I could have been Elliot Rodger

I could have been Elliot Rodger May 26, 2014

I know you’re not supposed to read the manifesto of a mass murderer, but that’s what I’ve been doing this morning. Elliot Rodger, the kid who stabbed and shot a bunch of people in Santa Barbara, California, this past weekend lived a very sad and lonely life. Please forgive me if it seems disrespectful to the victims of Elliot’s horrible crime to express my empathy for him, but there were many things he described about his thought process as a lonely child to which I really related. And one of my hopes as a campus minister is to find guys like Elliot and befriend them so that they won’t be lonely and do horrible things out of rage in that loneliness.

I’ve sometimes wondered if I have Asperger’s syndrome. The people whom I know to have it always seem a lot more obviously “off” than I think I ever was. But the thing that I saw in Elliot’s writing about his childhood to which I related seems like what people are talking about when they talk about Asperger’s. So whether I’m speaking for people with Asperger’s or social anxiety or some other category of mental makeup when I say this about people like me and Elliot Rodger, our basic tragic foundation in life is that we don’t know how to play.

We are always analyzing what other people around us are doing, trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing. But there is an intuitive playfulness and chitchattiness that we simply don’t gain naturally. And so we stand awkwardly on the edge of the playground with our hands in our pockets, because we’re always thinking about where we’re supposed to put our hands. In my case, I actually got made fun of in middle school for my hands. The kids said I walked like a penguin so they would form a line behind me and do my penguin-walk on the way to the cafeteria each day.

We see other people laugh at each other’s jokes and so we do research, watching television shows trying to figure out what makes for a good joke, because if people laugh at your jokes, that means you’re socially accepted. I remember hearing the kids talking about Saturday Night Live in sixth grade, so I figured that I could do better socially if I started watching Saturday Night Live so that I could make conversation about it at lunch on Monday. It was decades later that I realized the real difference between me and the other kids wasn’t that I hadn’t seen the right TV shows to make acceptable banter at lunch, but that the other kids knew how to spontaneously chitchat, while I was anxiously trying to figure out how to program myself to do what came to them naturally. I think it’s analogous to the difference between playing a musical instrument by ear and meticulously following sheet music.

Whenever I read novels about the past as a teenager, I was always envious of the people who grew up in less sophisticated times when everybody told corny jokes and all the boys had square-looking haircuts. I particularly wished that I could just live inside a Charles Dickens novel. In a Charles Dickens novel, if you fall in love with a girl, you simply write her a ten-page letter “declaring your intentions” and she comes over to your parlor and declares her response to your intentions. You don’t have to go through this elaborate game of joking around and chitchatting and pretending that you’re innately awesome and oblivious to what other people think about you. A lot of Elliot Rodger’s observations seemed like what would happen if you took a callow, romantic 19th century Dickens character and transplanted him into the confusing, uber-sophisticated culture of 21st century California:

Everything my father taught me was proven wrong. He raised me to be a polite, kind gentleman. In a decent world, that would be ideal. But the polite, kind gentleman doesn’t win in the real world. The girls don’t flock to the gentlemen. They flock to the alpha male. They flock to the boys who appear to have the most power and status. And it was a ruthless struggle to reach such a height…

The more I explored my college town of Isla Vista, the more ridiculousness I witnessed. All of the hot, beautiful girls walked around with obnoxious, tough jock-type men who partied all the time and acted crazy. They should be going for intelligent gentlemen such as myself. Women are sexually attracted to the wrong type of man. This is a major flaw in the very foundation of humanity. It is completely and utterly wrong, in every sense of the word.

We live in a world today where socializing is an extremely stressful and sophisticated challenge for people like me. I suspect that Asperger’s, social anxiety, and whatever other social “disorders” are out there simply didn’t exist for most of the history of human civilization. There are certain “brain-wirings” that just don’t mesh in our world today, and I really wonder if they aren’t actually caused by the demonic disorder endemic to our society itself. We live in a world where young men are taught to think that their entire self-worth is measured by how many women they’ve slept with. Men who are good at the thing that people like me call chitchat seem to glide through this world naturally and effortlessly. Those of us who suck at chitchat hate those men and the way that they have such an easy time getting women. For outsiders like me and Elliot Rodger, sex becomes completely detached from anything resembling genuine intimacy; it is simply the reminder that other people are not as utterly alone as we are, especially and most perversely if we masturbate alone while watching other people have sex online. Elliot writes:

