News of youthful violence is all too familiar to us: the shootings, stabbings, bombings perpetrated by young people are the stuff we—necessarily—analyze, search for patterns, try to make sense of, as we did two weeks ago in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s massacre in Isla Vista.
But this week came a different kind of story, about two 12-year-old neighbors from the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, Wisconsin, who stabbed one of their friends nearly to death in the woods. According to reports, one of the assailants pushed the victim down and told the other, “Go ballistic. Go crazy,” before the other did as instructed, stabbing the girl 19 times as she cried, “I hate you. I trusted you.” The stabbing victim survived and crawled to the edge of the woods for help; her two attackers were arrested. One of them reportedly told police, “It was weird that I didn’t feel remorse,” while the other described a more torn reaction: “The bad part of me wanted her to die. The good part of me wanted her to live.”
The press and local authorities promptly glommed on to the admittedly shivery detail of the story: that the stabbers claimed to have acted in an effort to appease “Slenderman,” a fictional child-stalker whose spectral presence has been created, spread and improvised upon by scores of chat-room users, filmmakers, and online storytellers.
There are three particularly defining elements to this story: that authorities want to prosecute these pre-teens, who may have acted based on a fictionalized belief system, as adults; that the assailants are young women who do not fit the description of disaffected masculinity that has become so horrifyingly linked to instances of youthful violence; and that everyone immediately decided that this was a story about the evils of internet technology. "Unmonitored and unrestricted access to the Internet by children is a growing and alarming problem," said Waukesha Police Chief Russell Jack in a press conference on Monday. "This should be a wake-up call for parents. Parents are strongly encouraged to restrict and monitor their children's Internet usage."
But what’s interesting about the case, or at least the little we know about it so far, is not that it’s an example of a new and looming online threat. Rather, it appears to echo patterns of behavior—belief in culturally-supported fantasies, tightly-cathected bonds between young women, an intensity of connection that has occasionally led to violence—that have occurred repeatedly, in various forms, throughout history and around the world. And they happen outside the heterosexual framework we use to understand Rodgers’ misogynistic rampage. This crime is one that reminds us of the central role that homosocial bonding plays in the lives of the many young women who spend their adolescent years battling, and occasionally “seeing,” their own demons.
If the two Wisconsin assailants were indeed motivated by their belief in a fantasy figure of Slenderman—and I hasten to add that it’s possible this is just an agreed-upon excuse designed to appeal to internet-paranoid parents—they are not the first young women to have confused socially-crafted fictions with reality.
Joan of Arc was estimated to have been about 12 years old in 1424 when she first saw the Archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine in her father’s garden in Domrémy, France, a vision that inspired her to lead an army to drive the English from France. Four centuries later, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, an asthmatic shepherdess who’d been shuttled between her home and a set of foster parents, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a grotto in Lourdes, France. Her vision had less militaristic consequences than Joan’s; Lourdes remains a spiritual destination to this day. In the early 1980s, during a period of building aggressions between the Hutus and the Tutsis, a group of young women at Kibeho College in southern Rwanda claimed to experience visions of the Virgin Mary, urging them to prevent the oncoming bloodshed that would be the Rwandan genocide. Less spiritual were the convictions of 19th century female readers who wept by the Trinity churchyard gravesite of Charlotte Temple, the fictional heroine of Susanna Rowson’s eponymous 1791 novel of seduction and abandonment.
Writing this, I think even of the hours and months my high school best friend and I spent obsessing over fictional characters on soap operas. None of which led us to stab anyone, but which was certainly symptomatic of how powerful and intoxicating escapist fantasy from the sometimes scary world of female adolescence, especially in thrilling tandem with another person, can be.
Indeed, for all the time we spend wringing our hands over the deleterious impact of popular culture on young people, we spend far too little considering the impact that young people can have on each other.
The intensity of bonds between young women have gone especially underexamined in recent years. For generations, it was accepted that adolescent girls might form highly emotional, deeply felt relationships with each other, kind of proto-marriages. For periods of American history, adolescent and teen schoolgirls regularly shared beds, openly expressed their adoration and devotion to each other and were sometimes said to be “smashed”—entwined in committed partnerships. But in the early-20th century, as heterosexual marriage came to be seen as a relationship based on emotion and mutual desire, female partnerships began to be seen as competitive and suspect. Young women were encouraged to train their attentions on young men; a dating culture emerged, and we have not spent nearly enough time since acknowledging the powerful influence that adolescent girls continue to have on each other.
Not that that influence is usually murderous! But popular narrative—and the historical record—does contain some connections between female alliance and violent action. Sometimes, female friendships have been depicted as the basis of strength from which women can exact revenge on men who have abused or taken advantage of them, as in movies likeThelma & Louise and 9 to 5.
