The Spectacle of the Deadly Mother



I’m still confused about the Casey Anthony verdict. I’ll admit I always take the womans side, especially when the woman is a mother. In this case that was also my first take. Today, I am still not sure.

Before you jump to judgement on my thought let’s think about why this story even hit the news and why it is so widely publicized.

In the late eighties, there was this little crusade that took place, the “crack baby” tidal wave. CBS reported, “crack babies were destined to have short attention spans, learning handicaps, to be impulsive and undisciplined, and to have poor social interaction skills”. The Washington Post warned of “A Time Bomb in Cocaine Babies.”

October 1988 brought a spotlight feature story of a black mother wearing a hoodie, she already had 3 crack babies. She couldn’t raise her children we were told. Later the story continues to explain she was back on the streets and pregnant again. We weren’t told where she came from, she wasn’t asked why she felt how she felt. She didn’t show emotion, nothing that made the audience feel sympathy or understanding. She never told her side of the story.

Charles Krauthammer, a popular conservative columnist, foretold “that the inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.” Krauthammer goes on to say,  “This is not stuff that Head Start can fix. This is permanent brain damage. Whether it is 5 percent or 15 percent of the black community, it is there”. He went so far as to liken babies to “a race of (sub)human drones. In his opinion, ‘the dead babies may be the lucky ones.'” ABC News, May 2, 1995

The media began convicting women who used drugs while pregnant. Pamela Ray Stuart, Toni Hudson, and then Jennifer Johnson became the first woman charged with delivering drugs to a minor. “What would you do?” asked Diane Sawyer….

These stories fueled hate against these women and support for arresting them surged. From 1985 until 2005, “more than two hundred U.S. women have been prosecuted on charges that their use of the drug while pregnant constituted a crime against the fetus. Even though there are similar levels of illegal drug use among white women and black or Latina women, the women of color account for 80 percent of those women prosecuted for taking drugs while pregnant”. Let me clarify the use of illicit drugs while pregnant was criminalized, over the counter, legal or prescription drugs that were proven to cause cause birth defects and miscarriages were not. “No comparable arrest were made at country clubs, say, of mothers who took Valium, smoked, or drank excessively.”

We never saw a “crack mother” of color who cared, who cried, who showed remorse. We never saw her hugging, kissing or cuddling her babies. We never saw the images we saw of Casey Anthony with her child, or crying remorsefully. (If you find one such report or case please link it up in the comments)

In the end, the “crack baby” craze was proven to be a fabrication of the media. Basically it turns out all the hype and narratives created by great story tellers were backed up with shaky facts and inconclusive studies. The real reason why impoverished mothers were having smaller babies was their poor diets and lack of prenatal care. Funding for these programs had been cut. Clarification, drug use during pregnancy is not acceptable, but the hype and exaggeration of its effects was overplayed and sensationalized. Real syndromes like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), were never given this much attention by the media we never heard of Alcohol Babies because there was no “war on alcohol.”

Feeding the “maternal delinquency” of the late eighties, came more stories of horrendous mothers.  The Lisa Steinberg case were a 6 year old girl was abused to death while her mother, who was also brutally abused, looked on. In 1992, Oprah hosted a show on child abuse, I actually remember this time period. At school we were given a little talk on abuse and a phone number to call just in case.

The stories started coming, even though the stories were no longer of just mothers of color, “most of the individual stories about abuse focused on black or Latino women”. The stories rarely “emphasized the connection between structural problems like unemployment and poverty and child abuse and neglect. It was hard not to develop a sense of fatalism watching such reports, that nothing could be done collectively, that it was up to individuals themselves.” Feeding the idea that you were either a good mother or you weren’t. It was your choice and your choice alone. Didn’t matter if you were a single parent, if you had mental disabilities, worked full time, were abused by a spouse, were rich or poor, if you were a good mother, you did what you had to.

Always much more shocking than the murdering or abusive father was the ultimate maternal delinquent, the murdering mom. The murdering mother cases began to pop up, Christina LoCasto, “who gave birth in an airplane in Newark Airport, and then stuffed the baby in the plane’s waste bin and covered her with paper towels.” Around the same time, Pauline Zile, who claimed her daughter was abducted but in fact had witnessed the step father’s beating that led to her death. Then there was the Susan Smith case. Where she pretended her children were abducted, cried and mourned, and the public’s heart went out to her. Come to find out she had in fact strapped her kids to the car and drove it into Lake John D. Long, to drown them. October 1984.  She had planned it all out because she wanted to be free. The children were “inconvenient to her love life.

