It’s been difficult lately to fully process one act of tragic violence before the next sweeps away the media’s attention. Just as the debates about misogynistic violence and gun control began to fizzle out, the news came out of Wisconsin that two twelve-year-old girls stabbed a classmate, attempting to kill her, in the name of the collectively-developed urban legend of Slenderman. There has been a great effort, as one can imagine, by the media to speculate ad nauseum about what caused it, focusing more on what will create hysteria and boost ratings, rather than on the actual causes, and how to address those so that similar tragedies don’t reoccur. None of this is surprising, though.
The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, went into great detail describing the musical and aesthetic preferences of the parents as well as of the girls. This is the same approach the media took following the Columbine High School shootings just over 15 years ago; then, it was Marilyn Manson and video games. Now, it’s skulls, creepypasta, Slenderman, and halloween costumes.
The Creepypasta website has issued a statement which I think gets much closer to understanding what happened (there is also a good discussion of gendered violence in Isla Vista there).
We live in a culture with a very unhealthy relationship with mental illness. People with mental health issues are frequently dismissed (people who deal with anxiety, depression, etc have almost certainly experienced people telling them that their problems don’t exist and that they should “bootstrap” and just “get over it”), shamed and bullied (consider Miley Cyrus’ tweets where she mocked Sinead O’Conner for acknowledging her own struggle with mental illness and asking for help), and often ignored or denied necessary treatment because people either choose to look the other way when they see symptoms or their attempts to help are met with resistance because the sufferer has internalized all the negative cultural messages about having and admitting to mental illness.
The police, prosecutor, and media all should have recognized some basic warning signs when discovering this case. Two twelve-year-olds tried to kill a classmate to gain favor with a fictional character. Then they intended to walk into the northwoods of Wisconsin with a few granola bars in their backbacks–the equivalent of a 4 or 5 hour drive. Something wasn’t right here.
Yet, the prosecutor is trying to lock them up for 65 years, trying them as adults while he runs for higher political office. That the girls apparently confessed, and the confessions were given to the media, suggests that they were interrogated by police without parents or attorneys present; if they started talking on their own, they clearly did not understand what the consequences would be.
This tragedy hit me harder than the Isla Vista murders or the Boston Marathon bombing because I grew up in Waukesha. I am, as much as I wish it weren’t so, a product of Waukesha. As a relatively intelligent student who, as it was, got into a number of top undergraduate schools, my focus in high school was not doing everything I could to maximize my application and future opportunities and get into the best possible college–it was TO GET OUT OF WAUKESHA AS FAST AS I COULD. Few of my friends are still there, but my parents still live in the same house, so my visits to see them are really visits to the hellish childhood I experienced.
Waukesha is, for all intensive purposes, the conservative base of Wisconsin. The county claims James Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan, and Scott Walker as our most famous human exports (only after Les Paul and the Hamm twins); Waukesha elected Walker, twice, if not just through our actual votes, then through the creative ballot-counting of our local officials. Class and race stratification and segregation are complex, resembling more closely a suburban deep South than a town with a deep progressive past, once boasting a large socialist presence and frequent abolitionist activity–my family’s church still has the visible scars of an underground railroad stop. This town either destroys you, traps you, or spits you out.
Waukesha is a post-industrial town which originated separate from Milwaukee, but was hit like a tornado by suburban sprawl. Waukesha has pockets of rich and poor, but is a relatively poor pocket compared to the surrounding communities. Class antagonism is there, just under the surface, but more likely downward than upward. All of my problems with the police growing up were in the next town over, Brookfield, a much richer suburb (which formed largely as a white flight tax haven), even though I spent most of my time in Waukesha. Not to make light of the situation, but class antagonism takes the form of the animosity between the District 5 kids (Minneapolis) and the Hawks (Edina) in The Mighty Ducks.
