Nature, Nurture and the Unknowable

Date Published 05.27.14


According to his now-infamous manifesto, Elliot Rodger was inspired to attend school in Santa Barbara after he saw the movie Alpha Dog. He thought the kids in that movie seemed like they were having a lot of fun. Alpha Dog, based on a true story, is about young, low-level drug dealers in the LA area who kidnap and then murder a child after taking him up to Santa Barbara.

I think it’s safe to conclude Rodger’s perception of reality was more than a little off.


Which is why I find it odd that so many otherwise reasonable people are citing Rodger’s “privilege” and “sense of entitlement” as some kind of contributing factor in his violence, as if the image he projected to the world (spoiled rich kid) should be taken at face value and therefore open to judgment. Obsession with status was part of his pathology, something even a cursory read of his manifesto makes clear. Whereas most of us reflexively dislike the sneering teenager in his pricey ride when he drives up in a teen movie, knowing the well-coiffed cad is the villain of the story, Rodger longed to be that guy. What’s surprising is that he seems to have successfully convinced much of the public he was that guy.


He posted pictures on social media whenever he was afforded the slightest privilege, but dig deeper and it appears those moments were fewer and farther between than one might suspect. Some have pointed out how many times in the manifesto he mentions things his parents bought him. Again, those were his priorities. If any of us were to obsessively catalogue the things our parents gave us throughout our lives, we’d all seem wildly overindulged. Dig deeper, and the truth is more complicated. He didn’t go to a posh private high school, but a public school. He lived in apartments at various points in his life. He complains multiple times about his parents’ financial stresses and how they can’t, or won’t, buy him things.


What I find striking is that in a manifesto that seethes with rage at the entire world there’s actually very little hate directed at his parents. By all accounts they got him psychiatric care early and consistently. They were involved and worried for him. In fact, one of the only times Rodger exhibits empathy in the manifesto is when he hypothesizes about killing his father. That, he says, might actually make him feel a little bad.


I don’t know what the full story of Elliot Rodger’s life is going to be, but everything I’ve read, from reliable sources and not the unreliable killer himself, suggests it won’t be that this was a showbiz brat suffering from affluenza. You know what entitled Hollywood kids with homicidal tendencies do? They kill their parents (see Menendez, Erik and Lyle.)


In cases like this, when people rush to snap judgments and rattle off explanations for an offender’s behavior, I’m reminded of a wise point former FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood always makes in interviews and training seminars; I’m not a huge “profiler” fan in general, but in my opinion Hazelwood is the best of them, and I highly recommend his books for anyone interested in learning about criminal behavior. This is an excerpt from an interview he did:

Will it ever be possible to figure out what goes into the development of violent fantasies so that we can devise some kind of prevention?

No. That's the short answer. The long answer is that you have all these people who have all these explanations for violence, but what they fail to consider is the individual. You could take Ted Bundy and identify every single incident in his life and say, "Wow! That makes a serial killer." No, it doesn't. You could take Roy Hazelwood and subject him to exactly those same occurrences, and he wouldn't be a serial killer. Why not? Because of individual make-up and personality characteristics. The same things will impact on Bundy differently than on you or me. You have to take into account the way these factors occur, when they occur, how they occur, the combination in which they occur, and how you assess it. It's like a molecular model. You take any one part out of that model and you don't have the same structure. We're never going to figure that out. The mind is the most complicated part of the human body and we only understand fifteen to twenty percent of it.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.