"The Other Spencer Girl" by Jo Scott-Coe

Jo Scott-Coe

Jo Scott-Coe

Jo Scott-Coe’s first book is Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute 2010). Her essays have appeared in Salon, The Los Angeles Times, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Ruminate, The Nervous Breakdown, and Ninth Letter. In 2009 and 2010, her work received notable listings in Best American Essays. Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English at Riverside City College in Southern California, where she also teaches public writing workshops for the Inlandia Institute. Her forthcoming book, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, seeks to understand the relationship between the 1966 UT Austin sniper and a friend who was a Catholic priest.

The Other Spencer Girl  


One of the most dangerous things we have to deal with is a crime that has no understanding whatsoever.

            Commissioner at Brenda Ann Spencer parole hearing, 2005 [1]

Women and mental health. Where do we start?

            Diana, Princess of Wales,

            Speech at Turning Point Conference, 1 June 1993


The girl wearing glasses lives in a one-story house the color of dried oatmeal. At sixteen, her skin seems pasty, and her long red hair is not admired—except perhaps by her father, also a redhead, in whose custody she lives and with whom she shares a bedroom and, allegedly, a mattress on the floor. (The father will say later that there were two beds, or at least two mattresses, though he also uses the word “sharing.”)

Although her family name is Spencer, the girl with glasses bears little other resemblance to the pink-faced English girl who, only nine months older, is already called Lady and is just about to be noticed by a prince on the wide green lawn at a polo match. The girl with glasses will never pose wearing a gauzy skirt for paparazzi in front of the melting sun, she will not wear a sapphire engage-ment ring, she will not practice reaching her hands into crowds of people waving Union Jacks. Unlike the English Lady who becomes Her Royal Highness, the girl with glasses will be barely believed—and not beloved—by cameras and newspapers, for documentable reasons.

For Christmas, the girl with glasses gets a gun, a small rifle with a large scope. Before bestowing this gift, the girl’s father has taken her shooting at cans and rabbits in the San Diego foothills. Around the time that the English girl runs up a bill for Sloane Ranger clothes and works in a kindergarten and discovers the charms of her swoopy hairdo, the girl with glasses has learned to stop smiling, perhaps also crying. An English teacher at Patrick Henry High School says that the girl was quiet and hard to read—like, Hello? Are you awake? Her father says before the divorce the girl was always very tiny and pretty cute. Her mother says the girl had always been a good child, a well-behaved child who was never a problem but eventually spent some time in a special school, partly due to depressed and suicidal feelings.

(Later, the father will ask: How do you know if someone’s suicidal or not?)

When we see her the first time, she is frowning and the glasses look too big for her face. The glasses seem only partially shaded, as if they are combination lenses that don’t work properly outdoors. Perhaps she dislikes her glasses but also prefers to hide behind them. In the kitchen, in the living room, she has helped herself to beer in cans, to whiskey in bottles. She has two invisible siblings whose faces will be blurred perpetually in future photographs. Her mother dresses in pantsuits and wide-collared shirts that could be worn by Elton John. Her mother, like the English girl’s mother, has left her and has not fought for custody. Her father allegedly seeks the company of other women. He continues to have trouble with his teeth.

Fourteen years after the crime—the very year that Her Royal Highness breaks up with the prince and begins speaking publicly about Depression and mental illness—the girl with glasses will explain her actions by telling an interviewer that she took marijuana and PCP while drinking alcohol, and that this combination made her think children on the playground were evil commandos. (No attorney can confirm this claim with urine results.) We do not know if the girl with glasses ate breakfast that morning, or any morning, when she apparently stayed behind, alone in the house with wide, diagonal lattice across the windows. (Nearly every house in her neighborhood has the same lattice window facing the street.) The girl’s house stands directly opposite an elementary school named after a president whose first name was Grover, not to be confused with the blue puppet from Sesame Street. Yet news footage of the area includes blonde children jumping hopscotch over chalk lines in the middle of a road, or perhaps a parking lot, as if Sesame Street were right there.

When we see her the first time, escorted between two men in SWAT gear, the girl with glasses wears loose pants with a dark jacket and black cap. In a picture from a subsequent hearing, her loose red hair has kinks in it, her wrists are bound to a chain at her waist, and she appears to be braless. Unlike the Princess, she will develop no nervous habits of binging and purging sweets, or starving herself into fainting, as happens on a royal trip to Canada. However, we may picture the girl with glasses some morning on the mattress, taking bullets from a box and counting them out on the bedspread, like pills or jellybeans. Perhaps to soothe away thoughts of imagined commandos (as opposed to, say, the princess’s very real paparazzi wearing leather and riding chrome).        

The elementary school still has its chain-link gate. From a window in her home, the Spencer girl who is not English could watch the principal unlock the gate that morning for the arriving children who carried Star Wars or KISS lunch boxes. Using a bureau or perhaps the windowsill, the girl with glasses propped the belly of her small rifle (which would be heavy for her stick arms) and fired across the street at the small school and its playground with small bodies. She killed two grownups who were men, including the principal with the special key. She injured eight children as well as one policeman who came to the scene. One girl took a bullet through the wrist. Despite—or perhaps due to—the low ratio of fatalities to survivable injuries at relatively close range and with extra magnification, the sheriff will call her a pretty good shot.

