Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Sex, Madness and Mass Murder in Santa Barbara

Did sexual frustration lead to the Santa Barbara killing spree?

The alleged perpetrator of Friday evenings vicious killing spree in upscale Isla Vista, close to the beautiful campus of UC Santa Barbara, has been officially identified as Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old Eurasian male, now deceased. According to police reports, Rodger murdered six victims, mostly UCSB students, stabbing three male roommates to death before shooting and killing three others, wielding his black BMW as a deadly weapon against pedestrians and bicyclists, twice exchanging gunfire with deputies, and finally shooting himself in the head when cornered. Some thirteen additional victims were reportedly wounded or injured in the rampage. The massacre was apparently planned on for more than a year. According to his own "manifesto," Friday was Rodger's long-anticipated "Day of Retribution," his "attempt to do everything in my power, to destroy everything I cannot have."

Like so many other mass murderers, it seems Rodger sought retribution and revenge for what he perceived as personal slights, injustice, and life's unfairness. He was apparently motivated mainly by frustration, anger, rage, resentment, hatred and the furious desire to get even. To dish out to others the suffering he had endured since puberty. For Rodger, a primary source of this suffering was frustration regarding his failure with women. He claimed to have never had a girlfriend, had never kissed a woman nor even held hands, despite his perception of himself as a sophisticated, polite and worldly "gentleman" when compared to the kinds of crass young American men the blonde, California girls he desperately craved, typically cavorted with. Rodger had money, class, style and reasonably good looks. So what was wrong with this picture?

In this respect, some of Rodger's motivations appear to closely resemble those of at least one previous shooter, 48-year-old George Sodini. Several years ago, Sodini strolled into an all female aerobics class at LA Fitness in Pittsburgh, PA, shot three young women to death, wounded nine, and then committed suicide. (See my prior post.) Sodini was a deeply frustrated, bitter man, who hated women. Ultimately, his anger, resentment and rage finally exploded into the premeditated madness of violence. What was Sodini so angry about? It appears, based on his own self-published blog entries beginning nine months prior to the shootings, that, like Rodger, Sodini was frustrated about his sexual difficulties with women. He complained of an inability to find a girlfriend since he was twenty-three, not having sex for almost two decades and failure to find a date during the past twelve months prior to his misogynistic rampage.

Elliot Rodger, in his own autobiographical "manifesto," reports similar frustration with the opposite sex. He apparently believed that females viewed him as being inferior to other men, and felt undesirable to women. Yet, like Sodini, he couldn't figure out why. Rodger came from a wealthy family, drove a high-status car, wore expensive clothes, and, like Sodini, tried hard to make himself attractive to the opposite sex. Though it is not at all clear how much effort Rodger made to actually date women and establish some intimate relationship with one, he deeply resented women who he felt rejected him and whom he believed he could never have sexually. And he equally resented men, his peers and sexual competitors, who could and did have these women, exclaiming, "I will kill them all and make them suffer, just as they have made me suffer. . . . It is only fair." After brutally slaughtering his Asian male roommates, Rodger proceeded, as planned, armed to the teeth with handguns and over 400 rounds of ammo, to a nearby "hot" UCSB sorority house, specifically targeting women, killing two and wounding several others. As Rodger himself states in his "manifesto," his motivation to kill attractive young women was, as in so many erotically-driven murders, the classic "If I can't have them, nobody will."

