It's impossible for anyone to know what ultimately caused Elliot Rodger to launch his "Day of Retribution," beginning by stabbing to death his two roommates and their friend, and ending with him killing three more people and wounding 13 in a shooting spree in Isla Vista, Calif., before he took his own life.
Based on his YouTube postings and 140-page autobiography that he e-mailed to some dozen people before starting his rampage, he was a deeply troubled and lonely young man who nursed extreme rage at everyone he felt was living a better life than him. He reportedly had been seeing a therapist off and on since he was nine, and had been prescribed medication, which he said he didn't take.
But Rodger's killing spree also has sparked an online debate about the role misogyny might have played in his rampage, and has drawn new attention to anti-women hate sites, which he frequented, and the world of the "manosphere."
"This is clearly a very mentally ill person, and I don't think it's possible to say that the manosphere or men's rights groups pushed Elliot Rodger into this," says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. "But I would make the argument that ... alienated, mentally ill people like Elliot Rodger are helped to direct their rage by certain communities. I'm not trying to argue that these websites made him do it, but I think Elliot Rodger derived real moral support for his ideas."
In his YouTube postings, including one he posted just before launching his attack, Rodger raged at women, and "all you sexually attractive men," whom he held responsible for the fact that he was still a virgin. He used language common in the "Pick-Up Artist" (PUA) online community, saying that after "slaughtering all of you," "you will see that I am in truth ... the true alpha male."
Rodger ranted against the "injustice" of girls giving sex and love to other men but not to him, "the supreme gentleman." "On the day of retribution I am going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB," he boasted, referring to the University of California at Santa Barbara. "And I will slaughter every single spoiled stuck-up blond slut I see inside there."
His rambling autobiography contains even more hatred directed toward women, and an indication that he was increasingly blaming them for his loneliness. "I concluded that women are flawed," he wrote. "Women should not have the right to choose who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilized men of intelligence."
A year ago, he wrote, he started visiting the online forums of PUAHate.com – a website started by men who had bought into the "PUA" philosophies, only to find the "techniques" didn't work for them. The site has been pulled down since the killings, but those who followed it say that conversations were largely misogynistic diatribes, pity sessions among men who blamed women for everything.
Rodger described it as a forum "full of men who are starved of sex, just like me," and said "reading the posts on that website only confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are." The website, he adds, "shows just how bleak and cruel the world is due of the evilness of women."
In the end, Rodger killed more men than women, and his attempt to enter a sorority failed, but the pointed misogynistic nature of the attacks has led to some bloggers and commentators arguing that misogyny was truly the culprit in the killing spree.
"While it is unclear what role Rodger's reportedly poor mental health played in the alleged crime, the role of misogyny is obvious," wrote Jessica Valenti in a column for the Guardian titled "Elliot Rodger's California shooting spree: Further proof that misogyny kills."
And an active twitter feed, #YesAllWomen, was launched in response to Rodger's diatribes, tweets in which women shared ways they still have to deal with anti-women attitudes, despite the argument that "not all men" are misogynists.
But others argue that while Rodger was clearly a misogynist, blaming those attitudes, or the hate community he became a part of, for his actions is too glib an explanation, and misses the bigger factors that go into turning an isolated young man into a killer.
Very often, an individual mass shooting will have some sort of feature to it that will trigger a culture issue for people, says Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida who has studied mass shootings. But focusing too much on specific issues misses the broader common traits such shooters share that could help more in preventing mass killings.
"Is there misogyny in our culture? Absolutely," says Dr. Ferguson. "Does that mean that our culture is responsible for the actions of this individual in some way? That's a much more difficult case to make."
Clearly, Rodger hated women, Ferguson says. But his autobiography is also filled with scattered racism and hatred of at least some men – particularly men who got the sex he craved, as well as his roommates.
"I think what it comes down to is that, like a lot of mass homicide perpetrators, he just hates," says Ferguson. Some mass shooters, he says, may target family members or co-workers, or people of a particular race or religion, or US soldiers – whomever they may place particular "blame" on.
But for the most part, Ferguson says, they share certain commonalities: "They tend to be very hateful individuals, full of anger and rage. They tend to have some sort of mental health issues…. And they tend to be injustice collectors, they blame other people for their problems."
Focusing on the specific cultural issues may spark useful debate, says Ferguson, "but if we run around chasing that rabbit it’s not very helpful. We need to focus on the commonalities" among mass killers.
Still, Mr. Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says the "manosphere" of men's rights groups – most virulently anti-women – has been growing, and that the Internet has made it possible for members of such groups to feel a sense of community, and gain validation for their ideas, that they may not have had otherwise.
Potok says he's watched a similar phenomenon happen with white supremacy groups, where, 25 years ago, "the average white supremacist in America was a very lonely, isolated alienated person, a guy who had been left behind by the larger society and was essentially standing in his living room shaking his fist at the sky."
With the rise of the Internet, says Potok, "they felt they were part of a movement."
The manosphere, he says, is a growing collection of forums and websites that purport to be standing up for men's rights in a world of feminism, but are filled with "pure unvarnished women hatred." Many are devoted to the idea of false rape allegations, and the idea that society has been taken over by women. The PUA community, he says, is solidly a part of that.
And the killing spree that Rodger launched fits, in some ways, into a series of acts of violence directed at women, over issues of feminism, that the SPLC has tracked for some years, says Potok. In 1989, a Canadian named Marc Lépine, whose suicide note blamed feminists for ruining his life, walked into Montreal's École Polytechnique, told the men in the class to leave, and then shot the nine women who remained, killing six. He went on to kill eight more women and four men.
In 2009, George Sodini, a man who also blamed women who wouldn't sleep with him and failed PUA techniques for his misery, launched an attack at an LA Fitness Club in Pennsylvania that resulted in four deaths, including his own, and nine injuries.
Potok cites several other cases in which men active in men's rights forums committed violence, blamed women, and, in many cases, were celebrated by the manosphere community.
While PUAHate.com has been shut down, Josh Glasstetter at the SPLC has sifted through many of his posts, and writes that Rodger considered himself "something of an incel [involuntary celibate] revolutionary."
"Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU," Rodger wrote at one point.
"The manosphere provides moral support and sustenance, a real community of sorts, for people like Elliot Rodger," says Potok. "Elliot Rodger before the Internet might have been a much more alienated individual perhaps less willing to act on his beliefs – but that's impossible to say."