One day I found some posts on the internet about teenagers having sex, and I was once again reminded of the life I had been denied. I felt that no girl would ever want to have sex with me… And I developed extreme feelings of envy, hatred, and anger towards anyone who has a sex life. I saw them as the enemy. I felt condemned to live a life of lonely celibacy while other boys were allowed to experience  the pleasures of sex, all because girls didn’t want me. I felt inferior and undesirable… I began to have fantasies of becoming very powerful and stopping everyone from having sex. I wanted to take their sex away from them, just like they took it away from me. I saw sex as an evil and barbaric act, all because I was unable to have it. This was the major turning point. My anger made me stronger inside. This was when I formed my ideas that sex should be outlawed. It is the only way to make the world a fair and just place.

I don’t think we can talk about the misogyny of Elliot Rodger and his affiliation with the misogynistic so-called “men’s rights” online groups without the Asperger-ish context. I have no idea what the actual composition of online “men’s rights” groups are, but based on the social maturity level of some of the comments I’ve seen, I suspect that they’re made up of socially awkward guys who spend most of their time online playing video games and viewing pornography and have very little real-life social interaction with other people. It seems important to recognize that there are two kinds of misogynists: men who know how to play the game and exploit and abuse women because of their seductive skills and men who have always failed miserably at the game and hate these “pickup artists” and the women who fall for them.

I think it’s important to distinguish between these two kinds of misogynists in terms of thinking about what kind of intervention is needed. I don’t think that any man is free from the influence of misogyny. We all need to repent and heal from the sinful attitude of treating women as tokens and trophies in our quest for our self-definition through sexual conquest whether they were trophies we had on our shelves or trophies we saw and despised on other mens’ shelves. I’m not sure what needs to be done to knock the Don Juans of the world off their high horses. I’ve never been one. So I don’t know what would break them. Maybe they need to be tied to chairs and forced to sit in a room and get yelled at for hours by women who have been hurt by their abusive behavior.

But it seems to me that the way to battle the kind of misogyny that Elliot Rodger represents is not to gather a vigilante squad to corner all the lonely, angry-looking men in college cafeterias eating by themselves and ask them if they’re planning to rape women or go on shooting sprees. They don’t need to be confronted or screamed at because they’re already completely broken and devastated inside. I think a much better solution for kids like Elliot is to create safe spaces for friendship where socially awkward kids can thrive. The reason I didn’t become Elliot Rodger was because my high school Young Life leader Phil Weeber invited me over to his house to shoot potato guns. And when I was in college, I joined Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Despite eventually having a theological falling-out with the group, it was a place where super-nerdy kids like me didn’t have to make clever, funny chitchat to fit in, and there were some cool jocks in the group who acted like they thought we were cool too.

When I start my work in campus ministry this fall, I want to find Elliot Rodger in the college cafeteria and ask him if I can sit at his table. I’m not going to try to proselytize him. My goal will be to have an extended socially awkward conversation where it’s clear that his social awkwardness doesn’t bother me in the slightest and that I’m just as bad at chitchat as he is. I will probably make some really bad jokes that he doesn’t laugh at, but hopefully he’ll be comforted by knowing that other people suck at making jokes. Maybe somehow Elliot will let me be his friend. Maybe he’ll open up to me after a while about the rejection he’s experienced for all of his life. Then if it seems appropriate, I will talk to him about the Despised One, the God who got crucified by his own people so that all the rejects could know that the king of the universe is a reject too.

I don’t mean to tie a little bow on this piece and say blithely that the solution IS JESUS! There are so many versions of “Jesus” that just reinforce the world where the Don Juans and their pretty girlfriends always win. But the popular kids who try to own Jesus today and make him into another validation of their success were the ones who crucified him in real life. The real Jesus hung out with total losers. That’s the Jesus I hope to introduce to my fellow losers on the campus of Tulane this fall.

