Lesson from Joran & Casey for JLo & Marc

Joran van der Sloot

In case you haven’t heard, Joran van der Sloot, the prime suspect in the disappearance and presumed death of American Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005, pled guilty on Wednesday in Peru to killing a young Peruvian woman named Stefany Flores in 2010.  He said he did it because he had suffered from years of “false” accusations in the Holloway case and thus became enraged when he found Flores researching the Holloway case online.  He could be sentenced to 30 years in prison on Friday, but it’s expected that he’ll get somewhat less than that because he confessed.  He deserves every year of it and then some!

Casey Anthony

Wednesday night, I was back on Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell on HLN discussing the newly-unsealed depositions of the mental health experts who examined Casey Anthony prior to her trial.  As I’ve said all along, neither of the two experts found her to be suffering from a mental disease or defect that would’ve impacted her competency to stand trial or her personal responsibility for her behavior (i.e. a condition that would’ve prevented her from knowing what was going on around her or from distinguishing right from wrong).  Jane noted that one of the experts described Casey as entirely normal and asked me how that could be when we’ve been talking for years about her narcissistic and sociopathic behavior.  I explained that the expert in question was initially appointed by the judge to assess only Casey’s competency to stand trial (her ability to understand her charges, her plea options, what would happen at her trial, etc. and to assist in her own defense), so at that point, he was primarily ruling out a major “Axis I” mental illness (e.g. psychosis, major suicidal depression, etc.) or some kind of developmental (cognitive) disability rather than doing the kind of comprehensive diagnostic workup that would be expected to include an “Axis II” diagnosis (i.e. describing/labeling any and all of Casey’s dysfunctional personality patterns).  Some time after that (and by the way, I don’t think this was very ethical), that same expert apparently was retained by Casey’s defense team to look for anything in her mental health history that might’ve been considered “mitigating” evidence in the sentencing phase of her trial had she been convicted.  At that point, the expert may have deliberately avoided assessing personality disorders because inquiries into narcissistic and/or antisocial behaviors may actually have produced some “aggravating” (rather than mitigating) evidence.  As someone who has performed these kinds of assessments (never for both the judge and the defense team in the same case though!), the most fascinating part of the deposition testimony was one expert’s description of the negative emotions that Casey stirred up inside of him during his examination of her.  In psychology, we call that “counter-transferrence,” and over time, we learn to use it to make hypotheses about how others have experienced an individual over time.  This particular expert seemed to be describing the kind of emotionally-drained/depleted feeling that you get when you’re dealing with a personality-disordered individual, e.g. a sociopath (and just think back to how emotionally drained and depleted Casey’s parents looked after years of dealing with her!).

Another headline drawn from the newly-released depositions in the Anthony case involved Casey’s explanation, given during her mental health assessment, of how her daughter was conceived.  Casey told the doctor that an unspecified man apparently spiked her drink with a sedative and impregnated her while she was unconscious, i.e. raped her.  Some in the media on Wednesday called the story “shocking.”  I’m not shocked.  Casey’s always painting herself as a victim.  First, she was supposedly sexually abused by her father.  Then she was supposedly sexually abused by her brother.  Then she was supposedly raped, resulting in pregnancy.  Then someone supposedly kidnapped her daughter.  Then someone supposedly either drowned her daughter or let her daughter drown by negligently supervising the child.  Then, most recently, someone supposedly hacked her computer and posted her personal video “diary” online.  This is either the unluckiest woman around, or she’s a liar.  I think she’s a liar.  Speaking of that latest misfortune/lie — the alleged hacking of her computer — reports are circulating that Casey and her lead attorney, Jose Baez, have parted ways.  Some reports say she fired him because he’s been getting a lot of publicity for himself since her acquittal last summer but hasn’t gotten her a high-paying interview or book deal.  I think it’s more likely that he found out she personally leaked those videos out onto the Internet last week and that he, finally, at least temporarily, decided he’d had enough of her lies!

JLo and Marc

Also on Wednesday, I gave the syndicated Wendy Williams show some contextual information about the divorce/custody case involving singer/American Idol judge Jennifer Lopez (JLo) and singer Marc Anthony.  Mr. Anthony reportedly had stated that JLo needed to see a shrink because she allegedly can’t stand being alone and has therefore already started a new relationship with one of her backup singers/dancers (which is a little ironic because Anthony’s apparently started a new relationship as well).  Here’s what I told the Williams show:

