Monday, March 20, 2006

The Silver Lining

Andrea Yates goes back on trial this week. You remember Andrea Yates? the Texas woman who drowned all five of her children in the family bathtub? She was convicted of murder, but the sentence was thrown out when it was revealed that a key prosecution witness lied on the stand. It's hard for me to think about the Andrea Yates case without my stomach clenching. I love my three kids more than anything and the notion of a mother murdering her own children is pretty incomprehensible to me. Thinking about those five little kids, and how they met their end at the hands of their mother, is something I can't do for very long.

I know first-hand what it's like to feel a mother's love for her children. And even though I've encountered some horrible mothers in my life -- selfish, cruel, egotistical, self-absorbed, dysfunctional -- I've never met one who would be capable of killing their kids.

But I've also experienced post-partum depression. I know that it can change you, it can make you act weird and think weird shit. It can interfere with the way you see yourself and the way you view your husband and kids. So I don't find it hard to believe that Andrea Yates was suffering from a profound mental illness at the time she killed her children. A quick look at her biography convinces me beyond any doubt.

Andrea and Rusty Yates were married in 1993. They proceeded to have five children in eight years. Think about that, the physical impact that would have on a woman's body, the amount of work caring for five kids (and a husband?) on a day-to-day basis while spending nearly half of your total marriage (about 45 of 96 months) pregnant. (Actually, it's a little more than that; Andrea Yates miscarried once, too.) At one point, the family lived in a trailer; later, Rusty Yates bought a 350-foot renovated school bus for the family to live in. Around that time, the Yates came under the influence of a preacher who expressed the belief that women, being descended from Eve, were inherently evil and that bad mothers create bad children who will then go to hell. (Nice, eh?)

In June 1999, Andrea Yates tried to commit suicide and was diagnosed with major depression; although she wasn't exactly forthright in discussing her depression, the hospital released her anyway with a prescription for antidepressants. Andrea Yates discontinued the medication, began to mutilate herself, and didn't feed her kids properly, saying they were eating too much. She heard voices, experienced paranoia and hallucinations, and held a knife to her neck, begging to die. She was again admitted for psychiatric treatment and spent 10 days in a catatonic state. She improved after treatment with Haldol, an antipsychotic drug. Her doctor warned the couple that another pregnancy could bring on more psychotic behavior.

A few months later, at Rusty's urging, Andrea discontinued her Haldol and was pregnant again. She was homeschooling her kids (yeah, that's a great plan; let the overwhelmed, mentally ill mother of multiple children homeschool all of them). After her youngest child's birth, she again exhibited severe and troubling signs of mental illness: self-mutilitation, not feeding the baby, compulsive Bible reading, refusing to eat or talk, and so on. She ended up seeing some half-ass doctor who discontinued her meds and told her to "think positive thoughts." Two days later, she killed her kids.

It makes me frustrated that a jury couldn't look at this well-documented history of severe mental illness and see that this woman was not in her right mind. It makes me sad that the health care system failed Andrea Yates, that if she'd seen a different psychiatrist, one who kept her on her meds and took her symptoms and medical history seriously, her kids might be alive today. It makes me angry that misogyny masquerading as Christianity made Andrea Yates believe she was a bad mother, a bad person, one who was going to condemn her children to eternal damnation simply because her genes read XX instead of XY. It bothers me that Andrea Yates may well spend her remaining years in a prison, unable to get the kind of mental health treatment she so desperately needs.

But there is a silver lining: Rusty Yates. Rusty got married this past weekend to a 41-year old woman with two sons, described by one news report as a "willowy blonde." You see, Rusty harbors no ill will toward Andrea, the wife he kept knocking up and then divorced once she was in prison. He stood by Andrea (well, you know, except for the whole divorce thing, and falling in love with someone else and all); and he still visits her in prison (although apparently she heard about his new marriage from someone other than him, but hey, details, details). Rusty has fond memories of his crazy wife and dead kids, and now he'll be able to make new memories with his new wife and new kids (well, step-kids). So whenever I feel bad about Andrea Yates, whenever I feel my heart twinge at the thought of those dead children, and six wasted lives, I can always remember Rusty Yates and feel happy again. I just picture him climbing into his red Corvette with his new wife, driving away for their honeymoon, while Andrea Yates sits in jail, waiting to be tried again for the murder of their children.


Maria said...