On the other hand, Her Royal Highness had always been averse to hunting and shooting—though these sports were to be expected, even demanded, for a young person of her class. (The prince had met her, before he ever noticed her, at a family shooting match.) Her aversion to guns was forgiven due to a longstanding affection for animals, including ponies and guinea pigs. In part because of this, and also because of Her Royal Highness’s long, long wedding dress and quick pregnancies and willingness to touch AIDS patients and landmine victims (also: her general prettiness, perceived shyness, and panic about growing fat), we tend to sympathize with (pity?) her decadent shopping sprees and adulterous dalliances with polo players and fits of crying and/or screaming at the tops of stairways and behind bathroom doors and also on the royal yacht.

In fact, millions of women in apartments and condos and single-family dwellings said to themselves privately and sometimes aloud to each other that they were Just Like the English princess surprised by royal circumstances and deserving at the very least one castle with reliable servants for gods sake, also a decent vegetable garden and central air conditioning that functioned properly. Besides, the women will add, the English girl’s prince, who was thirteen years older and who kept a lifelong mistress the whole time, should have acted less cruelly towards the English girl, who had no way of knowing or understanding what she’d gotten into and where to find the exits.

The girl with glasses who shot her small rifle at the small school pled guilty and did not get a trial. It seems she was encouraged not to ask for one, as there was no mystery or magic about her actions, which were juvenile and adult at the same time. After firing thirty-six bullets, she held herself hostage for seven hours in the house with the whiskey bottles and the mattress and four to five hundred rounds of additional ammo. Outside her window were crowds and media vans with cameras, and one hundred police officers as well as the SWAT crew, and of course ambulances driving away. A policeman with a bullhorn paced until she surrendered. As she crossed the driveway with the SWAT men, her red hair moved like floating seaweed across her shoulders. She would be quoted, or misquoted, as calling the children cows and saying that shooting them was fun, for no reason at all, except that she wanted to liven up her Mondays.

The eventual moment of surrender and arrest can also be interpreted as a kind of permanent escape. After a brief period in juvenile hall, the girl with glasses will be taken to a one-story turret bordered by a fence made of wire, where she will not cause trouble and will eventually learn to operate a forklift. She will cut her hair into a mullet, then let it grow again and pin the curls up into a peasant’s bun. She will gain one hundred pounds. At a parole hearing after twenty-five years, she will express sorrow and remorse for the bullets, the wounds, and the two dead men, including the principal. She will admit that she has no distinct memory of the sequence of shots, but that she knows she committed the crimes. For the first time on public record, she will use the word Sodomy and the phrase Almost Rape. A board member will ask about the word “almost” and she will reply, That’s what it was like. She will add she has tried to address this topic with her father but that he doesn’t want to talk about it.

(She said that? the father will say.)

The commissioner denying her parole again will emphasize that the motive of the crime was very trivial in relationship to the offense, and that the world is filled with things that should never happen to children, though this does not justify violence, and he knows how difficult it all must feel.

When recalling the awful day, one adult survivor of the attack will describe the other Spencer girl’s stringy red hair as evil-looking, like something from a horror flick (by which she likely means Sissy Spacek in Carrie). The surviving policeman who is no longer a policeman will say he plans to take his guns out, put them back together, and load them if the woman with glasses and now grey above her earlobes ever gets released from the turret. He figures she will be coming to get him, to finish the job.

After officially divorcing the prince, the English girl will be stripped of her royal title and find herself chased by motorcycle paparazzi taking pictures for high prices. She will not survive the high-speed crash in a Paris tunnel. Neither will her driver (allegedly under the influence) or new lover. Men and women, especially women, will weep. People will litter the crash site, the French hospital, the black gates of Buckingham palace with a sea of flowers and balloons, with teddy bears and candles in tall jars, and with handwritten messages as if to a lost friend. People on London streets and leaning from office windows will frown at the queen for not grieving properly on camera and also for not lowering the flag at the palace. You probably know where you were when she died.

The girl with glasses outlives the princess. A San Diego newscaster with plastic in his voice will call her the grandmother of school shootings, the one who started it all, though this assertion is factually inaccurate. (See: Austin, Texas; see Olean, New York.) When asked by a documentarian whether the girl should’ve received the death penalty, the wife of the murdered principal (who has kept everything in her house the same as the day her husband did not return) will say Sure: That was a bad thing to do.

For more than thirty years, the father of the girl with glasses (who still inhabits the house with the lattice window across from the small school) will drive north most Saturdays to visit his daughter in the turret. Meanwhile, he will also impregnate a seventeen year-old runaway and then marry her to avoid prosecution. The runaway will happen to be his daughter’s former cellmate from juvenile hall, and she will be easily mistaken for his daughter, according to authorities. For a short time, this means the girl with glasses will be older than her stepmother. Eventually, the runaway-turned-bride will leave her baby in the house with her ex-husband. According to him, she does not want to see her child.

That is weird, the daughter of the dead principal says. Was he a pedophile or something? Still, she blames the Spencer girl, no matter how weird her family was, and regardless of her apparently docile behavior under incarceration because a model prisoner does not a citizen make. Whatever the father may or may not have done (say, giving her the rifle for Christmas rather than the radio supposedly requested) the girl with glasses has no one to blame but herself.

Unless, the daughter adds—and here she points a pretend pistol towards the camera with her fingers—Unless the girl’s father covered her own hand with his hand, and made her pull.

[1] All quoted, referenced, and summarized dialogue related to Brenda Ann Spencer and family comes from the television documentary I Don’t Like Mondays, directed by John Dower (September Films, 2006).