Updated: I made some edits after a discussion I had at Shakesville with Melissa McEwan and aphra_behn. Thank you for the feedback.
It goes without saying that I was a late bloomer. I didn't go on my first date until I was in 11th grade. After that date, both the girl I went out with and her 6'3", 260-pound brother told me not to ask her out again. More than a little threat was implied in the suggestion. I didn't go on my second date until 12th grade. Didn't have my first kiss until the second half of that year. I didn't lose my virginity until I was in college, at the age of 22. And I didn't have a serious girlfriend until the year after that.
And I wasn't exactly happy about any of this. I had grown up on a steady diet of movies where guys like me always got the girl, even over the jocks and popular kids. The movies taught me that it didn't matter that I didn't start out in the popular crowd, I would win the beautiful, popular girl just through the strength of my personality and my persistence. My high school was mostly white and mostly middle and upper class. There were poor and black students, but classes were highly segregated. Rich, popular, white kids were in the "advanced" classes and poor and black kids were in "basic" classes. I had a high IQ so even though I grew up in poor, mostly black, neighborhoods, I was put in the advanced classes.
So, I thought I was part of that group. I wasn't.
Not only was I poor, with the clothes to match, I was awkward. They didn't diagnose Asperger's then, but I had it. And that meant not picking up on social cues that others discovered easily, or it least it seemed to me it was easy for them. It also meant that I acted weird a lot of the time and was obsessed with pop culture things that everyone else wasn't into. I was, for lack of a better word, a geek.
But I didn't know that. And it caused me a lot of grief. For a lot of people, high school is the best time of their life. For me, it was the worst. I was the butt of a lot of jokes, many of them to my face. I was already over 6' in high school, so there wasn't any physical bullying, few kids were as tall as me, so I was left alone in that way.
And in pretty much every other way.
The movies had taught me, though, that I could overcome such things easily, if I wanted to, and land the popular girls and then live happily ever after. All it took was the Grand Gesture. All I had to do was fall in love with a girl, based solely on her appearance, make some kind of Grand Gesture that proved my love, and roll credits, I win.
Let's talk about "love at first sight" for a second here. It was such a embedded concept in popular culture at the time that I, and many others, believed that was the only "real" love. If you didn't fall in love at first sight, it wasn't actually love and you were settling for less. But as I grew older and more mature, I realize how dumb the concept is. For any human being, we're likely, throughout our lives, to be physically attracted to thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, if we're exposed to them. But pretty people, just like ugly people, are both good and bad, right and wrong for other individuals. You can't possibly know whether or not someone is worth talking to, much less falling in love with, based on first sight. It's not only a dumb concept intellectually, it leads to a lot of bad relationships, bad marriages, divorces, and, as is the topic of this essay, worse.
From a very early age, I was an adopter of the Grand Gesture method of pursuing women. In third grade, I fell in love with this girl named Pam (names changed to protect people who don't know any of this happened). I never really talked to her and she was way out of my league, already being the most popular girl in school. I didn't quite have the Grand Gesture down yet, but what I did was create a time capsule and buried it. The time capsule consisted of a block of wood upon which I wrote "Kenny loves Pam." I'm not sure what I was thinking in terms of how this was supposed to impress her, since no one would ever see it. Maybe I was supposed to let her know that I did it and then she would be so impressed that she would just fall in love with me. Roll credits.
By the next year and next school (poor people move a lot), I had mastered the Grand Gesture a bit more. By this time, I was in love with a girl named Rachel. This unrequited crush would last two years, which makes it both the longest time I had interest in someone before I was an adult, and kind of sad. The Grand Gesture thing came up each year at Valentines Day. Every year we had a card exchange where every kid put an envelope on the front of their desk and at the designated time, we walked around the room sticking our cards in our classmates' envelopes. Both years I got Rachel a card that wasn't one of the the cheap mass-produced cards with a picture of Snoopy or whatever cartoon character was popular at the time. These were expensive cards that cost several dollars each. And they professed my love or something like that. I don't really know how they made her feel because I didn't actually talk to her about any of this until 30 years later. I have a memory that after the second one, she came up and gave me a kiss on the cheek, but I think I made that up and my fantasy of what happened became my memory.
The Grand Gestures went on throughout high school (heck I still do them now), and they became bigger and better. And they didn't work because I didn't know any of these girls and what the movies don't tell you is that Grand Gestures only work in the real world if the girl likes you (or could like you). If not, they come across weird or creepy. But that didn't stop me at the time, I used them often with lots of different girls, heck I went as far as asking the girl who would eventually be our senior year homecoming queen out via, I kid you not, something called a Bunnygram. She politely turned me down.
And I developed a reputation for being this weird guy who asked people out who he shouldn't be asking out. Not necessarily because they were "out of my league," although that was a factor, but because I didn't know any of these women, I had never talked to them, and it was strange to reveal "feelings" for them when they didn't know me and I didn't know them.
The rejections, not surprisingly, piled up.
And they didn't feel good. I began to get a lot of negative feelings. There was no one to guide me. No one to tell me what I was doing wrong. No one to help me figure out how to do things right. Resentment grew. Negativity grew. Hate grew.
I was at a turning point. I actually frequently had fantasies of walking into the classroom, pulling out a shotgun, and starting to blow away all the people who rejected me and laughed at me. And this was the 80s, before school shootings were a big thing. A few years later, Leonardo DiCaprio acted out almost my exact fantasies in the movie Basketball Diaries and I was like, yeah, that's what I was thinking about. An even more frequent fantasy was that I wished everyone would go away and that I would have the planet to myself and I could do whatever I want and nobody would laugh at me. That fantasy was so prevalent for a few years, I later began a novel on that exact topic.
