In the nine months it has taken the state of Texas to arrest, try, convict and sentence Andrea Yates for drowning her five children in a bathtub, I’ve been unable to read a single news account of the story. Every front-page article felt like a trip into the pit of Acheron, where ghosts waited around dark corners. I could’ve managed the countless analyses of the insanity defense, the explanations of Yates’ mental illness. But I didn’t want to see the school photos or know about the children’s favorite toys. I didn’t want to read about the damp footprints, the flailing limbs, the final silence.
Now that the trial is over, and the ghosts have hunkered down, it feels safe to read back over what happened. The Yates led quiet lives, but tragedies send reporters and investigators, lawyers and family members, digging for the puzzle pieces. So I’ve been reading, thinking that somewhere in the descriptions and anecdotes and testimony, there will be an answer to the crucial question why?
There are good guesses–most of them well formulated by Yates’ lawyers, who tried to win their client an acquittal by reason of insanity. Andrea Yates’ psychosis was severe and well-documented. She walked a ragged tightrope of medication, fending off the demons that must have danced on every horizon of her mind. All of this while raising five small children. No neighbors or family to help, no baby sitters. Home-schooling the older kids. Living for a time in a 350-square-foot converted bus. Husband preoccupied with his job, trying to keep his wife functional enough to take care of the family.
Turning over the tapestry of Andrea Yates’ life, it’s easy to see the frayed threads and loose ends. It’s easy to attribute the tragedy to insanity, to the frustration of a powerless woman who, like Medea, finally found her power. But is that all? Amid all the speculation about why Yates killed her children–her sickness, the crushing circumstances of her life–it seems to me there is another, less obvious, piece of the puzzle.
The Yates were strict followers of what’s charitably called “ole-time religion.” Here in the Bible Belt, that term evokes a lot of innocent and even funny connotations–riverside revivals, zealots speaking in tongues. But it’s not always flamboyant or funny. Every childhood is fraught with peril, but some perils are worse than others and, as a friend of mine once said, “a one-legged hyena makes a better parent than a holy roller.” Another woman I know, describing life with her fundamentalist parents, put it more poignantly. She said she felt like a flower pressed between the pages of the Bible.
A Houston woman interviewed soon after the deaths of the Yates children told a reporter she didn’t understand how Yates’ “God-fearing” ways could have led to such an tragedy. Maybe I’ve read too much Flannery O’Connor or watched one too many documentaries of the Jonestown massacre. Maybe I’ve seen too many malignant renditions of “God fearing,” in which faith and insanity feed on each other in scary symbiosis. I only know that there are a lot of people so preoccupied with heaven they make life on earth a living hell. And that children can burn up there.
It’s not clear how Andrea Yates came by her religious beliefs. What is clear is that by the time she and her husband married they had certain ideas about the “right way” to live and raise a family. Their children were named after biblical figures. They were home-schooled and cared for almost exclusively by their mother, who tried hard to live the scripture’s definition of the Christian woman. Their father once bragged that he’d never changed a diaper. He taught his children that the devil looks for his prey among the weak.
Yates tried hard not to be weak. She had her babies and tried to take good care of them. She had no hobbies and refused help from friends or family. Gradually, she began to fall apart. Little is known about the early stages of her illness, but her psychotic disintegration seemed to coincide with a growing belief in her own wickedness. She developed a correspondence with an itinerant preacher who told her that women are born in sin, and that sinful mothers are doomed to raise sinful children. After the birth of her third child, she swallowed 40 tablets worth of anti-depressants. After the fourth, she suffered severe post-partum depression. She was admitted and released from various hospitals. She began to pick and scratch at herself, to hear voices commanding her to get a knife. She threatened to slit her own throat and told a doctor she had to kill herself before she hurt someone.
Yates’ husband was convinced she would improve. The couple wanted more children. Against her doctor’s advice, she gave birth to a fifth child in the fall of 2000; within six months she began to deteriorate again, returning to the hospital twice before coming home in the spring of 2001. A month after her release she became convinced that she was Satan’s spawn, a sinner whose transgressions would destroy her children if she didn’t destroy them first. The voices were relentless, and in the end she obeyed them. On the day they died, her oldest child was 7; the baby was 6 months old.
