Elliot ran with the wind in the rolling hills of the West Sussex countryside. His kite bobbed and soared high above, a vibrant speck dotted on a cornflower sky. His father taught him how to fly a kite. Elliot was exhilarated, even as he feared a gale might carry his tiny four year-old body into the clouds.
His family moved from the idyllic English setting of his toddlerhood to sunny Woodland Hills, California when he was five. Elliot dozed most of the eleven-hour flight. When he awoke, he looked out the window and saw a vast stretch of pillowy clouds, wishing he could run along them like a frog leaping between lillypads.
Elliot took that same trip coming home from a Christmas vacation when he was twenty-one. He slept soundly, his belly full of red wine and fine cuisine from Heathrow Airport’s Upper Class lounge. Before landing in Los Angeles, he recorded a few videos of the descent on his iPhone. This time he looked down at the city and imagined he was a god with the supernatural power to annihilate everything in sight.
The following summer, Elliot drunkenly stumbled into a stranger’s house party and picked a fight with a flirting couple. The guy shrugged him off, suggesting he switch to drinking water. Fuming, Elliot stormed outside and climbed up on a ten-foot ledge that overlooked the street. Couples walked by linked arm-in-arm. Party-goers congregated on the lawn drinking from bottles and red cups. Elliot had never had a girlfriend or even a first date. He struggled all his life to make and keep friends. His bloodshot eyes surveyed them all with jealous rage. He laughed as he extended his arm and pantomimed shooting them.
A group of college kids joined him on the ledge, but they ignored him. Infused with Vodka courage, Elliot shouted insults. They just laughed. He lunged at the girls and tried to push them off. The guys fought him, and Elliot fell over the side in the scuffle, shattering his left ankle on the pavement.
His behavior became increasingly alarming. He splashed drinks on random people, followed strangers while cursing at them, skulked around sorority houses, uploaded worrisome videos on YouTube, posted his radical ideology on online forums, refused to take medication, and drunk-dialed his parents to wail about his miserable, lonely life. Privately, he was planning a mass murder, buying guns and ammunition, and learning to shoot.
On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded thirteen others before dying by suicide in the college town of Isla Vista. He wanted the world to understand his motivation. Elliot wrote a lengthy autobiography that detailed every sling and arrow of outrageous fortune he suffered at the hands of bullies and women. Less than an hour before his death, he emailed it to his parents, teachers, therapists, psychiatrists, and the media. The book, which he titled “My Twisted World,” was released to the public, and it became known as his manifesto.
Hints of trouble began at age seven, according to his parents, Peter and Chin Rodger. It was the same year they separated. Chin alleged in divorce documents that Elliot was a high-functioning autistic child. Peter disputed her claim, saying he hadn’t been part of any evaluation. He wanted to take Elliot to a child psychiatrist. As he grew up, doctors prescribed medications for anxiety and depression, but it wasn’t until Elliot was sixteen that he got a formal diagnosis: Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). It was a catch-all for patients whose symptoms didn’t fit tidily into other disorders, largely defined by what it wasn’t.
The ambiguity of PDD-NOS, along with its commonality of symptoms with Autism Disorder and Asperger Disorder, led to a combined umbrella term of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). If Elliot had been evaluated just a few years later, this is the diagnosis he likely would have received. The criteria for ASD is early onset of symptoms that cause significant impairment in social interaction. This can manifest as abnormal eye contact and body language, lack of facial expressions, and failure to initiate or respond in social situations. The obvious consequence is an inability to develop, maintain, and understand relationships. Elliot’s parents said that as a child he maintained good eye contact, but he had to be asked direct questions in a conversation. He spoke barely above a whisper, preferring to write things down instead. Even when Elliot was angry, he didn’t yell. He was unresponsive in class, often sitting alone. Sometimes he hid behind a building at recess. When he attended birthday parties, he wouldn’t participate in the activities.
ASD also requires at least two manifestations of “repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.” [source] This can be demonstrated by repetitive movements or speech and a rigid adherence to routine. There may also be hyper-reactivity to sensory input, such as sounds and textures. Peter and Chin described Elliot as having repetitive behaviors, like tapping his foot. His responses were often limited to the words “great” and “cool.” He covered his ears when he heard a loud noise. He refused sauces and foods with gooey textures. His dinner plate had to be in a particular spot. At school, Elliot sat in the same place on the classroom carpet, and he tended to stare at objects or off into space. Everything on his desk had to be arranged just so.
After the killings in Isla Vista, laypersons and mental health professionals agreed that Elliot exhibited familiar markers of ASD. They also speculated he had other psychological issues that weren’t diagnosed, such as Schizotypal Personality Disorder. To support their armchair diagnosis, they pointed to Elliot’s pervasive suspicion that others hated and judged him, his tendency toward magical thinking, avoidance of social situations, and constricted emotional expressions in his YouTube videos. Others asserted he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. As evidence, they pointed to his inflated ego (“I am the supreme gentleman”); sense of entitlement (“I deserve it more”); excessive attention seeking (“I came in through the front entrance so that everyone could look at my fabulous self”); profound jealousy (“by nature, I am a very jealous person”); and power fantasies (“I often fantasied about becoming powerful and inflicting suffering upon everyone who has wronged me in the past”).
While some recognized the traits of mental illness and called for better access to affordable mental healthcare, popular consensus wrote off Elliot Rodger as a misogynist, psychopath, and a monster. Frighteningly, other disenfranchised young men hailed him a hero. History will remember him as a mass murderer, but he was not always violent. Years before that bloody day in May, Elliot was just a boy in a field with a kite, his proud father running and cheering alongside him.
© 2017 by Melissa Choate. All rights reserved.