Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls By Kathleen Hale. Grove Atlantic Press, New York 2022.
In 2014, two 12-year-old girls lured a third into the woods and stabbed her repeatedly, eventually leaving her for dead. The girls later told police they had done it to appease a fictional Internet character named Slenderman, who otherwise would have killed them and their families. Charged as adults, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier were ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the state psychiatric hospital. Their victim, Bella Leutner, was found by a passing cyclist, and managed to survive.
The incident garnered national attention and became a warning to parents and teachers about a new risk: that kids could be manipulated into extreme behavior from dark corners of cyberspace. Nearly a decade later, the story of the dangerous internet feels like old news. But the Slenderman stabbings, as they came to be known, actually tell a more interesting – and arguably more important – story about the alarming deficiencies in mental healthcare in the United States, about the broken criminal justice system, and about the terrible things that too often happen when they collide. It is this story that Kathleen Hale sets out to tell in her new book, Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls.
The horrific incident begins with a rare mental disorder and the failure, by many, to recognize it. Schizophrenia affects less than 1% of the population in the United States today. And when it does occur, it usually first appears when the patient is in their late teens or early 20s. Yet Morgan Geyser started having symptoms far earlier. When she was in elementary school, Hale writes, “visions and voices competed for [her] attention,” making it hard for her to listen to her teachers. By the time she was 8, she couldn’t tell what was real and what was imagined.
As she started middle school, there were incidents that should have raised red flags. When she was caught bringing a mallet to school “for protection,” she was told she didn’t need protection and was suspended for a day. When she began talking nonsense and laughing inappropriately in class, her teachers saw it as attention-seeking. With proper evaluation, it would have been clear that something was wrong.
Yet for all the warning signs, at no point before the incident was Geyser given a formal diagnosis of any mental disorder, let alone the early-onset childhood schizophrenia that doctors would later identify. Her parents were busy: Her mother worked long hours as the household’s primary earner. Perhaps they were also in denial, since her father has schizophrenia. He was hospitalized as a young man, and later decided to stop using medication.
Others who should have seen something and intervened also failed to do so. As Hale writes, Geyser’s “teachers had neither the time nor the training to effectively distinguish the early signs of a severe mental illness from the myriad other ways that the student body was struggling” (p. 57). Weier, too, was eventually diagnosed with a delusional disorder.
It’s hard not to believe that the story would have turned out differently if their illnesses had been identified earlier. Few crimes have such a clear connection to the perpetrator’s mental illness as this one does. Yet those aspects of the case were largely ignored from the very beginning. During her initial interrogation, Weier told the detective that Geyser heard voices. Nobody followed up on that information.
When both girls, at various points during their detention, expressed suicidal thoughts, they were made to wear “turtle suits” – protective clothing – and put in isolation, but not offered counseling. (One might argue that a counselor should be provided to all incarcerated people, especially a 12-year-old separated from her family and dealing with the consequences of something horrendous.)
In Hale’s account, the criminal justice system comes under indictment, too. She shares some of the extensive scientific evidence showing our brains don’t fully mature until we are in our 20s. Nonetheless, by the 1990s, most states had laws that allowed some kids to be charged as adults. This meant that although both girls were too young to drive a car, drink alcohol, or vote, Weier faced 45 years in prison and Geyser 65. It also meant they were denied the privacy and sealed records intended to shield under-age defendants from a lifelong public record of their crime. Instead, their photographs and full names appeared in newspapers around the world.
Hale writes that being charged as adults also affected their access to mental healthcare.
According to a motion filed by Geyser’s lawyer, and quoted by Hale, as a juvenile in jail awaiting trial, she “would have been evaluated by an intake worker and assigned a case manager.” Instead, the mental health care consisted of yoga three times a week. (Unfortunately, Hale fails to explain how being charged as an adult allowed the jail to do that. Mental health care in correctional settings is notoriously bad, but people held in jail and prison have a constitutional right to health care.)
The state psychiatric hospital, where both eventually ended up, was hardly better. There, staff “strapped unruly individuals to boards and lassoed their faces with ‘spit hoods.’” Outdoor time was limited to a half hour twice a day, during which patients were confined to a small yard surrounded by razor wire.
It was at the hospital that Geyser was finally diagnosed with early-onset childhood schizophrenia. But during that stay, which was aimed at restoring her competency to stand trial, she received no medication. A psychiatrist who treated her later testified that he “wanted to make sure she ‘wasn’t drowsy’ in court or experiencing… ‘side effects that would get in the way of a competency evaluation.’”
Instead, her “treatment” consisted of making sure she understood the charges against her, knowing the roles of various courtroom players, and determining that she could help her lawyer in her defense, a reminder of the absurdity of a system in which so much is determined by formulaic processes and procedures rather than on what is best for the actual health and wellbeing of the defendant.
Hale draws on extensive police and medical records and interviews in her reporting. The author of several young adult novels and a writer for Netflix, she portrays the characters sympathetically. The rest of the narrative didn’t always keep up, though. Despite what TV courtroom dramas would have us believe, much of the day-to-day proceedings in the criminal justice system are procedural and slow; I sometimes found myself bogged down in the episodic recounting of them. It also was sometimes hard to follow exactly what was going on, who faced what charges when, and what the potential consequences were.
Still, her careful recounting of the incident raises important questions for us to consider: How should people with mental illness be treated? Should a person be punished for behavior related to their mental illness? Are we really helping people when we instead offer them substandard mental health treatment?
All of this points to another question: When is it safe for a person with mental illness to live in society? “I am NOT saying I am done with my treatment,” Weier wrote to the judge recently, asking to be released from the hospital where she had spent the last several years. “I am saying that I have exhausted all the resources available to me at [the state psychiatric facility]. If I am to become a productive member of society, I need to be a part of society.”
The judge granted her conditional release last year. Earlier this summer, Geyser petitioned for her own conditional release, though she withdrew the petition before the judge ruled on it.
In the end, this incident – tragic for all involved – followed an all-too-familiar pattern. The mental healthcare system, shabby as it is, didn’t kick in until something terrible happened, and even then only through criminal proceedings. That it involved children, who lost any chance at normal lives, is all the more tragic. As in so many cases I’ve reported on, this kind of violence rarely happens out of the blue. We should take care of peoples’ mental health before it becomes a crisis.
Alisa Roth is the author of Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, about the crisis of mental illness in the U.S. criminal justice system.