In the wake of the recent shootings, Avidly offers two essays about the challenge of reading Isla Vista:
- “The Mein Kampf of Isla Vista” by Kirsten Silva Gruesz
- “Guns ‘n’ Rakes” by Jonathan Beecher Field
The Mein Kampf of Isla Vista
By Kirsten Silva Gruesz
I couldn’t watch the Santa Barbara shooter’s videos, but I read the 141-page source text, My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger. Slate labels it a manifesto, and that might have sufficed if he’d dispatched the last forty pages to the world at large as his ranting murder-suicide note. But we shouldn’t overlook the author’s own genre tag: story. Along with its toxic brew of intersecting beliefs in the inferiority of women, “ugly Mexicans,” and “the descendants of slaves,” the document testifies to the author’s faith in the power of narrative itself. Ironically, it responds to the liberal nostrum that everyone has a story to tell. It’s a memoir: the Mein Kampf of today’s psychopath, the American mass shooter.
I’m opposed to glib comparisons to Nazism, but let me try to earn this one. The similarities arise from the queasiness one feels in touching it even virtually; from the genuinely vexed ethical question about whether one should read it at all. I didn’t read it expecting to gain unfettered access to the criminal mind or formulate a theory about What Went Wrong—and that isn’t a good way to approach Mein Kampf, either. Like all memoirs, MTW collocates remembered scenes that are artfully arranged to take on retrospective significance. For instance: a tearful moment at age six, when Elliot is not allowed on the dinosaur ride at Universal Studios, becomes an early sign of “all the things I’ll be denied in the future because of my height” (the bodies of adoring blonde girls, the consequent admiration of hunky jocks). Other memories, however, don’t get forced through the sieve of their future meaning, and are simply observed. If I’d been grading it, I would have written nice vivid detail here next to the descriptions of the helicopter decorations on his third-grade birthday cake; ; the vague sense of shame about the dingy apartment building his mother moves to after his parents divorce; the excitement of opening a random package of Pokemon cards to find a “shinie”—and a rare Charizard to boot. Despite the sometimes overwrought prose (“a dark story of sadness, anger, and hatred”), it would have been an acceptable first draft for a life-writing assignment.
We give college students such assignments to speed them on their journey from self-centeredness to self-awareness. By recognizing that they aren’t simply recalling truths but consciously constructing characters within a chosen narrative arc, they’re supposed to get some distance on their certainties, to relativize their anguish. The practice of life writing can channel the self-centeredness that is the natural condition of adolescence into the compassion that’s required for writing good, engaging fiction. If shooter types can be characterized by self-centeredness and lack of compassion, it’s unsettling to find one devoted to the very genre that’s designed to work through and beyond self-absorption in order to redress that lack. First-person narratives are always frantically trying to make us feel with.
The narrator—if we have enough distance yet to call him that—lacks self-awareness about many things, including the fact that displaying social status through conspicuous consumption is a choice, not an inevitability. Building on those earlier details about how a child comes to class consciousness, he writes about the black BMW: “I had been asking my parents for a more upper-class car ever since I found out there was a car hierarchy, and that some students at my college drove better cars than others.” I can imagine underlining I found out and better if I found this in a student paper, hopefully starting a conversation about how language can cement ideologies—or challenge them. But this isn’t a performance for the solo audience of me, as student papers are. You just don’t see many memoirs from people who believe their lives only have value to the degree that they can fly first class and wear a Hugo Boss shirt to a Hollywood premiere. If the genre is a peculiar blend of the performative and the introspective—challenging received truths, the memoirist must seek her own—what reason would such staunch conformists have to write one.
This narrator does have his own dissident truth to promote, and it’s a Mein Kampf moment. “Women are incapable of reason or thinking rationally. They are like animals . . . that is why they are attracted to barbaric, wild, beast-like men . . . women should not have the choice of who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilized men of intelligence.” But he arrives there in a narratively consistent way. It’s a small move from uncritically accepting a $1500 bottle of wine as a status marker to seeing women as status-granting toys, like the Val Surf skateboards he picked out when he was nine (a red one to keep at his father’s house, a gray one for his mother’s). “Wealth was the only way I could lose my virginity, the only way I could have the beautiful girlfriend I know I deserve.”
In the journey the narrator traces from average happy kid, to average lonely teenager, to over-the-edge-hater and self-appointed avenger of the fundamental unfairness of sex, he immerses himself in other worlds and narratives: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, “World of Warcraft,” A Song of Ice and Fire. I mention this not to suggest that reading or film-going or playing video games “cause” psychopathy, but because they are intertexts of what the shooter called his story. Memoirs, like all written genres, snatch up the bobbing cultural detritus around them, adapting styles, plots, discourses, Protocols. I’m not disturbed by what’s in that collection so much as by what isn’t: any cultural text with a significant female point of view, especially one that isn’t focused on becoming an object of male desire.
It goes beyond the presence or absence of strong female characters (how I’ve come to hate that phrase) or limited plots. Narrative perspective gives us ways to imagine the desires of others, and nearly all the available points of view in mass culture are male, doggedly hetero, and wholly invested in reproductive sex. Octavia Butler’s novels still haven’t made it to Hollywood. You can’t refute a conclusion like “women should not have the choice of who to mate with” very effectively if your world offers a paucity of other scripts. There’s nothing wrong with the fictions Elliot Rodger imbibed, but he—and all our children—grew up in a desert of ideas, a desert of empathy, a desert of social being.
Recalling a little girl who was his friend as a child, he writes: “All children, boys and girls, start out the same. We all start out innocent, and we all start out together. Only through the experiences and circumstances of growing up do we drift apart, form allegiances, and face each other as enemies. That is when wars happen.” That, too, is a freshman-comp passage, banal and true in equal parts. It might have been the prelude to a peace declaration, an insight arrived at through sifted experience and an imaginative foray into the feelings of others. Instead, he literalized the metaphor.
