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Why the Andrea Yates case still breaks my heart

Reading this article about how Andrea Yates is (according to her best friend) doing a little better now reminds me why after all this time I still get irrationally pissed off reading articles like this.

[O]ver time, Yates, who home-schooled her children and once agreed with Rusty to move the family into a converted bus, has expressed doubt about whether her husband always supported her.

Her friends and family have maintained he did not.

In a letter written to Bob Holmes in September 2003, Yates wrote: “Maybe sometimes I do wear rose-colored glasses regarding my husband but I have to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’

“I’ll ask him what was I like when I was sick? ‘Oh, like you usually are, just quieter,’ ” Yates wrote.

“Little Mary couldn’t bear to look at me — she’d cry,” the note continued. “I’d hold her outward so she didn’t see my face. So heartbreaking and tragic.”

After signing the letter, she asked Bob Holmes in a postscript to show Rusty compassion. “He has lost so much,” she wrote.

“All the ‘factors’ that contributed to the tragedy are complex and it wastes energy to assign ‘blame’ (ultimately I was the one who did it) but Rusty and I have lost our beautiful children,” she wrote.


[She] is interested in the efforts of the Yates Children Memorial Fund for Women’s Mental Health Education. The fund was established by the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston. In a letter to Debbie Holmes written shortly after their Christmas weekend visit, Yates expressed a hunger for more information about a statewide symposium the association had in November.

Holmes said that over the past three years, she and her husband have tried to convince Yates that she was severely ill in the months leading up to the children’s deaths. She said Yates only vaguely recalls that period and has been wrought with guilt.

“I told her, ‘Your speech, your breathing, your hygiene, your walk, your talk, your approach to your kids, everything wasn’t normal. There was nothing normal about you,’ ” Holmes said.

John would raise his hand over his eyes when he would talk to his mother, and Mary often cried in her arms, Holmes recalled.

Those memories make Yates sad to think what her children’s lives were like during those months, Holmes said.

But they also have empowered Yates to think about ways she can help prevent similar tragedies for other families.

She and Yates have talked about collaborating on articles about her mental illness, and Yates would like to eventually speak out in favor of better treatment for the mentally ill, Holmes said.

Parnham said Yates has expressed the same desire to him.

“She’s beginning to appreciate the fact that her situation could be possibly used as a learning tool for women across the world who suffer from the same kind of mental illnesses,” he said.

“All of this is looking at the lives of those five children and realizing that they will forever be wasted unless something good can come out of what happened at 942 Beachcomber on June 20, 2001.”

In my more charitable moments, I try not to demonize Rusty Yates for his role in this tragedy. It’s not like he hasn’t suffered as well – these were his children, too, after all. But the bottom line is that what happened at 942 Beachcomber did not have to happen. Andrea Yates was suffering from a treatable condition. She needed medication, she needed the full support of family and friends, she needed time to herself, and most of all, for the entire time that she was suffering she needed to never be left alone with her children. It’s Rusty’s fault that she didn’t get these things, as he was her primary (and for many things, only) means of support. It was his decision to stop medicating Andrea so she could get pregnant with Mary. I’d bet it was his decision that Andrea homeschool the kids. Andrea may not have known she was falling apart, but if Debbie Holmes knew it, Rusty must have as well. He failed her, and in doing so he failed his children. However much he may have suffered for the consequences of his actions, and however much I may empathize with his suffering, that fact is inescapable. And I’m angry now just typing those words.

I’m glad that Andrea wants to make something good come out of this horror story. Whatever peace she can find she deserves. May she live to make a difference.

Elsewhere, on the legal status of things, Tom points to this overview by South Texas College of Law (that’s here in Houston, btw) professor Dru Stevenson. One nit I have to pick with Prof. Stevenson is that Andrea Yates did not have postpartum depression, she had the rarer and much more malevolent condition of postpartum psychosis.

Women experiencing a psychosis are at risk of committing suicide and, in very rare cases, of harming their unborn child or infants. These women need to be hospitalized for their safety and to safeguard their infants.

This is a psychiatric emergency and the woman needs to be hospitalized immediately. Because of her confusion the woman may not have the insight to recognize how ill she is, therefore, the decision for hospitalization will be made by her physician.

But only if her husband lets her see a physician.

UPDATE: The DMN’s Steve Blow boils the appeals court’s ruling down to a simple question: “How much false testimony is OK?” Via Alan D. Williams.

