Why Are We So Fascinated With the Casey Anthony Trial?

Is narcissism a theme when mothers harm children?

Posted Jun 06, 2011

The Casey Anthony murder trial is being smattered throughout the television networks and talk shows. We also see lay people rushing through the halls to get a front seat for the courtroom drama. Women are doing the high five while reporters are wall to wall not missing a beat. People Magazine and other print venues cover stories on this horrendous news. Why?

Casey Anthony, 25, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of her 3 year old daughter Caylee. If convicted, she could face the death penalty. Why the deep fascination with this particular case? There are theories touted that the interest is due to Casey being a beautiful white woman and the fact the case includes such things as sex, lies and videotapes. While possibly all true, there seems to be an underlying theme to the trial related to the concept of narcissism and many are scratching their heads to understand. It's also obviously difficult to believe that any mother would harm her child and particularly to the degree of taking the child's life.

Having studied maternal narcissism for years, there is a familiar feel to some of the dynamics in this story. Not all mothers fit the saintly archetype that is seen and felt in the sacred institution of motherhood. We want so badly to hang onto the belief system that mothers don't harm children. It's fascinating that the defense in the Anthony case found a way to blame the father. While we don't know what is true and maybe never will, it is worth taking a look at the narcissistic family when maternal narcissism rules the roost. This arena is less understood both in general and in some areas of the mental health field as well.

Before we go there, however, it is important to point out that if this is an incest case, it is not unusual for the victim and the offender to have a close relationship. Child sexual abuse is usually done in loving and affectionate ways and is perpetrated mostly by someone loved and trusted by the child. Child sexual abuse by third parties, or outside the family, is found in only about 10 % of the cases. So, while reporters wonder why a potential victim and her offender would have loving conversations or support each other, it is no surprise to those of us who work in the child sexual abuse field. It is also common for child sexual abuse to go unreported or take years to report due to family connections and ramifications to families when it is reported. Delayed reporting is very common. We also typically see a strained relationship in the mother-daughter connection and a predicted maternal jealousy of the daughter if the father is the offender. The victim becomes like "the other woman" to the mother.

But, let's move on to the issue of narcissism. If we look at maternal narcissism, the cornerstone traits are lack of empathy and the inability to love unconditionally. We then add the other eight points from the description of narcissistic personality disorder taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM.) They are: grandiosity, preoccupation of unlimited power, believing one is special and above others, the need for excessive admiration, the sense of entitlement, interpersonal exploitation, envy and arrogance. As we view the unfolding of the Anthony trial, we see many of these traits exploding before our eyes. The seeming lack of empathy in Casey, the "all about her" behavior, her lack of remorse in exploiting others to fit her own needs, her sense of being above the law and lying to law enforcement, her apparent lack of self, and her attraction to attention and admiration...it is easy to see why many are speculating that she is narcissistic.

But, is there something missing here? If we have a young woman with these traits, where did they come from? She is only 25 years old. She still lived with her parents and had a baby at a very young age. To have allegedly murdered her child, something had to have gone very wrong for this young woman. What? How is narcissism formed in a young person?

If we look at the portrait of the narcissistic family, we see the narcissist in the center with the other family members revolving around them. It is very common for the narcissist to put on a great show and display to the world whatever image desired. Maternal narcissism comes in either engulfing or ignoring mothering. If you have an engulfing mother you don't get to be yourself and you are not encouraged to build a sense of self... because the "smother mother" makes your decisions for you. The narcissistic mother can bond closely in the beginning with the child that she can control, and then when that child becomes older and tries to assert herself, the problems begin. The father usually has to revolve around the mother to keep the peace in the family and preserve the marriage. Often the brothers are treated differently and appear to others as the "golden child" or very special.

If the daughter was engulfed and controlled by a narcissistic mother, she can grow up feeling very entitled too. She becomes used to having the world revolve around her but with no room to breathe or make her own decisions. If this same daughter has a child and the narcissistic grandmother begins to engulf the baby, but criticize and judge the daughter, bad things are to come in the mother-daughter relationship. The daughter can then feel the loss of attention, notice that the good attention is showered on the new baby, and become jealous of her own child. While this picture of dysfunction would never condone harming a baby, it could interfere with mother-baby bonding.

Some have also discussed the genetic factors of narcissism. There have been a limited number of studies done on the genetic aspects of personality disorders, but it is not confirmed in the research that there is a genetic base passed down. The need for "evidence" that genetics is a factor is obvious, especially if narcissism is to be discussed as an inherited disorder. For now, it is better understood that narcissism comes from trauma and early childhood experiences in generational narcissistic families.

So, if someone is deemed as having a narcissistic personality disorder at age 25, and is capable of committing the horrendous act of killing a child, where would all this come from? There would need to be more to the story. How can we not look at the dysfunctional family of origin issues? Should this become a part of investigations in these kinds of cases?

When listening to various media spin on this awful story, there is little discussion about "why". But understanding the reasons makes it easier to get our heads around such tragic information. Joy Behar, on HLN's The Joy Behar Show, interestingly enough, has asked the question several times when interviewing professionals. The question is not usually answered or is skimmed over. Joy often asks about the "why" in her interviews, which is refreshing. She asks about the aspect of mothering problems and seems to have an intuitive sense about this.

It makes sense that people are hesitant to bash moms or discuss the topic of bad mothering. Our standards are high and should be. Our connection to mothers is our primary bond in life and cannot be underestimated. So, most do not like to speak against the sacred institution of motherhood. As I work with abused children, kids in foster homes, and kids up for adoption due to severe abuse, it makes me think that if we don't understand the why...we can't prevent child abuse in the future. In this light, we do have to embrace the ugly fact that some mothers do bad things. We also have to understand the effects and the ramifications of destructive mothers, or how do we know where to go from here?

Again, it is important in this case as with any case of a young person gone wrong, to understand why. This is how we prevent these things from happening to children in the future. While we can't blame everything a child does on the parents, it is important for parents everywhere to understand how narcissism has invaded our culture and is affecting child rearing. It is possible to unwittingly pass down generational legacies of dysfunction if mothers and fathers have not understood or worked on their own recovery.

Specifically, with the Anthony case at hand, we don't know what the problem really is. But, the key to understanding the psychological make-up of a person involves family dynamics. We may not know the truth in this case or in others, but we can learn from each scenario. Hopefully this will help to bring health and wellness to our own families. Maybe the fascination in this case has its purpose.

Additional Resources:

Book: Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers http://www.amazon.com/Will-Ever-Good-Enough-Narcissistic/dp/1439129436/r...

Website: www.nevergoodenough.com

Survey: Is This My Mom? Use this to assess if your parent has narcissistic traits. It is applicable for men as well.

Research: Interview You? http://www.willieverbegoodenough.com/for-men.php

FB Parties for Adult Children of Narcissists: http://www.facebook.com/DrKarylMcBride

Will I Ever Be Good Enough?
Healing The Daughters Of Narcissistic Mothers Workshop
October 7, 8, 9, 2011 at The Inverness Hotel in Denver
For Information: www.nevergoodenough.com