Casey Anthony, Nancy Grace and Ayelet Waldman’s “Bad Mother”: What Do The Three Have in Common?

If you were on Twitter, you may have noted that at 2:15 PM Eastern Time it exploded. That was approximately the time that Casey Anthony, the so-called “Tot Mom”, was found in a Florida court of law not guilty of murdering her two year old daughter, Caylee. There were many, many declarations of outrage. So many that I got the Fail Whale. I love the Fail Whale.

I admit that I avoided the trial and the case with a ten-foot pole. Why, I wasn’t really sure, but it just felt, for lack of a better word, icky. Since becoming a mother I can’t really bear stories about children in jeopardy or who have gone missing. When I was going through infertility, such stories stoked an almost unbearable anger: I couldn’t get pregnant, and yet many neglectful women didn’t understand what a miracle children were.

But finally this weekend, after seeing countless tweets about the subject matter, I broke down and read about the case. It is a drab, dreary, sordid case, filled with difficult to explain photos of a mother partying while her child is missing, strange inconsistencies of statements made to people, allegations of incest and molestation. I don’t really want to get into all of the details, because I don’t understand the case that well. But the media have made a lot of hay with the story. It was on the cover of People magazine. CNN’s Headline News has gained tremendous ratings off the trial. Primarily, Nancy Grace has been a particular beneficiary of the story.

Nancy Grace is a controversial figure, albeit a popular one. According to Wikipedia, she became a prosecutor after the murder of her fiancee. Later, she became a media figure on Court TV. She seems to focus on cases like Anthony’s or the Natalee Holloway disappearance: violence against women or children. From what I can tell from the limited viewings I’ve seen of her program, in Nancy Grace’s world there is black and white. With no shades of grey. I think this comforts a lot of viewers, who have suffered their own tragedies or just know that a lot of bad stuff happens in life. Grace makes them believe there can be Justice for victims of crimes.

The Casey Anthony case was nagging me, and I finally realized why: it reminded me of Ayelet Waldman’s book, “Bad Mother” which is a provocative, reassuring and sometimes maddening read. Definitely recommended. She writes about the magnifying glass put on certain “bad mother” cases like the Anthony’s or Susan Smith, and WHY this happens.

“While women have always, historically, been the enforcers of acceptable social conduct, even when it was to their detriment (remember Abigail Williams, the lead accuser in the Salem witch trials?), an hour or two surfing the myriad of mommy blogs provides compelling support for the notion that, in this area at least, we women are primary authors of our own subjection.”

Waldman adds:

“And why? Because the Andrea Yateses and Susan Smiths, the ‘crack hos’ and the welfare moms provide us with a profound personal service. By defining for us the kind of mothers we’re not, they make it easier for us to stomach what we are.”

In other words, my kids are currently watching Caillou and eating McDonald’s (Michael Pollan, look away!) and this makes me feel like a slug. But, this doesn’t make me as bad as say, Britney Spears circa 2007, or the mom I saw at Target who was talking on her cell while her five children terrorized the aisles.

I think this is why the Casey Anthony verdict has caused such a stir: there are such pressures on us now to be perfect mothers. Especially after infertility! Organic food, never yelling, no TV, breastfeeding only, no C-sections, etc, etc, etc.

Again from Waldman:

“The question becomes: How does one find consolation in the face of all this failure and guilt? One way is by reveling in the dark exploits of mothers who are worse, far worse, than we are. We obsess about these famous bogeymamas; we judge ourselves for a little while not against the impossible standard of the Good Mother but against the heinous Bad Mother.”

Do you think Ayelet Waldman is right? Is Casey Anthony a “bogeyman” that the media has built up to make us feel better about ourselves?” Or is it not that simple?

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17 Comments

Filed under Family, Parenting After IF

17 responses to “Casey Anthony, Nancy Grace and Ayelet Waldman’s “Bad Mother”: What Do The Three Have in Common?

  1. I don’t think it’s that simple, but there is probably truth in that statement. As an infertile, I am constantly faced with people who don’t want their children, or don’t treat their the way I think they should. I would like to respect the jury’s decision, and no, I don’t know every single detail of the case, but I cannot fathom how she was acquitted. Her actions go so far beyond feeding your kids McDonalds. It just doesn’t compare.

    • Thanks for your response. Being among people who don’t appreciate their kids is very hard for me, too. When I was going through infertility, it was excruciating. I’m sorry you have to deal with that so often.

