'It Did Away With the Entire Juvenile Justice System': An Interview with Kathleen Hale

The author of Slenderman on deinstitutionalization, early onset schizophrenia, and "crimes of the century." 

A photo of the editor standing outside a house

Haley Cullingham is Hazlitt's editor-in-chief, and a senior editor at Strange Light and McClelland & Stewart. Books and pieces she's edited have won...

On a spring morning in 2014, three little girls went into the woods and only two came out. That’s about as much as most people remember about what came to be called the Slenderman stabbings. Two twelve-year-olds—one in active psychosis due to childhood-onset schizophrenia and the other wrapped up in her delusions—invited their friend to a birthday sleepover and planned to murder her, to protect their families from a villain named Slenderman. 

Slenderman, a character written about profusely on a user-generated site called Creepypasta, was just one of the many fictions that bonded Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier. But it was the one that would infect their reality, so much so that they felt the only way to keep themselves and their loved ones safe was to kill someone important to Morgan. They chose her long-time best friend, Peyton “Bella” Leutner.

The morning after their sleepover, the three friends walked into the forest. Morgan stabbed Bella 19 times, and then she and Anissa set out on a trek to Slenderman’s mansion, the location of which they imagined to be outside their midwestern town. Bella, severely injured, managed to drag herself to the edge of a nearby road where a cyclist found her. She was rushed to the hospital and survived. Doctors told her that if one of the stab wounds had been just a hair deeper, she would have died.

It wasn’t long before police found Morgan and Anissa and arrested them, at which point the girls gave separate, lengthy confessions. (Both of which you can watch, in their entirety, online.) 

What followed was a trial that brought to national attention issues of mental health care, child crime laws, friendship, and mythology. But what struck author Kathleen Hale most, as she watched the case unfold, was that no one seemed troubled by the idea that the state of Wisconsin was prosecuting a severely mentally ill child as an adult.

She first wrote about the story here at Hazlitt, an in-depth look at the case and its cultural significance, and has since expanded the story into a book: Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls (Grove Atlantic). As Hale’s editor on the original piece, I was curious to talk to her about the case again. “One of the biggest revelations of writing the book,” she told me, “was that there were no villains, and that’s what made it such a difficult story.” 

Haley Cullingham: After Morgan and Anissa are arrested for stabbing Peyton, or as they call her, Bella, the thing everyone wants to ask these girls is why. And it made me wonder, when was the last time someone asked them that, about anything, before the crime?  

Kathleen Hale: If anyone had acknowledged it in any way, or opened up the conversation, this might never have happened. I think, in some instances, the reluctance to engage with these girls about what they were saying, experiencing, exhibiting in their behaviour, just speaks to a real national reluctance to talk about mental illness in general. And I think some of it came down to local culture, as well.

The girls cared deeply about Slenderman and the Creepypasta stories, and nobody else in their lives took these stories seriously. But the girls made Slenderman serious through their actions. They forced people to take it seriously.

That was one of Anissa’s intentions, she told police. Part of this was just wanting to prove that Slenderman was real and that she wasn’t “crazy.” But I think, in her child mind, proving that Slenderman was real was code for proving that her pain was real, that she wasn’t crazy to be feeling the way she was feeling, that what she was feeling was okay, lovable, and relevant. She just wasn’t getting that attention. Her sadness was being ignored, and at the same time, she felt like she had to hide it because she didn’t want to cause extra stress for her parents because she craved their attention so much. I think, in a really terrible way, this crime might have occurred, among other reasons, as a cry for help.

You spend so much of the book at this intersection between brain development and cultural context, and the idea of being a girl in middle school specifically somewhere like Waukesha, Wisconsin.

In exploring these draconian juvenile justice laws, or really the lack of juvenile justice in the United States, I was really surprised to come up, again and again, against this idea that children are no different from adults, and if they commit a serious, “adult” crime, they should be treated as adults in their punishment.

First of all, what is mature, what is adult, about a crime at all? And, second of all, this idea of “adult crime, adult time” just flies in the face of science, which I know has unfortunately become very politicized in our country. But you can see on an MRI that a child’s brain is different, and undeveloped, and remains undeveloped, until the age of sometimes 25. The brain develops from back to front, and so the executive functioning skills that allow us to make decisions based on future repercussions, they don’t exist. We can all remember being children and not being able to grasp the permanence or the reality of death. That’s just one example.

