The family of accused murderer Casey Anthony is portrayed in the press as if they were a normal, loving family with the misfortune to have produced a monster daughter. But if I were writing a murder mystery about a family like the Anthonys I would portray them very differently.
Sidebar: I usually write about trials from a juror’s perspective, but what I have to say now is strictly from my perspective as a novelist. While I’m not a psychologist (as some writers are in real life—Elizabeth George, for instance), I like to think I’m perceptive. Everything I plan to say in this blog post is strictly based on my ideas of fictional characterizations. I’m not pretending to be able to read the Anthonys’ minds or to know anything about their lives.
A Portrait of a Casey Anthony Look-alike Before June 16, 2008
If I were creating a fictional character who behaves as Casey Anthony does, I would treat her as a young woman who lived as a virtual prisoner in her parents’ home.
She would be a bright, popular high-school graduate who inexplicably decided not to leave home and go to college, but instead found a job taking photographs of visitors to an amusement park. I say inexplicably decided not to go to college, because all her high-school friends and friends she met after high school left home to attend college. Yet my character continues to sleep in the same bedroom in which she slept as a child.
Within a year of graduation, my character would become pregnant without knowing for sure which of her boyfriends was the father. She would choose not to terminate the pregnancy, not only for religious reasons but because she really, really wanted to have a child—someone to give her the love she had never received from her parents.
She is eager to have her condition known—hoping at last her parents will treat her like an adult—and simultaneously fearful of their reaction. She especially fears her mother will be shocked that she can’t even name the father and will call her a slut.
My character is a naturally slim girl, but oddly she doesn’t begin to show for over seven months—or at least she’s able to hide her condition in loose-fitting clothes until then. This despite living in a house with a nurse, her mother. Even after her bulging belly is obvious, her mother and father both seem oblivious to the situation.
Not until the family attends an in-law’s wedding does the truth begin to come out. An uncle notices that she’s pregnant. He confronts my character’s father, who argues heatedly against the idea that his daughter is pregnant. Oddly, for several weeks after that he doesn’t even inquire of her who the father is.
My character loses her job at the amusement park at some point during her pregnancy, but doesn’t tell her parents. She’s too ashamed. Again, though, they are oddly oblivious of what is going on in their daughter’s life and fail to notice that she no longer has a pay check or that their own checking accounts begin to diminish mysteriously. Checks are cashed in her mother’s name, but—apparently—the mother never bothers to balance her checkbook and so never notices.
When my character finally begins to see an obstetrician for prenatal care, her mother always goes with her. When an ultra-sound is scheduled to determine the child’s sex, both parents go into the examination room with her, and her father—while a bit disappointed it isn’t a boy—is nonetheless thrilled soon to be a grandfather, or so he later claims. Of course, he still doesn’t know who the child’s other grandfather will be, but that’s irrelevant to the family, for some mysterious reason.
My character finally gives birth—but even in the delivery room she isn’t permitted to do the work on her own. Both her mother and her father are there with her. That means she has to endure childbirth while carefully watching her tongue. She can’t shout curses at the man who did this to her—perhaps because she might blurt out that she blames her father.
When the beautiful baby girl is born she is named Caylee, a combination of my character’s name (Casey) and her brother’s name (Lee). In other words, the grandparents name the child, not my character—and they name her the same thing they named their own two children. It’s creepy. It’s almost as if they believe Caylee IS one of their children.
The grandparents dote on Caylee. They buy her everything she could desire—a playhouse, for instance. When they are at home—which isn’t often—they spend all their time with the child. The mother even sleeps with her.
My character becomes dejected. Her hopes have been dashed. Her parents didn’t suddenly treat her like an adult when she became a mother. Instead they called her a “bad mother” and took complete charge of the child’s life.
All my character can think about now is how to escape from her parent’s house with her child. She desperately desires a life of her own.
Taking care of an infant is time-consuming, and she enjoys every minute of it. She breast-feeds the child—one of the few things her mother can’t do for her.
At some point my character decides to find a job outside the home. Her parents later imply that she did so only because they told her she needed a job to support her child. In reality she wants a job more than they want her to have one—a job that will be her ticket to a real life.
So she tries to get the amusement-park job back, but she fails. After that she’s at something of a loss. She doesn’t have any real people skills to speak of or many practical skills either. Her whole life, the only way she had related to people outside her family was to be a chameleon: she took on the personality of the person she was with at any given time. The problem is that it’s impossible to do that when the person you’re with is a stranger, such as a prospective employer.
Let’s just say she doesn’t interview for jobs well. Prospective employers sense that she’s lying about her qualifications.
When my character fails to find a job, her parents don’t notice—or at least they turn a blind eye for months and months.