If you don’t have a ticket out of Waukesha (college admission elsewhere and parents who can support you), you’re stuck there. In a town where the most popular activities for high schoolers is to drink liquor and do drugs in friends’ basements, in parking lots, or in parked cars on quiet country roads, because there’s nothing else to do, in a city of 75,000. It’s not just because there’s nothing to do, none of us felt we were worth much, and it’s not like the city tried to convince us otherwise. Changing your brain chemistry just helped us forget what a shitty city we lived in, and how shitty we (and everyone else around us) expected our lives to be.
But I was lucky. I got out. I had a chance to leave Waukesha and make something of myself elsewhere. But even though I’m physically gone, mentally and emotionally I’m not. I still carry the wounds inflicted by that city inside of me, and they have not yet healed. Mental health, or therapy, is not something we “do” in Waukesha. We bottle up our feelings and our problems, because to accept that you have a problem is to realize that you should do something to change it. But there’s nothing that we can do, or at least Waukesha has convinced us of that. I’ve been gone from Waukesha for 10 years now, and I still can’t even begin to confront many of the traumas I experienced; I’ve even done therapy on and off, but living in California it’s too difficult to vocalize my experiences to someone who doesn’t know
When I was about twelve, the SWAT truck was on my block about three times in so many months. A guy two houses down held his daughter hostage in his basement because of a custody fight. He eventually ran, shotgun in hand, out back and into my neighbor’s yard, almost into our yard, before police tackled him (of course, if it were California, he would have been murdered by police). Another man had to be talked down from killing himself. There was another domestic dispute, involving a driver and a cyclist, in front of our house.
When I was about twelve, I was almost stabbed with a screwdriver in a friend’s basement. A few years later, I was assaulted in a tent by a friend, while other friends looked on. Around the same time, another friend was led out of school in handcuffs after stabbing a classmate with a screwdriver. I once tried to hit another close friend in the head with a canoe paddle, which I suppose is as serious as it was ridiculous. As kids, we tried to beat the shit out of each other, because consequences aren’t really much worse than everyday life.
A close friend from high school had to go into rehab while in high school; his tragic life carried him out to California, just like me, where he was killed over something so inconsequential as to matter only to the destitute, to those who have little else to live for. A classmate killed another classmate over something, I’m sure, equally as inconsequential. A female classmate killed in an alley next to a dumpster for refusing sex. An Olympic athlete while still in high school, whose trip to Sydney was looked upon with jealousy because so few of us had ever seen a foreign country, much less left the state–several years later fell from grace and lost his job as a coach after assaulting a cab driver. These stories are more well-known than the stories of Waukesha natives who escape and become successful; they’re more numerous, too. More importantly, they’re the examples we’re given to follow, because we’re not taught to aspire for anything greater.
In the neighborhood where both girls lived, near David’s Park, those occurrences are more common, aspirations even more tempered.
Many of my friends growing up, when I was twelve, lived in that apartment complex. People there were so poor that, maybe paradoxically, race stopped being important. A disproportionate number of kids were mixed-race, and interracial relationships there were common. But just as common were broken homes. A lot of single parents, a lot of working poor parents who don’t have enough time to both put food on the table and come up with rent, and give their kids enough attention; but that’s not to say they don’t try, and some are more successful than others.
David’s Park is also in the district for the middle school I went to, Central. That both girls attended Horning anyway suggests something else: housing instability. Almost always, when you’re going to the “wrong” school (i.e. a school other than the one you’re by default assigned to based on location), it means your family moves a lot within the city. Which implies relocation based not on job changes, but on difficulty making ends meet, thus the need to find cheaper housing, or new housing if you’re evicted. Not always, but most of the time. The exceptions are predictable.
A little understanding of the class and geographic structure of Waukesha points us in the direction of poverty when attempting to understand this case.
It’s hard to truly grasp what happened in that park I used to play in, even though I know exactly where the third girl was stabbed, where she crawled out to the road to find help, the bathroom where the girls had originally planned to carry out the murder. For all that I went through in that town, I still can’t, and could never, agree with what those girls did. And how could I, or anyone? The purpose of the murder was not something grounded in reality, but logical only in the mind of two troubled young girls.