So why didn't I do it? Guns were readily available. I grew up in the South, I knew where I could get a gun anytime I wanted. I even stole a gun out of an unlocked car once. I had no intention of using it, I stole it to sell and I only personally held it for a few minutes. But the point is, I had the hatred, I had the untreated mental disorder, I had access to the guns. So why didn't I become Elliott Rodger?
I don't know.
It's absolutely the case that I had a level of hatred for women (and "jocks") and blamed them for not wanting me when they wanted these other guys who I thought were vastly inferior people to me (sound familiar?). But I didn't go that route at all. I was not then, nor have I ever been violent towards a woman (although there were a few times when, while I intended no threat, my size, my tone of voice, and my behavior were threatening, regardless of my intent).
Maybe part of it was that same popular culture that gave me those false expectations gave me other values, too. My parents certainly didn't play a significant role in it, they were largely absentee, even when they were around. But for every John Hughes movie that told me stalking was okay or Revenge of the Nerds that glossed over rape, there were other influences. Marvel comics, particularly the X-Men, were a big influence on my values.
Kitty Pryde was then and is still now, one of my favorite characters ever in any format. I wanted to be like her, even though she had among the weaker power sets in all of comics. She was the smart, clever one. As hard as it seems to believe today, in the early days, Wolverine didn't kill. There was always this fundamental battle between his beserker side, which wanted to kill, and his joining of the X-Men, where killing was forbidden and he fought the battle internally and usually won. That was important. He was an early role model, because I was half-Canadian and he was from the land of my father.
But in the comics I read, and I read a lot of them, good guys didn't hurt women. Women were part of the team, or leaders of the team (Storm led the X-Men for much of my youth). Spider-Man was a big influence and he was a geek who got the girl by becoming a better version of himself and by living by a strict moral code that didn't allow him to engage in violence unless he needed to. Mr. Miyagi taught that violence was a last resort. In Stephen King novels that I devoured, only the bad guys hurt women.
But that wouldn't have been enough if I was seriously unhinged. Some of these guys that do snap have very clearly consumed some of these same media sources and it didn't stop them.
I think maybe starting college was a tipping point. For me it was a tipping point in the right way. Around the time I was a freshman or sophomore in college, the movie Higher Learning came out and, spoiler alert, one of the main plots is a white guy who starts college, has no real connection to anyone else until he is recruited by skinheads and goes on a violent, racist shooting spree that claims the life of at least one woman. It was an eerie parallel to the type of story we've seen so many times since then and I was basically in that same situation, a very malleable person. I already had pretty strong anti-racist views at that point, so I would've never fallen into the movie character's trap, but I could've gone down a bad path pretty easily.
Oddly enough, the thing that set me down the right path was my cousin's name appearing on a pinboard in the student union. I was a lonely college freshman walking through the student union and read the pinboard. There was a list of student government committee chairs and I happened to see my cousin's name on the list. So I went and volunteered for SGA since that was the only person I knew on campus. Turned out that he had actually stopped going to the school the previous semester and the flyer was old, but I decided to stick with SGA because I had nothing better to do. I also got a work study job on campus. In both environments, the majority of people around me were women. And they talked to me. And once I got past my awkwardness, I was able to talk to them, too. I suddenly had a life filled with women, most of whom I interacted with in ways that had nothing to do with dating and sex. My life was much richer from that point on, once I opened myself up to the half of the population I had ignored or viewed only as potential love interests. And, within a few months, I went on a few dates.
It turned out that the key to meeting women was treating them like human beings and just talking to them.
I won't say that the road wasn't rocky after that -- it was. You don't go from "no idea how to talk to or interact with women" to Alan Alda overnight. I continued to fail a lot, both in meeting women, but also with what happened after I met them. But the next few years gave me enough confidence and knowledge of relationships to meet the woman that I would eventually marry. In the long run, that didn't work out, either. But, during that time, I learned to understand a lot about women that I didn't before and the hate and the blame and the fear slipped away. That isn't to say that in moments of weakness some of those feelings don't come back. They do, but now I'm equipped with the skills to deal with them. Friends and counseling and successful and unsuccessful dates and relationships since then taught me a lot that would've been very valuable when I was younger.
But I got lucky, I think. Elliott Rodger didn't.
I wonder what would've happened to me if I had been like the other men in my family and not gone to college. I wonder what would've happened if I had gone to college, but I hadn't seen my cousin's name on that board or gotten that work study job that allowed me to meet women and get to know and understand and stop fearing and hating them. I wonder if I could've been the one to unleash that kind of evil upon the world. And while I've come to the conclusion that I wouldn't have ever gone down that path, this post isn't really about me, it's about the guys that didn't have my luck, or my values, or my aversion to guns and violence. It's about the Elliott Rodgers of the world.
What can we do to help them and prevent them from going off the deep end? One major thing we can do is start teaching boys at very young ages that women are human beings deserving of equality and respect, that having female friends and coworkers isn't a consolation prize, it's an important part of life than can only enrich one's life and make it more fully rounded. I'll wager there aren't too many men engaging in violence who have a wide variety of women in their lives--family, friends, coworkers--that they respect and engage with beyond just sex and dating behaviors.
While I have no sympathy for misogynistic, racist, spree killers, I do have a lot of sympathy for their victims and a lot of hope that we can, if we reach out in the right ways, prevent weak, misguided, lost souls from becoming murderers. Of that I have no doubt. I was one of those weak, misguided, lost souls and I went down a better path. But I didn't do it alone.
And the next Elliott Rodger won't be prevented if he is left alone, either. He's out there somewhere right now, dying for someone to reach out to him and help him get past that inner turmoil.
Let's figure out a way to make sure he gets that help.