Manifesting a murderer’s mind

"Manifesto," taken from the words of Isla Vista spree killer Elliot Rodger's writings, replays a violent loop in search of meaning

Read the news on any given day and there’s either a shooting or an anniversary of a shooting. It’s not easy to become numb to the violence, but keeping up with it is demanding. The six degrees of separation theory keeps us tied to events. I knew someone running in the Boston Marathon when the homemade bombs went off. My childhood friend lives in Connecticut and texted me about the Newtown tragedy. Another friend was taking his small children to see Santa on the fateful night a few years back at Clackamas Town Center. We may not all have the same geographic or personal proximity, but the shootings can echo through our own lives.

Manifesto, a one-person performance created by Sam Reiter, Solveig Esteva, and Emma Rempel and performed by Reiter, is a claustrophobic rollercoaster ride through the mind of a spree killer. It begins with neglected human elements and maps a course from irrational traps to bloodthirsty rage.

Sam Reiter as mass killer Elliot Rodger. Photo: Solveig Esteva

You might remember the story. Manifesto is an adaptation of the real words left behind by Elliot Rodger, an isolated 22-year-old in Southern California who carried out the Isla Vista killing spree of May 23, 2014, murdering six people near the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara before killing himself with a gunshot wound to the head.

You can find Rodger’s YouTube channel without any difficulty. The last post is a long video of him seated in his black BMW on a sunny California day, speaking in a frank monotone voice about his last day on earth, his Day of Retribution, in which he describes why and how he will kill a lot of people. After the video was shot, he made good on his promise. He murdered three people in his college apartment with what forensic psychologists term “over-kill.” Then he cleaned up and treated himself to a vanilla latte at Starbuck’s. In the last eight minutes of his life Rodger swept through the streets of Isla Vista, killing four more people, including himself, and injuring another 14 in just eight minutes. Prior to sealing his legacy as another American mass murderer, Rodger had emailed his manifesto My Twisted World to family, acquaintances and therapists. You can also find copies of this autobiography/crime plan online.

In his videos and “manifesto,” Rodger describes himself as “The superior one. The true alpha male.” He refers to women as “you girls,” while heaping on lots of self-praise for being an exceptional intellectual and magnificent gentleman. Like the trenchcoat mafia that took Columbine hostage, and Adam Lanza, who tore apart an entire community at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Rodger was an introvert whose main socializing was through gaming culture. Unlike the others, Rodger has a considerable digital footprint on the internet, which has amateur sleuths digging up thread comments, photographs and “likes” to try to unknot what flipped the switch inside him from being an anxiety-ridden, screen-addicted young man to a cold-blooded killer. Much of Rodger’s language is taken from online forums for abject men, who see each other as alphas or betas in a world founded on competition for sex. Other social media pages celebrate him as an “incel” hero, an involuntary celibate who had the guts to take revenge on the women who passed him by and the men who got them instead. One site where Rodger’s irrational traps were reinforced in an online echo-chamber, sluthate.com, is now taken down, but some of the script for Manifesto is taken from his comments there. The text for Manifesto is taken verbatim from Rodger’s own 140-page manifesto, with some additions from the sluthate site.

Reiter’s performance of Rodger begins with a birthday party and a contemporary rite of passage: the gift of a first cell phone. Reiter becomes a giddy kinetic little boy; behind her, a flat screen flashes images of children diving into a swimming pool and sunlight flickering off the clear blue ripples. This Rodger comes off as another SoCal kid with money and that privilege that comes along with parents in the industry (his father is a film director; his mother is a research assistant for a film company). Reiter acts out in physical gestures the conflict emerging within Rodger between his inability to connect to other people and the solace he found with devices. Rodger has online friends, but wants real friends. Reiter describes the repulsion and desire that came to dominate Rodger’s life. As Rodger’s psyche begins to fragment under the stress, Reiter repeats his confession: “Even in the World of Warcraft, I am an outcast.”

Entering an alternate reality. Photo: Solveig Esteva

Nick Cassavetes’ B-movie drama Alpha Dog, about a teenage drug dealer turned killer starring Justin Timberlake, inspired Rodger to embrace the idea of murder as a solution, and clips from it play in the background while Reiter reveals in quick physical maneuvers and vocal sweeps the deep-seated discomfort that Rodger is obsessing over. Rodger aches for relationships with friends and women; he wants and demands these. Reiter makes us feel his destitution and heartbreak. As Reiter becomes more visceral, it’s clear that Rodger assumed intimacy was given because of money and attractiveness, not something worked toward. Reiter puts on a pout with puppy-dog eyes and slumped shoulders, while the incoherent thoughts of Rodger’s shame at lack of sexual prowess spit off in all directions.

Bits and pieces of the online audio version of My Twisted World, spoken by what sounds to be a female robot with a British accent, begin to appear in Reiter’s performance as Rodger becomes more fixated with having a model blonde girlfriend. Reiter’s performance and the video clips work together as a collage archiving Rodger’s life. As Rodger snaps into pure adrenaline and hate, we come to understand how much he hates himself and how he never had a grip on how reality works. Reiter and the robot voice begin to talk in unison. Rodger “will punish everyone and it will be beautiful.”

Rodger could have become another textbook specimen for psych students to look at or younger people to try to digest as a person in their own generation. Article after article written by former gamers and gaming journalists have examined with exactness the toxic masculinity that bloomed on sites where Rodger found expression. These sites, like 4chan, 8chan, reddit, would help grow the popularity of Donald Trump, their internet troll hero. In interviews, gamers who use the Pepe the frog avatar and delight in Trump’s 140 character takedowns seem not to make a connection between what happens on the internet and its impact in the real world. Rodger was a warning sign we couldn’t see of this inability to understand cause and effect. The guns, knives, hands, and car of Elliot Rodger killed young people just starting out in life. On one of the Twitter fanpages devoted to Rodger, there’s a redux of him on his killing spree and the popular video game Grand Theft Auto. It shows Rodger shooting his victims like he’s winning a round. Perhaps that’s how he felt in those last 8 minutes.

“As an all-female team,” Reiter says, “my collaborators and I feel strongly that putting violent, misogynistic text in a woman’s mouth is a theatrical experiment with the potential to ignite discussions and revelations about how misogyny truly affects us all. We hope this provides an invitation for all to become involved in the discussion about social justice and violence against women.”

Manifesto surely does that. It puts you into Rodger’s headspace, and at the end you feel drained and sick. You also come away with an understanding of how Rodger evolved and broke. You may fear him, you may feel outrage with him, but you know him as a person. A very hurt, confused little boy who even with therapy and parental support wasn’t able to cope. For some people it’s not possible to extend him this consideration, but Esteva, Rempel, and Reiter make him a human being, which is more than what Rodger could give.

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Manifesto runs Fridays-Sundays through May 14 at The Belmont Center, 3804 S.E. BelmontSt. Seating is limited. Ticket and schedule information here.

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