New book clears the air about an unspeakable crime

Family Matters

February 15, 2004|By Susan Reimer

ON THE MORNING OF June 20, 2001, shortly after her husband, Rusty, left for his job at NASA in Houston, Andrea Yates drew a tub full of water in the guest bathroom and, one by one, held her five children face down in the water until they stopped struggling and drowned.

She carefully placed the bodies of John, Paul, Luke and 6-month-old Mary on a bed and covered them with a sheet. The oldest, 7-year-old Noah, was the last to die. He put up a fight, and his body was left floating in the tub.

Calmly, Andrea Yates called 911 and asked for a policeman to come to the house. Then she called her husband and told him he needed to come home.

"Is anybody hurt?" Rusty Yates asked in panic.

"Yes," Andrea answered.

"Who?"

"The kids."

"Which ones?" Rusty asked.

"All of them," she answered.

Thus did one of the most unspeakable crimes, committed by a woman of unfathomable mental illness, unfold. It is the subject of a new book by journalist Suzanne O'Malley, Are You There Alone?, a haunting title taken from the question the 911 dispatcher asked when trying to determine what in heaven's name had happened to the woman on the other end of the phone.

The murder of her children by Andrea Yates began a national debate that continues and is the cornerstone of the appeal that will be filed this month by her attorneys.

On one side are those, including the woman district attorney who prosecuted her, who believed that Andrea Yates should be executed. That, by her own confession, she knew what she was doing when she killed her children.

On the other side are her supporters, who wanted to know just how crazy you have to be to get a a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Andrea Yates had tried to kill herself twice. She had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems four times.

She was regularly catatonic. She hallucinated. She said Satan was inside her and the only way to save her children from him was to pack them off to heaven.

Today, Andrea Yates drifts in and out of her mind in Rusk Penitentiary in Texas. She is serving a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in 2041, when she is 77.

Her husband, Rusty, at first vilified as an uptight engineer whose religious fundamentalism required Andrea to mass-produce children for whom she was too ill to care, never misses the twice-monthly visits he is allowed.

O'Malley, who believes that Andrea Yates is the victim of a bungling and insensitive mental-health system, doomed by an equally insensitive criminal- justice system, is a player in her own narrative.

Andrea Yates was saved from a possible death-penalty sentence when O'Malley was able to prove, with just minutes to spare, that a key prosecution witness had lied: There had never been an episode of Law & Order -- Andrea's favorite television show -- that had depicted a mother claiming postpartum depression after murdering her children. The witness said Yates had been inspired by the show.

O'Malley's detailed recounting of Andrea's mental-health records dispels the early theory that she killed her children while suffering from a bad case of the baby blues.

And her book also corrects the widely held impression that her husband bent her to his will until, like a dry twig, she snapped. Instead, hospital records show what a tireless and devoted nurse he was to her and what an advocate he was for her against an uncaring mental-health system.

His only mistake may have been -- and he admits this -- introducing her to the itinerant preacher whose pronouncements about sinful Mother Eve may have caused Andrea to believe she had to kill her children to save them.

The book also makes it clear that Rusty Yates knew how ill his wife was, and lived in constant fear that Andrea would try to harm herself again.

He brought his mother to town to watch over her and, in fact, Dora Yates was minutes from the house when Andrea made the 911 call.

"I just never thought she'd hurt the children," he says.

Rusty moved into an apartment and put the family home up for sale, but not before his brother smashed that fateful bathtub into bits.

Rusty visits Andrea every two weeks at Rusk, where she appears to drift between psychosis and mania. Once a month, he is allowed to be in the same room with her, and he holds her hands and talks softly to her.

He has established a Web site, yateskids.org, with pictures of the children, in an effort to draw attention to the mental health of women, made complex by the flood of hormones that accompanies child-bearing.

He isn't dating and he can't think about divorce, he said in news reports that accompanied the publication of the book, but he said he is "excruciatingly lonely."

He holds out hope that a successful appeal will mean that Andrea is placed in the kind of psychiatric hospital that can help her get well.

But he fears that, too. He doesn't know how a mentally healthy Andrea could live with what she has done.

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