First, we should have some healthy skepticism of Anthony’s assessment of JLo’s mental status.  After all, they’re divorcing, custody’s at issue, and divorcing spouses often exaggerate their exes’ problems.  There’s nothing necessarily psychopathological about JLo’s relationship history, as I understand it.  Some of her relationships have apparently been short-lived, and she’s been married a few times at age 42, but there’s still evidence, dating all the way back to her teen years, of an apparent ability to sustain relationships over extended periods of time.  So, I’m not seeing the kind of chronically-erratic hot/cold, in/out pattern that would characterize, for example, “borderline personality.”  We don’t know how uncomfortable she really is or isn’t when she’s not in a relationship and whether that’s really the reason why her “single” periods generally haven’t lasted very long, but if it is, then yes, it’s possible that she could maybe have some “dependent personality” traits.  However, that’s really not the kind of things that generally worries me, in my capacity as a child-custody expert, about a parent having custody of his/her children. If Anthony thinks that JLo has a serious mental-health issue that impacts her ability to parent their children in a healthy way, then he can petition a family court to order a child custody evaluation by an experienced, licensed psychologist such as myself.  If she’s basically mentally-healthy, though, he may regret it, because the custody evaluator will also be looking at him and at their respective abilities and willingness to co-parent effectively, i.e. to communicate with one another in the best interests of the children effectively enough to have both joint legal (decision-making power) and joint physical (residential) custody.  Their professional travel schedules pose problems in terms of consistency and stability, and reported disagreements on major parenting issues like the children’s religious training are obstacles to joint custody which necessitate very good communication and cooperation between the parents.  If the truth is that they’re both basically mentally-healthy, competent parents, then they may do better to acknowledge that about one another (instead of alleging mental instability that they can’t substantiate), and then sit down with a mediator and try to hammer out their own custody arrangement, rather than having a judge (likely based on a custody expert’s recommendations) do it for them.  (Not that these two necessarily care, but the mediation route would be a lot cheaper too, plus, if it were successful, it’d bode well for their ability to problem-solve in the future regarding the children instead of continually re-involving the judge).

The overriding issue that I see in this and every custody case applies to both JLo and Anthony, and it’s whether they’re putting the best interests of their children first.  JLo’s apparently already dating a significantly younger guy who’s had issues with risky behavior, which may not be pathological or even that big of a deal for a single woman with no kids, but I have to wonder whose best interests she’s thinking of as she engages in that (or any — more on that in a second) relationship.  Likewise, Anthony’s apparently already dating someone and professing his love for her publicly while still legally married to the children’s mother, so again, I have to wonder whose best interests he really has at heart.  (He’s also publicly questioning his children’s mother’s mental health, and his criticism of her boyfriend seems perhaps partially disingenuous (e.g. he’s given her a dramatic ultimatum about never letting the boyfriend drive the children anywhere because the boyfriend apparently has been cited for drag racing) — I have to wonder whether he really thinks there’s a chance that the boyfriend is going to drag race with his children in the car or whether perhaps some jealousy is in play.  Again, a good child custody evaluator should also take a look at both of the parents’ significant others and determine whether their influences on the children are healthy or unhealthy, and the evaluator should collect and consider objective data (psychological testing, perspectives of more objective observers like the children’s teachers, therapist(s), etc. instead of just the parents’ “he-said-she-said”) in making conclusions and recommendations to the court.

Bottom line:  Anytime there’s a divorce with children involved, it means the children have gone through something very difficult — the dissolution of their family, the loss of access to both parents under the same roof with them, etc.  It’s hard enough to meet all of a child’s needs as a married team.  It’s even harder as a single parent.  That’s why, whenever I see divorcing spouses with children seeming to focus on their own romance/sex lives instead of on the children, I’m concerned.  It seems to me that the number-one priority of both parents in this situation ought to be “damage control” with respect to the children, so to whatever extent JLo and Anthony are focusing a lot of time and energy on their new significant others, I wonder whether they’ve got their priorities straight.  Each parent should be asking, first and foremost, questions like, “How is my new relationship going to be helpful to my children?” and “How will it benefit my children to wake up in the morning and walk into my kitchen and find an adult stranger getting the orange juice from my refrigerator?”  Generally, I don’t hear good answers to those kinds of questions from everyday divorcing parents, let alone celebrity divorcing parents whose insults of one another, poor personal choices, etc. are publicized in the international media, subjecting the children to embarrassment on top of everything else.  Focus on the children — they’ve been through enough already!

The Lesson

And by the way, loving children is very important, but it isn’t sufficient.  Failing to also give those children sufficient moral guidance, structure, and discipline, which require your frequent presence, focused attention, and concerted effort — i.e. being an inattentive, over-indulgent, and/or overly-permissive parent — is a good way to raise a child to behave like Casey Anthony or Joran van der Sloot!

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