It’s Almost Two Months Later and I Still Relate to Elliott Rodger
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It’s Almost Two Months Later and I Still Relate to Elliott Rodger


My first thought when I saw the YouTube videos produced by Elliott Rodger was that if we had lived in the same place and I was his age, I probably would have made myself sexually available to him.

Relating to Rodger

Rodger, if you don’t know by now, was the 22-year-old who murdered six people near the UC Santa Barbara campus before killing himself late last month. In the videos he uploaded to YouTube in the weeks and days before the tragedy, he bemoans the sight of pretty blondes and the pain of his longing for them, describing feelings of rejection and unfulfilled desire—feelings I fearfully understand. Lonely and desirous of connection in my 20s, I made myself sexually available to nearly anyone who’d have me. You might say I was that girl. The pretty girl with the loser boyfriend. The intelligent young woman who did so well in school but who, in her personal life, always made such bad decisions. The slutty girl so desperate to be loved.

Elliott Rodger was mentally ill, and though I am not, Rodger and I were raised in the same “know thy selfie” culture—a society obsessed with wealth and accumulation, celebrity and reality TV celebrity indulgence. In the months since Rodger’s killing spree, mental illness in teens has been, unsurprisingly, a hot topic. NBC News just pointed out that even when teens can receive treatment for mental illness, their fear about being labeled as different and skill at subterfuge can mean either that no one will know they’re suffering or the treatment itself will make them feel ostracized. Rodger’s father is doing his part to try to help the cause; in a letter he wrote last week, he said, “My duty now is to do as much as I can to try and stop this from happening again.” To that end, he’s created a website, AskForHelp, to provide resources for mental health and a place to share stories.

Growing Up with High Expectations

While there are obvious psychological explanations for Rodger’s behavior, it is also true that we are social beings and think as we are taught. I imagine that Rodger, the son of a Hollywood director, was taught to worship the right angle and good light. Growing up just outside the frame, I imagine he had wanted desperately, somehow, to put himself in the picture. Because we are living, breathing human beings and not still images, I imagine that must have taken tremendous energy for Rodger to hold the certain perfect image of himself. I don’t need to imagine but know from experience how exhausting this effort feels. I know that I’ve felt at times, like Rodger, as if I were “rotting in loneliness.”

Creating Celebrity for Ourselves

“Piece of shit in the center of the universe” is a phrase you’ll hear often in 12-step meetings. It’s used to describe the kind of self-obsession mixed with self-loathing that I know well, although prior to recovery I may not have recognized the self-loathing part. One personality disorder attributed to Rodger is narcissism—which is described as repressed self-hatred that has led to self-absorption, grandiosity and shallowness. Though I’m not a narcissist—not, at least, according to my therapist (and trust me, I’ve asked)—I can recognize my narcissistic tendencies. Perhaps this is true for anyone who participates in the making of media—which, because of social media, is really all of us now: thanks to Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, through conscientiously crafted status updates and images carefully chosen, we each construct a self narrative which becomes, in some sense, our identity. We live in a world of curated authenticity, one that some of us are savvy enough to know is not to be trusted but that we ourselves perpetuate, even when we are trying to be real. Even in recovery we are encouraged to “act as if.”

There’s a fine line between self-exploration and self-obsession, an only subtle difference between a healthy interest in maintaining one’s social identity and a desperate attempt at seeking external validation. Like anyone, I feel occasionally driven by my need for connection and a desire for approval. At times in my life, these drives have seemed in direct conflict with each other, and have caused me to do things I look back on with terror and shock. When I was active in my addiction, I hurt people, sometimes intentionally. Regrettable sexual encounters were my favorite form of escape. I risked my own and other people’s health and lives, and I felt no remorse. I did not allow myself to feel much of anything. As a result, I did not understand or respect consequence. I did not know nor believe in the value of human life.

Actually Feeling Feelings

American scholar and public speaker Brené Brown links experiences of loneliness to perfectionism and an inability to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in a culture that denies the truth of our experiences and urges us to numb out rather than experience strong feelings such as pain or its flipside: joy. Sometimes, even knowing that being seen authentically is precisely the antecedent to my suffering, I find it difficult to just be myself. I am fearful of what is under my surface, of who or what I might be if I were not “acting as if.” I fear I might be rejected, as I was in the last years of my drinking—and perhaps rightly so. I am sometimes so adverse to my most primitive of impulses, those wordless sensations of desire or fear, that I hide the truth of them, even from myself. However normal, I am taught by this culture that my untidy feelings are unreal or else abnormal or inordinate. And yet, airbrushing away feelings only make them worse. Pretending negative feelings don’t exist makes them all the more unbearable.

Learning How to Be Human

When it comes to negative feelings, it sometimes feels as if I cannot contain them. But I can—we can, together—and recovery taught me that. Whether in 12 step, or individual or group therapy, it happens first in relation to one another. In these rooms, we create what professionals call “safe containers”—places where an individual can express his or her feelings and emotions, however untidy, and not be rejected. Being in a place where our feelings are tolerated, we learn to become a place like that for ourselves. As we learn to tolerate our feelings, our bodies become our own “safe containers.” We start treating them with dignity. We begin to realize the value of human life.

In a “know thy selfie” culture, no one can be trusted, not even ourselves; we are all, always—however inadvertently—skating that fine line between cultivating friendships and collecting fans. But in recovery, we are not fans nor friends, but fellows. I know that it’s not popular to feel sympathy for a monster, but I do. I’ve met many. Recognizing our sameness and seeking to understand even the worst of one another is in our common good.

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.