JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

The absence of love

Me, top right, circa 1988. Awkward, lonely, hurt.
Me, top right, circa 1988. Awkward, lonely, hurt.

When I first watched the video of Elliot Rodger’s final pre-murderous YouTube manifesto, I found myself horrified, disgusted, heartbroken, angry, sad—and, in an odd sense, empathetic.

In short, I felt (in a singular way, to be clear) as if I were looking at my old self.

I graduated from high school in 1990, having never kissed a girl. I wanted to kiss girls. Hell, I desperately wanted to kiss girls. But there were a small handful of problems: A. I had zero confidence; B. I was gawky and unattractive; C. I didn’t know how to go about it; D. Whenever I asked girls out, they rejected me.

It’s true. I had three dates in high school—all to proms, all ending without anything but a handshake or kind nod. I was scared and alone and pathetic and frustrated. I wondered whether I was mentally impaired. Whether I was inept. Whether I was gay. I vividly remember sobbing to my father during a long car ride—”Why am I like this? I’m 18 and I’ve never kissed a fucking girl.” When, in the immediate aftermath of my high school graduation ceremony, a classmate named Alison congratulated me, then kissed me on the cheek, I counted it (in my head) as my first kiss. It was that bad.

I then went to college, and for three full years I still never kissed a girl. It’s somewhat embarrassing to write, even now with a wife and two kids. Painful. But also true. I just never felt comfortable in my own skin, and didn’t know how to approach the opposite sex with any sort of confidence. Like Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I’d talk my way through sex conversations with other guys, offering vague answers and thin lies. When I finally hooked up (drunk, but happy), it was as if 800,000 pounds were removed from my shoulders. That’s no exaggeration—I was free of the greatest burden I’d never known; a burden that, even now at age 42, has never been matched.

•••

In the three days since Rodger killed six people and injured 13 others, much has been written about the hows and whys of his act. Predictably, there has been a great deal of probing into a brain that we know precious little about. Rodger has been repeatedly described as evil—and who can argue?

I think what might be being missed here, however, is an opportunity to discuss sexual pressure—and the weight that accompanies the loneliness and embarrassment of unfulfilled expectations. At one point in his diatribe, Rodger said, “For the last eight years of my life, since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires, all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men, never to me. I’m 22 years old and still a virgin, never even kissed a girl. And through college, 2 1/2 years, more than that actually, I’m still a virgin. It has been very torturous. College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. In those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness, it’s not fair.”

Those words didn’t merely interest me. They fucking chilled me. I remember, vividly, being 18 … 19 … 20. Watching my peers walk hand in hand; watching my peers make out by the buses; make plans for the weekends; meet by a locker. It was everything I wanted, and everything I felt powerless to attain. It wounded me—deep, deep, deep inside. I felt alone and isolated, and would never dare discuss such emotions with my parents or, even, my closest friend.

Does this justify Rodger’s actions? Absolutely, positively, 100-percent no. But do I believe there are many teenagers out there—male and female—who walk the footsteps I once walked; who feel ashamed because they’re on the outside, watching others find affection; who question their worth based on their non-experiences? I do.

If this describes you, well, you’re not alone. And nothing is wrong with you.

Absolutely nothing.