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JOANNA WEISS

How to read a killer

In his manifesto, Elliot Rodger was less sinister than sad

Jeremy Traum for the Boston Globe

Elliot Rodger’s mother once suggested he become a writer, and if you read his sprawling autobiography, titled “My Twisted World,” you can see why. At 22, with a deeply troubled mind, he still had a talent for words and observations. His tome reads like a novel, told by an unreliable narrator, documenting a spiral from childhood innocence to teenage isolation to a madman’s rage.

And it shows us how simplistic we can be in the face of too-frequent murder sprees like the one Rodger committed in California last weekend. We want them to be episodes of “CSI,’’ easy to blame on simple explanations: Poor health care. Lax gun laws. Games and movies that turn guns into metaphors for power. A culture of misogyny that encourages men to spin rejection into rage.

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Rodger’s writing, a rare artifact, is more like a work of literature: complicated, sprawling, hard to summarize. And it gives us an unsatisfying answer to “why.” It was all of the above. It was a deep, malignant sickness that drew power from the tensions in his life, and details from the culture he was steeped in.

And it was loneliness.

That’s the running theme of Rodger’s manifesto: a social isolation that grew to have a force and power of its own. He told his story in chronological order, detailing every birthday dinner, every trip abroad, every childhood bedroom, every slight from a former friend.

The sources of his pain were often typical: His parents divorced when he was young. He frequently switched houses and custody arrangements. He didn’t get along with his stepmother. He was obsessed with wealth and status he never quite had, in a Hollywood culture that put an outsized value on both.

And there was nowhere for him to seek refuge, outside of his own mind. He was socially awkward and painfully shy, insecure about his small stature, confused that what seemed like simple formulas for acceptance — wearing the right clothes, having the right haircut, learning how to play hacky sack — never seemed to work.

Once he hit puberty, he imagined a new solution to his woes: He would finally be happy if he could just have sex, as he imagined other boys did.

A lot of attention has been paid to Rodger’s rants against women — his words are full of fury, like a batterer’s rage — but it’s also striking how nonspecific they were. He didn’t write about specific crushes or rejections; he just craved a faceless symbol of social success. In the presence of girls, he wrote, he was usually silent and afraid.

“I saw so many pretty blonde girls sitting around,” he wrote in a typical passage about college life. “I wished I had the courage to go up to them and ask one on a date, but they would have seen me as a creep. Girls are so cruel.”

Instead, he tried to find community where he could. He immersed himself in World of Warcraft, a fantasy online world of epic battles. He found web forums for rejected men, echo chambers where men blamed women at large. These cultures didn’t cause his sickness, but he used them — like someone falling and reaching out for scaffolding, grabbing ideas from things he sees on the way down.

And clearly, he found solace in fantasy. In YouTube videos, he crafted himself into a sinister stock villain, maybe modeled on Christian Slater or Christian Bale, sneering into the camera, angry and strong.

But in the written version, until his last horrific act, Rodger was less sinister than sad. He wrote, repeatedly, about how much he cried, sobbing to himself in bathrooms and in bed, longing for connections that he never had.

There’s a lot that we could change, in the wake of his story. Gun laws could be strengthened, though, yes, he also killed with knives. Mental health treatment could improve, though his parents got him therapy. The entertainment industry could reflect on what it creates, though most people know fantasy from reality.

But loneliness is hard to fix, and easy to corrupt. Rodger was no TV villain of the week — just a sad, sick, weak kid, seeking metaphors for strength, and finding them where our culture says they are: in masculinity, in guns, in death.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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