There are worse things than being crazy, but few things are worse than drowning your five children in the family bathtub. This is the world of Andrea Yates, and the fateful day when religion met madness.
It was a crime that rivaled even the 9/11 tragedy for news headlines. On June 20, 2001, Andrea filled the family bathtub with cold water, and systematically drowned the five children she bore her husband, Rusty: Noah, age 7; John, age 6; Paul, age 4; Luke age 3; and little Mary, who was 6 months old. Noah was the last to die. He came into the bathroom and saw Mary floating in the tub. He ran, but mom caught him, dragged him into the bathroom, and submerged him right next to Mary. Noah fought for his life, breaking water twice. The second time he gasped, “I’m sorry Mommy.” Andrea shoved him back under until he spoke no more.
It was a tragic end of a beautiful young family. Rusty and Andrea loved each other, and they loved their children. Both were sincerely religious. Both believed in having all the babies God wanted them to have. But after 3 births and one miscarriage, Andrea started unraveling. In 1999, four months after Paul was born, Andrea began to believe the children would be saved (eternally) if she killed herself. She overdosed on Trazodone, a sleeping medication, but survived.
The following month, July, Andrea looked into the bathroom mirror and saw someone else’s face, surrounded by darkness. Rusty found her with a knife against her throat. He wrestled it away from her and got Andrea hospitalized. The only medication that helped her was Haldol, an old line anti-psychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia. Andrea was discharged from the hospital with a prescription for Haldol, and a warning not to have any more children.
Andrea’s doctor believed she had severe post-partum depression with psychotic thinking, and that having more children could cause Andrea’s illness to recur, or worsen. It is interesting that Andrea’s doctor treated post-partum depression with an antipsychotic medication instead of an anti-depressant.
Andrea didn’t like taking medications, and she wanted to have more babies. For a time she seemed to return to her old self, even without the medications. Andrea was a bright, pretty woman who was her high school classes’ valedictorian. She was a competitive swimmer. Then she became a nurse and worked on the cancer ward for eight years. She was a gifted woman who loved helping others, loved God, and most of all, loved being a mother.
The Yates’ fifth child, Mary, was born in November 2000. Three months later Andrea’s father died . The hormonal changes and the death of a very close family member triggered a spin into psychosis. Andrea believed the media placed surveillance cameras in her home to document her failed attempts at motherhood. She started getting messages from the television accusing her of being a failure.
Convinced the numbers 666 were branded on her scalp, Andrea picked at her head, causing open sores and large scabs. Rusty took Andrea back to the hospital, where she was prescribed anti-depressants. They didn’t help. Rusty took Andrea back to the hospital in May of 2001. Again, no help. By now Rusty and his mother were doing heavy lifting to keep the family afloat, and to monitor Andrea, whom they feared would again attempt suicide. No one, absolutely no one, ever dreamed she would harm her children.
On the fateful morning, Rusty left for work after arranging for his mother to come over to help Andrea in one hour. As Rusty drove off, Andrea immediately acted on a plan she had hatched the night before. She filled the tub with cold water and drowned the children in the one hour gap she had to herself. She wrapped each corpse in a white sheet and laid them side by side on the bed. Andrea called the police and said: “I just killed my kids.” Then she called Rusty and said the same thing, adding: “I am Satan.”
Andrea was convinced all her children had character defects severe enough to doom them to hell. She blamed her poor parenting for this. In order to save the children from hell she killed them, in the belief they had not yet gotten bad enough for God to reject them. In Andrea’s mind, it was a mercy killing.
Reaction to the Yates’ murders was intense. There was an unusual amount of sympathy for Andrea, considering she murdered five children. Others thought Andrea should be shown the same compassion she showed her children, and suffer the same fate she imposed upon them.
Rusty became a lightning rod for criticism. He was portrayed as an ignorant religious red neck bent on keeping his wife pregnant and in the kitchen until she dropped. It was said he forced his family to live in a dilapidated trailer, and exposed Andrea to the religious extremism that eventually led her to murder. He was called cold, aloof, detached, even “goofy.”
At her first trial in 2002, over 2,000 pages of medical testimony revealed that Rusty Yates had consistently been Andrea’s only advocate in a mental health system that by turns misdiagnosed, mis-prescribed, and mistreated Andrea’s illness. One of many absurdities occurred when Andrea was repeatedly forced to go chemical dependency groups, even though she abhorred alcohol and drugs, and never used either. Rusty visited Andrea every day. When she refused to eat, hospital staff would call Rusty, who made a special trip to get Andrea to eat. He was the only one she would take nourishment for. Andrea’s inpatient psychiatrist was unreservedly positive about Rusty’s efforts to help his wife. The doctor described Andrea as “one of the sickest persons I’ve ever treated.”