Children are biologically different, and I was very shocked to see a defense team—Morgan and Anissa’s defense team—trying to prove in court that Anissa and Morgan were biologically children at the time of the crime, and having it contested. It was contested to the point that Anissa’s pediatrician’s report was brought up, and read from, and they went down this list of prepubertal characteristics in Anissa to try to prove she was a child to get the case transferred. It was surreal to see these kinds of things debated in contemporary society.

So much of the horror was that this was done to someone who was a child, but people could then not make the switch to realize that the girls doing it were children as well.

When there’s child-on-child violence, in Wisconsin but also in many other states, there’s only one child, and there’s only one victim, in the situation, as far as prosecutors are concerned and the public is concerned, and that’s the victim. The other children who are assailants become adults in the eyes of the community, at least with serious violent crimes like attempted homicide. There’s definitely no room in the discussion for the idea of more than one child or more than one victim. Morgan and Anissa victimized Bella, and then they too were victimized by our justice system, and both of those things are true, but it’s hard in our country to hold both of those facts in mind.

A lot of that comes from something you go into deeply in the book, which is the super-predator phenomenon. Could you talk a little bit about the impact that phenomenon, and its very destructive legacy, had on this case?

It’s impossible to overstate the importance and the destructive impact of the super-predator theory when considering the ways in which we now harshly prosecute children in the United States. It basically did away with our entire juvenile justice system.

In the mid-’90s, a man named John DiIulio Jr., who was then a sociology professor at Princeton, said that he had done all of this research and had found that children growing up in “moral poverty” in urban areas—he used all the coded racial language—were becoming super-predators, which is to say that they had no souls, and therefore they were psychopaths, and the usual punishments would not work on them. What we needed to do, the only way that we could stop them, was to set up laws that put them behind bars. And it just caught fire. It happened across the aisle, both Democrats and Republicans advocated for these laws, Hilary Clinton pushed for it, Joe Biden talked about it. This is something that, right now, is associated with right-wing politics, but everyone is guilty. Every single politician during that period, pretty much, pushed this theory into law.

In places like Wisconsin, they have the harshest laws, which is that children ten and older are prosecuted as adults in attempted homicide cases and homicide cases. 

So, a couple of years after this theory came out, it turned out that John DiIulio Jr. had made up everything. It was all fake. It was fiction. He wrote it like a novel. It wasn’t real. There were no super-predators, just like there’s no Slenderman. But nothing happened. He went on to work for the Bush administration, nothing upended in his life. And the laws built in service of his fake theory exist to this day. And no one is interested in changing them, because tough-on-crime politics has become so ingrained in our political system, especially in voters’ minds, especially right-wing voters. It’s impossible to tear down, because no one wants to admit to their voters that they bought into a conspiracy theory—a racist conspiracy theory. Voters are still very worried about crime. In a lot of states, the laws have been reversed, and the minimum age for adult prosecution has been raised, but Wisconsin—I’ve talked to juvenile justice advocates who have campaigned there, and they say it’s impossible. Whereas in other states, they’ve managed to move the dial, they just cannot start the conversation in Wisconsin.

It’s such an interesting parallel, because in a lot of ways, Anissa and Morgan were punished for believing in and acting based on something made up, but then the people punishing them were able to enact those punishments because they were scared of something that also wasn’t real.

Everyone was swayed by fake news.

I want to talk about Wisconsin.

I’m ready.

You’re from Wisconsin, and not far from Waukesha. You weave a lot of the culture of the place into the book, and part of what makes the book so compelling, as someone who is not from that culture, is I felt immersed in and like I understood it through reading the book. Can you talk about how where the girls lived had an impact on how the case played out? Because in a lot of ways, we’re talking about two girls who are in a fairly privileged class in American society. They’re white, they’re from, if not wealthy, middle-class families, but things did not go in their favour.

I would love to hear how you saw Wisconsin, because you said you got a really good feeling for it.

I think the thing that struck me the most was how important it seemed to everyone from Waukesha that people understood that Waukesha was a good place to live. That was really fascinating to me. It’s a place that’s fairly close to a major city, but people don’t really talk about the city much. Even Peyton, or Bella, who had this terrible thing happen to her, is like, “Waukesha’s a great place to live.”

Prior to this happening, and after, Waukesha was and still is a really safe place to live. It’s actually voted one of the top places for families to live. It’s just a really wholesome place. The downtown is very quaint, it’s out of a set for Our Town. It’s even still got a Christian joke store, with wholesome joke toys.