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  1. R. Alex says:

    One of my issues with the Rusty-bashing that frequently goes on is that assumption that Rusty himself is not mentally ill and that, even if he is, he’s absolutely more culpable than she is for his illness than she is for hers (in the same way that a man who kills his family and turns the gun on himself is not afforded the degree of sympathy that Ms. Yates has been from some quarters).

  2. Michael says:

    Andrea Yates was diagnosed with the kind of mental illness that had caused other women to attempt to kill their children. Rusty Yates was not.

    If he was mentally ill, then his culpability changes , as does my take on it.

    “Some Quarters” is sorta vague, though. She lost her family because she was sick and didn’t get the help she should have gotten, and then faced a death sentence because of it. He lost his family because his wife was sick and didn’t get taken care of. If he wasn’t mentally ill, then I’m not as sympathetic to him as to her.

  3. Ingrid says:

    I just read some background on this case and didn’t know that Andrea was valedictorian of her class in high school and a champion swimmer. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

  4. banjo jones says:

    Mrs. Yates’ treatment by the criminal justice system is outrageous. I agree completely with your sentiments.

  5. julia says:

    I have no charity for Rusty Yates. None.

    He got a preacher to browbeat his wife into giving up her medication and continue having children because it was What God Wanted. Rusty Yates wanted more children, so Andrea Yates had to give up her sanity.

    He could have gotten home help for her – he made a damn good salary for where they lived – but it was her job to take care of those children and of him 24/7 because, of course, that’s what God wanted. God, amazingly, came down on the side of Rusty Yates every time. That his wife wanted, or was capable of, he and his pet preacher told her was the influence of Satan.

    Then he dumped her on the courthouse steps because she wasn’t going to be around to keep the house and pop out more babies. Sickness, health, better and worse to the side, Rusty Yates wasn’t going to get his ashes hauled. He was dating shortly afterwards.

    The whole story just reeks of an inhuman (and ungodly) level of selfishness and a lack of empathy that borders on the pathological.

    I hope he meets his God. I suspect he won’t enjoy it.

  6. Patrick says:

    The whole story just reeks of an inhuman (and ungodly) level of selfishness and a lack of empathy that borders on the pathological.

    Yes, Julia and there is the rub. R. Alex points out something that gets lost in the shuffle – the potential mental illness of Rusty.

    The DSM IV offers this listing of characterristics when classifying Antisocial Personality Disorder. Clinical Symptoms for an Antisocial Personality Disorder Diagnosis

    1. Failure to conform to social norms; 2. Deceitfulness, manipulativeness; 3. Impulsivity, failure to plan ahead; 4. Irritability, aggressiveness; 5. Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others; 6. Consistent irresponsibility; 7. Lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person

    Any of those sound like what we have heard from Rusty Yates? I’m not a doctor, but I could certainly see instances of characteristics 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7. And FYI only 3 characteristcs need to be present to make a clinical APD diagnosis.

    So if Rusty is mentally ill would that change your opinion?

  7. ttrentham says:

    So, if your armchair diagnosis of Rusty is correct, where does that put us? Are you advocating that neither has a responsibility for what happened because they were both sick? Where does it end? Should the doctors involved have gone to CPS or some other government agency and mandated that they not be allowed to have Mary? Maybe, but I know I wouldn’t want someone else dictating my family. It’s a tough question.

    As an only partially-informed observer after the fact, it’s hard not to make judgements. That being said, I tend to lean on the side of blaming Rusty. Regardless of how well he fits the Antisocial Personality diagnosis, he had a responsibility to those kids and so did Andrea. Of course, if he really is antisocial, chances are the death of the kids won’t affect him as much will it? They both failed and the kids paid the price. Maybe they and we are all better off? How would they have turned out in a household like that?

    I’m constantly reminded of that scene in Parenthood where Keanu Reeves’ character, Tod, says “You know, Mrs. Buchman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car – hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”

    I hope Andrea gets more of a fair shake the second time around, but I don’t envy her having to go through another trial and having to relive what she did. I’ve got two kids. I know I couldn’t live with myself.

  8. Patrick says:

    ttrentham, I’m certainly not advocating that neither bears responsibility. They both bear some responsibilty for their actions, it becomes a question in my mind how much any mental illness, which has been definitely diagnosed on Andrea’s part and potentially exists on Rusty’s part, is a mitigating factor in the murder of the children. That I can’t answer. I haven’t followed this case as closely as some.

