Updated: Oct 15, 2011
Sexual abuse by someone known to the victim, either in the case of incest or family friend or neighbor can cause symptoms of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) that fall within the category of Type I PTSD (as I defined in Types of PTSD). There is one particular case that has been in the news this year, that of Casey Anthony, who claimed that her father abused her. I discuss as many of the behaviors ascribed to Casey Anthony as evidence of guilt of murdering her daughter in the light of the possibility that she was in fact, abused sexually by her father.
Claims of Sexual Abuse by Casey Anthony
I suspect that the claims of sexual abuse of Casey Anthony by her father are true. Most reporting on this case was extremely biased against Casey because of possible misinterpretation of her behavior (e.g. The Casey Anthony Trial, a Cult of Infamy) . The trial of Casey Anthony for the murder her young daughter, Caylee, is in progress as of this writing.
To summarize what happened: Caylee Anthony was killed on June 16, 2008. Casey Anthony was suddenly seen by friends without her daughter. She had been very close to her daughter before and now the child was absent. Casey Anthony lied about where her daughter was, claiming that a nanny, no one had ever heard about, abducted the child. When people come to her home and wonder about the child, she lied about why the child was not there. Her own mother, Cindy, was curious about where her grandchild was and asked about her, but got evasive answers.
Finally she learned from Casey that the child was abducted about a month before. Cindy called 911 to report the child missing. Casey created an incredible story about a nanny who stole the child, concocting names and addresses that did not stand up under investigation by the police. She continued this series of lies for weeks, until the body was finally found. A massive search for Caylee occurs with no success for months. Her decaying body was found later in a wooded area nearby and quickly identified.
Meanwhile, the family was on TV often. Casey was then charged with murder. Both of her parents appeared on camera to support her. Her car was found by her father, thinking it was abandoned, and it reeked of the smell of a dead body and chloroform. Casey had not reported it “stolen”. The police found evidence of a search on her computer for making chloroform.
Her trial began a couple of weeks previous to this post and the prosecution has finished presenting its case. However, we soon discovered that the defense claimed that Casey had been sexually abused by both her father and her brother since childhood and that her father, George Anthony, had accidentally drowned Caylee while playing with her in the pool. George’s answers were not cooperative with the defense attorney’s attempts to show his role in the death of the child. Even her mother, Cindy, appeared to not have known that Casey had been sexually abused and thought that Casey killed Caylee, but still supported her daughter.
I do not speak as a victim of sexual abuse here, but have known at least three people who were sexually abused, one of which informed me only long after she became a victim. I am speaking as one who has suffered from Type I PTSD and can recognize both the behaviors and motivations. However, all sexually abused victims tend to show certain characteristics; lying is a big one. I think that Casey Anthony is telling the truth about her father. People claim she is lying because of certain evidence:
- She seems to not care at all about what happened shortly after the day her daughter “disappeared”.
- Her emotions were never revealed to her boyfriend or to other friends.
- She went out to a nightclub often, and there are videos of her dancing, with no evidence of either sadness or remorse over her “missing” daughter.
- She concocted this elaborate tale of a made-up nanny who stole her daughter, complete with names and addresses.
- There is evidence of a search for what may be the murder weapon, chloroform, on her computer.
The lack of emotional response seems to be cited by all who testified about her behavior, and is apparent in videotapes. However, the lack of emotional response would already be part of the repertoire of a sexually abused child. Any person undergoing a terrorizing event, perpetrated on them by a known abuser will learn quickly to hide all emotion. The abuser is essentially a bully who will capitalize on the fear, sadness, and shame of the victim and the best thing a victim can do is to hide his/her emotions. For the sexually abused person, just the shame of what happened, even if it did not happen to her but to her child, would elicit the same response under any circumstance, even when no one around her could suspect anything might be wrong. All of the evidence so far has shown Casey was a good mother and that she really cared about her child. The videos clearly show her joy with her daughter. However, I am not sure that a murder was committed. Her father could have accidentally drowned Caylee and rather than report his actions, fearing he would be found out on other fronts, probably covered it up. Very likely, her own mother, Cindy, did not know of his behavior.