Thank you for a compassionate telling of that very sad story and it's un-happy ending. What's even sadder is that although this story got a lot of national press, it's hardly an isolated incident. It's a story I've read, more than once, in our local paper. Married young, baby after baby, isolated by her culture/husband/family, depressed, mentally ill, begs for help, help not given, kills children, mother in prison, father free to start over. What the ??!!

Anonymous said...

@#%$. How can they NOT hold the father of those children at least partially responsible for this, too? I hadn't thought of this in awhile. Thank you, now I'm off to go play with my little people.

Liz K. said...

If my memory serves, then I think part of the issue with her first conviction has to do with the way Texas law is written. The truth is, Andrea Yates went nuts in the wrong state, because she "knew what she was doing was illegal." Well, sorry, but when voices in your documentedly psychotic head tell you to kill your children to save them from hell, well, then, I think the legality of the act is pretty far from your concern, right? Don't mess with Texas, crazy lady! (Angrily sarcastic tongue firmly in cheek...)

This whole thing happened just after I gave birth to my first kid and was suffering from mild PPD too. It is just too much to bear to think of those children. And I just want to kick Rusty over and over and over again.

Janice in GA said...

I knew about the Andrea part of the story. I didn't know about Rusty's behavior afterwards.

Jeezopete. Rat bastard.

Zooks said...

I always wonder what kind of woman would marry Rusty knowing what happened to his first wife. The biggest crime in this whole situation is that apparently Rusty did nothing illegal. He ought to be charged with some type of accessory to murder crime since he clearly must have been aware of Andrea's unstable state of mind. >:-(

I also wonder what sage advice Tom Cruise would have given Andrea Yates. Take some vitamins? A little more exercise perhaps?

Jen said...

This is a great post. As a christian myself (and hopefully able to speak to the issue with a teeny bit of knowledge), I believe the one true blind spot in the christian church is in the area of mental illness. It's a chemical imbalance - no different in that respect from a chemical imbalance that makes someone else diabetic. If a diabetic ignored her symptoms in favor of "thinking positive thoughts" we'd all believe she was losing her grip, yet the church feels comfortable advocating that to its members regarding mental illness all the time. It's very, very wrong.

Rusty Yates simply horrifies me. I can't imagine him walking around feeling smug for doing the right thing. I can't imagine he has any idea what marriage is truly about for christians, and it's very, very sad.

Thanks again for an excellent post.

AmyDe said...

S.O.B. - simply stated and Andrea - my heart breaks for her and I am enraged all at the same time. As a mother, I can't imagine how far gone she must have been (be).

In my own Christian practice I have always maintained that I don't have a problem with Christianity - I have a problem with "Christians."

Thank you for posting so clearly the bio - most people only read headlines and don't know any further details.

Anonymous said...

Two small points before I say that I agree COMPLETELY with every thought and feeling you have about Andrea and Rusty Yates and their doomed
No doctor can "make" a mentally disturbed patient take her meds. No way. It's often even difiucult in institutional settings.
Noncompliance with medication needs is also very often a real PART of the disease.
The ill person often believes the meds cause their bad lives, not the disease.
I have seen my pathetic scary schizoprhenic brother-in-law go through this.

Secondly, the "christian church" (I'm not sure what exactly this vague appellation takes in), as far as I know (I was raised Catholic),
condemn the treatment of mental illness.
If Andrea Yates encountered a misguided or malevolent "preacher", that's horrid, but there isn't a "chrictian church" doctrine that
is conspiring against sufferers of mental illnesses as a church policy.
Unless maybe it's the small segment of snakehandlers or some outlaw sect.

Anonymous said...

Ahem. Sucky typist strikes again.
That should read "does not" condemn the treatment of mental illness.....

Carol said...

Well, I guess it depends on what flavor of Christianity you're talking about. I don't know of any specific doctrine or tenet that would prohibit treatment of mental illness, but it's hard to generalize about Christianity since there are so many different interpretations of what it means and requires. I agree with you, that no one in the world can force a patient to take her meds; but if you see the caretaker of your five young children NOT taking them, and acting psychotic, you're a goddamned fool for continuing to leave her with them unsupervised. This is what I find so frustrating: the complete lack of insight and feeling any smidgeon of responsibility on his part for what happened to those kids. I've seen what people are like when they are psychotic -- 2 sister-in-laws and a mother-in-law -- and it ain't subtle. If you're a responsible parent, you've got to put your children's welfare before all else. Even if it isn't easy or convenient or pleasant. That's why I find Rusty to be so pathetic and loathesome.

Jen said...