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  • christythomas

    I wasn’t going to read this article, but something pulled me into it. I think it is important to realize that many women also grow up with that extreme social awkwardness, with too much intelligence and/or too little innate social sense to navigate with any degree of success the complex world and hidden codes of teen-age female life. That feeling like an outsider is the more common, rather than less common, experience. That the female attraction to the “tough guy” may be simply a reflection of our historical need for biological survival since childbearing makes the female far more physically vulnerable and the tough guy is more likely to fend off intruders, but that most of us figure this out in time. It may be time for our society to realize that our now vastly extended adolescent years and our growing social isolation because of electronics may be causing great harm to the psyche. And that these troubled, hurting young people are ripe to hear the gospel–and exceedingly vulnerable to cult teachings. I wish you godspeed with this new ministry at Tulane.

    • MorganGuyton

      I think the only thing worse than having been a teenage boy would have been to be a teenage girl. I probably wouldn’t have survived.

      • christythomas

        I barely did. Just found out recently that essentially the entire male population of my high school classmates were secretly in love with me. And I had absolutely no clue. Sigh.

        • MorganGuyton

          How little do we know each other at all!

    • Linda Carter

      Thank you for giving words to my pain. My only salvation in high school was a collection of mis-fit girls who got together at lunch time in a large closet to paint wall-sized periodic tables for the chemistry class rooms. We were rescued by one of the chem teachers and given a place to become. Since then I’ve always thought the world too silly and petty and unfeeling and unsuspecting of how it hurts others. That loser guy Morgan talked about saved me, eventually. But I still don’t know much about playing.

  • Jon Altman

    I have a 20 year old son with Asperger’s ..He IS “Socially Awkward,” as I was when I was his age. Neither of us were/are “time bombs” ready to start killing people. There are millions of “socially awkward teenage boys and young adult men. One or two may become violent and commit mass killing. More may become suicidal. 98-99% muddle through.

    • MorganGuyton

      Oh I totally didn’t mean to imply that socially awkward kids are ticking time bombs. I just think that the socially awkward people who end up doing horrible things often start off in a place similar to what I experienced.

  • Luke Breuer

    This is one of the most profound pieces I have ever read. I grew up not knowing how to chit-chat, and am still not very good at it. I’m tempted to think of much chit-chat as sophistry, an abuse of language. I always want to talk about things that matter. Of course, what ‘matters’ is utterly subjective. 🙂

    I will forever remember a girl in eighth grade who told me why everyone appeared to hate me. She told me I appeared to have a superiority complex. When I said I didn’t think this was true, she persisted until she convinced me that at least I was projecting the appearance. Now, I have no idea whether I really had a spirit of superiority or just wanted to be valued for something.

    The important thing is this: someone cared enough about me to break through to me, to break through my loneliness and isolation. Someone cared enough to deal with the awkwardness and pain. So often, there is no ‘someone’. Whose fault is it when there is no ‘someone’? Is it really the fault of the lonely person? I think society loves to scapegoat and deny that it was at all at fault. Oh, and blaming guns and insufficient psychologists/psychiatrists is scapegoating. GK Chesterton admitted that he was “what’s wrong with the world”. So often, society will not admit that. Maybe it cannot, without Jesus Christ? The triad of Mt 5:43-48, Jn 13:34-35, Jn 17:20-23 is a model: some kind of incredible power is required for people to love someone very different from themselves.

  • Jon Altman

    In my case my mother kept telling me that the kind of girl I would want to marry would also be the kind who would want to marry me. She turned out to be right. That’s a VERY different thing than looking for a casual “hook up.”

    • MorganGuyton

      Praise God that it all worked out! Prayers for your son and my sons who grow up in a world that seems to be even more cruel and difficult than the one we grew up in.

  • d

    In his own words:

    “I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy. Humanity struck at me first by condemning me to experience so much suffering. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want this. I didn’t start this war. I wasn’t the one who struck first. But I will finish it by striking back. I will punish everyone. And it will be beautiful. Finally, at long last, I can show the world my true worth.”
    NBC News

    “I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you,
    “I will slaughter you like animals”

    And he did. He killed his room mates with a knife by his own hands.

    “The three male victims were apparently stabbed repeatedly with sharp objects and it was a pretty horrific crime scene,” said Sheriff Bill Brown at Saturday’s press conference.

    Rodger voices contempt for everyone.
    It’s not his fault.
    His father agrees. It is not his sons fault. He thinks his son is a victim.

