Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Book o'the Decade: The Sociopath Next Door

Meters swum today: 1400 (yay!!!!)
Playing in the background: Somebody's boom car and the twinkling of Christmas lights

Gotta talk about child abuse again, or rather child murder. If this subject depresses you, skip this post. I'm talking about Caylee Anthony, the second-most-popular Google search this year (just behind Britney Spears, which says more about we Americans as a people than we perhaps want the rest of the world to know.) This is the two-year-old who disappeared in Florida roundabouts last May, but wasn't reported missing until July when her grandmother called 911 and reported that "it smells like there was a dead body" in her daughter's car. Extensive coverage here- I'm not a fan of Fox News but they've been all over this story from the beginning.

Caylee's mother, Casey, has been charged with killing her and lying about her disappearance to authorities. I won't go into the whole deal here, but Casey spun a number of increasingly bizarre stories about what happened to Caylee. She left her with a babysitter and then couldn't find the babysitter's apartment again. No, the babysitter kidnapped her. No, she's living with some couple in Tennessee. She didn't say anything about alien abductions but that might have just been an oversight. Then there's all this plot about human decomposition found in the trunk of the aforementioned car, Internet searches on how to make chloroform on the family computer, various "sightings" of Caylee at shopping malls and on airplanes, and then of course the discovery of a child's body about 500 feet from the house. Which is almost certainly Caylee, or another two-year-old who's the exact same size and has an identical hair color and who's been dead for the same amount of time.

I gotta be honest with ya, when the child's body turned up my first thought was, "Okay, her mom couldn't have killed her. No murderer would be that stupid." Then some famous criminologist or other came on 20/20 and stated that women who kill their children typically either keep the bodies (ie, in a freezer) or dispose of them very close to the house, where they can watch over them. Later in that same episode of 20/20, they broadcast a particularly telling conversation where mom Casey called her parents, Caylee's grandparents (and there's a whole ridiculous sidebar about their behavior in this sordid tale, but that's too long for this post) from jail.

I got chills listening to this recording. (Here it is, about three minutes in. Watch the whole clip, though.) Casey is asking her mother when she thinks she'll get out of here. Her mother points out, logically, that if she hadn't been lying to the police all this time she wouldn't be in jail in the first place. Casey gets mad and demands the phone number of someone named Tony. Casey's mom passes the phone to Casey's friend Kristina, who's obviously crying. The woman says, "Casey, if anything happened to that little girl, I'll die. Do you understand? I'll die." There's a space of silence, followed by a long-suffering sigh, and Casey says, "Oh my God. Calling you guys, a waste. A huge waste."

So what kind of person would behave this way? Well, The Sociopath Next Door, is what kind. The FBI profiler on the clip above talks about antisocial personality disorder. Sociopath does it one better. This is my new book o'the decade, a telling and cautionary tale about people who don't have a conscience. They seem to be born without one, just like some people are born without wisdom teeth or ethmoid sinuses (or both, like me, though I have an extra nipple by way of compensation). These people are capable of behavior that most of the rest of us wouldn't think of doing, or at least wouldn't do, because, uh, we'd feel bad. Sociopaths don't feel bad because they can't feel bad. It's not only that they believe themselves to be the most important person on the planet, they believe that nobody else even exists - except to the extent that other people can provide them with things they want.

Casey Anthony fits this pattern so well, her picture might be on the front cover. That chilling phone call. The comment from a detective who tried, unsuccessfully, to find Caylee: "Casey lives ten minutes at a time - if she runs into an obstacle, she just turns and goes another way." The FBI profiler guy: "This person has probably been this way her whole life - she's been manipulating other people since she was a child." Caylee's grandparents, who keep insisting Casey couldn't have hurt Caylee (of course not, their little girl can do no wrong). And of course the pictures of Casey dancing at bars during the time Caylee was missing, to say nothing of text messages that refer to Caylee as "that little snothead."

The thing is, not all sociopaths kill people (though most serial killers are probably sociopaths). Some of them live pretty normal lives, rarely harm anyone and keep their lack of emotion to themselves. Some of 'em are your weird uncle Harold or that annoying lady across the street, and apart from being weird or annoying, they're not really dangerous. I had a friend once who openly admitted that she was the center of the universe, that she basically had no regard for other people, but she liked having company and so she invited people over and didn't do anything very obnoxious to make them hate her. I found her intelligent, funny and very strange, and while we're not in touch, I don't exactly regret having known her.

I'm no psychologist, but my guess here is that whether your average sociopath becomes a serial killer or a halfway normal person or just your weird uncle Harold has a lot to do with upbringing. A kid with no conscience, who figures out early how to manipulate his parents to get what he wants, gets very good at it by the time he's a young adult. After eighteen-odd years of practice, I imagine it's no big deal to kill somebody who gets in your way, or who has something you want and won't give it up. On the other hand, a kid with parents who won't tolerate this crap and insist that the kid be nice to other people has a much better chance of turning out halfway normal. Even if you think you're the only person who matters, you might be able to figure out that not everybody else feels that way. You might start mimicking normal interaction simply because it's less trouble. If you're a sociopath, it's all about you. If it's easier to get what you want and avoid punishment by treating other people well, you're more likely to do those things.

All that said, Jen is gonna play armchair criminologist. This is what I think happened to Caylee Anthony: Sociopath mom Casey probably couldn't find a babysitter for some hot date, so she took Caylee with her, dosed her with chloroform, and stuck her in the trunk. This probably wasn't the first time she'd done it. In fact, it was probably almost routine. She'd come back to the car, Caylee would wake up and start to cry, and she'd remember, "Oh yeah, I left the little snothead in the trunk" and take her back out. This time, she either gave Caylee too much chloroform or something else happened and instead of waking up and starting to cry, Caylee died.

Remember, Casey has no regard for Caylee or anyone else, so she probably thought, "Kid's being quiet" but didn't have any concern or apprehension. In fact--and this is the part that really upsets me--she might have forgotten Caylee was there. I'd even go so far as to say that Casey only bothered to open the trunk when Caylee's body started to decompose. Rotting bodies smell bad. She doesn't want a smelly car, so she gets rid of Caylee. That's it. Kind of like taking out the kitchen trash the night after having fish for dinner. Of course she's not remorseful. She can't be. She can shed a few tears at a hearing because that's what's expected of her, but there's no real feeling behind it.

I dunno if I'm right, but if I am, here's what we're left with. We have a cute little girl who never really had a chance, who's dead if not from abuse, then at least from neglect. We have two grandparents who are plainly delusional, who are convinced that their daughter couldn't have killed Caylee when most of the rest of the planet is more or less convinced that's what happened. (Tried in the media? Oh yeah. Move over, O.J. and Scott Peterson; this is the slam dunk to end all slam dunks.) We've got cops, detectives, lawyers and court officials who have to deal with all this, and it wouldn't surprise me if some of them end up finding another line of work when it's all over.

All of that is tragic, but consider the other tragedy in the corner of the stage: the grown woman, the mother, who will never be able to love or be loved. She's in jail, which is no doubt the best place for her, but I'm feeling a sort of weird pity for her and people like her. What must it be like, to go through life like that? What can you look forward to, in a world where any real measure of happiness comes from your connections to other people? I'm thinking life without parole might be the cruelest thing we can do to this woman. I'm thinking the death penalty, in contrast, might be too kind.

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