Right - having a diagnosed mental illness doesn't absolve either partner of responsibility for their actions. What it does mean is that now "taking responsibility" also includes "taking my medication." I have asthma - it's my responsibility to take my medication. I could walk around all day saying "I can't breathe, it's asthma's fault," but if I'm not taking my medicine I'm being an irresponsible human. Rusty was very irresponsible with Andrea.

I think (in response to the commenter above) that the brand of christianity being referred to is more akin to the prosperity-doctrine "God will heal all your sickness, you don't need medicine" than to Catholicism or even mainstream Protestantism. At least those parts of the church are getting better at dealing with serious mental health issues, but it's still stigmatic in a way that something like...oh, asthma...isn't.

Anonymous said...

That's a pretty harsh picture that you painted of Rusty Yates. Sure, he made some bad decisions, and he has paid dearly for them. He has also been a huge proponent for Andrea Yates- making sure that she gets treatment, rather than just imprisonment, etc. He did not see the extent of his wife's problems (nor did the doctors she saw, or anybody else), but that doesn't make him a horrible person who should be relegated to a life of depravity. Andrea Yates actually gave her blessing to Rusty in his new marriage, and he continues to be an advocate for her. I can't believe that anyone would condemn this man, who lost all five of his children at his wife's hands, for divorcing her and moving on with his life. I mean, really- if my husband murdered our children, I don't think that I could go and visit him in jail or a mental hospital.

Cathy said...

One of the joys for a solitude to eat out occasinally is to people watch. Recently a young man (mid to late 20s) came into the buffet restaurant and sat alone at a large table. Eventually, a young woman about the same age, obvously pregnant, a baby on her hip sheparded 4 more children to join him. I watched as she settled the baby into a high chair and arranged the older children in their places (everyone in their rightful place, obviously). She then went to the buffet several times. She filled a plate, served her husband who waited patiently for his meal. He thanked her and began to eat. The children quietly watched. She returned to the buffet, filled a 2nd plate for her oldest child, returned to the buffet etc til her children were served then finally went back for her plate. As she ate she supervised the kids manners (very quiet children), fed the baby, chatted with her husband (I assume her husband). They made it clear that they were not interested in responding to people who walked by and nodded at them. Usually babies and small children recieve chit chat from older diners. Not here.

I was exhausted imagining how the rest of her life must be if this was a treat. I thought of Andrea Yates as we left the restaurant.

Carol said...

Well, I happen to disagree with your statement that nobody, including Rusty and the doctors, saw this coming. Doctors told both Rusty and Andrea that if she had more kids, it was very likely she'd become psychotic again. Her friends knew she was in trouble and even urged Rusty to get her help before the tragedy. Rusty urged her to go off her meds -- Haldol! -- and impregnated her again.

I've been around people who are in serious psychotic states, as I said, and it isn't subtle. A woman with multiple suicide attempts, self-mutilation, catatonic states, a track record of not properly caring for her children while mentally ill (she didn't feed them, for example), hallucinations? C'mon. Maybe he didn't want to deal with it, but the signs were painfully obvious. SHe lost 20 lbs from not eating! She wasn't feeding their infant daughter! Hello?

I'm not saying he should never move on with his life, but I find it creepy that just a few years after losing five kids and a wife, he's hopping into his fast car and moving on. I've seen him interviewed and he's never said a word to suggest that he could have born some measure of responsibility. I would think that insight is necessary before he can truly be ready to move on, to assume responsibility as a stepfather for two more kids. That obsession with having kids -- he told Andrea while she was in prison he wanted more and that was reason why he was divorcing her -- is kind of sick. He made his family live in a crappy trailer, but after they died, he moved into a luxury apartment building for himself. Ick. He's a turd.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing a show with Mr Yates and all he did was talk about how this impacted him, how people were talking about what he did wrong, etc. Nothing about the kids. Nothing about his wife. Just how he was being singled out by people about what he did wrong. The only tears he shed were over how people were treating him.

On the same show was Mr. Smith. His ex wife Susan left their little boys in the back seat of her car and rolled in into a pond. Although it had been several years he was still in tears ever time he tried to talk about his little boys. His loss was so profound that you couldn't help but cry along with him.

Don't you find it odd that one father has not be able to move forward from the grief of losing his children after so many years while the other father's concern was people's perception of him?

