As a student at UCSB I lived in Isla Vista. IV is as close to a collegiate paradise as you can get. I constantly tell family friends to send their kids there because it was such a great experience for pretty much everyone I know who went there. The combination of a UC education, living on the beach, the hills a few minutes’ drive away and throngs of young people everywhere makes it a special place. I still have several friends who live in Isla Vista and I visit frequently. In fact, a large group of my friends usually holds a reunion in the area on Memorial Day weekend every year. A wedding between two friends who met at UCSB meant the venue was moved this year. Otherwise we would have all been a couple of miles away.
When I heard about the shooting I immediately knew what the streets if IV would have looked like on a Friday night – students riding bikes to parties, picking up alcohol, getting a last minute bite to eat before looking for some fun, others would be coming back from the library after a long day of studying. IV is one of few places in which bikes have the right of way (the local Sheriffs would disagree, but it is the de facto rule). The thought of a car driving at speed through IV is scary. The thought of a gunman in that car is unfathomable.
I’ve spent the past few days thinking about this rampage. How could anyone do this?
Some have pointed to misogyny as a reason. I’m not a mental health professional, but having grown up around a lot of people whose backgrounds mirror that of the killer (from wealthy parts of Southern California and ending up in Santa Barbara for college), and having read through much of his manifesto, I have a different take.
To be clear, I do not sympathize with the killer at all. I do not think what he did was just in any way. I think it was horrendous, but I also think attempting to understand it is a worthy exercise.
Read any page of the killer’s manifesto and you will see the word “sex”. He becomes obsessed with sexuality and relationships. It appears to me that the killer’s obsession with lack of sex as a reason for his rage is a red herring. It is his own retroactive Freudian self-analysis going back to childhood that has been sullied by an adult lens.
Sex is symbolic of love, which is symbolic of the deepest kind of acceptance. Throughout the manifesto he describes becoming enraged when he saw couples being affectionate toward each other. He later speaks of wanting to lure beautiful people to his apartment and kill them first because he assumes they have the best sex lives.
Without a doubt the killer was brilliant. He saw himself as an ubermensch. Perhaps the only thing he failed to capture was why other people didn’t see and treat him as such.
The irony is striking and tragic. The killer was handsome, smart, and came from a wealthy family. That put him in the minority of how American society (however wrongly) evaluates males as suitable mates. He was, on the surface at least, more sexually desirable than many of the men around him.
He describes his loneliness and isolation while at the same saying the sorority he was targeting was full of women who “would” have rejected him. His self-loathing was so deep that he set out to kill those who had not yet wronged him in retribution for all those who, in his mind, had.
If you take gender out of the equation this goes far deeper than misogyny. He felt he was the victim of a conspiracy of sorts. In his mind, men and women alike rejected him as a viable member of society, but women rejecting him made him less than human. His words: “The females of the human species have never wanted to mate with me, so how could I possibly consider myself part of humanity?” (p. 135).
Dating in Isla Vista can be humbling for anybody. The volume of desirable prospects seems outweighed by the competition, all of whom seem to have an edge. However, the idea that good looking people have robust sex lives while average looking people (with whom the killer seems to identify) struggle to get in is a farce. The people in IV who I was aware of having had the most, um, “opportunities” were those who figured out that meeting a suitable match requires enduring constant rejection from less suitable matches. It’s a numbers game, if you will. Those type of people tend also to be very socially adept. A pretty face helps, but a timely joke and general affability can carry much more weight.
He didn’t need to go far to find information on this. UCSB boasts one of the country’s top programs in the study of human sexuality, with a wildly popular undergraduate course taught by Janice and John Baldwin.
It seems that the killer’s desire for social acceptance goes far beyond sexuality. Sexuality is more of a symptom than what he was craving at a more base layer – being understood and valued by those around him. Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, he lacked the ability to pick up on subtle social cues. His inability to communicate from a young age likely contributed to that. Likewise, he lacked perspective on what relationships entail.
A hyper-idealization of relationships and sexuality combined with an inability to engage in the minor interpersonal elements of communication required to create and sustain relationships (love or friendship) appears to one of the sparks of the killer’s rage. More succinctly, he was frustrated that he was unable to get something that didn’t really exist.
People blame mass shootings on many things. We blame guns or hatred for certain groups – religious, national, gender, or otherwise. We claim that the shooters are just evil and that these incidents are isolated. Those can be ways into the true motivations, but they tend to be band-aids themselves.
Further, these things we commonly blame for mass shootings are larger social issues that are much more difficult to change. We should start with the things we can most quickly address, then the others as possible. Changing an entire culture’s views around gender relations takes a little longer than, say, updating protocols around how law enforcement reacts to calls from relatives or therapists of troubled people.
Mass shootings like this can be prevented. We just need to be willing to figure out how.
Thanks to my friend Jake for the long and spirited discussions on the topic as well as feedback on this post.