Do stories about tot-killing Moms “sell” because Americans have long been fascinated with outlandish criminal behavior? Or are these biased and sensationalized stories really just anti-feminist morality tales about the alleged dangers posed by “free-spirited” young women so bored and challenged by early motherhood that they’ll kill their own flesh-and-blood just to resume a more unencumbered lifestyle?
Nancy Grace, whose eponymously-titled cable tv show has turned the three-year old Casey Anthony case into a national sensation, has emerged at the head of a veritable media lynch mob intent on bringing child-murderers, especially Moms, to justice.
The 51-year-old former prosecutor – and mother of two – seems to find marriage, the family, and the entire social order threatened by the likes of Anthony, the 25-yeard mother who allegedly drowned her two-year old Caylee in the family swimming pool, then went on a three-day partying binge with her girl-pals.
Grace does sometimes concentrate her righteous indignation ? and notorious sarcasm ? on charming male sociopaths who’ve allegedly murdered their wives and children, men like Scott Peterson convicted of killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn child in Modesto, California in 2002. But she seems to reserve a special place in Hell for a woman like Anthony who apparently couldn’t be bothered with the demanding responsibilities of being a mother, even with a husband and devoted family to support her.
“This is the happiest that I have been in a very long time,” Anthony wrote in her diary a day after she allegedly murdered her dsaughter. “I’ve made new friends, and I hope that my happiness will continue to grow.”
Grace’s concern for murdered tots – the tragic element that seems to unite the Peterson and Anthony cases, for example – is certainly understandable. In fact, ever since 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted, sexually abused and decapitated in 1981 – giving rise to shows like “America’s Most Wanted,” hosted by Walsh’s father ? the mass media has devoted itself to child abuse and murder like never before.
Is that really such a bad thing?
Probably not, but watching Grace engaged in her trademark histrionics – badgering, hectoring, and even ridiculing her interviewees much as bossy, trash-talking conservatives like Sean Hannity do – you begin to wonder: isn’t all this family and child murder obsession every bit as bizarre ? even pathological – as the cases themselves?
Consider this fact: for all the depictions of violence in America, the murder rate has been falling consistently for three decades. In 1976, the homicide offending rates per 100,000 of the population were 16.3 for males and 3.0 for females. By 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, the rates were 11.9 for males and 1.2 for females, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Which means murder, however tragic and worthy of prevention, is
growing ever more rare.
But here’s the rub: the rate of murder of children, especially by their own parents – known as “filicide,” if the child is 5 or younger – may well be increasing. Some sources place the rate at one every three days, but others say it’s twice that level, or about 200 cases per year. And, in fact, though gender-based data are still scarce, the percentage of mothers who are killing their children, as opposed to fathers, is also on the rise, according to experts quoted in news articles in recent years.
So, for all her preachy alarmism, Nancy Grace may be on to something after all.
The motives for maternal murder of a child vary, experts say. Some attribute it to severe drug abuse and mental illness, which could also include extreme forms of “malignant narcissism” of the kind suspected in the Anthony case. But there’s also the “revenge” motive? a wife or mother getting even with a spouse or boyfriend who cheats, batters, or neglects his financial and paternal obligations.
A number of high profile cases, including one in New York city last month in which a mother drove her car into the Hudson River and drowned everyone but her young son who managed to escape through an open car window, are suggestive of this motive.
More broadly, though, family therapists and other experts point to the growing economic and psychological pressure of young women raising children without extended family support while trying to hold down low-paying and stressful jobs. Many women, they say, can find themselves in over their head, and without the tools to cope.
Some snap at their children, and nothing more. But others may batter, and in extreme cases, like Anthony’s, or that of other notorious child-killers like Susan Smith and Andrea Yates, they snap to the breaking point.
Anthony may get convicted – but, in fact, with the physical evidence so flimsy, some legal experts – and not just the babble of talking heads on Nancy Grace’s show – say a jury could still find her not guilty.
Whatever happens, it hardly seems to our advantage to turn Anthony into a poster-child for “unfit” mothers. If maternal filicide rates are rising ? and apparently they are – it should be a call to constructive action – not a media execution.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org