Good luck to the new Mrs. Yates. I think she'll need it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I have never heard of the "prosperity doctrine" that says "God will heal your illness-you don't need medicine".
Who exactly says this???
I see myself as mostly a recovering Catholic, but this all sounds like, at best, paraphrasal gobbeldygook.
I am dismayed when some asshole (this alleged preacher) talks and acts like an asshole and someone puts it down to bad old
The doctrines of "Christianity" are fairly simple and don't encompass blaming the ill for being ill.

Jen said...

Hi Kathy! I totally agree with your statement that Christianity is fairly simple and doesn't encompass blaming the ill for being ill. ("Who sinned that this man was born blind" - remember that story?).

If you Google "prosperity doctrine" you'll find quite a bit of information. It's a tenet of the charismatic church that says that God doesn't want you to be poor or sick, and if you are poor or sick, it's because you lack faith. It's a function of salvation by good works. Probably the best-known preacher of this nonsense is Houston preacher Joel Osteen. (I am showing my true Reformed stripes here. Hope I don't offend anyone, but he does preach this stuff.)


Anonymous said...

For some reason, whenever I think of Andrea Yates, all I can imagine is how I would feel during those moments when her meds wear off and she remembers what she's done. And the feelings I imagine are so horrible that I end up feeling like it would be merciful to hand out the death penalty in this situation. I just feel so sad for her, having to live the rest of her life, knowing what she's done.

I don't know why I never think of the kids, or of Rusty. I just think that if I were her, I'd wish I were dead.

Anonymous said...

Not to sound flip, but I think the new Mrs. Yates is one marble short of a bag.
"Bad decisions?" Going outside without a coat in the snow is a "bad decision". Choosing to wear paisley with plaid is a "bad decision". Leaving an obviously unstable, suicidal woman alone with your children is an "acessory to murder".

Mel said...

The health care system didn't just fail Andrea Yates. It also failed her children. Sad, sad story - even sadder that it happened in a state that would most likely rather fry her than get her the help she needs. And meanwhile, the husband who deserves castration is free to whore around as he sees fit and find somebody new to fuck up. So much for justice.

Anonymous said...

If Yates had been in any other state but Texas, her mental illness would have been recognized. The Texas legal system refused to recognize that Yates was suffering from a mental disease. Yet, after the trial, she was placed in an institution that would enable her to receive the treatment she needed for that mental disease.

Texas--a whole 'nother country.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you guys have covered it all. I am "almost" speechless ;-)
I think the love a mother has for her children is primal. Even bouts of psychosis doesn't "erase" it. I truly feel for Andrea and the days and hours she must contemplate what she did and the memories of those little ones.
Such a sad, sad situation.
I'm sure the system failed her and her children. I know in NY it takes so much less to remove children from their parents, or at least to investigate. Surely there are not enough investigators in Texas, and people willing to step in and get involved.
Aside from "choomon" who sounds like she would actually DATE a guy like Rusty Yates (scary!) I don't understand the attraction to someone like that at all.
But in some areas and religions, it's all about serving the men. And that's what Andrea was trying to do.
Unfortunately, the price was more than she can bear.
I send best wishes to Rusty's new wife. Hope she can stand the lifestyle he provides. Better hope the authorities are checking up on THAT family every now and then....

Anonymous said...

Ummmm... are we forgetting she um, MURDERED her children? Or do we just let the slide since she was ill? I've taken Prozac for 10 years for depression. I guess that gives me an out for anything I do, too!!

Carol said...

Well, Rach, have you ever been in the presence of someone in a psychotic state? I have, on more than one occasion. Someone who is truly psychotic doesn't know what they are doing and is laboring under delusions that influence how they are thinking and acting. I don't see how you can hold someone responsible for their actions in a legal sense if they are acting because they genuine believe things that seem crazy to you and me. No one is saying excuse her completely and let her toddle off into the world scot-free; that woman is going to be in a mental facility the rest of her life. And should be. She needs heavy-duty medical treatment and close supervision, and will probably be subject to that for the rest of her life. And Rach, as someone who's been inside a mental treatment facility to visit family members, I can tell you it ain't the Ritz-Carlton.

There is a big difference between depression controlled by Prozac and a psychotic break like Andrea Yates experienced. I hope you never experience the latter, but I also hope you learn a little more about mental illness, Rach.

Anonymous said...

This is not just a sad case but tragic - when will people (in this case Texas state authorities, medical profession etc.) start taking mental illness seriously.
I don't believe that all mothers, no matter how bad , would never kill their children.
I remember Rosemary West!

But anyone who is mentally ill, suffering from Psychosis, should not be in charge of children (even their own). Whoever allowed that, is the real killer of those poor children.