What if we faced the truth about Andrea Yates?

“They found Andrea Yates not guilty,” my receptionist said to me Wednesday afternoon. I was delighted and surprised. I felt proud to be a Texan. Twelve jurors were able to do the right thing in spite of an almost impossible legal standard complicated by obstacles and hurdles imposed by a system that has the intellectual sophistication of the dark ages. The political powers changed the rules after Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for shooting President Reagan. Politicians and ultimately judicial officials pander to the vote – that’s the system.

Wednesday night the backlash began. I like Nancy Grace – the popular CNN Headline News Channel’s attorney/program hostess. She is tough but I usually agree with her. She is willing to take on any issue or individual and challenge the system in desperate need of repair. But on her Wednesday night show she was in la la land. She acted like a trial lawyer with their client (in this case the five murdered children) but dehumanized the opposing side, in this case Andrea Yates. Her position was that Andrea Yates was stressed out by taking care of five small kids and being trapped at home all day so she murdered them to make her life easier. Give me a break. Yates immediately called the police, told them what she did, she knew she was going to prison; she probably even thought she would be put to death – this is making your life easier?

On Thursday night I was speaking to a group of physicians and pharmaceutical reps in Lubbock, Texas. I asked, “How many of you are happy with the Andrea Yates verdict?” Only one doctor raised his hand. The overwhelming majority thought she is guilty and should spend the rest of her life in prison.

Then, on Prime Time Thursday night on ABC, they showed one of the prosecution’s “expert witness” psychiatrists interviewing (badgering) Yates on video tape having her retell detail by detail the horrible scenes that will forever torture her mind. He was splitting hairs in an apparent attempt to trap her into telling what he thought was the truth – that she planned and carried out a cold blooded murder of her children because she was tired of the strain of motherhood. What an idiot. He impressed me not as an insightful, empathic physician but as a member of the oldest profession.

On the brighter side, The Dallas Morning News editorial on Thursday morning supported the verdict and noted that they were reversing their position from their earlier support of the guilty verdict. Friday morning the USA Today editorial headline read, “Yates verdict reflects a healthy evolution.” They applaud the new verdict and conclude that “society has come a long way since the acquittal of Hinckley…” They also added that the law needs to come a bit further. I’m afraid it’s going to take more than a bit.

Why is there so much confusion? How can intelligent caring people be so polarized?

I am totally convinced that nothing is going to change until the majority of voting citizens clearly understand the issues and support a separate handling of individuals like Andrea Yates who is in almost every way the opposite of a criminal.

Only when public opinion changes will politicians change the rules. Is it possible to change people’s minds? Yes, most people want to do the right thing.

We need to start with the word guilt. When most of us ask ourselves “is she guilty?”, we mean “did she do it and did she do it on purpose?” Included in that is “did she know what she was doing?” The law defines guilt more strictly in terms of “being responsible for her act.” This use to mean knowing it is wrong and being in control of your behavior – but post Hinckley it was changed to just knowing it was wrong.

Some states have already changed the language to the more appropriate option of “guilty and insane.” We need to have a national standard that reflects this more accurate and comprehensible description of severe mental illness and legal accountability. A verdict of guilty and insane should not be “you’re free to go, have a nice life.” It should mean you go to a locked psychiatric treatment facility where you are treated as long as necessary, perhaps for life. It should mean that if you are released it is under the close monitoring of the judicial system for as long as necessary, commensurate with the crime. Whatever enforcement monitoring is necessary to assure protection for all concerned is feasible and should be a mandatory component.

Another problem that unnecessarily made the Yates jury’s decision more difficult is that they were not allowed to know what would happen to her if they found her not guilty. For all they knew she could have walked out the front door. This is ostensibly so that they make their decision based strictly on the law (with all its nebulous and abstract concepts). They should not be deciding based on the practical element of “what difference does it make what we decide?” Why not? Because despite the iconic balanced scales, the law is not about logic or fairness, it’s about “what are the facts and what is the law?”

