By now just about everyone has heard the unnerving story of two 12 year-old girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, who, in an apparent attempt to impress the popular internet fictional character “Slenderman,” tried to stab to death a young female acquaintance from their middle school (the victim had even been a sleepover guest at one of her attackers’ home), thinking the act would gain them entry into the inner circle of the ghoulish fantasy figure’s online following. The crime is horrific enough in itself, but certain aspects of it demand our close attention because of what they can potentially teach us about empathy development (or lack thereof) in children and the socio-cultural factors that might at be least partly responsible for the growing epidemic of severe character dysfunction (largely stemming from empathy development) in our young people.
Information available thus far suggests that the two girls had been planning their crime for some time (at least since February), even contemplating various options about how they would carry it out. Their first plan was to wrap the victim’s mouth with duct tape while she slept and then stab her in the neck. Another plan they considered was to kill her in a park bathroom, partly because it had a drain that would make cleanup easier. But they eventually decided to carry out the attack while playing a harmless game of “hide and seek” in the park. Such carefully premeditated, heartless luring of the unsuspecting is not uncommon for the kinds of personalities I call “predatory aggressors” (see: Character Disturbance, pp. 121-127) and who are more commonly referred to as psychopaths (alt: sociopaths) but it has long been most uncommon in children, especially females. And the level of violence involved in the attack is unusual as well, once again, especially for female children. Miraculously, the victim survived. But the fact that her attackers fully intended a much worse fate for her and casually waked away from the scene of their crime, leaving her for dead, should give us all great pause.
The two perpetrators of this heinous crime have made some statements that provide some insight into the remarkable lack of empathy involved in their crime. One was said to have remarked about how interesting she found it to have no real feelings about stabbing her victim other than the excitement associated with actually doing it. She described carrying out the attack as surprisingly “easy.” And whether these youngsters were able to “compartmentalize” any empathy they might usually have to allow themselves to carry out such a heinous act or they are but two examples of those rare individuals among us who simply lack the capacity for empathy (and, therefore, the conscience necessary to function in a pro-social manner) only time and comprehensive psychological evaluation will tell. But the fact that so many events like this have been happening lately and that a common denominator among them the perpetrator’s appalling absence of empathy should be of great concern to us all. In the absence of empathy, it’s impossible to form a functional, mature conscience, and in the absence of conscience, civilization cannot be sustained.
Evidence has been mounting for some time about the role of genetic and other constitutional factors in empathy development. Some studies point particularly to one gene (heavily responsible for production of the hormone Oxytocin) and its variations as a key factor in how empathetic folks tend to be. Then of course there’s the research showing structural differences and markedly different neuronal interaction patterns in the brains of psychopaths (I’ve written about this before in the article: Is Psychopathy Genetic?). But it’s important not to discount the role cultural, environmental, and other learning factors also play in helping a person acquire a mature, empathy-based respect for human life and for the welfare of those with whom we share this our world (for more on this see: Budding Psychopaths on the Bus?). I’ve asserted this many times before: Socialization is a process – the process by which we rise above our baser natures and forge for ourselves a character both capable of and willing to serve the greater good (for more on this see: Socialization is a Process). Of all the creatures on the planet, we’re the only ones that require 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year for well over 20-30 years (In recent years, the time required for full socialization has been steadily increasing) of mindful training and careful guidance to arrive at a place where we can function in a truly adaptive manner among our own kind. And developing empathy is a critical part of that socialization process. While the innate capacity for it might vary, we can and must nurture empathy for it to develop fully. Cases like the “Slenderman Slaying” suggest that a society, we’re not doing a very good job at this.
Hopefully, we’ll learn some important lessons from these increasingly frequent senseless tragedies. I certainly hope we learn at least one crucial thing: just eliminating the guns (as we know all to well, knives, rocks, bricks, etc. can work just as well), relieving all the stress (some folks endure mounds of stress and with their character not only intact but sometimes even strengthened), or passing more laws, rules, and regulations (laws always depend on the voluntary compliance of the responsible) won’t solve our dilemma. These shocking and tragic events keep happening because unfortunately there are far too many among us so lacking in character development that when temptation hits or stresses mount, they have neither the will nor the built-in controls necessary to behave in civil manner. Character is the problem. And until we face that reality and confront it directly, more outrageous things are likely to occur.
I’ll be having more to say about empathy development and character formation in the next couple of posts. I’ll also be talking more about this particular case and other similar cases on Character Matters this Sunday evening at 7 pm Eastern. During the broadcast, I’ll afford ample time for listeners to call in and participate in a much needed dialog. Hopefully, I’ll also have the time to give listeners the information I meant to share last show on the upcoming new foreign editions of In Sheep’s Clothing (the domestic edition of which will see a new printing and possibly even a revision this August – that’s 23 and still counting!).