I suspect that her father was the one who took Casey’s car to carry the body to the place where Caylee was found. He “found” the car months later, because he wanted to cover up his part, but not necessarily Casey’s knowledge of his part. After all, so far she had said nothing about his sexual behavior. She probably did not know that he had taken the car. Casey did not want to report anything to the police because they would find out that her own father did the deed. Now here’s the paradox. A victim of sexual abuse by a father desperately wants to cover that up, even to the point of protecting her abuser from discovery. Why? because that discovery would then reveal her shame and trigger blame on her.
What about the evidence of a search for chloroform on her computer? During the period of time when Caylee had died, one report on TV said that Casey was “living with” (staying with? [later mentioned in the news as living with until the day Caylee died]) her parents. Was her computer the only one in the house? Did her father and mother have access to it? [Later shown to be true]. Did the police dust it for fingerprints? Is it possible that her father looked for a way to “cover up” the smell of the decaying body in the car and thought chloroform would work? Did the police check for other chemical smells, such as chlorine bleach?
What’s Going On in the Brain
I will analyze Casey’s behavior as if she were innocent of murder and was a victim herself. All interpretations I present here are based upon what we already know as of the middle of the trial on 15 June 2011 and what Casey claims about her sexual abuse by her father and brother.
A child who has been sexually abused by a relative, and in Casey’s case, two relatives, would have done anything to cover it up, so that she would seem to be from a “normal” household. Lying would come easy when practiced over a lifetime, as would “victimhood”. She would know that no one would believe her so she would continue to cover it all up, and being the victim, would show conflicted behavior. In trying to show she is not at fault, she would still feel shame and would end up only showing behavior that would make others suspect she was lying. However, these outside observers would not know what she was actually lying about–they could only guess. Never having been the victim of sexual abuse, they could not possibly understand why one would want to cover up the evidence.
Furthermore, lying becomes a way to avoid talking about a terror attack, and the death of her child at the hands of her father is an attack on herself. The police wanted to know information NOW, but she was not emotionally or physically ready to talk about anything that had clear associations with the emotions she had about her father’s role. This, along with a long history of lying about that relationship, lead to her making up an elaborate story about the nanny, and continuing to act like she believed that story for weeks. It is an incredibly huge decision to actually talk about one aspect of the terror, let alone the whole story. Furthermore, the brain shuts down those circuits dealing with language associated with the terror events to prevent the victim from feeling those emotions again (see my comments on “Language and Speech” in my post on Types of PTSD.) After all, reliving any of that emotional trauma causes more brain damage. The only way she could reach a place of safety that would allow her to talk would be extensive treatment. This treatment should involve teaching the brain another way to think about the events to prevent the physical damage to emotion centers. Casey has had none of that kind of treatment.
There will also be physical symptoms that become apparent to people suffering from sexual abuse. Thomas Nagy, Ph.D., Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, says that one of the most common adult responses to past incestuous sexual abuse is the development of delayed onset post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to mood disorders, gastrointestinal problems or chronic pain (Oprah). I discuss these physical symptoms in Physiological Responses to Terror.
Lying to Survive
Another case where an individual admitted to breaking laws by lying, although he could not be accused of murder, can be seen in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, José Antonio Vargas (in a probing interview by Michele Norris of NPR) admitted to lying on job applications that he was a citizen. He grew up in this country, being raised by his grandparents, who told him to stay under the radar and take jobs normally taken by the undocumented. He got an education and lied to get a job with the Washington Post as a journalist. However, he recently decided to announce in an article, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant“, in the New York Times, that he was tired of hiding behind lies. He apparently was not sexually or physically abused as a child, and had no reason to suffer from Type I PTSD. His reason for lying? He said he had to survive. He needed a job to survive. Survival will drive any person to lie. We just do not like it when their need for survival under circumstances, which we cannot understand could be life-threatening, causes them to kill or hurt another person.