Eventually my character gives up looking for a job and instead makes up an elaborate fantasy life in which she’s an event planner for an amusement park and part-time salesperson at Sports Authority. She leaves home every day for “work” and takes her child to an imaginary nanny—to fool her parents. She hopes that this fictitious life will magically transform her in their eyes. Now, she thinks, they’ll have to respect me.
Her family is suspicious, though. They don’t think my character is really a capable person. They don’t trust her—for reasons we can only guess at. Why should parents be suspicious of the behavior of a child the outside world has always seen as bright, popular, and attractive? It isn’t as if my character had a troubled adolescence, was using drugs and alcohol, or got into trouble with the law. In fact, she always went out of her way to be well-liked by teachers and peers alike.
From the beginning, the parents question my character about how she could have found a nanny whose services she can afford. They even spy on her at the sports-equipment store and learn that she does not work there and never has. Afterwards, though, they don’t confront her with the fact.
Finally, in the spring of 2008 my character decides to make a break with her family. She begins spending the night with friends, helping them with their housework, and even contributing to their work-related projects. She and her daughter effectively move out of the parent’s home, visiting only occasionally, for instance, to let the child play in the swimming pool.
My character’s mother can’t abid
e this. She can’t stand it that her daughter has custodial rights over the child. She threatens to take her to court to take the child away, if she doesn’t bring the child home. Later, at the trial, her friends will testify that her mother often called her on her cell phone; my character always took the calls outside their hearing, but afterwards she told them that she was arguing with her mother.
Despite what the mother and father may think, my character has no intention of going home or of abandoning her child to her mother. Why? Because in May 2008 she believes she has found a man capable of taking care of the both of them. She’s thinking about getting married.
Then the unimaginable happens. The child dies.
I haven’t decided yet how the child dies—except it isn’t first-degree, premeditated, intentional murder. That is the absolutely last thing my character would ever do. The child is the only thing that validates her.
Fast Forward—Trial Testimony
My character’s parents both testify for the prosecution in their daughter’s murder trial. Her mother claims she last saw Caylee around June 6th or 7th. Her father claims he last saw Caylee on the morning of June 16, a Monday. At that time Caylee told him she was going to the house of the imaginary nanny.
No one explains to the jury why the mother last saw the child ten days earlier than the father did. No one asks the mother why she didn’t make an effort to see her granddaughter during that period.
At one point, it seems to the jury, the mother or father or someone mentioned a pool party in the back yard on the afternoon or evening of June 15, after which a ladder up to the above-ground pool was accidentally left out. And then there’s the odd circumstance of cadaver dogs alerting to an area in the back yard. The jury is confused.
On the stand, my character’s mother says she spoke to my character late in the afternoon of June 16, the day the defense agrees the child died; she claims my character was taking Caylee to spend the night at the nanny’s and that she would likely spend the night there with her, too. The mother claims that, under the circumstances of her and her husband’s schedules, that made sense to her—even though in past months she had repeatedly argued with my character about the way she’s sleeping around and the way she’s keeping the child away from home.
During the mother’s testimony the prosecution plays 911 recordings in which she tells the 911 operator that she wants my character to be arrested for stealing money from her bank account and for stealing her car. In another recording, she tells the operator that her daughter’s car smells like there was a dead body in it and she can’t find her granddaughter.
My character’s brother testifies that around the time of these 911 calls the mother demanded of my character, “What have you done?”
The father’s testimony is equally bizarre. He didn’t know anything was amiss with his daughter—despite all the forewarnings he’d had. He claims he spent time with Caylee “every day of her life”—when he obviously could not have: he had walked out on his wife and family for a period of time, he worked long and irregular hours as a security guard, and his daughter had often slept away from home and kept her child with her.
It’s obvious that these people disbelieved most of what my character told them, at least since the birth of their granddaughter. Nonetheless, they claim at the trial that they had believed the nanny really existed and that their daughter was paying for her out of wages from two jobs she did not have. In fact, they were so convinced this nanny existed that they spent months searching for her in hopes she would shed light on the fate of their granddaughter.
In testimony, my character’s mother told the jury she had been looking for the nanny from July 2008 until six weeks before her trial testimony in late May 2011. Is this credible?
Giving Away the Ending
If I were writing about a family like the Anthonys, I would trust my readers to figure out that something’s not right with characters like these—all of them, not only my character.
I’m not sure, though, which of my other characters would be the protagonist in this mystery. It would be nice if a prosecutor would catch these people in their lies, rather than blaming everything on my character. It would be even nicer if the detective in charge of the case had solved it before it made its way into court.
I’m not sure, now, that a defense attorney is going to be able to unravel the mystery.
Frankly, though, my feverish mystery-writer mind would never concoct two parents who would take the stand as witnesses for the prosecution in the capital murder trial of their own daughter.
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