In fairness, Andrea Yates did not meet the Texas law’s standard for criminal insanity. She knew what she was doing was against the law, and she knew she would be punished. She also knew it was against God’s law and the commandments. She believed that by killing her children she was sacrificing her life and her soul to save theirs. She felt responsible for them being bad kids (misbehaved) on the wrong path. In fact, Pastor Michael Woroniecki often quoted from the gospel of Mark, “whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.” She had attempted suicide twice because in her mind that would be protecting her children from her bad mothering. How ironic that it was the ultimate sacrifice of a mother for her beloved children.

Basically the jury decided – we don’t care what the law says, this woman was (and still is) crazy, psychotic. She is not a criminal – what she needs is help not punishment.

It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. One of the best definitions of empathy that I’ve heard is: can you tell the other person’s story from their point of view? (which does not mean you agree with their thinking or that you approve of their behavior.) How can you imagine being insane? The closest I think you can get is to think about how your mind works when you are dreaming – random, weird, sometimes scary. That’s how a psychotic person’s mind works when they are awake. They cannot control their mind – it controls them.

What kind of a person is Andrea Yates? She is the opposite of a criminal. She was an R.N. She has been described by people who know her well as one of the most selfless and giving people they know. When her father was sick and dying, she’s the one who was taking care of him in addition to taking care of her own five kids. When someone in the neighborhood was sick, she’s the one that prepared meals for them. Her ex-husband, who also lost his five kids, has never wavered in his support for her. He knows that she killed the children out of love and psychosis. What possible criminal motive could she have had? She didn’t try to get away with anything – she immediately called the police.

To really understand the ordeal that she and her whole family went through you should read the excellent book, Are You There Alone?: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates, by Suzanne O’Malley. They went through years of suffering and medical mismanagement. It has been known for at least 10 years that postpartum psychosis is a rare complication of childbirth and that it is almost always a form of bipolar disorder (the old term is manic depressive).

For centuries throughout the world, new mothers in a state of insanity have murdered their babies. The U.S., to my knowledge, may be the only industrialized advanced country that considers it murder.

We have known for years that patients with bipolar disorder are made worse by antidepressants – unless they are on adequate doses of mood stabilizers or at least on an antipsychotic. Yates had been on Haldol (an older harsher antipsychotic – but more acceptable to insurance companies because it’s in generic), but even that had been stopped. When she killed her children she was on just antidepressants. Whose fault is that?

Yates had been hospitalized on several occasions, but kicked out early due to insurance company pressure. The hospital unit she was last treated on was for drug addicts, where she was forced to go to group therapy and lectures about addiction. How useful was that? Whose fault was that?

Ironically again, she was a devout Christian who was unduly influenced by a lunatic minister who repeatedly burdened her with guilt and impossible standards by which she was to judge the mental/spiritual health of her children. The thread of extreme fundamentalism seems to appear too often in cases where mothers kill their babies.

Could the influence of extreme “spirituality” on someone with the genetics of bipolar disorder contribute to the loss of control by the rational part of the mind?

There is no question that five children tragically lost their lives, but who/what is really to blame? Is it the system, the minister, the insurance companies, the hospitals, the doctors? Some people blame the ex-husband. When I review all the facts I see him as one of the victims. Maybe he relied too much on faith. Maybe he didn’t scream loud enough when her treatment wasn’t working. But I believe he did everything he knew to do.

If all the discussion and TV specials (that attract a lot of viewers and make the networks a lot of money) ultimately lead to greater understanding, then a change in public attitudes and a change in laws might happen. Then the death of five children will not have been in vain. The best outcome would be for a greater awareness to lead to early diagnosis and effective treatment for postpartum psychosis so that future babies aren’t the victims of Dark Age mentality in the 21st century.

Guilt is feeling bad because you hurt someone else. Shame is feeling bad because you don’t live up to your own standards and values. Shame is what the system should feel for not protecting the five children of Andrea Yates. Shame is what the system should feel for letting her sink deeper and deeper into the depths and torture of psychotic hell. Shame is what the system should feel for rubbing her nose in it over and over and parading her around like a freak show exhibit.

Shame on everyone who contributed to the problem or exploited it for personal or financial gain.

Andrea Yates, her ex-husband Rusty, and all their family and friends will suffer the rest of their lives because babies of mothers with postpartum psychosis don’t have a lobby group and can’t vote. Let’s change the system!

Let me know what you think by adding your comments.

Please follow and like us:

Comments are closed.