The Pacific Heart

Psychiatry, Spirituality and Culture

Trauma, Victim Narratives and the Way Out

The Isla Vista massacre

May 26, 2014

Another tragedy has left communities and families reeling.  As you well know, Elliot Rodger, 22, murdered six young people and wounded 13 others before taking his own life three days ago.  Like the Newtown massacre in December 2012 (see my post Loss, Grief and the Way Out), the call has gone out for gun control and better mental health, though it’s not yet clear what might have stopped the rampage.

This hasn’t stopped the Twitter townsfolk from whipping out the Tweetforks and torches in both a call to conscience and a rush to judgment.  #Yesallwomen, highlighted in this Time Magazine post, has understandably underscored that harassment, intimidation and aggression against women are not acceptable, but are nonetheless very prevalent factors.  But this angle left me wanting a bit more. 

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Nuance and depth are not part of any hashtag conversation, as I noted here (“I Have Met the Internet and It Is Not Us”).  As this PT blogpost by Dr. Douglas Kenrick notes, our minds contain perceptual bias that push us towards mistrusting and fearing men.  “Men are more likely to be physically violent, and the mind is biased not to miss anger on a man’s face. Sometimes this leads to mistakes, but those mistakes suggest that the mind is wired like a smoke detector: You’d rather set the alarm to go off once in a while when there’s no fire, than to miss the rare occasion when you actually are in danger.”  It seems that Twitter became that smoke detector.  We still hadn’t found the fire, though:  we were greasing the wheels on the all-too-pervasive trauma/victim narrative, one that has ample basis in fact, but leaves out important information.  Such as the fact that men themselves are more likely to be murdered than women – of course, by men.  Male aggression is a problem, but I am sure that we don’t solve it by painting with the Social Media brush/brush-off. 

Psychiatrist Salman Akhtar recently said (I paraphrase) “Violence against women is manifest throughout history.  But now when social problems are escalating, violence gets even more displaced onto women.”  

Violence against women, and demanding their sexuality is a clear social wrong – but most of Rodger’s victims were male.  His anger against women was deep, though, and to understand this, we have to understand his isolation, and male isolation more broadly.  As Kenrick notes, men are, in U.S. culture, more socially isolated than women.  They prefer relationships with women, but desires for even platonic relationships are not reciprocated by women, who prefer relationship with other women.  The only solution, of course, is creating better community between men, and of course between genders, based on understanding of each other’s vulnerabilities, not vilification.  I think all mothers would appreciate their sons’ needs for relationship, even if the Twitterverse doesn’t.  We, both men and women, are staying single for longer; sexual relationships alone just won’t do.  My book-in-progress (FACEBUDDHA:  TRANSCENDENCE IN THE AGE OF FACEBOOK AND OTHER SOCIAL NETWORKS) explores relating in the digital age.  We need IRL.

Journalist and culture critic Jeff Yang offered more analysis in his significant article (“What a close read of the Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto ‘My Twisted World’ says about his values – and ours”).  Yang highlights that in Rodger’s reality, success was defined by wealth, power and status, which were only good in their ability to garner the real prize, which he had been denied as a 22-year-old virgin:  a beautiful white girlfriend and sex.  Yang concludes that racism, class, and gender issues played an all-important role in deforming Rodger’s mentality.

“So it’s easy to dismiss Rodger, this alleged murderer and child of privilege, as a product of derelict parenting, of negligent gun laws, of untreated mental illness. It’s harder to explore the degree to which he represents a terrible, twisted mirror of our global culture.  But maybe that’s what makes it so essential that we do just that.”

I agree to an extent (“dismiss” isn’t the right word, and tarring him as a “child of privilege” isn’t quite compassionate; and I don’t know that derelict parenting is at fault here – for more on this, I would recommend Andrew Solomon’s chapter on crime, children and parenting in his book Far From The Tree), but would add that Rodger wasn't just a mirror of global culture, but a victim, too, of its delusion.   Rodger was a victim of more than just imbibed delusion, though.  He was of course a propagator of those delusions.  Moreover, he was also a victim in a literal sense.  I have yet to read a fuller exploration of how he was bullied, mocked and cruelly treated in school, but the New York Times had this to say:

“Mr. Rodger was, from a young age, emotionally disturbed, particularly since the divorce of his parents when he was in first grade, family friends said. Patrick Connors, 23, a former classmate at Crespi Carmelite High School, a Catholic school for boys in Los Angeles, said Mr. Rodger had left school before graduation. He said that Mr. Rodger was treated by his classmates as an oddball and that students mocked him and played jokes on him; once when Mr. Rodger fell asleep in his seat, classmates taped his head to his desk, he said.

“We said right from the get-go that that kid was going to lose it someday and just freak out,” he said. “Everyone made fun of him and stuff.”

Treating him, I think, would have involved empathizing with his pain, understanding his challenges (Narcissism? Paranoia? Deep-seated shame? Anger - as sorrow turned outwards?) and helping him see how his victim narrative and foci for success were such a powerful cognitive lock that they prevented him from breaking free. (Dr. Salman Akhtar also pointed out that killers' victim narratives are sometimes fictive – but even if only constructed of misperceptions, they carry gravitas in the mind of the potential perpetrator, and deserve our attention.)  In my ideal world, he would have also been prevented from buying guns.  (See this Op-Ed by American Psychiatric Association President-Elect Renée Binder.)

Cool heads must prevail to understand this incident, and to prevent future killings.  We have to reckon with our own cognitive biases, and broaden our definition of success to include spiritual values, values of heart, community and well-being.  We can’t resort to shaming, blaming and stereotyping, or defenses of splitting and projecting.  We can’t ‘project our insecurities on others and then judge them’ as comedian Eddie Pepitone noted.  We have to generate compassion, wisdom and knowledge for the long haul.  We have to understand ourselves and our collective psyche in the broadest terms possible.  

It’s the only way out.

We can't act as if we're separate, men and women.  We're in concert and conflict even at the level of the psyche, even in the nuclei of the cells that make us.

I am reminded of Bobby Kennedy's words after the assassination of Martin Luther King, jr, quoting Aeschylus:  ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’

Update 5/27:  Read this great blog post by Jenn Fang of Reappropriate.co. 

Masculinity vs. “Misogylinity”: what Asian Americans can learn from #UCSB shooting | #YesAllWomen

 My comment to her was:

 You touch on a subject - in the pathology of the externalized woman as "object" - on which Carl Jung might have something to offer, at least as I understand it. All our psyches are composed of masculine and feminine parts. The man's anima, his feminine, is a deep part of his unconscious, and often projected onto the outside world when not integrated. So I would say that Rodger had certainly not come to terms with his own femininity. He hated and despised all the qualities of the classical 'feminine' - compassion, kindness, openness etc - and thus reduced himself to his sexual and material needs. He is looking for "Eve", so to speak, not a "Helen, Mary or Sophia" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anima_and_animus , even though I know that these broad categories don't do justice to the diversity of women at all, and really speak more to archetypal qualities. 

Edit 5/28:  Added "concert and conflict" sentences.

© 2014 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  Subscribe by RSS above.  Sign up for a quarterly e-newsletter to be the first to find out about my upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha:  Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, at www.RaviChandraMD.com.  Facebook page: SanghaFrancisco-The Pacific HeartTwitter @going2peace. Thanks for your shares on Facebook, etc.!  

Ravi Chandra, M.D., F.A.P.A. is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco, California.

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