The Isla Vista Shooter: This is Not the Autism Spectrum

The mass murderer displayed malignant narcissism, envy, and entitlement that are not typical with his reported autism spectrum diagnosis. Misunderstanding mental illness introduces potential for misplaced fear.
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Flowers placed through a bullet hole in a deli window where part of the Isla Vista mass shooting took place. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

In the interest of prevention in the aftermath of the horrific killing spree in Isla Vista, California, last weekend, the public is again looking to mental health experts for a window into the state of mind of a mass murderer. This time, because the assailant, 22, left us with abundant personal information in his harrowing YouTube videos and 140-page manifesto, My Twisted World, we have an opportunity to analyze a state of mind. The detailed and transparent nature of his videos and life story, as well as their ease of access on the Internet, provide mental health, public policy, and law enforcement experts with an unprecedented opportunity to find some insight in the psyche of a mass murderer.

It is doubtful that his true diagnosis was “high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome,” (a diagnosis which has been phased out and is subsumed under that of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)) as alluded to by the family attorney. His behaviors are much more consistent with malignant narcissism.

Making the case for the inappropriateness of an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis in Elliott Rodger’s case is critically important to address the public misconception that autistic individuals have an unusually high potential for violence. One in 68 children currently has a diagnosis of ASD, so the potential for misplaced fear is great. In fact, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that people afflicted with autism spectrum disorder are less prone to engage in any criminal behavior compared with the general population.

Nor, for that matter, do autistic individuals typically hyper-focus on their appearance, crave admiration and sex, act as if they are consumed by envy and the need for revenge, desperately try to undo shame and humiliation by shaming and humiliating others, or harbor grandiose fantasies of fame and fortune—all of which percolated in the mind of Rodger. We are squarely in the realm of pathological narcissism here. 

By definition, people afflicted with ASD are under-concerned with their appearance, not over-concerned. They exhibit a fundamental deficit in wondering about what people think of them and absorbing and learning from social feedback. They are often “fashion blind,” looking scruffy, or in the habit of making a habit of dressing with bland clothes that become a daily uniform to be worn. This was not Rodger. In My Twisted Story, his antidote to feeling inferior and invisible when he went off to college was to buy and wear name-brand clothes: “When I wore these to school, I saw I was wearing better jeans than most guys, and that made me have a slightly higher sense of self-worth. …Doing this started a new obsession for me. I became more obsessed with my appearance.”

He was so obsessed with his appearance that when he was in shock after being beaten up by partygoers whom he had provoked, limping around with a broken leg, his main concern was locating the Gucci sunglasses his mother had purchased for him. Rodger’s videos and personal story are rife with references that substantiate his status consciousness, materialism, and vanity, often with a racist and misogynistic bent. ASD individuals do not obsess over Hugo Boss and Armani threads, BMWs, winning the lottery, and insisting that one’s mother marry a multi-millionaire, all of which Rodger apparently did. They obsess about quirky topics like dinosaurs, Civil War memorabilia, names of exotic trains and planes, and the like.

Neither are those ascribed an ASD diagnosis consumed by feelings of envy. In fact, to feel envious in the first place there has to be conscious and unconscious social comparison going on, which is atypical of ASD people, who tend to come across as socially ill-attuned. Being psychologically caught up with admirable traits and social options that others have—that you feel deprived of—reflects a degree of social awareness and “mind reading” that should rule out ASD. No real digging around is necessary to uncover the role envy played in Rodger’s life.

Close to the beginning of his manifesto he confesses that “[j]ealousy and envy … those are two feelings that would dominate my entire life and bring me immense pain. The feelings of jealousy I felt at nine-years-old were frustrating, but they were nothing compared to how I would feel once I hit puberty and have to watch girls choosing other boys over me. Any problem I had at nine-years-old was nirvana compared to what I was doomed to face.”

Rodger’s envy was far beyond the outskirts of normal. It was not the sort of “benign” envy where a person is motivated to take active steps to procure life advantages and personal qualities others have that he or she also wishes to possess. It was “malignant” envy, the sort involving feeling superior to others and perfectly justified in showing contempt toward them for having life advantages and personal qualities that one feels entitled to, but does not possess. Others’ apparent material wealth, popularity, social ease, and active sex life, were a constant source of resentment for Rodger.

Over time, his desire to spoil others’ successes in these areas evolved into a full-blown megalomaniacal effort to assault and kill others whom he believed possessed the goods that he was entitled to, but felt deprived of. He admitted to his vengeful envy at a Katy Perry concert where he ogled those around him: “I couldn’t help but feel a bitter form of envy at all of the rich kids at the concert. They grew up in lavish mansions, indulged in excessive opulence, and will never have to worry about anything in their pleasurable, hedonistic lives. I would take great pleasure in watching those rich families burn alive.”