The importance of the “need to survive” is that it can be applied to a great many people. José Antonio Vargas may not have been rejected by his mother, who may have sent him to the US because his grandmother lived there and it was a better place to live than the Philippine Islands. Asylum-seekers to this country are interviewed rigorously about their experiences in torture, beatings, rape or other abuse. Often they are prepped by the immigrant community to exaggerate their claims to assure getting asylum (Listen to the report by NPR’s All Things Considered for 25 July 2011 on “Asylum Seeker Stretches The Truth For A Better Life” ). Nafissatou Diallo admitted to lying on her asylum-seeking papers but claims in an interview that she exaggerated the circumstances to be able to live in this country. Her alternatives were to tell only the truth and risk being sent back to a life she had difficulty surviving, or exaggerate greatly to increase her chances for survival. The brain is only going to direct your behavior toward survival.
Why did Casey Anthony lie? Maybe it was better than to try to explain, through all that pain of memory, what had actually happened, how she blamed her father for that death and the shameful reason she had to keep it quiet. It was just too complicated to explain to anyone and she would only get blamed, no matter what happened, multiplying that pain. If she were not blamed for not keeping an eye on her child around a father who had threatened her when she was young, then she would be blamed for revealing a secret that only she and her father knew, and of which her mother appeared to be totally unaware. Her drive was to survive until the next day.
Poor Choices by The Abused?
What appear to be poor choices by the victim, as seen by the non-victims, are actually wise decisions. The victim has learned from experience that the only guesses made would be against her. “Blame the Victim” becomes a game rule in all of these cases, precisely because the non- sexually abused cannot imagine what she went through and what her risks are by telling. Past experiences of trying to tell someone have already shown her that she would only get hurt. The brain is going to make the best decision that would protect her from getting hurt again. The decisions may not be good for the long-run, but they will be good for survival in the here and now.
The brain is built to protect us. It does this in many ways, sometimes paradoxical. Her pain would be magnified by the brain to prevent her from telling someone for the purpose of finding a solution, because experience has told it that she would only feel worse. It does this to trigger circuitry that is known to protect us and keep us alive. We cannot equate the emotional pain she would feel to one such as felt by a child who had just seen his dog get fatally hit by a car. This latter pain is nothing when compared to what the abused victim feels when they even think about telling someone. It is enough to send them into seclusion for days. It is the emotional equivalent to a violent migraine headache that lasts for at least a week. Every time she even thinks about it will trigger the same level of pain, so she will do anything to avoid thinking about it. See my discussion about this pain in the section “Language and Speech” in Types of PTSD.
Her seemingly uncaring attitude by living it up in local clubs after her daughter “went missing” may not be any such thing. We have no idea what behavior she showed behind the closed-door of her bedroom when she finally had to come home at night. The club behavior could clearly be one of not only trying to lie to others about what happened, but also to herself, as the only relief she could get from the pain of thinking about what had happened. It also appears to be radically different from her behavior before her daughter died, from what her friends said on the witness stand. If she was the uncaring mother who wanted to party instead of take care of a child, surely that behavior would have been very evident to others long before the day Caylee died!
All sexually abused children grow up with a feeling of total shame about what happened and want to hide that. Priorities then get established:
- hiding her father’s role, followed by
- hiding her role in the sexual abuse,
and not the reverse. After all she would have to admit that at least one of her own family did such an act and that too, would reflect on her own character (in her mind and in her experience of the victim getting blamed). Her jailhouse conversations with her father where she told him that she loved him and he was her buddy, were probably (and chillingly) word-for-word the same things he would tell her when he was assaulting her. We do not know. Again, I suspect that she would do anything to let him know she was not going to “tell on him”, again lying to protect herself from even thinking about the consequences of telling on him. We have no recordings of her conversations with him before the event. If we did we might find that she used the same phrases in other situations.
The choices, that a sexually abused victim exercises, are not as straight forward as a non-victim would want, for a reason. There has been brain damage due to the severe emotional trauma the victim has experienced. That damage has shut down certain pathways that would have pushed the victim toward survival without her family as she grows up. That pathway may never have developed. We can assume that the circuitry that required her family for her survival (as in all of us), was the one she was born with–and as a child, there is nothing to replace it if it gets damaged. That natal pathway is probably critical for the development of the second pathway later as the child starts to experience more of the outside world and greater independence from the family.
