Elliot Rodger and Therapy Saturation: When Therapy Fails. The Psychology Of A Killer
By Arthur Hunter, co-Founder, Theravive.com
Elliot Rodger was a privileged young man, a college student at the University of California Santa Barbara, who on May 23, 2014, began a mass murder rampage that left 7 people dead (including himself) and more than a dozen wounded. 1 He left behind YouTube channel of self-made videos that give a perplexing look inside his mind and psyche. I decided to explore this event as an inquiry into the mind and motivation of someone who was heavily involved in psychotherapy, and yet still ended up crossing the line from legal citizen to violent criminal.
May 24, 2014, The Day After:
The nation once again has been stricken with tragedy. Seven people were killed, six of them innocent victims, after which Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator, took his own life. I would like to talk about this from a different angle: the human condition. Before proceeding, I should mention that in one weekend in April, 2014 in the city of Chicago, 9 were murdered and 24 wounded. I’ll bet you never heard of that event, right? It didn’t make national media, even though violence like this happens year round in Chicago (among other cities). But why the media rarely reports on violence in Chicago is another subject entirely (and one worth talking about). But for now, let’s stick with Elliot Rodger.
Over the course of the coming weeks, we will learn more details, but here is what we know:
- Elliot Rodger was extremely disturbed, and was consumed with extreme misogyny
- He had been to numerous therapists. He was in therapy since he was 8 years old. He was no stranger to the world of psychotherapy.
- He was prescribed psychotropic drugs, but refused to take them.
- His rampage was fully planned and premeditated.
When I first learned of this incident, I felt tremendous sympathy for the victims of the families and the brokenness in my soul over such needless violence and pain. As I began to learn more and hear more, I started to find myself seriously contemplating the part about this young man being seen by a therapist, and not just one, but multiple therapists (according to reports). As someone who believes passionately in the value and effectiveness of therapy and counseling, a burning question seared in my mind: “Why did therapy fail?” Other questions began to surface: “Was it the therapists who failed, was it the therapy itself, was he over-immersed in therapy, was it the drugs, or maybe this was just a kid who was truly bad beyond help and nothing would be able to reach him?”
Why Did Therapy Fail Elliot Rodger
As I thought about this question, and lacking the facts of his life, please understand a lot of the following is my opinion and intuition, and I will be speaking a bit off the cuff. I don’t want to make assumptions that are too strict because I do not know his family, his therapists, or his life. I am just speaking as an outsider and giving my thoughts and impressions. I am willing to accept some of my intuitions may be wrong based on my lack of facts. So if you are ok with that, I want to tackle a couple of key ideas I have considered when analyzing this case study.
Therapy Saturation Can Lead To Failure
Not until a couple days ago have I ever even considered the notion of “Therapy Saturation”. But the more I think about it, the more it seems not just plausible, but reasonable. The purpose of therapy is not to resolve issues, but to empower a client to resolve them. A therapist can never “fix” someone. What a therapist can do, however, is help a client discover the issues, shedding new and insightful light on them, and equip a client with the tools to resolve and work through them. And therapy should always be finite in scope.
When Is Too Much Therapy Too Much?
Lets define a term, “therapy container”. This is the environment where therapy takes place. Therapy is an environment of extreme self-introspection and requires a willingness to change. The environment of therapy is usually safe (depending on the kind of therapy being used and the therapist).
Therapy saturation occurs when a client bounces from therapist to therapist, or when a client emotionally “feeds” off unending, repetitive sessions of therapy. When a client repetitively sees a therapist, there exists the possibility that the therapy container itself becomes a dependency the client emotionally leeches from. When a client begins to view the therapy container itself as part of his or her own identity, that is when therapy can become unhealthy and ineffective. It is the mental health version of Munchausen Syndrome, an addiction to the therapy environment. This kind of dependency can manifest itself both as a person who always wants therapy, or someone who may express hate and digust towards therapy, yet finds himself constantly back in the presence of a therapist.
Therapists make a living from their sessions, so the idea of actually turning away a client who seeks counseling can be unacceptable. Especially in the case where a client bounces between different therapists, it is exceedingly difficult for any single therapist to know this fact unless the client admits it. And even IF a therapist knew that their client had a pattern of seeing several counselors, they would still most likely accept that client (rather than refer them on or deny them), if not simply for the fees, then due to the notion that they may believe “I will be the therapist who makes a breakthrough”.