    There is something very wrong with a society that relates to the perpetrator of horrendous crimes and not the victims of that crime.

    http://www.news.com.au/world/inside-elliot-rodgers-twisted-world-manifesto-outlines-killers-plans-for-retribution-before-driveby-shooting/story-fndir2ev-1226930461475

    • MorganGuyton

      What Elliot Rodger lacked completely was any empathy for other people. To express empathy for him is the opposite of what he was doing. Because Christians believe that we are the greatest of sinners only held up by the mercy of God, we can express empathy for evil people without that meaning that we somehow don’t “relate” to the victims of their crimes. When you need for someone to be incomprehensible in their evil, you’re not making use of the empathy that is the gift of being a redeemed sinner.

  • No, Morgan I seriously doubt that you could have been Elliot Rodger. His basic malfunction wasn’t misogyny or anything on the Autism spectrum. Elliot Rodger was a malignant narcissist. He had nothing but scorn for anyone other than himself. It just happened that he had moronic misogyny mixed with his narcissism.

    • MorganGuyton

      He was a desperately lonely person who was also ruined by privilege. That was the basis for his narcissism. I’m pretty narcissistic myself, but I know that I’ve got a God who loves me anyway and who’s always guiding me to a better path.

  • I’ll be honest, much of what I have read about this story has pissed me off and I wasn’t exactly sure why. I kept shaking my head and saying to myself, “Every man on the planet isn’t a misogynistic a**hole with a white-hot homocidal rage seething just below the surface”. After reading this, I realize now that my reaction is so vehement because, like you, I could’ve been Eliot Rodger too. Thanks for helping me find some perspective.

    • MorganGuyton

      Yeah there are two very different issues depending on your background. If you’re a woman, what you see when you read his writing is all the monstrous misogyny that he turned to in his bitterness. If you’re an aspie-ish guy, what you see is how damn lonely he was and how hard he tried to fit in.

  • TRENTON_MAKES_THE_WORLD_TAKES

    The exercise of empathy is difficult in part because it makes us vulnerable and thus open to people attacking us for the flaws that, as human beings, we must have. It is offensive to our vanity and to the vanity of others. Thank you for setting aside that vanity in order to express this very difficult kind of empathy.

  • John Smith

    I too noticed similarities between myself and Elliot. I actually attended UCSB decades ago, and am familiar with the party scene there (actually I still live in the area and may have run into Elliot for all I know). I’m close enough that I could have heard the sirens that night had I been listening for them.

    I’m not a Christian, or religious in any way. I’m very turned off by proselytizing, so I’m glad to hear that won’t be your first approach. But I congratulate you on your intentions and hope you are successful. We don’t need more of these incidents.

    I read Elliot’s manifesto too. I too felt some sympathy for him, but also a lot of repulsion. Like I say, there are some similarities, but also a lot of differences between myself and Elliot. The biggest being that I was never anywhere close to lashing out at the world like he did. I would bet the same could be said for you… I don’t know for sure, but I’ll guess that’s the case.

    What I got from Elliot’s videos and writing is that he might very well reject friendships from people such as yourself unfortunately. Look how he treated his roommates. He called them “nerds.” He saw them as useless for helping him. He turned his back on anybody that shared his characteristics. He didn’t want to associate with “losers” that he felt weren’t going to benefit him… to the point where he callously killed them… not because they were his main target, but because he found it necessary as part of his twisted plan (his plan to turn his apartment into a torture and killing chamber for the people he really wanted to target: pretty young blonde women, the men they were attracted to, or anybody who might have a shot of experiencing something in life positive that he felt he was not capable of experiencing).

    So good luck with your mission! Again, I think it’s a great idea to go easy on any Jesus talk… I personally would be put off by that kind of thing, so I can imagine some others might be as well. I wish you the best, but I really have doubts about how successful it’s possible to be. I have a hard time imagining that Elliot would have associated with someone whom he felt would “drag him down” away from the popular people he was desperate to fit in with. I have the impression that he was brutally honest about his intense feelings in his videos and writing… he comes off in a very very negative light. It’s hard to imagine someone making videos like that on purpose thinking they’ll gain sympathy from them. I get the impression that he was emotionally like a two year old: all the intense jealousies and raw emotions appropriate for that age, but with the intelligence, hormones, body and legal status of a 22 year old. A super dangerous combination!!