As his life went into a downwards spiral, Rodger’s private contempt for loving couples turned into outward aggression as he followed and threw iced tea at a couple he witnessed passionately kissing in a Domino’s Pizza restaurant. His malignant envy incrementally turned murderous. When told by his stepmother that his younger brother Jazz was signed by an agent and soon to star in television commercials, Rodger surmised this would lead to his brother becoming sexually attractive to girls, thus destined to lose his virginity, both of which Rodger himself failed at.

His thoughts turned barbaric: “It is very unfair how some boys are able to live such pleasurable lives while I never had any taste of it, and now it has been confirmed to me that my little brother will become one of them. He will become a popular kid who gets all the girls. Girls will love him. He will become one of my enemies. That was the day that I decided I would have to kill him on the Day of Retribution.”

Malignant envy at the very extreme end can fuel murderous fantasies and actions—the inner diatribe is one of “if I cannot gain or possess what I’m entitled to, yet people who are inferior to me somehow gain or possess these very qualities or experiences, those inferior people do not deserve to live.” These morbid thoughts might occur to a cunning, vindictive, pathological narcissist, not a socially naïve person with ASD.

Another psychological dynamic of Rodger’s that does not fit with ASD is his vacillating between prideful self-aggrandizement and shameful self-loathing. Among his opening lines in My Twisted Story is the following puffed up one: “In this magnificent story, I will disclose every single detail about my life, every single significant experience that I have pulled from my superior memory …"

Indeed, the very fact that he wrote such a detailed account of his life and forwarded it to media channels is implicit proof that Rodger saw himself as a larger than life figure, bent on infamy, getting his day in the press, not in court. In one video Rodger catches his reflection on his car window and muses: “There’s me, in all my fabulousness. Elliot Rodger. I am so awesome.”

However, his grandiose self-image seems fleeting and he needs outward injections of admiration and glory to keep him from descending into a pit of shameful despair. This is a common dynamic among people suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. Rodger keeps his fragile grandiose self-image alive by frequent trips to Arizona to buy Megamillions Lottery tickets which stoke fantasies that he will be reborn to a life of wealth and sexual opportunity.

“I knew right then and there that this jackpot was meant for me. Who else deserved such a victory? I had been through so much rejection, suffering, and injustice in my life, and this was to be my salvation … I imagined all the amazing sex I would have with a beautiful model girlfriend I would have once I became a man of wealth.”

Each time Rodger finds out that his ticket is not the winning one he becomes demoralized and depressed, until he can muster up the energy to spend ever-increasing amounts of money on lotteries with even larger monetary prizes.

Shame is always below the surface for Rodger. Shame happens to be one of the so-called “social emotions” underdeveloped in ASD people insofar as it evinces a capacity to see oneself in the eyes of an imagined other, even if that imagined other happens to be dismissive or scornful. We discover that after being ignored by a pretty girl as he was walking on campus, Rodger rants: “She kept on walking and didn’t even have the grace to respond to me. How dare she! That foul bitch. I felt so humiliated that I went to one of the school bathrooms, locked myself in a toilet stall, and cried for an hour.” He continues: “Every day that I spent at my college, the more inferior and invisible I felt. I felt like such an inferior mouse whenever I saw guys walking with beautiful girls.”

The sense one gets reading and digesting My Twisted Life is that Rodger lives with the constant dread he will be exposed and made to feel small and inadequate. In other words, Rodger is shame prone. When girls refuse to pay attention to him, when he gives up skateboarding because friends are outperforming him, when he is forced to work in a very-short lived menial job at the airport, when (out of economic necessity) he moves to an apartment complex in less-than-luxurious surroundings, shame is triggered. To feel ashamed is to suddenly and painfully have one’s “basic flaws” exposed for all to see. There is a debilitating sense that one is defective, completely unattractive, or unworthy of love.

The subjective experience of being flooded with shame renders a person disorganized and helpless. There may be a distressing awareness of the frailty of one’s self esteem, whereby others have the power to suddenly and massively alter one’s self experience for the worse. The American psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut, labeled such experiences “narcissistic injuries.” Emotionally speaking, one is brought to one’s knees by a humiliating experience, painfully flooded with shame.

A frequently employed coping mechanism is to convert shame into rage, to dominate and seek revenge against the person perceived to have provoked the shame. Kohut considered this “narcissistic rage,” where revenge is a desperate attempt to undo the overwhelming humiliation one feels by “turning the tables” and making them experience this excruciatingly painful emotional state. In the act of converting shame into rage the person works overtime to reinstate a feeling of control and dominance in the face of emotional danger through attacking others and provoking feelings of shame in them.

Rodger’s My Twisted Life is littered with these shame-rage cycles. While strutting down the red carpet (which he smugly admits was, in reality, a black carpet), wearing his “extravagant Hugo Boss shirt” at the premiere of a television show he and his parents had VIP passes to, Rodger angrily recollects: “As we were lining up for our walk on the black carpet, some dumb bitch of a security guard had the audacity to question ‘who the hell are these people.’ This made me so enraged that I almost said, ‘we are people who are more important than you, you ugly cunt.’”

