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The Unmasked Man

When the Mask of Sanity Slips, a Psychopath Stands Revealed


The urge to the dilute the horror of Elliot Rodger’s killing spree by portraying it as a symptom of larger social ills is an indication of just how intensely people need some kind of familiar explanation for the recent tragedy in Isla Vista. The Isla Vista murders are cited as evidence of a strain of violent misogyny in our society, which they surely were — despite the fact that five of the seven dead, Rodger included, were men. Rodger has also been portrayed as yet another BMW-driving soul-dead adolescent as portrayed in Bret Easton Ellis’s or Bruce Wagner’s Hollywood novels — or, alternately, as the son of a hapless father who drifted on and off the Hollywood C list, and then blew his life’s savings of $200,000 in the aftermath of 9/11 on a documentary film that hoped to answer the question “What Is God?” Rodger, whoever or whatever he “really” was, has become a shattered mirror, the fragments of which hold glimpses of virtually anything and nearly everything else that seems broken and that we are able to name.

On one point however, there remains consensus — the fact that, as Sheriff Bill Brown said in his first public statement about the crime, it was the work of “a madman.” The description of Elliot Rodger as a madman, or, in more psychologically scientific terms, a psychopath, is unlikely to encounter opposition from anyone who has read news accounts of his actions, seen the videos he uploaded to YouTube, or read his addled “manifesto.” The consensus around Rodger’s pathological status lingers, despite the fact that his writing at least “has none of the raving quality that you see in the writing of people with psychosis,” in the opinion of forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone, who was quoted by the New York Times. Still, it is hard not to see Rodger’s actions as incontrovertible evidence that there was something “mad” about Elliot Rodger that none of the experts so far have exactly been able to put a finger on.

The search for the right words for the exact tribe of crazy that Elliot Rodger belongs to is an important one. A good place to start is with the term “psychopath,” whose prominence in our legal and medical language stands in a kind of inverse proportion to the obscurity of Hervey Cleckley, the American social scientist who popularized the term. In his 1941 book The Mask of Sanity, Cleckley defined the term through a series of idiosyncratic case studies and a checklist of signs, many of which Elliot Rodger exhibited. While Cleckley never attained the widespread fame of contemporaries like Karl Menninger, his influence on the American legal system and pop psychology alike has arguably been greater than that of anyone since Sigmund Freud.

Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity was less the product of any strict scientific methodology than a kind of inspired guess about how far what other people’s actual thoughts may be from our assumptions about what they are, or should be, thinking. The key to Cleckley’s continuing influence is his insistence that sanity — the appearance of being normal — can be, and often is presented as a “mask.” Presumably this mask is what the police officers saw when they visited Elliot Rodger’s apartment on April 30 and came away with the impression that the person they had just met was sane. Cleckley believed that many more people wear this “mask of sanity” than we will ever know, and as a consequence, he also believed that the few people like Elliot Rodger who do act on their psychopathic impulses are not fundamentally different from the thousands of others who also have bizarre, threatening, anti-social, and violent thoughts while going about their normal lives. So what is it that separates the active psychopaths — serial killers, mass murderers, and so on — from the much larger crowd of crazies who are content with wearing a mask?

Sanity, the outward show of understanding and adhering to social norms, is a mask that these mental exiles from our shared humanity can put on when necessary and throw off when feeling loony, unsettled, or bored. The price of this masquerade is, as we can now see from the videos and writings of Elliot Rodger, a deep loneliness that comes from an inability to make meaningful and fulfilling contact with others. While the absence of guilt allows the sociopath to deceive others with ease, his lack of a shared connection with normal human emotions makes it difficult for him to sustain his or her masquerade for long periods of time. Sooner or later, his shallow acquaintance with socially connected emotions like guilt, love, and loss leads him into mistakes that clearly identify him to others as aberrant. When the mask of sanity is on, there’s no knowing who might be a threat. When the mask comes off, there’s no telling what the psychopath might do. Following the logic of Cleckley’s argument, Elliot Rodger was an unexceptional, indeed “well-masked” misogynist — but for the fact that he eventually acted on his feelings of rage and hatred in an exceptionally violent way.

Perhaps the best explanation for Rodger’s killing spree lies in one of the unintended consequences of Cleckley’s work — which is that we now have a name for the role Rodger played that night in Isla Vista. He snapped, in other words, because the opportunity for acting out the now-familiar role of the murderous “American psycho” presented itself to him on multiple stages. The first stage was Isla Vista itself, a fantasy world seemingly devoid of consequential adults or authority figures. The next stage, or screen, was YouTube, where his narrative of rejection could be retroactively confirmed by his plan for spectacular retribution. The final stage of Rodger’s performance was the large-screen theater of the news media, onto which he knew that his personal, internal narrative, however abhorrent, would be projected at many thousands of times its original size and might reach untold millions, or tens of millions, of people. The fact that all of these horrifying assumptions were correct is not proof that Rodger was secretly sane; rather, it is evidence that he lives on a planet whose atmosphere is super-saturated by advances in communication technology that empower all kinds of individuals, whether their stories and aims are sane or not.

Although Cleckley and others have sought to promulgate a grand theory of the psychopath through psychoanalytic concepts, neurobiology, and other means, this ultimate explanation remains a long way off. What we are left with is the initial observation that sanity is often a mask for something dark and different that defies any familiar logic, and the darkness only becomes visible when the mask slips or comes apart. For Elliot Rodger, the mask of sanity served him well when it came to convincing the police that he was fine, even though it failed to convince his mother. But in the end, the appearance of sanity was of limited use to him; the part of the psycho apparently had more appeal. While we haven’t figured the American psycho out yet, we seem, in the process of observing him, to have created a new role that increasing numbers of young American men find irresistible.

David Samuels is the author of The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures of the Ivy League Impostor James Hogue.

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