Kirsten Silva Gruesz: left-handed Irishman.
Guns ‘n’ Rakes
As a result of the most recent high profile mass murder in the US, I learned some new things. The most important was that our gun laws still suck. I also learned some new acronyms. The young man in California who hated women so much he killed several of them, not to mention some men who got in his way, and then himself, was linked to “online MRA and PUA communities.” Thanks to Google, I learned that MRA is “Men’s Rights activists, and PUA are “Pickup Artists.” You can go as far as you want down any number of rabbit holes to learn more, but basically (dismayingly) “MRAs” believe that feminism is a conspiracy to constrain and disenfranchise men, and feel that any move to improve legal/civil rights for women is an encroachment on their rights. This community, evidently, shares strong misogynist bonds with the PUA community. As the name suggests, “Pickup Artists” treat women — in the words of one XKCD commenter — As hack-able sex dispensers. In this view, there are tricks men can teach other men to “get” women to have sex with them, in the same way that one might learn a trick to get free candy from a vending machine. To be honest, my knowledge of this community is not very deep, and I’m happy to keep it that way. Amanda Marcotte’s American Prospect piece was plenty.
What did surprise me was how familiar some of the PUA language was. Familiar, because I’ve assigned novels with versions of it in many of the early American literature classes I teach. Many, if not most, pre-1800 American novels revolve around a seduction plot. The Coquette, (1797)by Hannah Webster Foster, is the one I teach most often. The plot concerns a young woman, Eliza Wharton, enjoined by her friends to accept the marriage proposal of one Rev. Boyer. Eliza, however, is fascinated by the more dashing Col. Sanford. Sanford is a pickup artist of the early national era, a self-styled rake. The novel is epistolary: each of the rivals has his own interlocutor to whom he narrates his pursuit of Eliza while Eliza and her friends write to one another. Boyer is terrible – a less charming version of Mr. Collins, but Sanford writes things like this: “But I fancy this young lady is a coquette; and if so, I shall avenge my sex, by retaliating the mischiefs, she meditates against us. Not that I have any ill designs; but only to play off her own artillery, by using a little unmeaning gallantry. And let her beware of the consequences.” (Letter VIII) Eliza’s friends try to warn her that Sanford is a “a professed libertine; by having but too successfully practiced the arts of seduction; by triumphing in the destruction of innocence and the peace of families!” (Letter IX)
This warning is a warrant for Sanford. He knows who he is, and he knows that Eliza knows who he is. He writes to his friend Deighton: “Her sagatious friends have undoubtedly given her a detail of my vices. If, therefore, my past conduct has been repugnant to her notions of propriety, why does she not act consistently, and refuse at once to associate with a man whose character she cannot esteem?” (Letter XXVIII) He articulates a view of heterosexual courtship as a contest between parties with antagonistic interests that sounds too familiar today. Sanford explains: “These qualifications are very alluring to the sprightly fancy of the fair. They think to enjoy the pleasures which result from this source; while their vanity and ignorance prompt each one to imagine herself superior to delusion; and to anticipate the honor of reclaiming the libertine, and reforming the rake!” (XXVIII) Challenge accepted, Sanford writes: “I have not yet determined to seduce her, though, with all her pretensions to virtue, I do not think it impossible. And if I should, she can blame none but herself, since she knows my character, and has no reason to wonder if I act consistently with it. If she will play with a lion, let her beware of his paw, I say.” (XXVIII) I won’t wreck the story in the hopes you’ll read if for yourself, but Sanford is not wrong to suggest that Eliza’s ongoing interactions with him will have consequences for her.
I keep teaching this novel because the language it uses to describe sexual behavior is helpfully antique. Eliza, the “Coquette” of the title, earns this label for her failure to rush into a marriage with a man she does not love. Eliza’s friends warn her that Sanford is a “rake.” With some help from the OED, the students can translate these terms into ones that are familiar for them. They get from “coquette” to “tease” (sometimes even “cocktease”) pretty easily, and from “rake” to “player” with no problem. Then, as now, language shapes perception of sexual behavior along gendered lines – have a great weekend, y’all! An occupational hazard of teaching early American literature is student complaints that the material is hard to relate to. With the Coquette, the problem can be the opposite. I’ve had at least one very good student clam up for the duration of class discussions of Coquette, because, she confided later, it was too much like the pressures she faced in her own life. This was in 2006, or about 210 years after Foster wrote this novel.
Sanford is a character in a novel written by a woman, and might not be a fair representation of 18th century male sexual mores. But Ben Franklin was real, and operated with a similar sexual ethos, viz his injunction to “rarely use venery, but for health or offspring.” Lord Chesterfield, whose letters to his illegitimate son might be the ur-pickup artist text, is real. It would be easy to look at the UCSB shooter and talk about YouTube, or PUA online forums, or The Internet, or Millennials. Certainly, these places helped this murderer cultivate his hatred of women, but his misogynist notions of heterosexual interaction are older as the nation itself.
It’s always tempting to decry the present historical moment as uniquely depraved. More specifically, it’s easy to look at the Isla Vista shooter and say something about kids today. But kids today are like that because we made them like that. If we cherish the hope of fewer shooting sprees in the future, fewer guns would help. It would also help to discourage one half of the population from thinking of the other half as mechanisms that should be destroyed if they fail to respond appropriately to certain stimuli. The United States would be a safer place if there were fewer guns. It would also help if there were fewer rakes.
Jonathan Beecher Field: Frothy and illiberal.