This case “had shown that you could convince people you were heartbroken, grieving mother, while being, throughout the performance, a conniving, selfish chippy and then a brutal, vicious killer. Susan Smith demonstrated motherhood was a facade, something you put on, like eyeliner, to impress the outside world. Beneath that facade might lurk the darkest of evils…the inner life of the mother, or at least this mother, suddenly loomed as a scary, unpredictable place of secrets, deceptions, and unspeakable instants.”

“This was not how any of us wanted to think about motherhood, especially white, small-town motherhood. Children threatened from forces outside the family was one thing, but one reason the Smith case attracted such enormous attention- aside from the shocking nature of the crime- was that it was a disturbing metaphor for American families, even white ones, doing in their own kids, throwing them away”.


As mother’s we think about times when we have been deprived of sleep, tired to no avail, attention starved or simply want to go out and have fun and can’t find a sitter. We can think of these times and replay the frustration but we find ourselves as good mothers because killing our baby, throwing them away, would never cross our mind.

“The spectacle of the deadly mother may have reassured ‘us’ that, whatever our failings, at least we were nothing like ‘them.’ For a few moments we could believe that, despite the increasingly high standards of perfection emanating from the new momism we were indeed good mothers”


Never mind that these stories and this sensationalization of horrible mothers justifies putting all of us under increased surveillance. Because, in the end we can’t forget that these unsupervised mothers were their children’s worst enemy. We will not be allowed to forget. Every couple of years a new horror story comes to light. We are all reminded what may lie within all the mothers around us. Judgment and vigilance are added to our daily dose of parenting.

Going back to the verdict and case, we saw video of Cassie Anthony at the club, laughing, hugging her boyfriend. Many jumped at the thought that she was partying while her daughter was missing. She was heartless, I would never do that. Now we must stop and think, how we will judge the girl, the woman we see leaving her children home to go party. How your husband or boyfriend will judge your actions when you ask him to watch the kids while your out. How the lady at the store will react when she sees you disciplining your 2 year old. What will your daycare teacher assume when you are late to pick your kids up 3 times in a row?  What is the real effect of this case on each of us personally?

With all the crime, extortion, corruption, child pornography and other horrors that affect our children, as a whole, we choose to crucify a woman who none of us knows for sure killed her baby. We become distracted from institutionalized, and systemic abuse against our babies. All mothers are affected by this, the disparity being of color brings comes into play, but essentially we are all affected as mothers, as women.

I’m still not sure what happened. I just know that Cassie Anthony, no matter how heartless, will face God and only he will be her rightful judge.


Quotations taken from The Mommy Myth by Susan J Douglass and Meredith Michaels



  1. says

    You raise some very interesting points, Flor. I live in Iowa and a few years ago we had a story about a mom who originally reported that she and her children were attacked. It turned out that she had killed 2 and attempted to kill another of her own children. Unlike the Casey Anthony story, there was plenty of proof and Michele Kehoe (a white woman) was found guilty. There is still debate, though, because Kehoe suffered from severe post-partum depression. Her attorney argued an insanity defense and people really fervently discussed whether or not her premeditation could be explained by insanity. That case really made me think a lot about motherhood and depression. I think that depression is probably a lot more common in moms (especially of young children) than anyone knows. It just doesn't seem to be reported much–at least in the U.S.  We are supposed to know how to handle motherhood–oftentimes without much help or support. I wonder about Casey Anthony and her state of mind, both before and after her daughter's disappearance. How will she get on with her life without her daughter? I agree–these cases do affect us all as mothers. Even if it is just to remind us of how lucky we are.

    • says

      Its a hard thing to talk about but I always try to think of the effects of this type of journalism. How does it help us be better people, it doesn't, instead it promotes judgement and vigilance. 

      • says

        You really made me think about a lot. And then I went over to Kesha's post on motherhood and it made me think about more issues relating to this case. I think you are right here–the type of journalism used in the Anthony case just inflames people. I would like to see more attention placed on the idea that we can help women BEFORE they get to a point where they feel they need to neglect or harm their children. But those types of stories probably don't gain advertisers or make money.

  2. says

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    step back and look critically at the case and situation. most americans
    are on a lynch mob mentality. just take things at face value and base
    all sorts of ideas on faulty info and hearsay. i really appreciate your

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