Of course, it is easy to come to the simplistic conclusion that in these two cases, and so many others, chronic sexual frustration caused or at least contributed to these violent outbursts or rage. Certainly, sex is a primal human need and motivation, and its chronic frustration can be painful and infuriating, especially for males. (See my prior post.) But there are many other basic human needs that, when frustrated, can also lead to anger, rage and, in some cases, violent behavior. Sexuality is but one of several basic human needs which, when denied or chronically frustrated, evokes anger, rage, hostility and, all-too-often today, murderous violence. There is, for example, the need for relationship, for human contact, and for love. When human beings are deprived of love or companionship, be it in childhood, adolescence or adulthood, there is a natural reaction of anger, which, if never acknowledged and addressed, can ultimately be expressed in oppositional, destructive or violent behavior, a negative way of relating to others. Existential loneliness can lead to violence against self and/or others when chronic and unremitting, and Rodger described himself as an excruciatingly lonely individual. (See my prior post on loneliness.) There is the need for feeling significant, important, to be recognized by parents, teachers, peers and by society. The chronic frustration of this existential need can result in what I have called a "wicked rage for recognition." (See my prior post.) This neurotic craving for attention, celebrity or fame takes the form of negative, self-defeating, oppositional and frequently destructive or even violent acts. There is also the primal need for power and self-assertion to consider. Powerlessness is related to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, impotence and victimization, and violence in many cases is engaged in to feel more powerful, something directly alluded to in the Rodger "manifesto." In such cases, the disempowered victim turns the tables and furiously becomes the powerful victimizer. And, finally, there is, as existential analyst Viktor Frankl proposed, the innate need for meaning and purpose in life. When this existential "will to meaning" is severely frustrated over time, anger, rage and violence can ensue.

In point of fact, frustrated sexual longings were apparently not the sole motivation for Elliot Rodger's atrocious assault. He also cites in his "manifesto," sent to his parents, therapists and others just before the massacre, having been "devastated" by his parents' divorce when he was seven, missing and possibly feeling abandoned or rejected by his birth mother, resenting and intensely disliking his step-mother, and the considerable difficulties he experienced navigating the painful passage from childhood to adolescence, especially around the issue of sexuality. Indeed, he seems to have preferred the protected innocence of childhood, and felt traumatized by the typically turbulent transition into adulthood. It could be speculated that he was having trouble becoming a grown man in general. Rodger was no "alpha male," and he knew it; but his final act was designed to show women and the world that he could be one, in the most negative possible way.

In these and certain other regards, Elliot Rodger seems also to have suffered from issues similar to and in some ways reminiscent of Adam Lanza (see my prior post). In either case, and in so many others, we must ask ourselves: What motivates an apparently highly intelligent but troubled, socially withdrawn, inhibited, introverted (see my prior post on mass shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui  Cho, Anders Breivik, Jared Lee Loughner and James Holmes here) young man to turn against the world so violently? (See also my post on previous California shootings here.) What, for example, led Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut, also from an affluent family, to brutally slaughter 20 school children and 7 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, including his own mother? And then to kill himself? (See my prior posts on school shootings.)

This is a vitally important question. Because we are in the rapidly accelerating throes of a pernicious epidemic of pathological anger, rage and embitterment, both here in this country and elsewhere. In just the past two months, there have been numerous acts and nearly averted incidents of mass killing (on astounding average, about one per week), including the (second) mass shooting at Fort Hood (see my prior post re: the first incident). According to still unconfirmed media reports, Adam Lanza was, leading up to his evil deeds, exhibiting behavioral symptoms severe enough for his mother to seek psychiatric treatment for him, possibly even some kind of involuntary institutionalization or conservatorship. And he was supposedly angry with her about this. Very angry. Apparently, his mom had volunteered at the Sandy Hook school in the past, making Adam feel resentful and jealous. (Interestingly, Rodger too describes himself in his "manifesto" as being an extremely "jealous" person.) While this may have precipitated what tragically happened, I suspect Lanza, like Rodger, had been a frustrated, lonely and angry young man for some time, perhaps partly due to his parents divorce in 2009. Like Rodger, Lanza was likely bullied at school, and socially inept. He was reportedly prone to temper tantrums, and may have been engaging in self-mutilation, such as burning his skin with a cigarette lighter just prior to his horrific homicidal outburst.