That’s one side of it. But the other side is that there’s some pretty big economic disparity in Waukesha. For instance, that apartment complex where Morgan and Anissa lived was for lower -income families and provided housing to that population of people. And although it was a safe place to live and it had a very safe school district, the schools were underfunded and understaffed and that played in a lot to so many of the warning signs [being missed]. Morgan’s behaviour leading up to the crime was bizarre and troubling, and her teachers just ignored it, and I think part of that was just that they had a lot of students to take care of, and didn’t have the time. They obviously we not trained in mental health care.

Putting the laws aside, culturally, what do you think would have been different about the public perception of this case had it not happened in Wisconsin? 

I think what makes Waukesha different is that nobody questioned the fact that the state of Wisconsin was prosecuting a mentally ill child as an adult. Nobody seemed to care about that—it just seemed right to everybody. To keep the area safe, to make it a good place to live again, they would just get rid of these two girls, and then everything would be okay.

The degree to which fear and punishment seem so baked into the culture of somewhere that is statistically quite safe is disturbing to read about.

And the not talking about things, that culture spilled over into the case too, because sending these girls away to a hundred total years in prison, which was the plan, that was a way of sweeping it under the rug, and that’s what had been going on leading up to the stabbing as well. I think people thought, if they go away, then everything would be okay again.

Morgan’s father has schizophrenia, something she hadn’t been told at the time of her crimes. The mental health piece of this case is incredibly complex. How did you prepare to report on that? What were some of the things that you were keeping in mind when you were getting into that part of the case, and interviewing Morgan?  

I knew that I needed to know everything I could about schizophrenia, in particular. As someone who lives in a major city, my conception of schizophrenia was when I would cross paths, and this happens almost every day, with an unhoused person who is confused and talking to themselves. It was hard for me, and I think it’s hard for most people, to conceive of a child, a very young child, having these kinds of hallucinations that I had seen disabling grown people, and at the same time going through her life, and managing for the most part to mask it. I knew that I needed to really deep dive into what that felt like and looked like. I interviewed a lot of leading researchers on early-onset childhood schizophrenia. I interviewed psychologists, psychiatrists. I watched this amazing special called Born Schizophrenic, about kids who have it, and what it looked like to them. 

So that was my way in, and then I tried to listen as much as possible to Morgan talk about her schizophrenia, and how it feels to her, and how it manifests, and over time I developed a very different conception of schizophrenia, which is that it exists on a spectrum. Not everybody has scary hallucinations, and not everybody has disabling hallucinations. But what’s true across the board is that schizophrenia is a degenerative illness, which means that over the course of one’s life, it can lead to cognitive decline. Psychosis without medical intervention causes brain damage. That’s part of why it’s so upsetting, so abusive, that Morgan was withheld anti-psychotic medication for 19 months after her diagnosis. The State of Wisconsin treats basic mental health care as some kind of luxury amenity. As a result, Morgan was in a state of psychosis for over a year. She was in medical crisis. She lost the ability to read and do basic math. If therapeutic intervention had happened sooner, it might have changed her life. As things stand, it’s still unclear to what extent those 19 unmedicated months will affect her long-term prognosis.

So it was through my research into schizophrenia that I came to understand certain story points a lot better—one is that, once Morgan was finally given anti-psychotics, it was like putting on glasses, everything got clear, but because she was not also on antidepressants, this terrible, crushing depression set in, because now that she had clarity, she understood what she had done to Bella, she hated herself, and she became suicidal.

Over time I developed a more nuanced understanding of schizophrenia, and how it’s something that people can live with, and take medication for, and function and come of age and grow—so long as they have access to mental health resources, which are virtually non-existent in the US.

Anissa’s lawyers used the concept of folie à deux explain her actions. Can you tell us what the folie à deux explanation is, and why they used it?

Morgan, after being arrested, was pretty quickly diagnosed with early onset childhood schizophrenia, which runs in her family. Anissa did not receive a diagnosis for a major mental illness, so her defense team had to take a different approach to defending her because she’d already given this lengthy confession.

Folie à deux is a 19th century French diagnosis, and it basically says if you’re in a close, intimate relationship with someone who has a severe mental illness, you can begin to exhibit the same symptoms that they do. This has been proven true in other situations; for instance, mass hysteria springs to mind. Hatred can catch on, and we’ve seen that playing out in other ways in society. 

But with folie à deux, usually it was a different kind of approach. Most of the time, folie à deux arguments are made about couples or people who are married or related in some way. A very minor variation of that is to talk about codependency in a family that’s ruled by addiction, where everyone starts to act a little bit “crazy,” for lack of a better word.

So, a folie à deux argument is saying that Morgan’s schizophrenia affected Anissa, and that she got wrapped up in this delusional world, and as soon as she was separated from Morgan, the fog lifted, which proved that it was Morgan-related, and not Anissa-related. It was a creative Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity defense, which allowed them to push for that without having a mental health diagnosis.