The 1994 movie Heavenly Creatures is an example of a different kind of arc: in which female friendship is so intense that it results in the murder of another woman. The film was based on the true story of New Zealand 16-year-olds Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, best friends from Christchurch who bludgeoned Parker’s mother to death in Victoria Park in 1954. Parker and Hulme had bonded over illnesses they’d suffered as children, but through their friendship began to build an active fantasy life, with characters and stories they’d create and act out together. When their parents—worried that their bond was homosexual—tried to separate them, the girls conspired to kill Parker’s mother. They were tried as juveniles and spent five years in prison; Hulme went on to become a mystery novelist published under the name Anne Perry.
2012 brought a recent case of intra-gender violence, the murder of 16-year-old West Virginia student Skylar Neese by her two best friends, Rachel Shoaf and Shelia Eddy. The trio had apparently had a falling out, with Neese tweeting, in the days before her death, “you doing shit like that is why I will NEVER completely trust you.” After the eventual confessions of Eddy and Shoaf, it was revealed that the two assailants offered only one explanation for their crime—that they had stopped liking their friend—and that the murder had involved a degree of synchronicity: they had agreed to count to three before stabbing Neese. As Eddy would later tweet, horribly, “we really did go on three,” a sentiment that seems to marvel at the mirroring connection she had with her co-murderer.
And, of course, there was the witchcraft panic of Salem, Massachusetts, in early 1692 and 1693, in which a series of accusations—made first by a collection of pubescent and teenaged girls who were experiencing muscular spasms, tics and fits—led to the prosecution of 144 people and the execution of 20 convicted of witchcraft.
There are many conflicting theories about psychological, political and social explanations for the Salem witchhunts. Some historians blame the rise of mercantile capitalism and economic tensions between Salem Village and Salem Town; some cite the boredom of and inattention to young women in the town. What is certainly true is that the panic began when a group of socially-affiliated girls began exhibiting physical symptoms and describing spectral visions.
The historian Mary Beth Norton, who argued in her book In the Devil’s Snare that the witchcraft crisis stemmed from anxieties over the French and Indian war, border disputes over Maine, and a series of violent attacks on Puritans by natives, said by phone that while court records don’t leave us with detailed evidence of how close the young accusers’ relationships were to each other, she could think of at least one tight alliance: between 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr. and Mercy Lewis, an 18-year-old Maine native whose entire family had been killed in an Indian raid and had been placed as a servant in the Putnam household. Despite their age difference, Norton said, the girls were very close, and, she guessed, likely shared a bed or at least a sleeping loft, as per the domestic arrangements of the time.” She also noted that it was likely that the interpretation of the girls’ fits and visions was guided by Puritan beliefs that Native Americans were devil worshippers, and that, in the midst of bloody conflict between native and Puritan populations, translating the physical tics and social confusions of young women into a widespread campaign against fellow Puritans permitted some fantasy of control, since “if you can’t defeat the Indians in the woods, you can defeat witches in the courtroom.”
Norton drew a connection between Salem and the more recent, non-violent case of cheerleaders in Le Roy, New York, a suburb of Rochester, who exhibited physical symptoms that strongly echoed those displayed by Salem girls. In 2011, a group of these Le Roy students, many of them cheerleaders, began to suffer from tics and stutters, humming and involuntary muscle spasms.
And while our cultural lens wasn’t trained on demonic possession anymore, nearly every other contemporary interpretation was brought to bear: therapists, activists, and journalists attributed the outbreak to everything from environmental toxins to the post-manufacturing economy, social, familial, and academic stresses to absent fathers and mass hysteria.
As the reporter Susan Dominus reported in her excellent piece on Le Roy, the case appeared to come down to “two equally poorly understood phenomena: conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness.” As Dominus reported, “Half of mass psychogenic illnesses occur in schools, and they are far more common in young women than in any other category.” In her piece, Dominus also explored the ways in which many of the sufferers in Le Roy seemed to entail social mirroring, the unconscious sharing of symptoms and affliction. Psychogenic illness, she wrote, “seems deeply connected to empathy and to a longing for what social psychologists call affiliation: belonging.”
Of course, that’s not to say that any of this may have anything to do with what happened in Waukesha, Wisconsin. But what is true is that adolescent intensity, obsession, fantasy, derangement, illness and, yes, sometimes violence, are not the exclusive domain of boys. To consider the kinds of complicated relationships girls have with each other, we need to move beyond the (hetero)sexual framework we’ve come to accept as the defining norm of adolescence. We must acknowledge that there is a universe of female communication, commitment, and confusion that looms large for many, and that can, in rare instances, have dire consequences.