In the Woods

Lawyers, police, forensic psychologists and Internet folklorists have all tried explaining why two girls from Waukesha nearly stabbed a third girl to death. All have fallen short, and the horrific saga sparked by Slender Man remains an enigma.

There was a girl who lived in a room in West Bend. The surrounding building was a government facility, white-walled and gray, and the girl, who had dirty blonde hair that spilled over her shoulders, wore purple plastic-framed glasses, along with the clothes provided by the facility.

Every day, the staff brought her daily allotment of cleaning supplies, and she swept and mopped the room, which was a more complicated procedure than it sounds, because she’d often keep the floor covered with her drawings and papers, something to make it feel less empty. She also had books she was fond of, including a few about cats that she took to school with her, a classroom in the same building staffed by a single instructor and assistant. She walked down the hall with her hair pulled over her eyes, and the staff knew to watch for ants, which she fed meal scraps in her room, and sometimes carried with her to throw at the other students.

The girl, now 13 years old, had been here for about a year and a half, including most of 2014 and almost all of 2015. She rarely made friends, and when the other boys and girls asked her to play Monopoly, she said no and stayed sitting by herself. There were always new kids coming and going, as this was Washington County’s juvenile lockup, and most were here only a few weeks, not long enough to grow pale and skinny like the girl. To eat, she’d walk back down the hall to her day room and crouch under a table, as she preferred, playing and nibbling from a tray. The facility dispensed vitamins to help her grow and develop, but she still looked underfed to her mom, who, in visiting the facility, could only speak to her through a glass window. Occasionally, an officer would drive the girl down to Waukesha County for a short, in-person visit.

To outside observers, the girl lived alone in her assigned dormitory and day rooms, the TV often muted and dialed to cartoons or The Weather Channel, its animated data beaming updates on tropical storms and temperatures. But to the girl, her pod-for-one was alive with personalities and sleepovers, during which she was the hostess, sometimes sleeping on the floor, where ants following scent trails nosed about for bread. Her guests included Voldemort, the arch-villain from the Harry Potter series, whom she called “Voldie”; Bellatrix, a dark witch from the books; Severus Snape, a moody teacher at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; Raphael, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; and Maggie, the oldest of the girl’s characters.

She laughed to herself, rocked back and forth, and jumped back, making cat-claw hands, whenever an officer opened the door to her pod. She drew pictures, made lists of what was wrong with her father, tore his shape out of family photos, and wrote missives to her imagined friends, including one to Voldemort that she left in an unaddressed envelope. She disliked compliments, though she occasionally accomplished something worth complimenting while using the limited means available to her. She once folded, ripped and colored interlocking pieces of paper to make a dollhouse with doll clothes, a CD player with a slot for CDs (which she also created and labeled), along with paper tables, a paper cell phone and a tiny remote control. The girl’s mother ended up taking the whole structure home to the family’s condo in Waukesha, which is about an hour’s drive to the south.

Most of the other children lived together in pods of four, and their cells had skylights that brightened at dawn, a sign of the outside world missing from the girl’s room. Her fellows were needy, asking for things they couldn’t have, bored and homesick. But the girl, who rarely saw the sun, prided herself in having “Vulcan powers” like Spock from “Star Trek,” meaning she could control her mind and emotions no matter the situation. The staff periodically inspected her drawings for signs of distress or suicidality, and found only evidence of an elaborate theater that had been unfolding for months, one that she feared medication would rob of its players, especially Maggie, who had been with the girl since elementary school. Although hers might sound like a private situation, it has unfolded in the most public of ways, as on May 31, 2014, Morgan Geyser almost succeeded in stabbing her 12-year-old friend to death.

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‘In the Woods’ appears in the January 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.