I don’t believe Andrea Yates’ religious beliefs alone caused her to kill her children. I do think she was walking wounded, vulnerable to twisted theology and the slick words of an itinerant preacher. And while her tragedy horrifies, it also conjures the stories of so many children whose lives are in some way or another pressed between the pages of the Bible, who are made to bear the burden of the cross in ways that must break Christ’s heart. I think about a girl I once knew whose parents locked her in the closet with a crucifix after they caught her wearing lipstick. I think about those Johnston County teenagers–Brandon, Kyle and Marnie Warren–whose mother kept them penned inside the high stone walls of her religion. One day last summer, Brandon shot his siblings and himself. Their mother was nowhere on the property when it happened. She didn’t pull the trigger, and then again she did.
Andrea Yates struggled hard against the conviction that she was evil; in the end she must have simply given up, feeling the devil’s breath down her neck and certain that redemption was beyond her grasp. And so she saved her children–from herself, from Satan, from evil. According to Newsweek, authorities found the bodies lying on a bed, “wrapped in sheets like little Christian martyrs.”
The landscape is dotted with martyrs, living and dead–children who have grown up beneath the bell jar of their parents’ “piety.” These casualties frequently take us by surprise, because it is so easy to dress evil up as godliness. One of my favorite passages in To Kill a Mockingbird is Miss Maudie’s speech about Boo Radley, the town haint. Scout wants to know why Boo stays holed up inside his house, and Maudie explains that Boo’s daddy was a “foot-washing Baptist.” When Scout defends God-fearing folks, Maudie hardens her voice. Sometimes, she tells Scout, “the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand” of another.
Soon after the deaths of Andrea Yates’ children a Houston psychiatrist compared the Yates tragedy to the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac–in which God commands Abraham to kill his son, then retracts his order at the last minute. “I’m not saying Abraham was psychotic,” the psychiatrist said. “But I am saying that if people are God fearing and they think they hear God telling them to do something–sometimes they will do it.”
I wonder if there’s a well-meaning Jewish or Christian parent alive who hasn’t read the story of Abraham and Isaac, thrown up her hands in despair and said, “That’s it! I’ve had it with God!” I understand the story is meant to teach the ultimate lesson of resignation and submission. I also know that many people of faith have found themselves hard pressed to comply with this illustration of “God fearing,” to accept, much less worship, so cruel a God.
I’m one of those people, so I was pleased, some time ago, to read another interpretation of the story by a California rabbi named Harold Schulweis. Schulweis points out that, in the Hebrew, there are two “heavenly” voices in the story. The first is thought to belong to God–the same Old Testament God who frequently makes, then recants, mistakes. The second voice–the one that spares Isaac–belongs to an “angel of the Lord.” It is, Schulweis says, the voice of Abraham’s conscience.
There were no angels in Andrea Yates’ story; the voice of her conscience was too small to compete with the cacophony in her head. The babble continued, even after her arrest. In custody, she asked to have her head shaved so she could see the sign of the Antichrist on her scalp. She said she looked forward to execution as a form of exorcism.
It’s tempting to wonder how different the Yates children’s fate would have been had their mother gotten adequate treatment. Were her psychosis and her grim faith distinguishable? Would one have survived without the other? Perhaps those five children would eventually have escaped intact from their parents’ world. Maybe they would have survived, only to walk wounded like their mother. Maybe they would have sought the same relief the Warren children sought.
This has been a year in which we have all thought a lot and talked a lot about the violence that is part of religion, about mujihadeen and holy wars and crusades. The devastation isn’t always on such a grand scale though, and it isn’t always delivered by papal authority or a global network of terrorists. Sometimes it comes at the hand of a suburban housewife, her mind in tatters, her soul worn ragged, heeding an ungodly voice.