The development of these pathways is the key to most of what happens to us at a very young age. There is a wealth of evidence supporting the fact that we are born with certain programs (Perry et al., 1995), one of which involves the representation of certain people in our brains. I hypothesize, based on the evidence of “mirror cells” (Fabbri-Destro & Rizzolatti, 2008, Gallese et al., 2007, Kohler, et al. 2002, Rizzolatti et al., 2008), that we have particular cells in the brain assigned to represent members of the family. As we grow and contact outsiders, other cells get assigned to represent each of them. However, the cells assigned to the family, and the mother, in particular, are really critical. There is a lot of evidence that, before the age of three, the place of the mother in the child’s brain is so critical, that it defines the development of important concepts in the child’s mind–trust, safety, home, care, love (Bowlby 1980, Perry, et al., 1995, Perry 1997, Ontai & Thompson, 2002, and Mercer, 2005). If the development of these concepts do not occur, the child may not survive long, or if she survives, will not be able to be a productive member of society. These concepts form the very base of all behaviors we show as social humans, thus they are endangered by anything that stops their development.
I refer to methods for treatment in Types of PTSD.
The Verdict on 5 July 2011
Comment on “Jury: Casey Anthony Didn’t Kill Her Daughter“, reported on Morning Edition 6 July 2011.
NPR Reporter Nicole Preston reports on the national response to the verdict on Casey Anthony. The public appeared to decide that she was guilty, based upon the fact that she had lied. Media frenzy stoked the fire of anger from the public. She reports comments by both defense and prosecuting attorneys after the verdict was delivered, and the response by the family as leaving the courtroom immediately after the verdict to avoid public scrutiny.
Posted at NPR
I was also surprised at the verdict, but felt that her behavior was consistent with one who had been sexually abused. If you watch the videos and read the testimony in the trial with that possibility as a truth, then you can see a strange family dynamic, and the behavior of the accused as a very likely outcome from an experience of sexual abuse.
The problem with any depiction of a criminal’s behavior is that we assume that their childhood is “normal”. We assume that all adults will have feelings of self-worth established by a family who loves them, who accepts them no matter what they do, even if they disapprove of their actions. Thus, if we do something wrong, we will all feel guilty, and show shame. We may even show fear if we face serious repercussions for our actions. So those with a “normal childhood” will assume that a behavior looks suspicious if the person shows any sign of shame, fear or “guilt”. However, we do not know what that shame, fear or “guilt” is based upon if we know nothing about their childhood. For those who really did commit the crime, they would feel those emotions because they know that they had actually done something wrong of their own accord. But all people who have been rejected by their mothers at birth or who were sexually abused by a relative (Type I PTSD) will show these emotions when anyone views them with suspicion or when it feels as if they stand out in the crowd in any way for attention. After all, they got hurt badly when they did as a child, so how can we expect them to have any sense of self-worth as an adult and show this in their behavior? See my analysis at “Special Case of Type I PTSD–Sexual Abuse“.
The points I raised in previous posts [above] present serious questions on the process of determining guilt or innocence by a jury of peers. Peers of whom, the person with a “normal childhood” or one who has never felt any self-worth? How many of our news organizations, the ones most responsible for our education after we finish formal schooling, have ever discussed the effects of child treatment on their behaviors as an adult? How many have ever presented the family background of a person brought up for charges? Do they even realize how this is relevant? Maybe this is what Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers meant when they wanted to create an “educated citizen” who can perform the duties of a citizen (voting, serving on juries). Maybe this is a problem in our society, that our continuing education does not include understanding all types of people and their backgrounds.
My Extended Comments
So many have described Casey’s face when she heard the verdict–one of elation. I think if you ask any child who did not know what she looked like, carefully not mentioning her name, that child would say she looked like she was in pain. She probably was. Why pain when she should be elated? She probably was happy that she had beaten the most serious charges. However, that look showed a complicated series of emotions–relief, pain, and sadness. Why these emotions? Relief that someone had finally believed her, pain that no one did before no matter what she did in the past or would the future (facing reality), and sadness that even though her trial was over, she still faces jail time, she still lost her daughter and still faces the same family dynamic she left when arrested, made worse by informing everyone about the elephant in the room.