  • John Smith

    I was a lonely guy that that attended UCSB and lived in Isla Vista decades ago. I had friends, but was too shy to approach women. I have a small amount of sympathy for Elliot Rodger, but only so much: I never considered for a moment doing something like he did. I never felt like the world owed me. Like I was entitled. I may have had twinges of hyper-self pity in which a brief thought crossed my mind similar to those that Rodger dwelled on, but I realized they were WRONG!!! When your plan is to win the lottery, else you have to kill your six your old brother, step mother, and torture and kill everyone else out of terror that they will get to experience accomplishments and pleasures that you won’t, then you know you’ve gone completely evil. Those are evil thoughts. Rodger apparently didn’t care: he dwelled in that world, and let his immature 2-year-style old tantrums and jealoousies completely dominate his every waking moment. And you don’t have to have a shred of religious belief to know what’s right and wrong here. I’m positive of that, because I don’t have any religious beliefs at all.

    Here are some things that Rodger could have done if he was truly interested in solving his many problems:

    1. Volunteer for a charitable organization (I volunteered at the Rescue Mission and met other volunteers there)
    2. Take dancing classes (that’s what I did!… it didn’t do me a whole lot of good, and I sucked at it, but I was able to legitimately touch and talk to women my age that way!… one girl even gave me her number, but I was too shy to call her… still, it gave me some hope!)
    3. Online dating: In Rodger’s case it probably would have been a disaster since he may have just ended up stalking the poor girl and perhaps even harming her, but there’s no indication that he even tried this is there?
    4. Play intramural volleyball…. again, this was a great way to meet people, and you don’t have to be particularly athletic to compete… plus it’s ton’s of fun playing volleyball at the beach in Santa Barbara!
    5. I put this up as a last resort… but still, considering the options he actually did take, I think even this would be an improvement: he seemed to have a totally unrealistic idea about how his life would be instantly filled with perfect bliss and pleasure if he could only get himself a pretty blonde girlfriend to have sex with, and who would adore him (the narcissism here is pretty thick), and whom he could show off as a status symbol at social events. So he saved $5000 instead to buy guns and ammo… this sounds bad, but that money could have been better spend in his case on a professional to help him with his … uh, … virginity “problem.” That would have demystified the sex act a bit… perhaps a small ray of realization would have crept into his self centered and fantasy addled brain that instant “bliss” is not what he could expect.

    I have the impression that he felt that he was just entitled to everything without having to do any work. Or that the work he did do (exercising, etc) was not well directed. If your only plan is reduced to winning the lottery, then you’d better take a long hard look at yourself. Apparently he watched that absolutely stupid video called “The Secret”: which just reinforced the ridiculous magical way of thinking he allowed himself to engage in… it helped him to delude himself into believing that things would just come to him if he had the right “magical” thoughts. Magical thinking is very harmful!

  • Jade

    Elliot Rodgers was a depressed co-dependent narcissist. He was like half a person in need of another person to make him feel like a whole person = co-dependency. Without his other half, he felt isolated and alone which resulted in his depressed state. The fact that he had very little empathy for anyone and views people as objects to satisfy his needs, shows that he was a narcissistic personality. The trigger for Elliot Rodgers was his therapy.

    In his manifesto Elliot Rodger describes emotions of envy and jealousy, he also admits to various bad deeds that he engaged in and how he lied about them. People with a narcissistic personality don’t acknowledge their flaws and this is where the psychotherapy played a major role in the outcome. Those with true narcissistic personalities, usually attempt to kill a person who is going to expose them, because they cannot face the truth about themselves. However Elliot Rodgers was being forced to look at himself by one or more of his therapists.

    It is obvious that the emotional content in his manifesto, derived from his therapy because narcissistic people don’t admit to emotions such as jealousy and envy; instead they claim others have hurt them. Thus he is documenting what he learnt in therapy about his emotions, whilst at the same time justifying those emotions and his behaviour by blaming others. The justification and blame game are common traits in those with narcissistic
    personalities.

