

All of these observations are true, according to Rodger’s story.  Yet, just as cherry-picking inflammatory comments doesn’t sum up Rodger’s entire perspective, uncritically repeating the tale of his “sad, lonely world” doesn’t take into account the many ways that this story, written by someone who calls himself “a good liar,” manipulates the reader into sympathizing with him.  I have no doubt that Rodger was the victim of bullying, but the fact that in the 12 pages that cover the time period (eighth, ninth, and the beginning of tenth grade) that he says he was bullied, he devotes only 13 paragraphs–about a page and a half–to bullying.  The incidents of bullying, mainly name-calling and shoving, are vaguely described, unlike, say, his anecdotes about playing World of Warcraft with friends (and yes, he did have friends) at a favorite cybercafe or the horrors of going on an eight-week vacation to Morocco with his stepmother and a “whelping baby” (his new half-brother, Jazz).  He specifically says, near the end of eighth grade, that one of the reasons he was bullied was because he was picking fights with other kids.  Why?  To get attention, and because “it felt good to be confident enough to pick fights with the popular kids.”  Unlike some bullying victims, his parents were sensitive to the treatment he was receiving from his peers at school, and when he spent a terrible first week at a public school in tenth grade they immediately withdrew him and sent him somewhere else.  Also, the incident Rodger claims as “the worst” of when he was bullied?  Listening to a recording of a boy having sex with his girlfriend after Rodger himself questioned the boy’s claims that he was sexually active.  (Unlike the rest of his torment by his peers, this moment is described in minute detail.)

So what does this tell us?  To me, it says that maybe the bullying wasn’t as significant a part of his life as he says it was.  I was the target of bullies for a long time in grade school, and I know how painful and damaging the experience can be, even when you’re not being physically abused or assaulted by bullies (and there are many stories out there of people who suffered physical scars from bullying along with emotional ones).  True, Rodger could just be omitting parts of his story that he found embarrassing or believed would demean him.  But if that’s true, what else might he have omitted?  Could he have left certain events out of his story because they didn’t make him seem like a poor, defenseless creature, utterly devoid of blame?  And why, when he states that he had food dumped on him on the first day of ninth grade and later had to wait till the halls were clear so he could walk to class without being harassed–why does he feel that the worst thing a bully ever did to him was force him to listen to teens having (real or simulated) sex?  To me, that right there suggests that Rodger’s biggest problem with his peers had to do with his aversion to sex and women, and that the rest of the bullying stuff was thrown in because people naturally feel sorry for bullying targets, and he wanted his story to garner him as much sympathy as he could get.

Other parts of his narrative are starting to look a bit more questionable, or at least more complicated, now that family, friends, schoolteachers, and others in the Isla Vista community have begun speaking to the press.  This week, a New York Times article discusses the difficulties Rodger had connecting with people, his parents’ struggles to help him, and his problem behavior (panic attacks, lack of communication) at school and in friends’ homes.  In an interview with ABC, Chris Rugg, one of Rodger’s roommates says that Rodger would regularly avoid conversations and turn down invitations to go out.  Yet Rodger says of his time in college, “I was always an outcast, even among people I knew.”  During the year he lived with Rugg, Rodger’s opinion of his roommates is clear: “Of course, I had no desire to be friends with them, because they had absolutely nothing to offer.”

The bottom line here is that, just as we don’t want to portray Rodger as some monstrous, hyper-political manifesto writer, we also don’t want to romanticize him as a long-suffering, helpless memoirist who could only make the world understand the extent of his emotional damage through his writing.  Both of these representations of Rodger distract us from trying to approach the messy reality of his life, and ironically both play into the self-image he tried to project. He strove to appear as a god-like bogeyman, so people would tremble in fear of him.  At the same time, he wanted to be a victim, so no one would blame him or hold him accountable for the problems he created.  I don’t like the feeling that Elliot Rodger is playing us, playing me, the same way he played everyone around him throughout his life.  I want to pick away at the myth he built, so we can all see who the little boy was under the monster mask and stop him from terrorizing us one second more.

Coming soon: Let’s find out who you REALLY are…

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