I was toiling away at work ten years ago yesterday when I pulled up the internet to check the news on CNN. The breaking news headline was startling, to say the least: "Five children drowned in Houston." I didn't have to see any more details, because I already had a premonition. I felt certain that this act must have been carried out by a mother with a young infant. You see, just about a year prior to the Yates drownings, I had dealt with severe postpartum depression following the birth of my first child. To be clear, I NEVER wanted to cause any harm to my child during that time. If given the opportunity, the only person I would have hurt was myself. Nonetheless, I had become all too familiar with the terrible sorts of tricks that could be played by a chemically misfiring mind, and I instantly felt a connection to the case.
Of course, so did everyone else. The scenario of five dead children - dead by the hands of their own mother - was certainly more than sufficient to elicit blinding fury from the general public. The details were sickening and incomprehensible. On June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates waited for her husband, Rusty, to leave for work before methodically drowning each of her children one by one in a bathtub. She then called 911 and her husband to report what she had done. By all accounts, Andrea Yates was described a loving, doting mother who lived for her children. Somehow, something had gone terribly wrong. Due to my prior illness, I actually understood how Andrea could have gotten to this point and gone so far as to carry out these atrocious actions. In addition to mourning her children, I mourned for Andrea as a terribly sick mother.
A fatal cornucopia of mental illness, poor choices and medical neglect led to the deaths of five children on that awful day. Andrea Yates had been hospitalized with postpartum psychosis following the birth of her fourth child, Luke. Postpartum psychosis is the rarest and most severe form of postpartum mood disorders. Symptoms include hallucinations, delusions and potentially violent behavior. Andrea and her husband decided to continue having children despite the fact that doctors strongly urged them to stop after her previous bout with postpartum psychosis. Rusty and Andrea Yates were deeply religious and had committed to having as many children as nature would allow. Andrea stayed home with the children (Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6 months) and homeschooled them while Rusty went to work at NASA. Andrea and Rusty followed the "fire and brimstone" messages of street preacher Michael Woroniecki, and at one point the entire family (including four children at the time) lived in a 300 square foot converted bus that Rusty Yates had purchased from Woroniecki in an effort to "simplify their lives."
Andrea's fifth child, Mary Yates, was born in November 2000. Following the death of Andrea's father in March 2001, Andrea's behavior became increasingly erratic and she was committed to Devereaux hospital under the care of Dr. Mohammed Saeed. She was subsequently released from Devereaux but was readmitted shortly thereafter following a lapse into a state of catatonia. Andrea was released from Devereaux yet again because her medical insurance would no longer pay for inpatient treatment. She remained under Dr. Saeed's care on an outpatient basis. Rusty had his mother stay nearby and come to the house to help Andrea with the children while he was at work. However, Rusty did leave Andrea alone with the children for brief periods each day to help her "regain her independence." For some reason, Dr. Saeed decided to discontinue Andrea's use of Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic. Two weeks later, the children were dead. Andrea's delusional thought process told her that the children were going to hell because of her bad mothering and that the only solution was to kill the children while they were still young enough to be taken up to heaven.
The details of the case left me incensed. How could Andrea and her husband possibly think that it would be a good idea to have more children? How on earth could the hospital have discharged such a sick woman without pushing back against the insurance company for its refusal to pay? Why would Rusty leave Andrea alone with the children for even five minutes? And how in the world could the prosecution be looking to give Andrea Yates the death penalty? This woman was beyond ill and would not have done what she did if she had not fallen into the clutches of this horrifying disease. The prosecution claimed that its job was to obtain justice for the Yates children, but condemning a sick woman to death would not bring justice to anyone. I wanted to be sick when Andrea was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Fortunately, the defense appealed the verdict. In 2006, Andrea Yates was was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was moved to a mental health facility. To me, this was a sign of progress. Somehow, it had gotten through to a jury that Andrea was insane when she committed the crime, even though she intentionally waited until she was alone with the children to drown them and had the presence of mind to call 911 afterwards. A psychotic person does not just run around willy-nilly like a chicken with its head cut off. A psychotic person can formulate plans and execute them, but it is the rationale behind these plans that is fundamentally flawed. A sick mind comes up with sick ideas, and unfortunately some of these ideas will come to pass without proper education and awareness of those who can make a difference.
Has the Yates case helped the public understand postpartum mood disorders? Yes, I think it has. When I was pregnant with my first child, postpartum illnesses were discussed for maybe five minutes in my Lamaze class. These days, there are wonderful organizations such as postpartumprogress.com and jennyslight.org that educate and provide a helping hand to moms and families caught in the unfair viselike grip of "mother nature's cruelest joke." Would we be as vocal about these issues if it weren't for Noah, John, Paul, Luke and Mary Yates? Probably not. Do we still have a long way to go on erasing stigmas and promoting postpartum wellness? Unfortunately, yes. It takes a long time for the collective attitudes of a society to change, but I think we're getting there one step at a time. It is my fervent hope that there will never be another Andrea Yates.
Rest in Peace
Noah Jacob Yates 2/26/94-6/20/01
John Samuel Yates 12/15/95-6/20/01
Paul Abraham Yates 9/13/97-6/20/01
Luke David Yates 2/15/99-6/20/01
Mary Deborah Yates 11/30/00-6/20/01