Rusty battled to get Andrea on Haldol, then advocated for it again when she was hospitalized just prior to the murders. But Andrea’s psychiatrist put her on anti-depressants, which didn’t touch Andrea’s psychotic thinking, and titrated her off Haldol, the only medication that seemed to help Andrea. A month later her children were dead. The mental health system completely failed the Yates family.
As for the extreme living conditions and religious views Rusty allegedly forced on Andrea, the truth of the matter was that Andrea was always the more extremely religious of the two. Rusty was a committed Christian, but Andrea was more fervently emotional about their faith. The two were sincere, well meaning Protestants who took portions of the bible quite literally.
Their sincerity led them to follow a charismatic preacher named Michael Woroniecki. Andrea’s emotional attachment to her faith made her an easy convert to Woroniecki’s fiery brand of Christianity. The Yates’ ended up following their leader to a trailer park. Then Rusty, a professional engineer with NASA, got fed up with the situation and moved his family away. In particular, he distanced his wife from Woroniecki’s spell. It was Andrea, not Rusty, who kept in touch with the preacher after the Yates family had moved on.
Rusty and Andrea were viewed as religious extremists for not using birth control, and for home schooling their children. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of parents who travel the same road as Rusty and Andrea. Many of them succeed in having large families and protecting their children from what they consider the negative aspects of American culture: rampant materialism and consumerism, political and cultural norms antagonistic to Christianity, and the soft porn images and sensibilities so commonplace on television and the Internet.
Many of these families take heroic measures to follow what they believe to be God’s will, and many of them succeed. Is it an unusual path alien to secular sensibilities? Most definitely. Whether it is good or bad, however, is a matter of opinion. More than a few secular media pundits who ordinarily applaud the different and unusual seemed surprisingly intolerant of the Yates’ Christianity.
In retrospect, homeschooling for Andrea Yates was a well intentioned but dire mistake. Mother and school master in one, she had no one to blame a child’s bad behavior or bad grades on except herself. Homeschooling also increased her – and her family’s – social isolation. But it was not religion that killed the Yates children. It was Andrea’s mental illness: a demon inside her that twisted every small episode she had with her children into an apocalyptic failure; an implacable spirit that magnified her children’s flaws into unforgivable sins; and who distorted a loving God into a cruel and relentless judge whom Andrea could never please, only make amends to.
The final amends were sacrificing her children before she tainted them so badly that God sent them to hell. The Yates’ Christian faith did not cause the murders; but neither did their religious faith, or the great sacrifices they made for God, prevent the terrible murders from happening.
Rusty consistently refused to blame his wife for murdering their children, saying it was her mental illness that caused the murders. Did he miss his children? Desperately. Did he forgive Andrea? Absolutely, said Rusty, not only in 2001, but ever since.
In 2002 Andrea Yates was tried for capital murder with a possible death penalty. The prosecution’s star witness was the celebrity expert psychiatrist Park Dietz. Dietz claimed Andrea was a cunning villain who deliberately copied her murders to match a Law And Order episode where a woman drowned her children and got away with murder by pleading the insanity defense. So forceful was his opinion that the jury found Andrea sane and convicted her of murder. Only later was it discovered that there was no Law And Order episode like the one Dietz described. Here was yet another instance of the mental health system not having the slightest clue about what was wrong with Andrea. Malpractice anyone?
When Dietz’s fabrication was discovered a new trial was ordered in 2006. Andrea was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity. She was sent to a mental hospital north of San Antonio, Texas, where she is likely to reside for the rest of her life.
2006 was also the year Rusty Yates remarried, reportedly with Andrea’s blessing.
On March 20, 2008, Rusty Yates became a father again when his second wife, Laura, bore a son they named Mark.
Rusty still e-mails and phones Andrea. Their relationship has retained a genuine, mutual fondness – and a genuine mutual grief – that has survived the deaths of their five children and a remarriage. While Rusty has forgiven Andrea, she has not forgiven herself. “She cries a lot,” Rusty said. “She doesn’t understand how I can forgive her.” Andrea is finally on some medications that effectively treat her delusions. This raises a question. Which is more painful for Andrea Yates – reality or madness? Facing her crimes in the cold light of day, one wonders if she ever longs for the darkness of insanity to shroud the death of her family.
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After the murders, Houston benefactors set up a $50,000 Yates Children Memorial Fund (YCMF) devoted to women’s mental health education. In 2003 Texas lawmakers enacted the “Andrea Yates bill”, requiring doctors to inform pregnant and post-partum women of related mental illnesses, including not just depression, but psychosis related to or arising from depression.
Are You There Alone? The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates, by Suzanne O’Malley, Simon & Schuster, 2004.