I believe that the goal of therapy is always to be finite in scope, at least in its goal. Now, it is true that as people we are constantly bombarded with challenges, and therapy can be useful through all aspects of life, and in that regard, it can be helpful to see a therapist for years. But that doesn’t mean that therapy is infinite. We see a therapist for a particular reason, and that reason is finite, and the goals of therapy regarding that reason should also be finite. When we see the same therapist 6 months from now, it may be for a different reason entirely. The last reason was resolved, and now we are facing a new challenge.
But when it comes to someone like Elliot Rodger, multiple therapists and years of therapy failed to give him the help he desperately needed to avoid the catastrophic choices of violence he later took. He was seeing therapists since he was 8 years old, years of therapy, perhaps thousands of hours worth, and look what happened: it utterly failed him. I believe it is entirely possible that he was completely saturated with therapy until it became wholly ineffective and an ultimate waste of time. The only chance for effective therapy at that point would have been a kind that was radically different than all that he was used to. Consider this quote by Elliot himself in his manifesto:
“Dr. (redacted) ended up giving me the same useless advice that every other psychiatrist, psychologist, and counsellor had given me in the past. I don’t know why my parents wasted money on therapy, as it will never help me in my struggle against such a cruel and unjust world. The doctor ended up dismissing it by prescribing me a controversial medication, Risperidone. After researching this medication, I found that it was the absolute wrong thing for me to take. I refused to take it, and I never saw Dr. (redacted) again after that.”
When Positive Regard Is Negative:
The popular, “contemporary” view of therapy is that it is based on the notion that everyone has goodness, an “inner child” that needs unconditional nurturing, and that clients should be given unconditional positive regard. I do not know the kind of therapy Elliot had, nor do I know his therapists, but the Rogerian Approach is highly popular and certainly likely to have been heavily utilized in his case. Regardless, Elliot's story is a solemn reminder that ultimately, a client has full control over a therapy session. No matter how good a therapist, if a client refuses to be open to the therapy session, then it will do little or nothing for them at best, and actually harm them at worst.
Yes, I believe that therapy ultimately harmed Elliot Rodger. Years of compelled therapy has potential risks, and bouncing between therapists over and over again can actually cause harm and reinforce unhealthy dependencies and thought patterns.
Rodger Elliot should have been recognized as a threat, and having severe mental illness, most obviously (in my opinion) in the form of Antisocial Personality Disorder.
I took some time to watch a good portion of his self-made videos leading up to his violent rage.2 What I saw was a young man who certainly had potential for an intervention, but that any intervention would need to be dramatic. I immediately discerned that a “Carl Rogers” approach to treating this person would probably have been futile. And if it was implemented, I am not surprised that it failed. He was plagued with distored and extreme perceptions, exhibiting strong psychosis. He had a vile hatred of women, and yet at the same time an extreme desperate desire for them. His inability to find a female companion led him to eventually burn with rage against women, a searing misogyny. Consider this quote from his manifesto:3
“the ultimate evil behind sexuality is the human female…they think like beasts…and should not have the right to choose who to mate and breed with.”
“In an ideal world, sexuality would not exist….In order to completely abolish sex, women themselves must be abolished. All women must be quarantined like the plague they are…In order to carry this out, there must exist a new and powerful type of government, under the control of one divine ruler, such as myself.”
I believe that giving a client with such deep seeded violent desires an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard could be dangerous and simply risks him coddling these beliefs and nurturing them internally. Elliot needed a drastic intervention, one that would have been profoundly confrontational to his known world. Everything he had received from the therapy community up to that point had been “traditional” and integrated into his world, and dare I say, some of it could have even been enabling (in certain mindsets, unconditional positive regard could theoretically have an enabling effect on the client). He needed something far more profound and radical if there was going to be hope for him to be helped. I don’t know if Attack Therapy would have been appropriate to him, but one thing I do know…whatever kinds of therapy he had in the past were not going to work at all.
My Insights Into Elliot Rogder
I believe Elliot Rodger exhibited classic symptoms of severe Antisocial Personality Disorder. (You can read more about it in the article quoted), and that these symptoms were manifest for quite a while prior to any violence.
When watching his final video, there were three things that struck me. First, he was an intelligent person and he had a larger awareness of himself than I would have guessed given his horrendous acts. Second was his repeated “sinister laugh”, and third was a phrase in which he declared himself to be the “alpha male” and later a desire to be a "god" to his peers.