What do you feel like you were able to explore, as a writer and a reporter, about those very deep pre-pubescent connections, through Morgan and Anissa’s friendship?

So much of this story centered on the intensity and platonic romance of close female friendships. In Anissa and Morgan’s case, Anissa started out as Morgan’s bully, because Morgan was bullied. But over time, Anissa grew to really like Morgan, and started hitting the bullies who bullied Morgan. I think that Anissa had never really had a very close female friend, and Morgan was and is so funny, and they both liked the same kinds of stories, and I think what ended up happening is that when Morgan told Anissa about her hallucinations, Anissa’s instinct was to make Morgan feel better by believing in the same thing. And she came to see Morgan as a medium for Slenderman as a way of understanding and trying to make Morgan feel less unusual. And so the plan was a byproduct of this friendship between them that started from a relatable place of mutual childhood infatuation, and that feeling you get when you finally have a best friend, and someone to talk to, and unfortunately they bonded over the wrong things and everything went horribly wrong.

It’s interesting, because Bella talks about doing the same thing with Morgan—going along with those hallucinations, supporting those hallucinations, because she felt like that was an act of love and friendship.

Yeah, to make Morgan feel less unusual. Everybody was bending over backward to try and erase Morgan’s differences, which they thought was the compassionate approach. This idea that we’re all the same.

And that’s what Morgan saw modelled with her parents—her mum’s compassion for her dad’s schizophrenia, and her setting up their whole life around not having to have that be a problem for him.

Totally. And they didn’t want to scare her, that was one of the reasons that they didn’t talk to her about it. They were sort of waiting for a moment where she was old enough. But she knew that something was off, and when she was a kid, she would ask him, “What’s wrong with you?” And Morgan told me he would say, “I’ll tell you when you’re sixteen.”

What did the reporting for this book make you feel about how we talk to children about difficult things?

It made me think a lot about my daughter. I was so new to parenting, and I was really struck by this case. I found out that Morgan had schizophrenia, she was twelve, she was being prosecuted as an adult, she faced over sixty years in a woman’s prison at the age of twelve. I immediately thought of my daughter, and I thought, what if she becomes so confused, so secretly, and makes a horrible mistake, and she’s taken away from me, and I won’t be able to help her come back from that? I won’t be the one to punish her, I’ll have to watch her be punished in front of me. My mind just immediately went there. What if my child got sick and I didn’t know and something terrible happened as a result? And I guess I didn’t realize how controversial it would be to have that perspective and not to immediately think, at the expense of all else, what if my child was stabbed?

I think what came up for me was this very strong feeling of recognition that these were children. These were little kids. I was aware of that at every juncture, just how young they were.

You talk about the HBO documentary, Beware the Slenderman, and how Morgan’s mental illness isn’t mentioned until three-quarters of the way through, but Slenderman and the effect of the internet and Creepypasta on the girls is so present. This case has been seen through that lens everywhere, and one of the great things the book does is see it through other lenses, but I’m curious if you’re surprised that that was what so many people clung to?

I was and I wasn’t. With every passing year, I expected somebody to take my “angle,” which was, these are kids, and one of them has schizophrenia, why is the state of Wisconsin doing this to two twelve-year-olds? And no one did, and that was surprising to me because it seemed like such an obvious question. 

But when I started researching the book, I realized that there’s a history of doing exactly this, adults view child-on-child violence through the lens of whatever new media is most confounding to them. Columbine springs to mind—it was blamed on Marilyn Manson songs, and violent video games, and none of that turned out to be true. If you read Dave Cullen’s book Columbine, you’ll see that one of the killers was actually a psychopath, and the other one had suicidal depression. 

In Morgan and Anissa’s case, people blamed the violence on new media, and it’s the same story as it’s always been. This terrible crime occurred because of what kids like these days. It turns out we’ll go to such extreme lengths to not talk about mental illness. We’ll invent this whole mythology around whatever the new technology is, and we act like it bewitches kids into violence, when the real reasons behind it are going unnoticed and undiscussed.

When we were working on the Hazlitt piece together, you talked a lot about other cases going far back, these other girls who commit crimes in pairs.  

I went down a lot of different roads in terms of looking at other cases that involved similar forces and they didn’t all make it into the book. I looked at some of the big cases, like Leopold and Loeb, Columbine, the Parker-Hulme murder in New Zealand—the topic Heavenly Creatures is based on—and drew from those and other headline-grabbing “crimes of the century” as they’re always called, every single time. There was this pattern, this real pattern of people blaming outrageous, scary acts of violence on whatever the newest media was.