    No matter how he presented his life story in the manifesto, Elliot Rodger knew the truth and he believed his therapist(s) were also on to him. Hence his peculiar behaviour in the video, where he is always looking over his shoulder. Consequently he decided to take his revenge by destroying as many lives as he could, including his own.

    Elliot’s manifesto was published on line as the ultimate attack on our moral values, because he seeks justification and sympathy for a cold blooded mass murder. This is a fundamental attack on our humanity.

  • Victor DaSilva

    I absolutely love this article. I seriously relate to everything that’s in it. I don’t want to say too much hear because of the consistent backlash, but I also relate to Elliot Rodgers. Like, deeply. All of his ideologies or delusions about being a supreme ruler over women and all that stuff. I’ve had those EXACT ideas, and still do somewhere. Except in my world it would be a One World Government(not illuminati) where I rid the earth of males, turn the females into scientists, and live forever. Of course, picking the ones I’m most attracted to to mate with. Anyways, the coincidences are amazing and I think (almost positive) that other guys my age have also had these thoughts and still do. After all, I believe in jesus and all that good stuff (its complicated) and its obvious everyone’s connected. So maybe, Just Maybe, me and others were picking up on the pain in this world and our own pain and translating it into these images and thoughts and ideas in our minds. I see crazy cool coincidences everyday. And I Believe.

    • MorganGuyton

      Get some help brother. God bless you.

  • This is a brilliant piece, Morgan. I’m borderline on the asperger’s scale, and deal with the same social anxiety that you describe. As a kid in Catholic school, I didn’t have friends, and would hide and read under a shrub of oleanders (a bit of irony that what protected me from the bullies was something normally lethal itself). A despised one indeed.

    It’s hard understanding the social inadequacy that would drive one to such horrors. My own lot in life over my 50 years on this earth would have been greatly eased by the earlier kindnesses that you described. Perhaps I’d have stayed with God, rather than finding my way back. I admire that spirit in this piece, greatly.

    I wrote a piece about social anxiety, and how devastating that is in trying to find communion with others in a church context – the pressure to talk about your “home church” is enormous. So many of us with the challenges that you describe barely get by in that seat closest to the end of the aisle, nearest to the exit. We learn our scripts and act them well, but are never really known.

    I suspect that may be true of so many of the Elliott Rogers in the world. I’m so glad that you’ll work with them. If you do, do me a favor – keep an eye peeled for the oddball kid sitting alone behind the cinder block wall, hiding with his stack of books, ready to take him away to a better world. You’ll find him about 2 oleander shrubs in. He could use a friend.

    Bright blessings, Morgan.

  • Quiet One

    You know what, I must thank you profusely for writing this. People have been saying I have been evil for even trying to empathize with Elliot Rodger and to be honest, I am willing to give up my fear and say that yes, I have trouble talking to people, actually I’m pretty scared of them to be honest and yes I do get feelings of jealousy or anger at other people who are social. But, I just really felt that if someone were to truly get to know Mr. Rodger or even talked to him it would have changed him because I know that whenever only one person somewhere were to stop for only ten seconds to talk to me or even give me a high-five it meant the world to me. I do know for a fact that many will find me extremely wrong, but everyone will have their opinions. I also know that I am only a teenage girl and I have so much to learn. Loneliness can be one of the worst things in the world considering we live in a society where interaction is required to get a job or find love.

    • MorganGuyton

      Thank you for speaking up. Jesus was an outsider. His real people are outsiders, not the loud, popular people who have tried to make him into their trophy for conquering the world. Never stop being empathetic.

  • dave

    Mr. Guyton – Wow! What an essay! Hard to believe that you were EVER in the “nerd club” of outcasts and “strange guys”, but your attitude is great.Non-dating guys are under fire whenever these tragic events occur and the “alpha’s” will make their “you nerds can do it,too!” speeches and the women can INSIST that real men approach them for dates, instead of the other way around.
    Much like yourself, I truly believe that Mr. Rodger’s “manifesto” should have been some long, long bull session with a bunch of other guys, and then, hopefully exhausted, Mr. Rodger would have gone home to bed.

    • MorganGuyton

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Thanks Always Returns

    Our society is only too good at raising people who empathize with Elliot and have felt the same pain. The trouble may be that we can’t feel playful until we feel at home…

    http://www.thanksalwaysreturns.net/LamentOfTheMagnificent.html