There’s a Difference Between Misogyny and Severe Mental Illness

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As soon as the murders in Isla Vista were reported on Saturday, everyone flocked online to find out what they could about Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator. He had left quite a trail — a series of online postings, videos, and a 137-page manifesto, all of which spoke to roiling sexual frustration and a hatred of women. Commentators quickly put this incident into what they saw as its proper context. His rampage, they argued, could be tied to the proliferation of a very modern, virulent form of internet-fueled misogyny — the men’s rights movement, the pickup artist community (and the community of men who feel like it failed them), and other breeds of sleazy women-haters enraged at the progress women have made in recent decades. This was an act of misogynistic extremism, some insisted, and to ascribe it to mental illness is to ignore the ravages of misogyny and stigmatize the mentally ill. In response to the tragedy, the #YesAllWomen hashtag — yes, all women have to deal with pervasive misogyny in its myriad forms — went viral.

The problem is that when you look closely at the evidence available so far, Rodgers’s mental health really does appear to have been a much bigger factor than any cultural explanation. Yes, by the end of his life he had dabbled in online men’s rights and pickup artist forums online and adapted some of their language, but it appears that this happened after years of bottomless anger and frustration had already warped him into a dysfunctional person. These communities warranted only a single, fleeting mention in a manifesto that goes into painstakingly meticulous detail about Rodger’s grievances and aspirations. Rodger was frustrated and outraged as a result of what he saw as a neverending stream of rejection. The manifesto gives off the distinct impression that just about everything which happened to him fueled his hatred and anger — that daily life tortured him.

If we mix this up — if we treat Rodger primarily as a creature of misogynistic culture rather than prolonged, under-treated mental illness — we miss an important difference between everyday misogyny in all of its ugly forms and the sorts of massacres perpetrated by the Elliot Rodgers and Adam Lanzas of the world. While it's true that it's always a good time to talk about misogyny, that doesn't mean a mass killing like this one is best explained by it.

By his own account, Rodger was a kid who repeatedly dropped out of college courses because he couldn’t stand to be so close to attractive women, especially ones who had boyfriends; who threw coffee on couples because of how much pain it caused him to watch them simply be together; who ran to his room crying to call his mother after finding out his new roommates weren’t virgins like he was; who fantasized about becoming all-powerful and brutally punishing his perceived oppressors; and who repeatedly drove to Arizona to buy Powerball tickets since he was convinced he’d win the lottery and that this would end his loneliness. We can’t diagnose exactly what was wrong with him — it’s been reported that he had a mild form of what used to be called Asperger’s, which isn’t usually associated with violence — but this is the type of behavior associated with mental illness.

If, as the facts suggest, he was mentally ill, he’d fit in with a lot of other recent mass killers, from Adam Lanza (complications related to autism) to James Holmes (schizophrenia) to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (psychopathy and depression, respectively). People with mental illness are not automatically violent, of course, and it's important to note that they are more likely to be victims of violence than the population at large. But it’s also clear that the mixture of unchecked mental illness and adolescent male tumult can be a supremely dangerous one. In Rodger’s case, the various psychiatrists and counselors his parents hired clearly weren’t enough to keep him stable.

The sorts of misogyny getting swept into the conversation about Rodger’s final, horrific act — everything from street harassment to date rape — are not primarily about mental illness. Plenty of otherwise healthy, normal-seeming men (they are mostly men) commit these acts. This is a key distinction that’s lost when we treat Rodger as simply sitting at the far end of the misogyny spectrum, rather than as a dangerous aberration.

A great deal of very important feminist activism is premised on the notion that men can control themselves. That’s sort of the whole point: With the right kind of education or the right engendering of empathy or the right nudging of social norms, the level of street harassment or rape and everything else can be reduced; men who might otherwise be drawn to the men’s rights movement will see it for the cesspool it is. And, acting in part on this belief that things can get better, feminist commentators and journalists have brought much-needed attention to the ugly world of online misogyny (everyone who has ever used the internet should read Amanda Hess’s Pacific Standard story about the online harassment women — particularly those with the temerity to write about feminism — face).

This is all vital work — but does it apply to Elliot Rodger? His online postings and videos and, most saliently, his manifesto, scream out that his mind was in another place, that he was beyond education. Even if his obsessions had to do with sex, and even if in online posts he mouthed the same anti-feminist tripe men’s rights losers everywhere employ, the difference between him and the average misogynistic forum denizen is one of kind, not degree. His beliefs only overlapped with those of the men’s rights movement in the crudest sense. The words “men’s rights” and “feminism” don’t even show up once in his manifesto; PUAHate.com, the site most closely linked to him in the aftermath of the killings, warrants two paragraphs that start on page 117 of 137. If these subcultures played a meaningful role in sharpening him into a murderer, why do we hear so little about them in what he saw as his posthumous magnum opus?

Because he wasn’t a failed pickup artist and he wasn’t a men’s rights activist. He didn’t actually even try to pick up women — instead, he went to places where they hung out and then got outraged, often to the point of tears, that they never approached him. He had no agenda, in short, other than his endless, futile desire to have sex, and dark, clashing fantasies of actually outlawing sex altogether because it’s such a “barbaric” act. Yes, he targeted a “hot” sorority in his massacre, but he ended up killing more men than women — he found a way to hate just about everybody. He probably did internalize certain aspects of the culture around him — obviously his sickness and fantasies would have taken on a different form if he’d been raised in, say, a devoutly religious community rather than a secular and sex-focused one — but if we want to understand why he did what he did, studying misogyny isn't the best place to start.