      The verdict is a total mystery to me, too.

      I believe Waldman’s point is that the standards mothers put on ourselves are perfectionist and stressful. One way to release this stress is to compare yourself, favorably, to a truly rotten mother.

      I definitely see this, in part, but I think also think Justine is right that one thing that society at large can’t bear to see is the smallest, most helpless members suffering or hurt or worse.

      • I’m not an attorney, but I work in the court system as a Spanish interpreter. While the layperson cannot fathom how she could be acquitted, to anyone working in the legal system, this was the only possible verdict the jury could have given. The standard of proof in the US criminal system is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. According to the law, someone *cannot* be convicted on conjecture and speculation. If there is reasonable doubt – of which there was a TON in this case, they couldn’t even establish for certain how Caylee died – the jury *must* acquit.

        And as much as hate to see someone like her walk, the system is set up under the belief that it is better for society to let a potentially guilty person free than to send a potentially innocent person to jail. As awful as it it, as much as we hate it, as squicky as it is, the jury actually did precisely what they should have done, and for that I give them mad props.

        And, for the record, I think she did it too.

        Interestingly, I often find myself asking not just why things like this happen and why people like Casey Anthony exist, but the inverse too: why don’t things like this happen more often? Clearly there are horrible tendencies in human nature. Why is it that such a select few do truly awful things?

  2. Esperanza

    Wow, what a wonderful, thought provoking post. I also didn’t watch the trial at all but at my aunt’s house they had the Today Show on ALL MORNING every morning so I did see some of it there, in the background. I certainly don’t know enough about it to be outraged.

    I am, however, familiar with the idea of boggymamas and I think you’re right, we, as a society, love to villain-ize them because it helps us feel better about our own flaws as mothers. We are not perfect and we know that, but when we see someone else failing so miserably, doing horrible, outrageous things, we can feel more secure in our own successes as mothers. It’s the same reason we judge mothers who don’t do the things we think are of paramount importance, like breastfeeding or having a natural unmedicated birth, or making homemade baby food or whatever bandwagon we jump on to feel superior to others. The thing is these boggeymamas are so much easier to hate completely. And they make us seem better, completely and totally better.

    I don’t know if that is exactly what it is going on with the Casey Anthony trial. It’s certainly a lot of what is going on, but some of it, I think, is just people feeling very sad about what happened to that little girl and without a guilty verdict they don’t have any resolution for that sadness. It’s a horrible thing that happened to that girl and people want there to be closure so they can move on. Without closure, without justice, it’s just one more thing in the world that doesn’t make sense. And people don’t like that. They want order. They want black and white, like you said. They want to know that trying their best will get them something and that those who do horrible things will get their comeuppance. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Life is unfair. There is great injustice. And it’s hard to be reminded of that.

    Thanks for helping me remember why people put so much stake in these things. It makes them easier to stomach.

    • “Without closure, without justice, it’s just one more thing in the world that doesn’t make sense. And people don’t like that. They want order. They want black and white, like you said. They want to know that trying their best will get them something and that those who do horrible things will get their comeuppance. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Life is unfair. There is great injustice. And it’s hard to be reminded of that.”

      Yes, I think this is definitely another reason why this case, or rather, the verdict has been such a hot topic and infuriated so many. As always, nothing is ever as simple as one explanation.

  3. Thought-provoking post. I think I do compare myself to others … but strangely enough, not to the boogeymamas of media fame. I think people like Casey Anthony make us angry because we are protective of children, even if we are less than perfect parents ourselves. It was the same thing with the JeanBenet Ramsey case years ago. I think we feel the same outrage at anyone who so clearly hurts others, especially others who can’t fight back. Despite our ideological differences, I believe that there are some fundamental human values that we all share … and protecting our young is one of them.

    The people *I* compare myself to favorably are the more mundane cell-phone-in-Walmart kinds of people, or children-out-and-tired-at-10pm kinds of people. But I also compare myself to parents that I’d like to be *more* like, too … those people inspire me to be a better version of myself.

    • “I think we feel the same outrage at anyone who so clearly hurts others, especially others who can’t fight back. Despite our ideological differences, I believe that there are some fundamental human values that we all share … and protecting our young is one of them.”

      Yes, I believe you are right, and this is the reason why the verdict was so upsetting.

  4. A very well written post that’s made me think. What I know of this whole trial has been almost exclusively through Twitter, believe it or not. I was familiar with the crime as it unfolded 3 years ago but as for the trial, not as much. I don’t even have cable or network TV at home.

