On madness, motherhood and murder, victimization and villainy

March 07, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Unless you live in northern Texas, you might have missed the story. The dateline was Throckmorton, and it was only a paragraph long. A father killed his three children as he was returning them from a custodial visit to their mother.

The deaths of Corie, Casey and Chase Smallwood didn't make the evening news. There are no debates on whether their father, James, was sane.

No one will ask whether he deserves the death penalty for shooting his children -- because he administered that penalty to himself.

I noticed this murder only because way south of Throckmorton, in Houston, a mother is on a trial. Andrea Pia Yates has kept the country horrified and tuned in ever since June, when she methodically drew a bath, drowned her five children and then wrapped four of them as if she were performing a final bedtime ritual.

Because she is a mother who murdered, the story is news. Because she is a mother, People magazine has made her their "celebrity" cover girl, asking the question, "Villain or Victim?" Because she is a woman who committed filicide, we've had a debate that goes to the heart of our prejudices. But not necessarily to the head.

When the murders of Noah, Paul, Luke, John and Mary were first reported, there were some who saw in Andrea Yates a desperate glimpse of every exhausted mother who ever snapped.

There were activists who saw her as a chance to bring postpartum depression and psychosis into the public dialogue.

On the other side, opponents defined any Yates sympathizer as a collaborator. They dismissed postpartum psychosis as a feminist "Twinkie defense," an excuse abuse, and maybe even a way to categorize motherhood itself as madness.

I was not entirely surprised that this murder got so mixed up with cultural messages about mothering. The perfectionist who home-baked cakes, home-made costumes and home-schooled her children told the psychiatrists, "My children were not righteous. I let them stumble."

Death, she implied, was her last chance to protect them from the fires of hell.

The motherhood grid she placed over this case was enough to justify the gender argument.

And then there was the opening statement of her lawyer, who told the jury that postpartum psychosis "takes the very nature and essence of motherhood -- to nurture, to protect and to love -- and changes the reality."

The makings of a mommy case were everywhere. Perfect love, protection, nurturance are "natural."

The failure to be the perfect mother to produce perfect children is proof of the devil.

There is the cultural narrative that portrays a mother as a lioness protecting her cubs.

The story of a Susan Smith rolling her seat-belted kids into the water or an Andrea Yates drowning them in their own bathtub remains "unbelievable" no matter how often it's repeated.

"Mad" is a word with two meanings in our language. It means insane and it means angry.

When we hear the word "mad" associated with fathers who kill, we think anger, violence, the profile cast over estranged husband James Smallwood.

When we hear the word "mad" associated with mothers, we think -- admit it -- of the phrase a psychologist uttered about Ms. Yates: "What woman in her right mind would want to kill her babies?"

Do we all assume too easily that mothers must be insane, not willfully violent? Do we, on the other hand, deny too easily the idea that a father who kills may not be in "his right mind?"

To get to the head, not the heart, of the Yates case, we have to step back and strip away the stereotypes and prejudices and nevertheless recognize: When you take away the "postpartum," you are still left with "psychosis."

With recurrent bouts of mental illness, with the voice of Satan in her ear and suicide in her thoughts, with treatments cut short and chemistry gone awry, Ms. Yates was insane by any definition -- except perhaps that of Texas law.

So, in Texas, where sanity rests solely on the ability to know right from wrong, there are stark choices. Innocent by reason of insanity or guilty. Guilty with a life sentence or guilty with a death sentence.

Andrea Yates, villain or victim? Why not both? This mother and murderer is guilty and insane. She is a killer and a psychotic.

It is popular to wrestle with fantasies of motherhood. But we need to wrestle with madness and the law. Five people died in this family. And five is enough.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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