You’ve been immersed in this case for so long. How many years did you work on this?

I first really wrote about it in earnest for Hazlitt. Another outlet was supposed to publish a version of the piece, and they got spooked, because the lens on my piece was more from Morgan’s point of view, because that’s who I had access to, I had access to her mother. And they didn’t want it to come across as victim-blaming by treating her with anything other than derision and fear.

This is something I’m very interested in exploring, which is this phenomenon of ignoring any other angle on a crime except for the victim’s angle. I wanted that to be something that I investigated next. And then I published the piece with you guys in the fall of 2017. The book is out of my hands now, but I’ve been working on it for five years, and I started talking to Morgan in winter of 2017, and I started hanging out with her in the spring of 2018. I have been writing this book for a really long time.

With all the research you’ve done, with all the reporting you’ve done, what do you think needs to change about the way cases like this are treated?

It would require so much cooperation between different factors of US government that I don’t even think it’s possible. I think we’ve messed it up too badly, to be honest. I mean, you can hardly go to a DMV in the US and get a driver’s license without it taking eleven hours, and even then, the system usually crashes because our government is so disorganized. Add politics to that and you’re completely fucked.

But in an ideal world, the first step is to raise the minimum age for adult prosecution to eighteen. It should not be lower than eighteen, it just shouldn’t. It should actually be higher than that, if you’re taking a science-based approach. But people as young as ten should not be thrown into prison with adult sentences. That goes without question.

The other thing is that we need a mental healthcare system, and we don’t have one. It used to be that if you had schizophrenia, you could move in and out of a public hospital that was well appointed, where patients had dignity, clean clothes, food to eat, recreational activities, medical attention. Then, movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest really lowered people’s opinion of public mental hospitals, but there were also some very well-publicized cases of abuses of power. If a neighbour can drop you off at a mental hospital, and they checked you in, doctors have a lot of control over whether you leave or not, you’re really relying heavily on that neighbor and those doctors to be just and fair. So of course there were some abuses of power, and those were widely publicized. But instead of finding a middle ground for how to admit people who needed medical treatment to medical facilities, the government just emptied them, and created a diaspora of homelessness, which persists to this day.

Today, in order for somebody to get mental health treatment who’s in crisis—who’s in a state of psychosis, who’s standing naked under a bridge and they’re terrified and they can’t see straight—in order for that person to be admitted, a cop will say, “Are you a danger to yourself or others?” And the person in crisis will have to say yes. That’s the secret word. And you can imagine somebody who’s controlled by psychosis might not describe their current reality very well. And when they can get admitted to a hospital, and don’t have insurance, their stay is covered for the first forty-eight to seventy-two hours—after that, it costs $2000 a day to stay in hospital. So, then our healthcare system comes into play, which is also very messed up.

So, basically, there are no resources for people like Morgan before they get arrested. After they get arrested, they get into the prison system, which has become our largest mental health care provider, and of course there is no mental health care provided, it’s just that there are prescribing doctors and a lot of inmates with mental illness whose basic human needs were not attended to, and that became the gateway into crime.

I talked to a lot of people, who didn’t make it into the book, whose stories all went something like this: they began exhibiting symptoms at the age of eighteen; they devolved very quickly; their parents and families tried to get them help but could not, because the person was eighteen. The cops would come, say, are you a danger to yourself or others? They would say no, and then they would end up committing an act of violence that got them arrested, sent them to prison, where they degenerated really quickly, because they were in prison. That’s the pattern, over and over. In the United States, in other words, unless you’re rich, you must commit a crime to receive free treatment for severe mental illness, and even after you’re arrested, there are not resources to serve this population of people. Morgan’s hospital has something like one nurse at night for forty patients, is what I was told by patients there. And there’s a doctor who visits every so often, but the bulk of care is provided by entry-level employees who don’t have any mental health training, and there’s a lot of accidents that happen, and it’s not a very safe place to be. Definitely not the get out of jail free card that people describe.

But it’s a whole mess of different factors, and unfortunately, with mental illness being as politicized as it is in the US, and with tough-on-crime laws being so hotly politicized, I don’t see a future in which this will ever get figured out.

A photo of the editor standing outside a house

Haley Cullingham is Hazlitt's editor-in-chief, and a senior editor at Strange Light and McClelland & Stewart. Books and pieces she's edited have won the Governor General's Literary Award, the Kobo Emerging Writer Award, and several National Magazine Awards. She is from Toronto.