    I don’t know if it’s as simple as her – and other mothers like her (Susan Smith comes to mind immediately, or the woman who drove from TX to kill her kid in ME a couple of weeks ago) – being a bogeyman. It’s very easy to hate a monster, yes, but i think there’s something bigger at work here. Not in a spiritual sense, but in the idea that how one can go from loving caregiver to murderer.

    She gave birth to that child. What – why – whyhow could she have taken that life from this earth? It’s just something my brain cannot wrap itself around and so yes, I jump on the bandwagon sentiment I’ve read in the IF community and say, “This is not fucking fair, Universe.” I can hate and despise this woman because it’s easier than forcing myself to think about what SHE must have thought to have brought her to the darkest side of her self.

    And at the end of it all… someone will never learn to ride a bike, to go on her first date, to dance with her father on her wedding day… That’s what kills me. That’s what breaks my heart.

    Fuck Casey Anthony – she’ll wear a scarlet letter for the rest of her life, never able to shake this shame. But Caylee – what about the life she will never get to live?

    • It agree: it IS disturbing to think about how mothers can do such things.

      “I can hate and despise this woman because it’s easier than forcing myself to think about what SHE must have thought to have brought her to the darkest side of her self.”

      Since the Greeks, this kind of story has been told (Medea). Because most people just can’t understand it. I’m with you: I don’t WANT to understand it.

  5. Really great post – thought-provoking and insightful, thank you.

    Not being a mother myself, I never really considered this perspective. I don’t know if we as a culture give so much attention to these kinds of cases because they make us feel better about the person we are, or if we use it as a crutch to wallow on and take the “not fair” approach – I can’t read my own mother’s mind, but I feel confidant that she would never look at someone like Casey Anthony and think, “Well hot damn, at least I’m a better mother than her!” I think more so, because she IS a mother and gave birth to two children, she wouldn’t be able to comprehend the loss of a child, not to even mention what kind of person murders their own child, which in my mind – right or wrong – I believe she did. Whenever a child passes away, my mother has the same reaction – she stares at those parents in disbelief and thinks, “How in God’s name are they dealing with their losss?” It’s probably something only a mother could understand. It’s also much of the reason I try to take care of myself and make good decisions – if anything happened to me, it would devastate my parents in an unbearable way.

    I guess being from LA – I’m used to this kind of outrage from a verdict. I saw it all happen with OJ. I think the outrage stems from people seeing the verdict and thinking, “WHAT?” At least I am. I get it – there was no direct evidence, there was reasonable doubt. But Jesus Christ people – mothers don’t hit bars when their child’s missing. They don’t lie about where their child is. And what mother waits a MONTH before telling the police she can’t find her child? But as life showed with OJ – justice sometimes prevails, just a little late in the game. If she is in fact guilty, I hope justice prevails, for the sake of her daughter.

    Rant over.

    • As a parent, that is my worst fear: that something will happen to my children. It is unfathomable to me that this woman had a 30 day party after the disappearance of her child. AND told all sorts of lies about her nanny (who didn’t exist).

  6. I haven’t followed the case because, well, I guess I just don’t want to know. I do think that people like to villify others because it makes them feel better, but I agree with the other commenters that there’s more to it than that. I kind of hate the attention that a few high-profile cases like this (usually involving attractive white children) get when in fact child abuse and even homicide are fairly common. What a world. Sigh.

    • I heard a commenter on NPR, I believe, say that the case offered the trifecta of elements for maximum media coverage: she’s white, she’s middle class and she’s attractive. Not a very reassuring statement about who gets justice and who doesn’t.

  7. Mo

    I’ve been fascinated by this case, specifically because of my issues in becoming a mother. I loved my babies so much, even at 6 weeks, and I can’t fathom the existence of a neglectful mother. It is disturbing and perplexing to imagine any mother wanting to hurt her child. Since I’m still not in the mother stage of things, I don’t know whether I’ll feel pressure to be a perfect mother. All I know is that each time I see a mother hurting her child it hurts me.

  8. Just gave this post a shout-out on my blog; both you and Katie over at From IF to When just got me thinking about everything so much I couldn’t NOT write about it. Post is here: Unnatural Act, Unspeakable Crime

  9. Pingback: Jury trials and public opinion often split over gender expectations | PARTISANS

  10. Pingback: The Infertility Voice | Unnatural Act, Unspeakable Crime

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