In CBS 48 Hours Mystery on 5 July 2011, Casey’s defense attorney, José Baez, said that her father yelled at her when she carried the drowned body of Caylee from the pool, “Look at what you’ve done! Your mother will never forgive you and you will go to jail for child neglect for the rest of your frickin life”. These words sound like those that a man would say who wants to delay the truth from coming out so that he could cover up the death himself. His control over his daughter appears readily apparent with these words. If he had been sexually abusing her, his control would be necessary to him. Thus, his first response to the “discovery” of his dead grandchild would be attack, not grief. Such control was also reported by another person, Mackenzie Phillips, who wrote of the lifetime of sexual abuse by her father (“High on Arrival” and first spoke openly of the incest on Oprah). Aside from Phillips’ notoriety from being a well-known TV actress who had not been arrested for murder, the similarity in demeanor of these two women is astounding.
Another description of this control and manipulation by an abuser can be seen in what Jaycee Dugard describes in her book “A Stolen Life: A Memoir” (see ABC Primetime for 10 July 2011) when she was abducted at the age of 11 by Phillip and Nancy Garrido, repeatedly raped over the next 18 years, gave birth to two children by Garrido and managed to escape when two University of California, Berkeley police officers noticed odd behaviors in the three “daughters” of Phillip Garrido when he visited the campus to speak. See my comments on this case at Using MRT: Recovering From Trauma.
Attorney Pat Bondi said that the jailhouse conversations between Casey and her family seem to show parents who are deferential to her (George Anthony: ‘Maybe we’ve all been too domineering…”). However the videos that CBS and ABC showed can be interpreted differently. If sexual abuse had taken place, no parent, like her mother, who may have not known about it but now questions it to herself, would be anything other than “deferential”. Her father may have been “deferential” to cover up his own role.
The forensic psychologist, Louis Schlesinger claims that Casey acts like she was the victim when she was arrested, “It’s the opposite of what people believe a grieving mother should behave like”. However, if she had been sexually abused, and knew, as in the past, that no one would believe her, she may well have been the victim. Casey says that she feels like her whole life has been taken away. If she had been sexually abused and lost a daughter, whom she loved and whose birth she had considered as a way out of her problem with her father, killed in an accident that her father wanted covered up, she was a victim, and entitled to those feelings.
Schlesinger said that “When you look at the jailhouse video recordings, “she seems to have a fairly good relationship with both of her parents.” He claims that these video recordings contradict what the lawyer says in his opening statement when he said that Casey had been sexually abused by her father. The forensic psychologist says these things without ever having interviewed Casey at all, or knowing anything about her family history. You see a complicated dynamic in those videos, and it is possible that she was only saying those things about her father as part of another huge lie between her and her father. So much of what we see can be interpreted differently from what most people see if we consider that the relationship is based upon sexual abuse. The intimacy between Casey and George may seem like that of a close family, but how close is it, and what is that “closeness” based upon?
The reactions of George, Cindy, Lee and Casey Anthony are all consistent with a family who is desperately trying to hide some bad things from each other and from the public. Lee says that he was upset that everyone was shutting him out at the birth of Caylee. But no one asks him why they tried to do this, nor did they ask anyone else in the family why Lee might feel this way. His response is consistent with a family who was suspicious of him. That suspicion could be as terrible as they feared that he was the father of the baby (he did take a paternity test later). A benign reason could be that he denounced Casey when she got pregnant. If he had been sexually molesting her, he might have been trying to cover up his part, fearing that he would be found out to be the father by denouncing her for promiscuity to throw off suspicions by the family. If he had not been sexually molesting her, but suspected that Casey was not being upfront with him, he may have felt super-sensitive that she was leaving him out. If the family had been made up of two men who were both abusing one girl and the mother was clueless, or not, it would have been obvious to any serious observer that the family had a very peculiar dynamic. There appeared to be closeness many times, but not when under pressure at all times. The varying levels of closeness would not be predictable to anyone growing up in a family without any deep, dark secrets.