This raises the issue of Asperger's syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder), which, by definition, is a "qualitative impairment in social interaction," including " failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level" and " lack of social or emotional reciprocity." This diagnosis, like ADHD, is overused today, and believed to be neurobiologically based. But it was originally meant to be more of a behavioral description than explanation of moderate to severe social dysfunction, and should be distinguished from Reactive Attachment Disorder, which consists of "markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness in most contexts." Like Lanza, Rodger, the son of a successful Hollywood director, though relatively high-functioning, had reportedly been diagnosed with Asperger's Disorder, and appears to have suffered from low self-esteem, partly due to his short and slight stature, which he may have compensated for with some compensatory narcissistic or Napoleonic grandiosity. However, he clearly felt unattractive to women. Like Lanza, he too was reportedly in psychiatric treatment of some kind, including counseling with "multiple therapists" while attending community college in Santa Barbara, and had been since childhood. There are some reports floating around that, in addition to Asperger's, Rodger had been experiencing psychotic symptoms such as paranoid ideation and auditory hallucinations, though this cannot be confirmed and is, so far, unsupported by the available evidence. Other slightly more credible reports suggest that he had been prescribed psychiatric medications but refused to take them. Commonly indicative of declining mental health or decompensation, he dropped out of school after his grades started to slide, hoping, despite his family's wealth, to hit the lottery in order to at last become more attractive to women. Rodger was, according to his own "manifesto," still a virgin at the time of his death, and evidently lived in despair of this situation ever changing. And in a constant state of rage. So much so, that, in his written "manifesto," he purportedly seriously considers in his elaborate plans for retribution the possible murder of his step-mother, brother and father.

It has already been suggested by some (see, for example, fellow PT blogger Laurie Essig, Ph.D.'s post) that Rodger was just a typical "angry male," a narcissist who felt entitled to sex, and, therefore, frustrated by its absence. The implication is that his frustration is emblematic of the masculine attitude toward women and sexuality in general. As noted above, there likely were some narcissistic defense mechanisms at play, as is commonly the case with mass murderers. Consider, for example, Anders Breivik in Norway. (See my prior post.) Or Ted (the Unabomber) Kaczynski. (See my prior post.) Or Charles Manson. (See my prior post.) But it seems to me that Rodger had a problem with women that went way beyond any narcissistic expectations he harbored. His primary problem was not that he expected women to love, be attracted to him and provide him with sex, but rather, his irrational conviction that they wouldn't. (In some cases, this belief can become delusional, making matters much worse.) So it was what underlies most compensatory narcissistic defenses, a deep insecurity and pervasive inferiority feelings, that were perhaps his real demons. Rodger had likely convinced himself that he was inherently unlovable by and undesirable to women, and his self-imposed social isolation served to perpetuate this self-fulfilling prophesy. Perhaps he unconsciously feared being abandoned or rejected by women, and, therefore, avoided close contact with them. He may have exhibited symptoms of hypervigilance, ambivalence or "frozen watchfulness" in his social interactions, especially with women. The fact that he was particularly  attracted to blonde, caucasian women certainly could be connected to his narcissistic need for status and desire for a "trophy" sexual partner. Or to his wanting to fit in and be accepted by American, and especially Southern California, culture. Still, his strong sexual drive and desire for a girlfriend sound totally natural and normal for a man his age. He simply did not know what to do with it. He knew that his peers were having sex. So why not him? Such abject failure to find a sexual partner, any sexual partner despite his strong desire to, smacks of profound insecurity, poor self-esteem, low self-worth, passivity, inhibited masculine aggression, phobic avoidance, anxiety and possible fear of and disdain for the opposite sex. (See my prior post.)

