The letter from a madman
Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old California student who tragically killed six peers then shot himself in his treasured black BMW, has obsessed the American media. Their reaction to the murders is equally thought-provoking. Have they overly abstracted the tragedy into ideological debates on misogyny? Would Filipinos react with more empathy?
We all know the media narrative. Elliot was the son of a Hollywood director and could barely socialize due to a mental disorder. He grew up increasingly frustrated that he could not talk to girls. He would post in “men’s rights” Internet forums about how much he hated women for having sex with less deserving men. One day, he e-mailed his 137-page manifesto, “My Twisted World,” to his parents and childhood friends, then committed the long-planned murders.
A torrent of op-eds followed. “Further proof that misogyny kills” by The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti reminded that women immediately recognized Elliot’s words as the sexism that leaves them feeling threatened each day. Such sparked the #YesAllWomen Twitter campaign, a million messages on how we ignore everything from catcalls to potential abuse from rejecting advances. Others focused on how easily Elliot had purchased guns (though he also stabbed victims or hit them with his BMW) and white male privilege (though his mother was Malaysian Chinese). Still others pushed to refocus on the mental health issue.
No one focused on loneliness and bullying. Anyone born after 1980 could sympathize with the childhood scenes in Elliot’s manifesto. He longed to return to his happier childhood, when he cried watching “The Land Before Time” with “Ah Mah” (grandmother), before his parents divorced when he was seven. He loved Pokemon and his Gameboy, and “The Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones.”
He described his crippling shyness in great detail and how schoolmates teased and bullied him. He tried to impress classmates by sharing that George Lucas invited his family to “Star Wars” premieres, only to be dismissed as nerdy. He was pushed against lockers and called a loser in front of girls, who he felt rewarded the bullying. He wrote: “I immersed myself entirely into my online games like World of Warcraft. I felt safe there.” And: “I was extremely unpopular, widely disliked, and viewed as the weirdest kid in the school. I had to act weird in order to gain attention. I was tired of being the invisible shy kid. Infamy is better than total obscurity.”
We all at one point longed to belong to a table in the “Mean Girls” cafeteria chart, and withdrew into a TV set, laptop or phone. Entering college, Elliot was ecstatic when a new housemate actually tried to start a conversation. He tried to get drunk to gain enough confidence to introduce himself to other students on nights out.
As “My Twisted World” progresses, one wonders where the teenage misogynist bluster ends and the awkward boy repeatedly wondering what it is like to kiss a girl begins. He recalls his first ejaculation as a painful realization. Even as he planned his “Day of Retribution,” he uploaded a YouTube video titled “Why do girls hate me so much?” and wrote, “A small part of me was even hoping that a girl would see the video and contact me to give me a chance to go on a date.”
Studying in Boston, we had a rumored child prodigy who never left his dorm room. A Filipino student approached him while he was carrying suitcases to the dorm. He ran to his room scared, leaving the suitcases in the yard. Once, I made the prettiest girl on his floor invite him to join us in the lounge. His door opened a crack for three seconds. It frustrated me how the best response of extremely intelligent law students was to craft serial killer jokes.
Later, I was campaigning to speak at our graduation, backed by the Asians. I was deeply humbled when the “serial killer” approached me and said he had marked the election date after hearing that a Filipino student was campaigning against me and for a European. After the election, my classmates were stunned to see him join our impromptu celebration and pose for our sole photo with him. He proved to be a sensitive, pleasant friend who happened to be uniquely focused on law books over drinks.
Filipinos, for all our faults, are more empathic, tolerant and accepting than most. We consider alienation a community problem, and perhaps more of us would reach out to an Elliot. Living in the United States, I was immediately struck how readily people leave a table ahead to leave a friend to eat alone—something we avoid. Once, I asked for prayers for a classmate’s father who had just passed away. I was roughly rebuked by a French classmate, and I realized it was alien to him how Filipinos share grief as a community. Our premium on community to the point of nosiness is precious in a world where no one goes to church anymore and neighbors are strangers, where one can have hundreds of friends on Facebook and feel lonely, and where someone can be plotting mass murder while disappearing into World of Warcraft.
The final mystery is how Elliot wrote repeatedly about how angry he was because his father was always away on long business trips and once did not even call on his birthday. Nevertheless, he wrote that he might pause in his murderous plan if he had to face his father. His suicide note obliquely told his father he loved him without explaining in its 137 pages of sorrow and hate. I can only be thankful to have a father who indulged my every harebrained whim since I could walk (though I wouldn’t mind if he gives me a BMW).
Oscar Franklin Tan(@oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan) says he is proud of his alma mater Xavier School’s prominent antibullying campaign.
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