National Post

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July 3, 2001

It's all about her, isn't it?

Andrea Yates killed her children, but to our pundits she's a really harassed housewife, not a multiple murderer

Mark Steyn
National Post


Richard Carson, Reuters
Five burial vaults await the caskets of the Yates children before services last week in Houston.

What do you have to do to get a bad press these days? By her own admission, Andrea Yates of Houston killed all five of her children. Not in a burst of gunfire, but by methodically drowning them in the bathtub. Anyone who's tried to give an unwanted hair-wash to a kid will appreciate the effort involved in holding five struggling youngsters under water. The oldest, seven-year-old Noah, was the last to die. He ran, for his life. But she caught him and dragged him back to the bathroom, and forced him under, legs kicking, arms flailing. He was old enough to know, as he looked up and fought against the weight of her hands, that his own mother was killing him.

What we're dealing with here is a sickness. Not Andrea's, but everybody else's. The husband, Rusty, set the tone. "I'm supportive of her," he said. "The woman here is not the woman who killed my children ... That wasn't her; she wasn't in her right frame of mind." You can say that again. In fairness to Mr. Yates, as he showed off the happy family snapshots to interviewers, he was either in a state of shock or covering his ass. Andrea had been not just on antidepressants but also on Haldol, a very strong antipsychotic drug. To be just the teensy-weensiest judgmental about these things, if your wife's on Haldol, you probably shouldn't leave her at home all day every day, alone with five children under the age of eight. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out, though by strange coincidence Mr. Yates is: He's a computer expert at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. According to Officer Frank Stumpo, who found the bodies, the house was filthy. Mr. Yates was used to the mess: Offered a drink of water by Officer Stumpo, he said he doubted the cop could find a clean glass. But he evidently didn't think the domestic chaos portended anything more significant.

And, once he'd given the thumbs up to stick by the missus, everything else fell into place. Andrea's family insisted she'd always been a wonderful mother until the "postpartum depression" thing got out of hand. The usual mound of memorial teddy bears piled up on the lawn. And the media scrambled for their rolodexes to get hold of the experts. It turns out the expert on postpartum depression is Marie Osmond. As in Donny and Marie. Miss Osmond is the author of Behind the Smile: My Journey Out of Postpartum and, appearing with Katie Couric, she was full of insights: "She loved her children, she was a caring woman," said Marie. "How else could you explain something like this ...? The fact is, Katie, you know, men come home to the wife, not the house, children come home to the mother, not the toys ... We're just expected to do all of it nowadays, and I think by trying to do all of it, I think stress could be a big factor -- lifestyles, diet, nutrition ..."

The trick with this kind of story -- some nobody kills some other nobodies -- is to figure out what the big picture is -- or, more crudely put, what's in it for me. For Ted Kennedy, it's about the "Patients' Bill of Rights" he's trying to get through the U.S. Senate. "We've all been reminded in this country, in these 24 hours, like never before, about the challenges of depression," he announced at a press conference for his bill, "and what it means not only for an individual, but what it means in terms of families." Under Ted's bill, the Andreas of this world would be able to sue their HMO for prescribing and/or not prescribing the right and/or wrong medication. That way Andrea could collect millions, move to another state, maybe start a new family!

One in 10 women suffers from postpartum depression, one in 1,000 suffers from postpartum psychosis. But that doesn't mean you -- yes, you, at the back, with the frazzled look and the nursing bra -- aren't on the verge of killing your kids. As Newsweek's Anna Quindlen sighed on behalf of mothers everywhere, been there, almost done that. Anna knew what it was like to be "tired" and "hot" after she'd "been up all night throwing sheets into the washer because the smaller of her two boys has projectile vomiting." "She could have been me. Or you," pronounced Susan Kushner Resnick of Salon. "She didn't want to kill her children. No sane person would." But motherhood'll do that to you. It's a tragedy -- not that the children died, but that it took their deaths to draw attention to the pressures mothers are under.

As they say in her husband's line of work: Houston, we have a problem. Not Andrea Yates' problem, but a much wider one. "Postpartum depression" certainly exists, though whether in most instances it's just a fancy name for an entirely natural discombulation by a life-changing event is another matter. But, as Thomas Szasz writes in his book The Untamed Tongue, "What people nowadays call mental illness, especially in a legal context, is not a fact, but a strategy; not a condition, but a policy; in short it is not a disease that the alleged patient has, but a decision which those who call him mentally ill make about how to act toward him."

That's well put. You hunted your seven-year-old through the house, pulled him back to the bathroom and drowned him? Must be postpartum psychosis. "No sane person" would kill her children. You killed your children. Therefore, you're not sane. Human action is gradually being medicalized -- to the degree that a harassed housewife and a multiple killer are merely points on the same continuum. Or as Newsweek headlined Anna Quindlen's column: "Playing God On No Sleep. Isn't Motherhood Grand? Do You Want The Real Answer Or The Official Hallmark-Card Version?"

Okay, you want the real answer? By comparison with the lives of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, women today are living in the peachiest Hallmark version of motherhood. Even Anna. Why, she was "throwing sheets in the washer"! A century ago, there would have been no washer to throw 'em into. And she wouldn't have had a mere two boys, but thrice that number. And don't bleat on about how in those days there was a far greater support structure of extended family. More likely, aside from the 10 kids, the Anna Quindlens of the 1800s would have had an aged relative or two adding to their burdens -- some 14 people living in a quaint old farmhouse that today's realtors would advertise as a "three-bedroom home." And the work they had to do wasn't a little light Newsweek punditry but brutal and back-breaking and unending -- which is why so many of the worn, grey-haired rural wives in early photographs prove on close examination of the dates to be in their early thirties. Poor Anna with her top-loading washer: the most cosseted generation of American mothers ever, and life's still a bitch. And infanticide is merely an understandable by-product of the stresses of domesticity.

No wonder Andrea's lawyer is upbeat about her prospects of beating the rap. If she was as loving a mother as her family claim, she would, now the alleged psychotic raptus has passed, accept the evil she has done and plead guilty, period. But instead she's working out strategy with counsel, because in the end it's all about her, isn't it? And, in that sense at least, the solidarity of the sisterhood is genuine: truly, the narcissism of our age knows no bounds.

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