She was such a familiar woman—a quiet, thoughtful, suburban mother with dark brown eyes and a generous smile on her good days. She was a devout Christian who read Bible stories to her five children. She constructed Indian costumes for them from grocery sacks. She gave them homemade valentines on Valentine’s Day with personalized coupons promising them free hugs and other treats. She was so protective of her brood that on trips to the grocery store, she had each of her four boys hold on to a corner of the grocery cart while her infant daughter sat in a car seat in the basket. On June 20 she decided she had had enough. Andrea Yates, 36 years old, called the police and asked them to come to the family’s one-story, Spanish-style house in Clear Lake, southeast of Houston. She led the officers past the plaque in the living room that read “Blessed Are the Children” and took them to a back bedroom where four of the Yates children lay shoulder to shoulder, their eyes wide open. In a calm voice she described how she had filled up her bathtub with water, then held the children, one by one, under the water until their little bodies had stopped squirming. The only one who had given her a problem, she noted, was seven-year-old Noah, who had tried to flee when he saw her drowning his baby sister, Mary. But she had caught him, brought him back to the tub, and then held him under the water until he could hold his breath no longer.
“Why?” the police detectives asked her. “Why?” She stared off into the distance. She was a bad mother, she said, and she felt that the children were disabled and not developing normally.
And so she decided to send them to God. She gave each of her children a baptism, then laid them out on the bed (except for Noah, who was left in the bathtub) like perfect little Christian saints.
And that, in three short paragraphs, sums up one of the most sickening and yet mesmerizing murder stories in modern Texas history. Even now, more than a month since the drownings, people cannot stop talking about Andrea Yates. The attempt to answer the question of why she did it has become a small industry in this country. So far, her deed has been blamed on her post-partum depression after the birth of her fifth child, her fundamentalist religious beliefs, her doctors, her husband, who supposedly didn’t do enough for her, her extended family, who could have helped her more during her times of stress, and her suburban neighbors, who apparently were too consumed with their lives to notice what was going on in hers. What’s just as astonishing is the way Andrea Yates has triggered feelings of—and there’s no other way to say this—sympathy. The most striking event that took place in the immediate aftermath of the murders was not the impromptu press conference held by Andrea’s husband, Russell, the 36-year-old NASA computer scientist who appeared to be completely in shock as he held a photo of his family and spoke in a dazed voice about his family being normal. It was the mothers, some of whom brought their children, who came to the Yateses’ home to stand behind the police tape. Occasionally they darted underneath the tape to leave stuffed animals, bouquets, potted plants, poems, and letters beside a tree. One unsigned letter to Russell Yates began, “I am a stay at home mother of 3. I also suffer from depression and take medicine. I pray for strength for you and your wife and family. It’s a day to day struggle for me and my husband and family.” One woman told reporters that she too had suffered from post-partum depression after her son was born. “Thankfully I got help,” she said. “I never got to the point of killing him but … I know how it is. She basically lost herself.”
Just seven weeks before the drownings, there had been another horrific case of a parent murdering a child in Texas. A well-heeled Dallas accountant named John Battaglia was arrested for shooting his two young daughters to death while their mother, his ex-wife, listened over the telephone. He too had an emotional disorder. Yet he was quickly dismissed by almost everyone I talked to as another deranged, abusive man who should be sent off to death row as quickly as possible. Men who go mad do not interest us. But women who go mad are haunting—and when it came to Andrea Yates, the only person I could find in Houston who wanted her to go to death row was Dianne Clements, the president of a Houston victims-rights group called Justice for All, who said she was disturbed by the way Yates’s family and neighbors kept talking about what a lovely woman she was.
But there’s no denying that she was a lovely woman. Andrea Yates was not like Susan Smith, the young Union, South Carolina, mother who sent her car into a lake with her two sons locked inside because she had become involved in an adulterous affair with a man she thought would marry her only if her children were gone. Yates came with no baggage. She was the kind of young woman who went over to her parents’ house every day to take care of her father after he became afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. One neighbor recalled seeing a pregnant Andrea on a ladder decorating a Christmas tree, then running around her parents’ kitchen, trying to feed her parents and children as her own plate grew cold. “She was always trying to be such a good girl,” her mother would later tell a reporter from Newsweek. “She was the most compassionate of my children. Always thinking of other people, never of herself.”
And that is perhaps what struck a chord in so many women. Here was someone like themselves, alone in a house with