Family Matters

Why Are Americans Obsessed With the Casey Anthony Trial?

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Joe Burbank / AP

Casey Anthony stands for the entrance of the jury during her murder trial at the Orange County Courthouse, Wednesday, June 8, 2011 in Orlando, Fla.

The trial of Casey Anthony, the pretty, young Florida mom whose daughter vanished three summers ago, has mesmerized millions. On Wednesday, jurors heard that a police cadaver dog had sniffed what appeared to be the scent of a dead body in Anthony’s backyard — where stood a green-roofed, red-doored Little Tikes playhouse. I couldn’t help but pay attention: the playhouse that must have belonged to Caylee, the 2-year-old daughter Anthony stands accused of killing, is the same model my kids had.

Spotting such details only heightens the surreal interest that many Americans — mothers, in particular — have in the case that is commanding hefty viewership numbers. Hundreds of people have jockeyed for front-row seats to the trial, and millions of others have tuned in to the television coverage. Whether they’re just catching snatches of testimony or blocking out their days to tune in to the proceedings, nothing else on TV, not sporting events, soap operas or Oprah re-runs, can compete.

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“Short of O.J. Simpson, I have not come across a case with the level of mystery, intrigue and outrage that Ms. Anthony’s story offers,” Ashleigh Banfield, who is covering the trial for ABC News, told TVNewser.

What fascinates is how the case has upended family allegiances. It’s Anthony’s own mother, Cindy, who first fingered Anthony as a possible suspect; Cindy was the one who alerted police that Caylee was missing and complained that Anthony’s car smelled like human remains.

CNN’s crime diva, Nancy Grace, attributes the allure to the cast of characters. “This trial plays out like a classic Greek tragedy with the love and hate dynamics between grandmother, mother and daughter,” Grace told TVNewser. “In this particular case, you have a physically attractive young defendant, articulate, and with great potential, the world at her feet, and now we see her charged with the murder of her young daughter.”

The details are transfixing too. Most parents have had moments of unadulterated anger toward their children. Thankfully, they generally pass quickly. But it’s one thing to be furious at your kids and wish briefly that they didn’t exist and another entirely to methodically plot their demise, as prosecutors say Anthony did. Someone — whether it was Anthony is not known — used a computer in the home where Anthony lived with her parents to research “chloroform,” jurors learned Wednesday.

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Prosecutors say that Anthony used the chemical to knock out her daughter, then ensured she wouldn’t wake up ever again by duct-taping her mouth and nose.

“This goes against our view of human nature and socialization,” says Robin Simon, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University who studies the effects of social relationships like parenting and marriage on emotion and health. “A man killing his child is bad, but it doesn’t have the same resonance. We have very gendered views about parenthood and tend to think that women are better suited to raise children — they’re more nurturing, more connected — but this violates those assumptions.”

Anthony, of course, is hardly the first mom charged with killing her kid. Yet in most cases — consider fellow Florida mom, Julie Schenecker, who gunned down her teens in January because they were “mouthy” — the mothers seem utterly mentally unstable. Anthony’s situation is different; Caylee apparently impeded her mother’s lifestyle. While Anthony says she was scouring the state of Florida for her daughter, someone snapped a photo of her at a “hot body” contest. She’s being portrayed as a party girl who chafed at motherhood, especially when she couldn’t find a babysitter. Her toddler was a buzzkill — and so she was killed.

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On one hand, that storyline is unbelievable. On the other, it highlights the enormous responsibility inherent in becoming a parent. “I’m not saying I empathize with her,” says Simon. “What she did was monstrous. But you can understand how the stress of parenthood could really get to somebody.”

Perhaps society bears some of the responsibility for so poorly preparing people for parenthood. Having a baby is hard — even when the baby is very much wanted. “Our culture portrays parenthood in a romantic way, but it’s messy and exhausting and demanding,” says Simon. “It’s really important the message get out that this is difficult.”

In a new eBook, TIME puts infamous cases like the Casey Anthony trial under a magnifying glass. Download the eBook now.