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Jennifer L. Tanner

Jennifer L. Tanner Ph.D.

Casey Anthony Is Normal, That's the Problem

Casey Anthony was normal. She was acting just like a 22-year-old.

Casey Anthony is the "Tot Mom" on trial, accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter. She was 22 when the alleged occurred.

Now 25, Casey Anthony is defending herself against first-degree murder charges. The prosecution contends that Ms. Anthony chloroformed her daughter and then suffocated the baby by putting duct tape over her nose and mouth.

The defense, on her behalf, argues that the cause of death was drowning and that the drowning was an accident.

That's the legal gist of the case.

But "accident or no accident?" is not the question compelling millions of people to watch this trial. It's the psychology of this case that is drawing people to their screens. People want to know:

1. What would make this 22-year-old mother chloroform and suffocate her 2-year-old daughter?


2. Why would someone lie about their child's whereabouts for 31 days whether said child was dead or missing?

Who does that?

Her defense in a nutshell—her childhood made her do it.

Arguing that her childhood made her do it may work as a legal strategy, but it doesn't work as a psychological explanation for her behavior.

Ms. Anthony's defense attorney claims that learning to keep the secret of being molested trained her to keep secret the drowning of her daughter. However, with respect to the scientific literature, childhood experiences do not translate into adult behavior in a 1:1 correspondence. That is: Not everyone who has a bad childhood exhibits bad behavior in adulthood and not everyone who had a good enough childhood exhibits good behavior in adulthood. Drawing connections between childhood trauma and adult outcomes when connections were faint at best got Freud into a lot of hot water. (Think Baez can do better?)

So if not her childhood, what then? Why might Casey Anthony have killed her daughter and lied about it for 31 days?

The answer may be much closer—perhaps adulthood made her do it.

Looking at the details describing what Casey Anthony was doing for the 31 days her baby daughter was dead and missing, the vast majority of her behavior was typical of a 22-year-old. We know that she partied and danced at nightclubs; had multiple boyfriends; was having sex, was having fun. We saw her smiling in photos with friends, participating in a "hot body" contest, drinking, texting, and, hanging out.

This is what young people do when they are in emerging adulthood, an exploratory stage of life in between adolescence and adulthood, typically between ages 18 and 29. During these years, individuals feel "in between" and "not fully adult." They spend their time exploring their worlds, collecting experiences that provide them with information about what they like and don't like to do in adulthood. They see so many possibilities ahead of them, they tend to be optimistic about what their lives may become.

Theroetically, Casey Anthony was normal. She was acting just like a 22-year-old.

But, Casey Anthony wasn't a typical 22-year-old. She had a baby. She was, in fact, quite different from her peers who were working full-time or in school full-time. None of them were married or had become parents. The average age for having a first child among young women is age 25; Casey had a baby when she was 20.

Anyone who is a parent knows that becoming a parent kicks your ass out of emerging adulthood and into full-blown adulthood. Overnight. Once you have a baby, self-focus is difficult because a baby demands so much attention. As a parent, you no longer spend a great deal of time thinking about what your life might become. There is more reason to focus on what your life has become and to devote your time and energy to what commitments you have already made to your child. In turn, this devotion and attention to responsibilities and commitments to others defines a person as an adult.

And this is exactly why it may be that "her adulthood made her do it."

Perhaps the demands of parenthood interfered with her motivations to explore and be "normal." Perhaps Casey Anthony wanted so badly to be a typical 22-year-old that she had to suffocate the very voice that beckoned her to be an adult when she was not ready.

Could it be that Casey Anthony was normal for a 22-year-old and that was the problem? Perhaps the "why" everyone is searching to understand has much more to do with Caylee's childhood and much less to do with Casey's.

What do you think? Do you think that wanting to be a "normal" 20-something could motivate a young parent to murder her child?


About the Author

Jennifer L. Tanner

Jennifer L. Tanner, Ph.D., is an applied developmental psychologist at Rutgers University.