Was Elliot Rodger "mentally ill"? If by "mentally ill" we mean suffering from a major mental disorder such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, we will need to wait for that information to be released. I cannot formally diagnose someone I never professionally evaluated. We tend to want to dismiss such atrocious acts of violence, such evil deeds, as the isolated and aberrant behavior of a "madman." The reality is that violent perpetrators like Rodger or Lanza or Breivik are literally "mad," meaning pathologically enraged, yet not necessarily psychotic or legally insane. Rather, these are extraordinarily frustrated and angry individuals who experience themselves as powerless, helpless victims in life. They feel like "losers," unloved and unlovable. Unaccepted and unacceptable social misfits. They have not been able to find their place or purpose in life. It can be conjectured that both Rodger and Lanza were clinically depressed. This seems obvious. In the most extremely disturbed individuals, this frustration, anger, rage, chronic depression, and feelings of powerlessness or insignificance can cause psychotic symptoms. But whether clinically psychotic or not, these individuals suffer from profound feelings of inferiority, insignificance, powerlessness, despair, helplessness and nihilistic meaninglessness. They are lost souls. Finally, in desperation, the sole purpose they seize upon is that of the avenger, the righter of wrongs, the redeemer of evils, the punisher of those perceived to have abandoned, abused, rejected or insulted them. Identification with this wrathful, powerful, god-like punitive role, perverted and destructive though it may be, provides some missing sense of purpose in life. Now, at long last, they have, in their own minds, come up with a substantial goal in life, a destiny, and the opportunity to fulfill that destiny, no matter what it takes. To make their mark in the world. To stand up and be counted. To exact retaliation and revenge. And to gain the world's recognition. But, alas, its fulfillment, by definition, inevitably leads to death by cop or suicide, or life in prison.

Such tragic cases call into question the efficacy of mental health services today. Rodger was evidently known to both the police and mental health system. There were reportedly danger signs over the years, including talk of suicide, but to predict such a violent outcome is near impossible. (See fellow PT blogger Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.'s post.) What kind of treatment was Rodger receiving? Why was he seeing "multiple" therapists or counselors? Has the contemporary approach to therapy in our age of specialization adopted a philosophy of "the more the merrier"? Is this superior to working closely and exclusively with one psychotherapist, with whom one can cultivate a close, trusting and corrective relationship? Or is it symptomatic of the patient's (or therapist's) resistance to doing so? And, maybe most importantly, how was this young man's immense rage being addressed and dealt with by his psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and counselors? What was it really about? What were its roots? Was it being verbally acknowledged, validated and redirected into constructive activity? (See fellow PT blogger Mark Goulston, MD's post.) Or suppressed pharmaceutically, sociologically and psychologically? The latter negative attitude toward anger or rage in treatment tends ultimately to be iatrogenic and exremely dangerous. Of course, it can be argued, and rightfully so, that there is realistically no panacea for such profoundly disturbed people, and that treatment has its limitations, especially in such extreme cases. However, this truism can easily be used as an excuse to dismiss the woeful inadequacy of contemporary mental health treatment in dealing constructively with such angry individuals, and the critical need to improve it. (See my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.)

When repressed anger or rage festers over time, it turns iinto resentment, which turns into embitterment, which turns into hatred. This is a slow and insidious process, but the ultimate outcome, if left unchecked, is destructiveness toward self and/or others. Not every frustrated, angry or embittered person turns physically violent. But there is no doubt that their anger and embitterment negatively affect their own lives and the lives of those around them. (See, for example, my prior posts on psychopathy, embitterment, and pathological narcissism.) If we want to better understand and be able to prevent at least some of the terrible explosions of violent rage we, as a society, have been witnessing in recent decades, we would do well to analyze and study the psychology of these cases exceedingly carefully. What we observe in such extreme cases is the once carefully camouflaged face of frustration, fury, indignation and self-assertion, gone mad. Mental illness is typically not the primary cause, but rather, at least partly, the psychological consequence. We see the desperate struggle and utter failure of these deeply frustrated, embittered and defeated individuals to constructively claim and defend their fundamental right to be themselves, to productively assert their will in the world, to creatively or constructively find and fulfill their destiny, and our own failure as a society-- and as mental health professionals--to help them do so. Instead, deeply discouraged and enraged, these individuals eventually just give up trying to solve their problem productively. They settle instead for facile infamy. And for the anxiously anticipated, transitory yet terminal, momentary satisfaction of sweet revenge.

Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

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