There will be consequences for Casey, even if she gets to go home without any more jail time [she was found not guilty of murder, and released for time served on July 18, 2011]. There is no doubt that she feels rage against her father and mother, even if she doesn’t show it, except rarely (that video of her getting angry when her mother grabs the phone from her father in the middle of a visit to the jail may be revealing it then). As with other feelings, she has learned to hide that rage. She would feel rage at her father for what he did to her. She would feel rage against her mother for what she did not do–protect her (see my discussion “Politics and Rage Against Women“). Most psychotherapists would be able to get at this rage but only because she was 8 when the abuse started. Most victims of abuse as babies would have a much harder time getting at the rage, simply because baby memory is so difficult to extract and takes special treatment. I refer to how this could be done in “Types of PTSD” and to other posts where I have done it.
Juror #3, Jennifer Ford said in an interview on ABC Primetime Nightline (video only) that George Anthony gave answers that appeared to side with the defense on some occasions and with the prosecution on others. His behavior and the testimony by his mistress that he was involved in the cover-up suggested that he knew more about what happened than he admitted on the stand. In that same TV show, Dan Abrams, ABC legal correspondent, said that the public found out more about the case than the jury did. What evidence was not shown to the jury that the public grabbed onto? I never heard anything in the news that was not presented to the jury as far as evidence. Did he mean that the jury never heard the vitriol by the media who prejudged Casey without knowing enough about the case? Did all of the people who condemned her base their opinion entirely on the party photos, without questioning why she was doing those things?
Scott Simon on Saturday Weekend Edition for 9 July 2011 delivered a carefully worded essay on the verdict, cautioning us to respect the jury for their decision. The jury was carefully secluded from the vitriol and discussion about the evidence on the internet and TV so they were forced to only consider what the judge allowed into evidence. My thoughts reflect the possibility that some of the statements by the defense were correct, but do not support or deny her culpability. She certainly did make a very grave mistake by not reporting to the police that Caylee was dead, lying to them and her mother afterward. However, there is also the strong likelihood that if her father was a “controlling” person in her life for whatever reason, she would defer to him to find a way to tell her mother about the death, both of them knowing Cindy would feel enormous pain, readily apparent in the 911 call she made upon hearing about the disappearance of her grand-daughter. Many states are setting up legislation making it a felony for not reporting the death or disappearance of a child within a reasonable time. No doubt, that, George being a cop, would have felt greater compunction to report the death if such a law had been in place in Florida, and much of this case would have ended very differently. However, as a cop he may well have realized that neither would suffer jail time for not reporting the death.
In conclusion, we may never find out what actually happened the day that Caylee Anthony died. The uproar of the public over the verdict and the fascination with the trial shows that it is a story worth pursuing. However, the news media did a lousy job, as usual, of covering this story. So much is not known that they could have investigated. An interview with other people who were sexually abused by their fathers, e.g. MacKenzie Phillips, may have been especially helpful in understanding Casey’s behavior. No doubt that if Casey was telling the truth about her abuse, MacKenzie Phillips would have been able to understand her behavior. Casey’s friends should have been interviewed, not about what they would do now concerning her, since they obviously fear public reaction if they were seen with her, but what her life with her family was like. The lack of such knowledge is just as telling as observation of a strange family dynamic by these friends. Getting them to tell stories about Casey, both before and after the birth of Caylee, or why she dropped out of high school within one credit hour of graduation were both do-able and informative. Interviews with their relatives about their family life would also have been helpful.
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Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakley, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits”. Infant Mental Health Journal 16(4), 271-291.
Perry, B. D. (1997). Incubated in terror: Neurodevelopmental factors in the “cycle of violence.” pp. 124-149 in Children in a violent society, Osofsky, J. D., Ed. New York, N. Y.: Guilford Press. [Freely available version is at The Child Trauma Academy].
Phillips, M. (2009). High on Arrival. New York, N.Y., Simon Spotlight Entertainment. ISBN 978-1439153857
Rizzolatti, G., Sinigaglia, C. & Anderson, F. (2008). Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience. New York, N.Y., Oxford University Press, 200 pp.
Note: I do not get cable TV because I refuse to patronize the only company offering it in my town because of their proven incompetence. I do not spend a lot of time searching on the trial news because most web-pages have become increasingly hostile to dial-up users, so much so that the wait time exceeds the reading time by about 700%. My only information on this trial comes from ABC and CBS news, since, at this time of year, reception of anything else is usually bad because of the wind.
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