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On The Murderer, Mrs. Yates

Guilty of the Act, Is She Guilty of the Crime?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, March 13, 2002.

Andrea Yates is guilty of murdering her five children in a Houston bathtub. She can be sentenced to life in prison or to death. Technically, the jury’s findings are unassailable under the law as written in Texas. She indicated a sense of right and wrong and knowledge that she had been wrong. The murders were prolonged and god-awful and terrifying to the children; she killed one of the oldest last so that a child most capable of feeling anticipatory fear and dread and willing love would suffer most. I doubt that was intentional, but you can never know. Yates could die for it, something she probably wishes for anyway, and certainly there is a certain amount of mob satisfaction at the thought.

But Yates is mentally incapable if anyone in history has ever been. Whatever Texas law says, it is an open question of logic whether the fact that she picked up a phone and called the police indicates she knew she had done wrong or whether she was following a template of rote procedure. She had been on mental drug therapy, had been suicidal, had demonstrated severe aberrations of behavior before, and may even have attempted the drownings before. The catch phrase tossed around is severe postpartum depression, but given her history, this hardly seems sufficient. It’s like calling Hitler an anti-Semite. Well, yes, that, but clearly something else as well. Billy Graham and Richard Nixon are mere anti-Semites. Lots of women have varying degrees of postpartum depression, which is perfectly understandable in light of blood loss and exhaustion if nothing else. Andrea Yates, though, was somewhere beyond that.

This case begs several questions. Why was Andrea Yates still churning out children in her late thirties with such obvious mental health issues? The answer is, rather clearly, her husband, a man who had fallen under the spell of – surprise! - a Christian charismatic who demanded his followers exhibit the fecund family values of the Olde Testament. His sense of manhood demanded that his spouse have her calcium and iron production drained ever year or so and given to a new, screaming poop processor. Heroically, Yates dropped foal five times. If any woman had the life sucked out by children, it was this poor, sick woman. Her eyes sank deeper into her head year after year; you can see it in the photographs after each child.

The irony is, a bad mother would never have expended the energy raising children to have so collapsed. From all accounts, when Yates was normal, she was a great parent. It was her exertions to do her job with, we can safely assume, insufficient support from her selfish and clueless spouse that exhausted her constantly. Five children in seven years is a physical feat, never mind the energy to raise them, for any woman at any time. For a woman whose physical depletions and mental struggles are etched on her face as clearly as any starving third world peasant, her circle of support must have been inordinately dull and dense, if it existed at all.

A woman in Colorado a few years back killed two of her own children under similar circumstances. HER husband said convincingly that he still loved his wife and that he felt he was at LEAST as responsible as her for the actions because he had been oblivious to the signs of behavior deviation that seemed so clear in retrospect. True or not, he walks the walk and has faltered not in his support for his spouse. That woman received help, a light sentence, and the couple remain together and have, perhaps, a future. In Texas, a woman faces the reaper alone.

Mr. Yates, however, joined a candlelight ceremony after the verdict had been read in court, an event in which he gave a dramatic moment of holding his head and then cradling it. In contrast, his wife was stoic or in mental shock and showed no emotion. You can almost predict the life of this man after Andrea. If she is executed, he will remarry with alacrity and reproduce that the world not be devoid of his spawn. If she is placed for life in some institution he will apply for divorce to accomplish his genetic goals. The man who ought to be named as an accomplice or instigator to murder – or at least as someone whose mental radar is so weak that parenthood should be forbidden him – will suffer hardly at all.

And Texas, the state whose legislature once rounded off Pi to three, continues to lead the nation in absurd legal and ethical conflagrations. It is helpful in that it illuminates the absolute need for bifurcating the guilt or innocence phase of a trial from the penalty phase. We need to lose idiocies like “innocent by reason of insanity” or finding someone guilty of a lesser crime not actually committed to relieve juries of deciding a fact only in light of its result. Innocence or guilt ought not to be smudged because of moronic penalty procedures inflicted by a mob-respondent state legislature, the very definition of Texas, a state infatuated with and officially defensive about its manhood.

Andrea Yates is guilty as hell, but what punishment is appropriate and what is the punishment to accomplish? If punishment is designed to adjust behavior, it is unlikely that be as effective as prohibiting further child responsibility and staying healthy. If punishment serves no behavior modification or societal benefit, it is simply torture and entertainment. Yates is too far gone to bring back, and of course she would not want to be mentally healthy to contemplate her actions. Mr. Yates, though, could use some adjustment. We must be Christian about it, after all. This is Dark Cloud.