(Photos by the author)
Editor's note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of minors.
On the 31st of May, two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin subdued and stabbed a female classmate 19 times.
When questioned by police, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier claimed they wanted to murder the girl to curry favour with Slender Man, a fictional online horror character whose stories mostly revolve around him stalking, traumatising or abducting people, particularly children. Their plan was to leave the girl to die, before moving into Slender Man’s mansion in some nearby woods. Fortunately, a passing cyclist noticed the wounded 12-year-old and called an ambulance.
￼In Waukesha, the culture since the attack has centred around tight-lipped niceties; instead of talking about the crime, locals sell candles out of their gardens and cut hearts out of coloured paper to leave at the spot where Geyser and Weier’s victim dragged herself to safety. And it’s the same for any tragedy; a reaction usually involves a neighbour leaving a casserole on the sufferer’s doorstep, before ducking home and never discussing the offering or what prompted it.
In contrast to their parents, however, teenage girls in Wisconsin want to talk about the case. They have a lot to say about girl-on-girl violence, and are patently unsurprised by the fact that Geyser and Weier concocted their stabbing plan while still in middle school. According to the girls I spoke to, feeling inclined to stab someone is common at their age.
“Middle school sucks,” Bethany, a 16-year-old from Waukesha, said through a mouthful of Oreos. “It’s a terrible time, and it would drive anybody crazy.”
“Girls are just mean when they’re in middle school,” Eliza, a 15-year-old from the same county, told me over the phone. “Middle school is where it really starts. I think it depends on how mentally strong you are, and how much you can take. But yeah – it can make you insane, I think.”
Jenny, a 17-year-old Waukesha native, told me that adults in the area want to see Weier and Geyser punished more than local teenagers do: “The victim’s family is getting all of this support – there’s a whole shrine set up for [the victim] in the cul-de-sac, even though she isn’t dead.”
“But as far as the stabbers,” Jenny continued, “there’s a lot of hatred towards them. A lot of disgust.”
After a lengthy silence, she continued: “I had a really rough time in middle school. It’s when you’re learning about all the stuff that’s gonna happen to your body, and you’re like, ‘Shit. I dunno.’ And then everyone keeps it to themselves because they don’t want anyone to know that they’re going through puberty – like, gross – so they keep it inside, which is unhealthy and enough to drive anyone crazy.”
Caroline, a 16-year-old whose high school “plays Waukesha" at various sports, introduced a new theory. “It’s boring and scary to talk about at school, because kids just react how their parents react, saying how fucked it is that small children are capable of murdering their own friends,” she said. “And if you say the wrong thing, you’re, like, a monster, probably. People want to pretend it’s evil so that they look good, and also because they want to think something like this would never happen to them. They react how they think they should react because they’re afraid to say it’s just childhood boredom gone wrong.”
It had been a while since I’d reflected on the nightmare of middle school. But speaking to teenage girls in Wisconsin over Skype, or on the phone, or sprawled out on some living room rug, I was reminded of its horrors. Unless you’re lucky enough to get your period in high school – which carries its own outsider-y trauma – puberty and middle school are inextricably entwined.
Teens’ capacity for full-blown embarrassment at this stage in life allows girls to torture one another in excruciatingly resonant and gender-specific ways. Of course, stabbing is gender-neutral, and calling 19 stab wounds “bullying” would be a huge understatement, but the teenage girls I spoke to believed the incident belonged in the same spectrum as “mean girl” behaviour.
Every one of the teenage girls I spoke to asked me not to use her name for the piece, lest girls at school “go crazy” and “get all vengeful”.
“Girls are bitches,” Caroline said softly. “At my school they flush peoples’ pants down the toilets, and during gym class they replace the heavy girls' clothes with smaller clothes.”
“This one girl at my school, her friends decided they didn’t like her, so they took her Uggs and poured lotion in them and destroyed her locker,” added Caroline’s friend MacKenzie. “She had to leave the school. She came back a few years later and her mum started an anti-bullying club. But her mum ended up being the biggest bully of them all, writing things about the other girls in newsletters. Now they’re in Florida.”
According to the New York Times, one girl stated that they went into the woods to “stabby, stab, stab”. The victim dragged her body through this clearing and was later discovered by a cyclist.
When I asked if they’d ever seen girls get violent, most of the girls I interviewed laughed like I was the dumbest person they’d ever met.
“Didn’t you go to high school?” Eliza asked.
“In fourth grade, people were talking about this one girl behind her back,” Caroline told me. “At first she was really sad and just cried about it, but then she brought a bat to school and said she was going to kill everyone with it. She doesn’t go to our school any more. But I don’t think she was crazy, just sad.”
“Also the puberty stuff we mentioned,” MacKenzie reminded me.
“Yeah,” Caroline said. “Fourth grade was the beginning of that for the more developed girls.”
“At the beach one time these girls were punching each other,” said Letesha, another sophomore girl, over the phone. “The hitting sounded softer than I thought it would, but they were bleeding.”
Slides at David's Park, Waukesha
In a recent phone call, Geyser’s lawyer Anthony Cotton echoed the idea that 12 can be a troubling age. “Eleven-to-12-year-olds lack empathy,” he said. “They lack judgment.”
Jenny agreed. “At that age it’s difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and be empathetic. I don’t remember what part of the brain... but it’s not fully developed yet until you’re, like, 20-something. So on one hand it’s like, what if [Weier and Geyser] grow into bigger monsters? On the other hand, it could just be a phase.”
When I asked whether the stabbings had come up in conversation with any of their peers, Jenny and the other teenage girls I interviewed all gave the same sort of negative response. People their age were afraid to say the wrong thing, they explained, and although they wanted to talk about it and were happy to talk to me, girls their age could be so mean about the weirdest things.
“It really only comes up during ghost stories,” MacKenzie said. “Like, we’ll be telling scary stories and someone will say, ‘Wanna hear a true one?’”