The final, intolerable blow to Rodger’s pride and locus of his eventual urge to seek horrific revenge occurred at a party before his 22nd birthday, where he was determined to lose his virginity. Instead, Rodger felt snubbed by the female partygoers (perhaps because of the characteristic smug, haughty, sinister look he sports in his videos), and his anger mounted. Rodgers remembers a few attractive girls laughing at him as he “tried to act arrogant and cocky.” Fueled by narcissistic rage and alcohol, he tried unsuccessfully to push them off a ten-foot ledge. Some young men intervened and pushed him off the ledge instead.

Although his first instinct was to flee the scene, he returned to look for his Gucci sunglasses, and tried to fight off some partygoers who wanted to insult him further. Rodger was severely beaten, but later claimed, "the worst part of this whole ordeal was not getting beaten up, oh no. It was the fact that no one showed any concern … not one girl, showed an ounce of concern for me. They didn't care. No one cared about me. I was all alone."

His shame and humiliation crescendo and Rodger turns the tables in his mind to seek murderous revenge. “The highly unjust experience of being beaten and humiliated in front of everyone in Isla Vista, and their subsequent lack of concern for my well-being, was the last and final straw. I actually gave them all one last chance to accept me, to give me a reason not to hate them, and they devastatingly blew it back in my face. I gave the world too many chances. It was time for Retribution.”

As the weeks unfolded Rodger picked May 24th as his “Day of Retribution.” News reports state that at around 9:30 p.m. Rodger stabbed to death three people in his apartment before driving to the nearby Alpha Phi Sorority house at the University of California, Santa Barbara across from which he shot and killed Katie Cooper, 22, and Veronica Weiss, 19. A third female victim was repeatedly shot but survived. Had someone opened the door at the sorority house when Rodger aggressively pounded on it, the outcome would have been even more abhorrent and unthinkable.

He then drove around the small college town of Isla Vista on a shooting rampage, killing 20-year-old Christopher Martinez at a deli, and injuring thirteen more, mostly due to gunshot wounds, or by being hit by his speeding vehicle. Police reported that the nightmarish event ended with Rodger taking his own life by shooting himself in the head in the driver’s seat of the BMW 3 series Coupe that he had earlier hoped would be the very “high-class car” that would raise his status in the “car hierarchy” and give him the sex appeal he craved.

A less conspicuous tragedy that can be extrapolated from Rodger’s extensive narrative—if the information contained in it is valid—is how he was misdiagnosed with high-functioning autism.

His obvious pathological narcissism seems to have been overlooked by the various counselors and mental health specialists who were enlisted by his parents to intervene. Rodger makes a reference to Regional Center in his manifesto, which is the state institution in California set up to provide services to individuals with autism.

The counselors assigned to help him “build social skills,” by his account, are all young and inexperienced. The professionalism of the interventions Rodger received will likely come under scrutiny in the coming weeks. Rodger perceived one 25-year-old counselor as acting “more like a friend” who took him to restaurants and went on hikes with him. Another counselor, in response to Rodger probing about his sex life, apparently disclosed that he had slept with four girls in Isla Vista, which simply galvanized Rodger’s envy.

Rodger remembers his psychiatrist acting dismissively “in his struggle against such a cruel and unjust world” by pushing to put him on Risperidone, an anti-psychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia and people with extreme agitation. His last counselor appears to have been a 23-year-old UCSB student who accompanied him to coffee shops and volunteer jobs. Rodgers says of this: “Nothing conducive to attaining the life I desire came out of these meetings, but the social interaction he provided was pleasant, and it gave me an outlet to express myself.” 

As mental health, public policy, and law enforcement experts flock to authenticate and analyze Rodger’s videos and extensive personal narrative, My Twisted World, consideration should be given to the accuracy of the diagnosis of high-functioning autism he was ascribed. On the one hand, this is important to stem the tide of any unobjective linkages the general public makes with this diagnosis and violent tendencies.

On the other hand, it is important because a false autism diagnosis may have funneled Rodger into an ineffective and unproductive course of “social skills”—interventions by paraprofessionals undereducated and undertrained to detect, let alone provide, the intensive psychotherapy necessary to treat something of the order of pathological narcissism.

As a society, if we have any chance at preventing the abhorrent mass shootings that are an all-too-frequent occurrence, we have to look not only at the availability of mental health services to at-risk people, but at the quality and sophistication of the services we provide. And, if there is to be anything learned from the Isla Vista tragedy it is that giving someone prone to malignant envy and narcissistic rage relatively free access to guns can be a deadly combination.

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Enrico Gnaulati Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Pasadena, California. His work has been featured on Al Jazeera America, KPCC Los Angeles, and Salon. He is the author of Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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