But I can sympathize with who they are, what they’ve been through, and their break from reality. “Sympathize” is an understatement–I KNOW who they are, and what they’ve been through. Up until the moment the knife punctured the other girl’s skin, they weren’t any different than me or my friends at that age. What led them past that point, I can only speculate about. Even horror stories sometimes sound more desirable than continuing to live there. And when you want to leave Waukesha–as the girls planned to do, physically–sometimes the only avenue to do so is through fantasy. Their fantasy was carried so far, that the legal system will grant them their wish. If the District Attorney gets his way, they may not ever be allowed to set foot in Waukesha again.
Waukesha is unique, but there are Waukeshas everywhere. Waukesha is maybe more a state of mind than a geographical place found on a map. There is at least a little bit of Waukesha in all of us, and there is a little bit of those girls in all of us as well, more of both than we should like. For some of us, though, Waukesha is all-consuming, and no matter where we go, we can never escape.
Thankfully, the other girl survived. It is miraculous that she has been able to recover. But I hope for her sake she is able to leave as soon as she physically can.
I also want to take the opportunity to share more of the Creepypasta statement I linked to above, because it is so important, and much better said than I could hope to write myself.
My point here is just this: if you are finding yourself suffering from any sort of mental health issues – depressing, extreme apathy, anxiety, etc – and/or having trouble dealing with anger, violent/destructive impulses, self-harm, the desire to hurt others, and so on – please know that there is no shame in admitting this to people and asking for help. It’s not fun to deal with issues like that, and you don’t have to go it alone. There are so many people out there who won’t judge you or hate you for having problems and will do their best to help you find the treatment that will help you feel better! Sometimes it’s enough just to have someone who cares enough to listen so that you don’t have to bottle everything up. Some issues are caused by simple chemical imbalances – nothing you could possibly be blamed for – and finding the right medication and/or therapy under the guiding hand of a trained professional will help so much that you find yourself feeling like the weight of the world has lifted from your shoulders. Disordered thinking can be terrifying and stressful and I just want to reiterate: if you think you might be suffering from any sort of mental health issue, know that you are not alone and that you can find help. I encourage you to take that step and talk to your parents, a guidance counselor, your favorite teacher, your doctor, a friend that you trust, family members, even a friend’s parent if you don’t feel comfortable talking to your own – reach out and do your best to find the right solution for YOU. Don’t worry about the people who think mental illness is a joke or not real; they’re not the ones who matter in this situation – YOU DO. Your mental health is of higher importantance than the other people’s ignorance!
If you’re worried that someone you know may be suffering from such issues, please talk to them. Many mental illness sufferers do so in silence because they feel too suffocated by the cultural stigma surrounding therapy or counseling to take the step on their own. If you’re a parent, pay attention to and listen to your child. I know that, as adults, it’s so easy for us to write things off as “silly teenage issues” or “phases” that will pass, but it’s important to remember that kids and teenagers are people too and not exempt from all the issues, problems and emotions that come with it. Make sure they know that they can come to you about anything – I remember having friends that were afraid to go to their parents when they were depressed because they thought they’d get in trouble! If you believe that your child is having problems and is unwilling to talk to you, consider asking a trustworthy friend or theirs or a teacher that they trust to help look out for them. Basically, build a support network and make sure that it’s functional so that people don’t fall through the cracks when they’re having problems.
For all the readers who are school-age, please do the same for your friends. If you have a friend who you feel might be suffering from disordered thinking – whether it’s the extreme anger, racism and misogyny that the UCSB shooter displayed on YouTube or some friends that are so obsessed with Slenderman that they start talking about killing for him – please tell someone that you trust about it.
I suppose my overall message is this – look out for one another, and please don’t partake in behaviors like shaming people for admitting to their problems or trying to get help.