In the south, the summer of 2011 will be remembered for its scorching heat, and for the trial of Casey Anthony of Orlando, Florida, suspected and acquitted of the murder of her three-year-old daughter Caylee. The country has been mesmerized by the tragic story of a photogenic child gone missing, and found dead under strange and troubling circumstances. We have been unable to look away. Casey’s sullen, enigmatic demeanor and her silence during her trial have left us adrift.
What little we know about Casey fascinates us. When a young mother fails to report her child missing for a month, and hinders the search with a stream of fabrications, something is very wrong. But what? How is it possible for a mother with missing child, or a woman newly bereaved, to choose a party-girl lifestyle? We are filled with trepidation, yet just what happened to Caylee was not proven to the jury “beyond a reasonable doubt”. We may have to wait for the inevitable movies and memoirs.
Meanwhile, the pundits are unable to resist filling in the gaps. Was the nonexistent childcare worker “Zanny the nanny” really a nickname for Xanax, used to drug the child (Dr Drew, HLN), or an alter personality (Dr Diamond, Psychology Today on June 15), a symptom of a brain disorder, or a calculated lie? This tragedy has become our summer mystery.
Whatever happened to the little girl, Casey seems to be a provocative, disturbed young woman. But is she a sociopath, as some speculate? For the record, it’s not a clinical diagnosis at all, but a forensic term. Forensic psychologists are interested in personality traits that help to explain the motivation for unacceptable acts. Sociopaths are described as having a diminished capacity for empathy with others, and lack genuine emotion (but fake it well); they may be anxious, but have no remorse. They use other people and discard them; they tell fluent lies to get their way. They become easily bored, and crave constant stimulation, but rarely make productive plans. Most of them are never accused of murder or mayhem.
Some researchers think the spectrum of sociopaths may include 1-3% of the population. If they are skillful enough manipulators, we never figure them out. Some sociopaths are charming and fun; some get us to feel sorry for them, or persuade us somehow to go along with their crazy schemes. Eventually, they are trouble. Of course we are fascinated. How many Facebook friends do you have?
Now for the bad news: we know very little about sociopaths, and what makes them tick. They do not usually seek counseling. The mental health community sees their traits as akin to personality disorders of the narcissistic and antisocial types, and has no real clue about how to respond. Some people think insight would not help, and might backfire, providing the sociopath with improved skills to use to manipulate others.
When something goes this badly wrong, it raises a thousand questions. Where do we get our empathy from? Lots of people with rough backgrounds become kind adults. We rely upon the answer, in order to live in community with one another. We want to rely on the benevolence of others, or recognize the lack of it in time. On a good day, we want to offer it, even before it is deserved.
Suppose we had a way to recognize sociopaths before things went too far off the rails? What are our options? We are protective of the rights of those with better understood mental illness to refuse treatment, until they have become a danger to others, or to themselves. May we find greater wisdom. May Caylee find peace.