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Elliot Rodger's Twisted World

Elliot Rodger has been described as psychopathic, Hollywood brat, narcissist, misogynist (woman hater), evil, and many other choice words. In case you may not know, Elliot recorded several manifestos on YouTube declaring his hatred for women who refused his advances and the men they chose over him. He finally decided that at twenty-one, he would forever be a “kissless virgin” and his only solution was the day of retribution, where he would teach the world, and especially “blond sluts”, a lesson. Well that day of retribution occurred on Friday night, May 23 in Santa Barbara, California. The result was the killing of six, injuring thirteen more, and taking his own life.

Much is coming out now about his childhood and expert opinions abound. A popular, controversial talk show host, Michael Savage (The Savage Nation) dedicated several shows on the topic because of his fascination with the psychology. Although his theories deviated from mine, I happened upon his Wednesday May 28th show, while flipping to hear more about the Rangers game the night before. As I hit upon the station, I heard him ask for people to call in who had a psychological opinion on this horrific act. On a whim, I quickly Googled the number to call and got right through! Given that this is a syndicated, national show with an average of five million listeners, the fact that I got through right away was rather remarkable. But just getting through means nothing. The fact that the producer put me through was even more remarkable. Briskly, he demanded, “What do you want to say? What’s your bottom line point in a sentence?”

I replied, “I am a non-psychiatrist doctor who believes that Elliot Roger must have had some major trauma in his childhood that caused him to go on a murderous rampage.” He paused and said, “Okay hang on and turn your radio off.” About thirty minutes later, I was on the radio with Michael Savage. We conversed for about fifteen minutes, with me being the only caller between breaks.

So, what is my take on this horrific act? First off, I am deeply saddened for the families whose lives he has traumatized. However, I am also saddened for the person who many, including Michael Savage, has called a madman. What saddens me most?

Through my work, I have discovered a deeply disturbing and rather scary phenomenon about human nature. You see, the same mechanism that causes someone to be labeled mentally ill or go on a murderous rampage or commit suicide is that mechanism that causes everyday stress, anxiety, or my nervousness when calling a talk show, for instance. It is also the same mechanism that causes us to be angry at our spouse or the car that cuts us off on the road; or the fear we experience seeing a police officer in our rearview mirror; or feel if a growling, barking dog charges at us only to be pulled back by its leash or electric fence; or the rage you feel when listening to an opposing political viewpoint.

The mechanism arises from the very base, primitive, animalistic part of our brain which has evolved to protect us from perceived danger. It is automatic, instantaneous and what I have labeled the automatic brain (AB). What makes our AB different from the animal or reptile (reptilian brain) is that we have a larger frontal cortex. The only action of which the AB is capable is fight or flight, and our larger frontal cortex makes this action more sophisticated than an animal, yet the mechanism itself is the same; meaning danger triggers the AB to cause fight or flight.

The degree of fight or flight, in my estimation, is directly correlated with the degree of danger that must trigger it. What that means is that for someone to commit murder—an act of extreme rage and therefore a fight reaction—there must have been an extreme danger from which they are fighting. Similarly, in Elliot Rodger’s case, he also committed suicide—the most severe flight reaction—meaning the danger from which he was fleeing must have been extreme.

This is not the fight or flight reaction you learned about in high school biology. This is humankind’s reaction to dangers that we store, mostly during birth and adolescence. All that you hear about Elliot Rodger is what I call downstream dangers. The fact that he couldn’t get a girl or his parents weren’t rich enough for him or his apparent hatred of women are all dangers to which he could fight or flee, but none of which are severe enough, in my opinion to cause a murderous rampage. No, for the mentally ill who become violent, the danger will be found in childhood. And that is what I suspect in Elliot Rodger’s case.

In my upcoming new book, and first book Brain Drain, I outline three major universal danger files that we all possess: the one-up danger, the unknown/unfamiliar danger, and the loss of love danger. These are in all of us—you, me, and Elliot Rodger. What makes our perceptions of danger different stems from our life experience and home environment or culture during childhood—what ultimate gets stored in these files.

For example, if one grew up in a household where women were disrespected, then respecting women would be deemed unknown and hence dangerous and something to fight or flee. But there had to be much darker skeletons in Elliot Rodgers closet than the run of the mill envy, dysfunction, common prejudices, or general angst of a household. He killed and committed suicide. What sorts of dangers was he fighting and fleeing?

His parents went through a divorce, could that be it? Well, many if not most marriages end in divorce and murder-suicides, thankfully, are not rampant. Did that contribute to his rage? No doubt, but I suspect it only supported a general danger or distrust that started when he was much younger.

He was described as a weird kid and bullied. Certainly those are dangers to which his AB could react with fight or flight. But his actions were that of a person who had no way out. He could not go to his parents, therapists, friends and that usually means there was something that he kept secret yet something that caused him great pain, trauma, and represented extreme danger. I suspect, that something was sexual abuse by someone very close to him. I suspect it was not a one-time event, but something that went on for a while. I also suspect that it was somewhat violent as are all sexual events toward defenseless children. It could have been from a man or woman, but I suspect that his anger toward his parents stems from the fact that they may have known it was going on and did nothing, or he felt they should have known because it was someone very close to their family.

Such trauma stored in the AB of a young child gets stored in all three danger files: the one-up (being dominated in a sexual act). This can result in him learning the only way to gain dominance and control over another is through the sexual act; the unknown file (ironically if the abuse went on for a while the unknown would be normal sexual activity, so the fight or flight would be sexual deviance); the loss of love file (to the abused child, the only way to gain love is to give themselves up sexually—so he will fight desperately to gain such love).

Elliot Rodger was confused and mentally ill because of danger triggers stemming from childhood. Does that excuse his acts? No, and we ultimately have to protect ourselves from the AB (primitive nature) of others. But shame on his therapists for not having a handle on his condition. But equally shameful to those who try to make this a political issue.

The take home message is that we all possess a primitive, animalistic nature that programmed with the right dangers (threat of being one-upped, venturing into the unknown or unfamiliar, or faced with losing love) could lead us to fight with anger, rage, or violence or flee into depression, withdrawal, or despair. We may not go on murderous rampages or take our own life, but we may negatively affect our own lives and that of our family and friends.

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