The sinister laugh in his video was contrived. His declaration of himself to be the “alpha male” coupled with his self-admission in his manifesto to being bullied led me to believe one of his major life struggles was with a lack of self-adequacy. To him, his greatest need was a woman, but in my perspective, his need for a woman's affection addressed a more deeper need: his need to be important, that is, his need for acceptance and self worth. He routinely referenced the world as being "unfair". He believed he was entitled to oppositte sex relationships that others have, an entitlement that converted into demand, an unheeded demand that converted into psychotic fury requiring justice (i.e. "retribution" as he claims").
Elliot long felt himself as being inadequate, and throughout his life, this perception was reinforced: through bullying, through his ‘friends’, by his lack of attention from girls, by his addiction to online video games (thus stunting his social growth). I wont speak to parenting, but his feelings of being insufficient and unfairly treated stem straight from childhood, he talks about it in depth in his own words.
Eventually, the feelings of inadequacy gave way to resentment, which fuled the birth of internal rage and a determination to not simply be adequate, but superior. In his mind, the ultimate way to become superior was through violence. In his video he declares that people will finally see him as a “god” and his deep desire to be important, powerful, and worthy is the driving force behind his violence.
His life is a reminder that we need to reinforce in our children that they are capable and they are important. When a child begins to doubt their own self-worth, all kinds of destructive emotions will follow. Even in Elliot's declaration of himself as being an "alpha male" and a superior gentlemen (as he called himself), it was easy to see right through this facade, I could see that in reality, he was permeated with self-loathing. His words were forced almost as a way to self-medicate and self-soothe the deep chasm of self loathing he felt.
I watched a couple videos by Elliot’s father. His father made a 3 year film about the question of “What is God?” where he travelled the world asking people what God is. (Interesting, instead of "who" is God, he chose to use the word “what”). In one of the videos, Elliot’s father makes several disparaging remarks about religion, implying that much of the violence in the world is due to religion. He claimed that former President Bush went to war because "God told him so". He spoke about other incidents of violence that he blamed on religion. This all implies that, according to Elliot’s father, a world without without religion would have less violence. I wholeheartedly reject this. America, just one country, sees thousands of murders a year, and in nearly every case, religion has nothing to do with it. Elliott did not murder in the name of religion. While I do agree that there is religious violence in the world, in the western world, and in western civilization, violence happens daily, and it does so without religion. The root of violence is not in religion, it is in the human condition itself.
This tragedy did not need to happen. There were so many warning signs for so long. It is easy to point a finger and blame a politician, or blame guns, or some political group, but that completely misses everything. This young man murdered half of his victims with a knife, and he was determined to kill regardless of any kind of politics. If guns were fully outlawed, he still would have comitted acts of horrible violence. Even though the ability for a mentally sick person to access a gun is definitely a serious issue, it is not the root of this problem, and it should not be the sole focus of the problem. We as a society must stop turning to politics everytime we are faced with something like this and start turning to ourselves. We must start seriously looking at the topic of mental health and all its stigmas in our society. Politicans and their proposed laws will not "fix" an Elliot Rodger, nor will it lessen the threat he represents. But politicians will use events like this to win votes, and "rally the troops" to a political cause, unfortunately.
The real heart of this issue is with the human condition, with mental health and its role in our society. It is with how we as a society deal with people who exhibit signs and symptoms of severe mental illness. It is the effects of stigma, and the lack of ability to recognize and act on warning signs. It also exposes a flaw in the therapy community of over-saturation with therapy itself, that too much therapy can actually be detrimental if it isn't carefully considered. How did so many people miss the clear danger signals for so long? This is surely a burning question the families of the victims are asking, and rightly so.
Perhaps over time more answers will come, answers that might invalidate things I have written here. But this I do know- Elliot Rodger's acts did not happen in a vacuum, they were the result of a long pre-determined disposition that took a significant period of time to create, and they were plainly visible in his life. And I fear to admit this, but right now, this moment, there are other young men out there who are in a similar place, and unless those around them take drastic intervention, a similar outcome might manifest itself sometime again in the future.
I do not know specifically what would have saved Elliot Rodger, but I wish somehow he would have been. For the sake of saving the six innocent people who would still be alive, if it weren’t for the catastrophic, cascading failures in the life of this lost young man.
1. Wikipedia. (2014). Isla Vista Massacre. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Isla_Vista_massacre
2. Youtube. (2014). Elliot Rodger's Video Channel. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/user/ElliotRodger
3. Scribd. (2014). Elliot Rodger's Manifesto. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/225936731/Untitled
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