    What role should CPS have played? I don’t think you can make that leap that they shouldn’t have allowed them to have Mary. The more intermediate course of action, was should they have allowed them to retain custody of the boys? Hindsight says no, but I don’t fully know what facts were availabe to CPS.

    Now this is purely a hypothetical, but this is the part that intrests me the most.
    “That being said, I tend to lean on the side of blaming Rusty. Regardless of how well he fits the Antisocial Personality diagnosis, he had a responsibility to those kids and so did Andrea.

    Let me see if I understand correctly. You seem to allow that he may have been mentally ill, that he and Andrea both had a responsibility to the children, yet her disorder obviates her responsibility more than his. Huh? Why? Did he drown the children? No. Did he get his wife the help she needed? No. But likewise, did she get him the help he may have needed? No.

    What would make him more worthy of blame? I’ll address the elephant in the room…postpartum depression is a more sympathetic mental illness than antisocal personality disorders. Both will factor in the “Lifetime” movies of the week, but the mother suffering from PPD will be accorded a sympathetic treatment while the APD character will be the serial killer.

    I’ve seen people with both. My friend had a wonderful supportive wife who fell into a deep depression after the birth of their second child. He worked very hard to get her the care and support she needed, but in the end she left him and moved 6 time zones away with the kids. She continues to get therapy and the kids are doing well but despite her illness, as the mother she almost automatically got custody.

    Immediately after college I worked at a home for emotionally disturbed adolecents including some kids that were diagnosed with APD. They were very difficult to like…and they were very sick kids. But it was if their disorder which prevented them from showing compassion, had the effect on those around them. It was very difficult viscerally to show them compassion.

    Again, any illness on Rusty’s part is strictly a hypothetical and APD is considered by many as a “catch all” diagnosis for the criminally mentally ill. But if he is/was ill, let’s not rush to discount his illness as a factor in his actions while we simultaneously relieve Andrea of her culpability.

  9. Mathwiz says:

    Clinical Symptoms for an Antisocial Personality Disorder Diagnosis

    1. Failure to conform to social norms; 2. Deceitfulness, manipulativeness; 3. Impulsivity, failure to plan ahead; 4. Irritability, aggressiveness; 5. Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others; 6. Consistent irresponsibility; 7. Lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person

    I know this is OT, and maybe even a bit of a cheap shot, but when I read that, I couldn’t help but realize that someone else we all know fits every clause of that definition, except the first (he “passes” quite well, explaining his success in our society) to a T.

    OK, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let me weigh in on Rusty’s culpability:

    Rusty Yates … got a preacher to browbeat his wife into giving up her medication and continue having children because it was What God Wanted.

    Has it occured to anyone that the real villian here is Christian fundamentalism, and that Rusty was a victim of this pernicious philosophy as well?

    Yes, I know that fundamentalism (whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or what-have-you) is, er, “fundamentally” sexist, so it comports much more with Rusty’s desires than with Andrea’s. The point is, it was this belief system, shared by Rusty and Andrea, that allowed him to dominate her to the point where this tragedy occured. And neither Andrea’s parents nor anyone else could help, because they were all viewing the family’s problems from within the same fundamentalist box.

    When it comes down to it, this tragedy isn’t that different from the occasional cases of Christian Scientists who pray for their diabetic children rather than giving them insulin shots, with predictably disastrous results. We don’t let our religious tolerance trump common sense in such cases, and it shouldn’t in this case either.

    There’s plenty of blame to go around here, guys and gals. Rusty and Andrea deserve their shares, to be sure, but let’s not let the Talibaptists off the hook so easily.

  10. Point well taken about the incorrect diagnosis I mentioned in my post (I relied on other media reports, sorry) – although it does not necessarily change the legal test involved. I appreciate your precision.

    Nice blog, BTW. I’ll add you to my blogroll…

  11. julia says:

    You know, me, I’ll go with the guy who got the lady with this serious diagnosed mental illness to go off her meds because in order to stay sane, she had to stop having babies.

    The difference between the two is that Mrs. Yates was not capable of understanding the nature of her actions – he made damn sure of that – and Mr. Yates understood the nature of his actions, but he weighed his own interests on the other side of the scale and they seemed to him more weighty.

