Boston Globe

Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Inner demons in both sexes

By Cathy Young,
Boston Globe

WHEN A MOTHER deliberately kills her five children, perhaps the only proper reaction is mute horror. Instead, the news that Andrea Yates, a former nurse in Houston, had drowned her five children in a bathtub - the youngest 6 months old, the oldest 7 years old - has inspired a lot of wordy punditry. In the hands of Newsweek's Anna Quindlen, Yates becomes a symbol of the ordeal of the modern mother - overworked and stressed by impossible demands, ''caught up in a conspiracy in which we are both the conspirators and the victims of the plot.''

Quindlen asserts that she is ''not making excuses for Yates.'' Well, she could have fooled me. ''Yap, yap, yap, the world says. How could anyone do that to her children?'' she mocks. She also states that, deep down, virtually every mother ''understands.''

Quindlen is not alone in this bizarre notion. At the Women's Enews Web site, author Cheryl Meyer writes that ''most mothers just seem to understand how a woman could kill her child'' (really? did she take a poll?), that ''Andrea Yates could be any mother,'' and that, if anything, we should be surprised that mothers don't do such things more often.

To others, the sympathy extended to Yates symbolizes the excesses of an insidious brand of so-called feminism that absolves women of all responsibility for their actions and always blames men for the evil that women do. At the Fox News Web site, libertarian feminist Wendy McElroy assails the notion that even a woman who viciously murders babies is the true victim, a casualty of white male culture's indifference to the plight of women.

In fact, it seems likely that Yates is neither a vicious murderer nor a victimized Everymom but a very sick woman. After the birth of each child, she had suffered severe depression; she had tried to kill herself by taking pills and another time by cutting her throat. While antidepressants had helped, things took a dramatic downturn after the birth of the youngest child, followed by the death of Yates's father. Her doctor had put her on an antipsychotic medication, which he had discontinued a week before the killings. Her statement to the police suggests that she had delusions about her children being somehow ''damaged.''

We're not just talking about your ordinary postpartum doldrums or baby blues but about full-fledged psychosis - which, psychiatrist Sally Satel reports in the online magazine Slate, affects about one in 1,000 women after giving birth. However, if Yates in no way typifies ''every mother's struggle,'' as Newsweek billed Quindlen's column on its cover, some of the response to her unspeakable act does typify the double standards in our culture's response to violence by women and by men. Killing one's children is the one category of homicide where female offenders predominate: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 55 percent of parents who kill are mothers. (Women are also responsible for about two-thirds of nonfatal child abuse cases; the perpetrators are disproportionately single mothers, while men and women in two-parent families are equally likely to be the abusers.)

Yet media coverage of family violence typically focuses on abusive men. Moreover, the well-documented prevalence of mental illness among male batterers and family murderers usually gets short shrift. Instead, such men are often depicted as malevolent tyrants who treat women and children as property. Killer moms, on the other hand, are likely to be viewed as pitiable creatures driven by desperation or dominated and abused by men.

Even Susan Smith, who drowned her two sons in a lake apparently because they interfered with her love life - and who, unlike Yates, went to great length to conceal her crime - was eventually able to garner some sympathy.

Interestingly, the claim that any mother could find herself in Yates's shoes is echoed by feminist arguments that men who kill women or children should be seen as monstrous aberrations but instead in some ways representative of manhood in a patriarchal society.

The implications, however, are very different. When the killer mom is treated as Everywoman, the message is that she shouldn't be judged too harshly; when the killer male is treated as Everyman, the message is that his guilt should be projected onto all men.

Yes, people who are driven by mental illness to commit terrible deeds deserve a measure of compassion. But neither sex has a monopoly on inner demons. And to plumb acts of madness for social and political messages is taking the dogma that the personal is political to a particularly insane extreme.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 7/11/2001.

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.