Amanda Knox's trial, which gathered so much international attention, is just one in a series of murder cases that transfix the media. Only a few short months ago, the U.S. was obsessed with the case of Casey Anthony, acquitted in the 2008 killing of Caylee Marie Anthony, age 2. In the public circus surrounding the Anthony trial, potential spectators lined up in droves to get coveted seats. They gotn into shoving matches and sacrificed their vacations or work time to fight for a spot in the courtroom. As reported in the New York Times, one young woman was so moved by the circumstances surrounding the trial that she has decided to apply to law school and devote her career to fighting for children's rights. Called "the most hated person in America," or alternatively "the most hated woman in America," it's hard to imagine now what her life will hold in store as the controversy surrounding this case will not diminish anytime soon.
The Casey Anthony is clearly a tragedy at many levels; that goes without saying. However, the statistics on child murder show that the case is, sadly, not that uncommon. According to a review published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Friedman et al., 2005), the United States has the highest rates of infant and toddler homicide (8/100,000 for infants and 2.5/100,000 for toddlers and pre-schoolers), and it is likely that these rates are an underestimate. At present, there are 11 women on Death Row for murdering their children according to one source. If Casey Anthony is to be the most hated person in America because of what she is alleged to have done, she's not alone.
Despite the frequency of "maternal filicide" (a mother's murder of her child), Freidman et al.'s review concluded that practically nothing is known about its risk factors. Data obtained after the mothers were either hospitalized or imprisoned suggest that there is an association between maternal filicide and psychiatric illness (depression, suicidality, psychosis), substance abuse, and a history of domestic abuse. However, this information comes after the fact, when the woman may be suffering from symptoms due to having murdered her child. Also, the data is based on those women who were caught. So, if there are lessons to be learned from the Anthony case that could be used in preventing this crime, we don't know yet what they are.
Ironically, at the time of Casey's trial, another criminal with at least 19 murders to his name was finally apprehended after years of evasion by the FBI. Of course, I'm talking about Massachusetts' own crime boss James ("Whitey") Bulger. Not to minimize the seriousness of Casey's crime, but isn't a cold-blooded serial murderer more deserving of the dubious distinction "Most Hated in America?" The list of possible candidates for this title could go on and on. Of course, Osama Bin Laden isn't around any longer to qualify. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York City, didn't take a life, but his actions are evoking strong reactions on both sides of the Atlantic. Jared Lee Loughner, would-be assassin of Arizona congressperson Gabby Giffords who killed 6 bystanders, could also fit in this category. These are just a few examples - there are, unfortunately, many more contenders for most hated status.
I think that Casey Anthony's case has special features which cause her to be singled out for particular media scrutiny. First, when the story first reached the press, interviews on nationwide media outlets immediately brought it to widespread attention. People started to tune in, and so reporters continually expanded their coverage, in the kind of escalating cycle we've seen all too often, where media ratings drive media attention. However, the Casey Anthony story must have more substance to it than this to keep it going for so long and in such depth.
In general, the American public is receiving high doses of fictional accounts of all varieties of murder, and shows such as "NCIS," "Law and Order (and its spinoffs)," and "Criminal Minds" (my personal favorite). Then there are the reality shows which document many varieties of psychodrama, from "Intervention" to "Addicted" to "Hoarders" (to name a few). When there's a real life case with certain iconic features, the stage seems to be set for the story to engulf media attention. Parenthetically, I shudder to think that the next series might actually be called "The Most Hated Person in America."
The iconic features of the Casey Anthony case were poignantly attested to in an Orlando Sentinel story by reporter Bonita Burton. To summarize briefly, mothers (and fathers) of young children can relate to the horrible feeling of finding their child has disappeared, even if only momentarily, in a public place. So the theme of losing a child weighs heavily on the minds of probably all parents. At the same time, parents can also relate to the occasional resentful feelings associated with having to sacrifice the activities they enjoy to accommodate the need to care for their children. However, it's at the deeper level that mothers are touched by the case. Burton describes the "subconscious fears" of either harming their child in a moment of frustration. What's worse, they dread being the target of the worst insult imaginable- being called "unfit."
We also know from research on mother-child relationships that these bonds continue to be potentially conflicted and ambivalent through life. University of Texas psychologist Karen Fingerman coined the term "developmental schism" to apply to the emotional rift that can grow over time between mothers and their adult daughters. The "supernatural joy" of being a mother (in Burton's words) meets up with the realities presented by these challenges.
What can we learn from the Casey Anthony case that may help move the national dialogue further along and perhaps prevent these cases in the future?
1. The mental health of parents should be given top priority. The transition to parenthood, when a couple moves from being a two-some to a three-some, is known to be stressful. Everyone from childbirth class teachers to health professionals needs to be on the alert for potential distress among parents-to-be.
2. Better research is needed. Given the paucity of well-controlled studies, follow-up investigations are needed that would track women with no prenatal care, victims of domestic violence, and mothers with a psychiatric history.
3. Improved violence prevention programs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an excellent violence prevention site that includes both the National Violent Death Reporting System and useful information about understanding child maltreatment. On a related note, the American Psychological Association has an extensive website on family caregiving.
4. Increased vigilance. Mandated reporting of child abuse is present in all 50 states in the U.S. Maternal filicide may or may not be associated with child abuse, however. Parents may also have other symptoms that place them at risk for ending their children's lives that may not be as detectable or considered reportable.
5. Encourage parents to seek help. The shame associated with a parent's feeling resentful toward his or her child can prevent that parent from seeking needed help. If you or someone you know seems to be at risk, take advantage of mental health resources in your community.
Caylee Anthony's murder, however it is resolved, may eventually have an outcome that benefits other families if we can turn the media attention from focusing on the trial itself to the issues the case raises. Let's hope that awareness raised by the case will lead to steps toward prevention of future child murders.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011
Friedman, S., Horwitz, S., & Resnick, P. J. (2005). Child Murder by Mothers: A Critical Analysis of the Current State of Knowledge and a Research Agenda. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(9), 1578-1587.