    Than his wife’s sanity.

    Than the lives of his children.

    Eventually, than the one-side view of christian marriage he threw those things away.

    There’s another half to that famous pauline phrase we keep hearing whipped out about wives submitting.

    Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. he who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

    There is no way that an honest man can interpret that passage to mean that he has the right to destroy his wife because he feels like it. Rusty Yates didn’t do what he did because he was a follower of Christ. Rusty Yates did what he did because he was a selfish bastard.

    That he found a preacher sympathetic to selfish bastard husbands astonishes me very little, but it doesn’t make either one christlike.

  12. Patrick says:

    Julia, I cannot disagree with anything you have written and the second half of Paul’s passage in Ephesians is oft conveniently overlooked but no less valid.

    I would only caution that we should not settle for easy answers to a complex question.

  13. Terry says:

    Five years ago today the Yates children were drowned. Thursday, the second trial begins. Yet we have gained nothing from this continuing tragedy!

    Mental illness and religion combined to seal the fate of the Yates children. Mrs. Yates murdered her five children while in their “innocent years” to prevent them from possibly burning in hell eternally. She did not learn this false theology from her diagnosed mental illnesses, she learned it from Christian churches! I have an email from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association stating that the children’s souls are presently in heaven with God. Congratulations Mrs. Yates, you succeeded!!

    Andrea will be extremely disappointed to learn that this theology is a myth! Anyone who ever supported or taught this theology is partially responsible for the deaths of Noah, John, Luke, Paul, and Mary Yates. This includes myself and I beg Mrs. Yates’ forgiveness. I cannot affect the psychiatric element, but my website debunks the immortal soul myth that all humans are born with immortality! Eternal life is the reward of the saved, not a birthright.

    No one, mentally ill or otherwise, should be able to successfully “justify” the murder of children through their religious theology. Sadly, twenty-four such murders are detailed on the Memorial Page of, several of which occurred after the Yates murders. It continues.

  14. Profiler says:

    The more I analyze this case the more I am convinced that Rusty is a sinister coward who was only controlling his wife.

    As being an Engineer, his characteristics are: Controlling, one track minded, calculating, and manipulative.

    My analyis on this case:

    Andrea Yates was a normal person prior to the marriage according to the reports.

    Rusty Yates had joined a cult. I am skeptical about the role that pastor of the church undertook. He could have been a sinister monster in sheep’s clothing. Was the pastor or Rusty mind controlling Ms. Yates? Why did she suddenly have visions of Satan? Who was she referring to indirectly? Was her husband or the pastor that she would retrieve unconsciously and calling them “Satan?”

    If Yates knew the bible well, she would never have killed her kids. Her faith would sustain any battle of the mind. Or did she deliberately kill them to punish her husband for the fear that she was losing her life and that if she died that her children would not be abandoned?

    Her husband had a stressful life as a NASA engineer. He is not dumb man. He is tactical and methodical in his plans. He did not support her and all the burden of the household was upon this woman. The children were afraid of her countenance and were running from her. She may have perceived it to be unruly, unrespectful, and may have harbored unconsciously anger toward her children’s behavior and her husband’s lack of concern.

    Why was Andrea Yates throwing the medications? That needs to be addressed.
    Was she afraid that the doctors were after her like her husband or the pastor?
    Did she suspect the medicines even?

    There is also a puzzle to this mystery. Andrea calls Rusty and said, “I did it.”
    She was not remorseful or afraid. What was she trying to implicate to her husband. His reply was, “which one?”
    She replies, “All of the children.”

    This conversation hit me the most. Let me act as devil’s advocate for a moment. Did they both plan on these murders? Did he know that she would snap one day and hurt the children? He should have known. Was he planning an escape from his responsibility as a husband and father?
    He may not have dreamed that she would hurt all of the children but knew she was going to hurt one of them.

    I do believe that Andrea Yates committed the crime knowingly. Her deep rooted fear culminated with stress and anger led to the murders of her children. After the murder she was relieved and was not afraid of the consequences. She said: “Satan left after the killings.”

    What surprises me is that normally people under such stress commit suicide. Only the manipulative ones love their lives and kill others.
    In other words, she loved her life and is not afraid of her soul but was afraid of her children’s soul damning to hell.

    I conclude that both husband and wife are to tried and convicted. Rusty is not a saint. He is a jakyl and hyde kind of a guy.