»  National Review

October 1st, 2001

  Maternal Madness


Macbeth:  How does your patient, doctor?
Doctor:  Not so sick, my lord,
              As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies
              That keep her from her rest.

Was Andrea Pia Yates sick when, on the morning of June 20th, shortly after her husband had left for work, she drowned her five children in the family bathtub? Respectable members of the medical profession certainly thought so. Mrs. Yates had been on prescription antidepressants and anti-psychotic drugs (which are much stronger), and had been hospitalized twice for depression since her fifth child was born six months before the killings.

If she was sick, it is at any rate plain that the treatment she was getting did not heal her. Under the care of her doctors, paid for by the health insurance plan that came with her husband's government job (he is a computer engineer for NASA), she killed her five children. On September 12th there is to be a hearing to determine her fitness to stand trial. So: is the lady sick, or just very wicked?

Before proceeding, let me tell you a true story. You will probably think the story a little peculiar. I tell it to make a point, though, I assure you, so please bear with me.

Several years ago, on a pleasant summer's day, I was sitting in the garden of a house I owned in London, when I saw a tortoise. I should explain that tortoises are given to children as pets in England, or at least they used to be — I think there are now strict controls on the tortoise market. It was never a good idea, as tortoises lack most of the characteristics that make animals interesting to children: they are not cuddly, playful, winsome, fierce or noisy. Furthermore, they require much more careful attention than most children are willing to bestow on them. Perhaps there had been something in the newspapers along these lines; I cannot remember. At any rate, there I was in the garden when I saw this tortoise making his patient way across the lawn. A small hole had been drilled in the edge of his shell, so that he could be tethered — a usual procedure. Tortoises are slow, but dogged, and will wander away if not constrained. I suppose this one had broken free from his tether, or been left untethered.

Now, I was feeling rather sorry for myself at the time — relationship problem. I suppose I was depressed. Watching that tortoise make his painstaking way across the lawn, some strange variant of the Sympathetic Fallacy kicked in. He was unwanted; he had been bought as a gift for children who had then lost interest in him. Perhaps they had let him wander off deliberately. My heart went out to the poor creature, who obviously had no hope in this world — tortoises cannot survive in the wild, not in London, anway. For his own sake, I decided to put him out of his misery. I picked him up, took him in to the kitchen, filled a bowl with water, and held him under it to drown him. I held him there for a long time, several minutes, waiting for him to expire. It is, actually, rather difficult to know when a tortoise has passed on. He was quite agitated when I first put him underwater, but soon became still, then inert. A thick milky white fluid came out of his back end. His mouth, however, continued to make very small movements.

Quite suddenly I came to my senses. What on earth was I doing? I lifted him out of the bowl and stared at him in horror. I had tried to kill a tortoise! For no good reason at all! As I stared, his legs twitched. I took him back out to the garden and set him down. After a brief moment to re-orient himself, he took off across the lawn exactly as it nothing had happened, and disappeared into the neighboring garden.

I relate this trivial and rather embarrassing episode to establish some kind of credentials for talking about Altruistic Filicide.

What Mrs. Yates did was filicide — the killing of one's own children. It is not, as a matter of fact, a particularly rare crime. Of the 1,500 or so children who are killed each year in the U.S. by acts of violence directed at them, around 30 per cent die at the hands of a parent. You may recall the case of Susan Smith, who strapped her two young sons into their car seats then pushed the car into a lake back in 1994. Even Mrs. Yates modus operandi was not unprecedented: back in 1965, 38-year-old Maggie Young of Honolulu (Mrs. Yates was 36) drowned her own five children in their bathtub and laid them out on a bed in exactly the Yates fashion, while her husband — like Mr. Yates, a government employee — was at work. Even worse was the case of Constance Fisher of Maine, who drowned her first three children — bathtub again — in 1954. After five years in Augusta State Hospital, Fisher was declared cured and returned home. In 1967, she drowned three more of her children.

The classic study on this subject, carried out over 30 years ago by forensic psychiatrist Dr. Phillip J. Resnick, places filicides into five categories: accidental (for example, someone kills a child by shaking him too vigorously), altruistic (killing a child from pity, "for his own good"), acutely psychotic (under the influence of hallucinogens, epilepsy or delirium), unwanted child (as in the case of Susan Smith, who believed the man she loved would not take her if she came burdened with children) and revenge against a partner (Medea). Now, Mrs. Yates's explanation of her actions was: "I am a bad mother and they were hopelessly damaged." To judge from that, she killed her children out of misplaced altruism. She felt about them the way I felt about that tortoise, the way Jude the Obscure's son felt about his siblings: that they had no hope of a happy life, and so would be better off in the next world. Her general state of mind, of course, must have been something dramatically worse than mere low spirits, but I believe I have got at least the hint of an insight into her thought processes.

Mrs. Yates was probably mistaken. Her children were healthy and well-adjusted. She herself, so far as anyone — including her husband — had been able to see, was a loving and conscientious mother, in spite of being prone to savage attacks of post-partum depression. Still I think it is wrong to see the crime in terms of the intolerable frustrations of child-raising — the explanation that lies at the back of all those celebrities and support groups that have come up in her defense. Rosie O'Donnell declared that she felt "overwhelming empathy" for Mrs. Yates. Katie Couric told viewers of her TV show where to send contributions to Mrs. Yates's legal fund. Anna Quindlen chipped in with a rant against "the insidious cult of motherhood." The National Organization of Women has put together an Andrea Pia Yates Support Coalition, pulling in the ACLU and various anti-death penalty groups.

I believe that what all these people really have in mind is to establish another Victim Sickness. It is now a firm principle of victimology that members of designated victim groups are especially susceptible to certain diseases, brought on by the stress of their subjection to the oppressive white male heterosexual patriarchy. Some of these diseases are, or arise directly from, behavioral aberrations caused by that stress. Homosexuals would settle down into stable, AIDS-risk-free unions, if they were not driven into promiscuity by the insults and cruelty of the breeder majority. Black people are forced into crime and drug addiction, as well as hypertension, by white racism. And now Ms. Quindlen's "insidious cult of motherhood" is dragging women down into depression and filicide.

I don't think we should buy this. The challenges, confusions and hormonal changes of new motherhood sometimes cause massive unhappiness; but then, so do many other life events — broken love, the death of friends, financial ruin, physical disability, and so on. I don't see how it helps to label these miseries as "sickness," especially when it is plain that we have not much idea how to "cure" them. Further, the medicalization of these life problems, the notion that they have their origins in some infectious agent or organic malfunction (for neither of which is there currently any evidence at all), kicks out yet more props from under our system of ethics. Either we are responsible agents, even in the midst of the direst unhappiness, or we are not.

With a great effort of imagination I think I can see what was in Mrs. Yates's mind when she drowned her children. I can't forgive her for it, though. She did a monstrously wicked thing, and ought to be punished for it. State prosecutors have asked for the death penalty. I hope it is administered, and soon.

Macbeth:  Cure her of that!Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
              Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
              Raze out the written troubles of the brain …?
Doctor:  Therein the patient
              Must minister to himself.