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Crime Scene

Suzanne O'Malley, the author of Are You There Alone? The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates, talks about mental illness, postpartum psychosis, and Rusty Yates.

By April 2004Comments

On the morning of June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates, 36, sat down for breakfast with her five children, Noah, John, Paul, Luke, and Mary. Andrea’s husband had just left their modest suburban home outside Houston for his job as a computer engineer at NASA; her mother-in-law would soon arrive at the house to baby-sit the five children, ages six months to seven years. Time, Andrea felt, was running out.

Instead of clearing the cereal bowls from the dining table, Andrea drew a bath in the guest bathroom of her Clear Lake home. Within the next hour, she would methodically drown all five of her children. She then called 911 to demand that the police come to her home, but refused to explain why. The operator asked Andrea a question that would later echo throughout a Harris County courtroom: “Are you there alone?”

These chilling words supplied the title for a new book by investigative reporter Suzanne O’Malley, Are You There Alone? The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates. O’Malley, who was raised in Texas, spent two years covering the aftermath of the Andrea Yates tragedy. Here, she discusses Andrea Yates’s battle with mental illness and her deterioration into a state of postpartum psychosis, plus the inevitable legal struggle that followed her appalling crime.

texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to write a book about Andrea Yates?

Suzanne O’Malley: I had no intention of writing a book about her when I set out as a reporter, and investing two years in this project didn’t even occur to me. But as I spent more time following Andrea Yates through the legal system, I was bothered by how few facts about the case were being revealed to the public despite an unprecedented volume of press coverage. A gag order, imposed almost immediately upon all the case witnesses by the presiding judge, had caused an information drought during the trial. Even after the verdict was delivered, many facts remained untold. I wanted to share what I had learned through my time in the courtroom because people were still interested in Andrea’s story, and rightfully so—it involves the struggle between good and evil, and how we as a society are going to deal with that struggle.

texasmonthly.com: After Andrea Yates’s imprisonment, you spent fourteen months corresponding with her through letters—you are one of the only reporters to gain access to her from behind bars. Why do you think she decided to talk, and what does she want people to know?

SO: Andrea has had very little awareness or access to information about how her family has been portrayed by the media. Especially during the trial, she had no idea what kinds of information, and misinformation, were being published. Now, as she gains more awareness, she wants the opportunity to counter this negative image of her family that has been so prevalent in the press. She wants people to know that prior to the tragedy, her five children had a happy home life and that they all loved one another. She wants to set the record straight for her husband, Rusty, for his family, and for her own mother and family, all of whom have been affected by her crime.

texasmonthly.com: Your book details Andrea Yates’s long history of mental illness, suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and professional psychiatric care prior to the murders of her children. You also suggest that some crucial mistakes were made in her diagnosis and treatment—can you talk a little about what you think went wrong?

SO: There were many factors, small and large, that led up to the tragedy. The fact that Andrea was not diagnosed completely, or even accurately, by her doctors in the years before the murders is a big factor. It’s understandable, since the diagnoses of brain diseases in general and neuro-hormonal diseases in particular are art as much as science at this point. The current consensus is that Andrea was suffering from postpartum psychosis, brought on by the births of her last two children, at the time of the murders. Also, it is now thought that she has a baseline bipolar condition where she vacillates between maniacal behavior and severe depression, though this diagnosis wasn’t made until Andrea had been in prison for a year.

Prior to the murders, Andrea’s psychiatrist was treating her for major depression, not for a bipolar disorder. The medication she was taking in the days before she murdered her children was a mixture of Remeron and Effexor, the drug combo doctors sometimes call rocket fuel because of its powerful ability to boost people out of depression. But if you happen to be bipolar, as Andrea Yates is, rocket fuel can boost you into an incredible mania. Doctors have told me that they’ve seen bipolar patients on rocket fuel throw desks across the room and pull radiators out of walls. Suddenly the mystery of how a woman could drown five children in less than an hour is solved.

texasmonthly.com: How did the prosecution prove that Andrea Yates was sane at the time she murdered her children?

SO: For a defendant to plead insanity in Texas, the person must not know the act is wrong at the time of commission. Andrea’s delusion was that she needed to kill her children while they were young because she was a bad mother and her negative influence upon them would prevent them from ever going to heaven. Therefore, she would sacrifice their lives here on earth, and perhaps her own eternal life with God, so that her children could be in heaven. Implicit in her reasoning is that she knew murder was wrong in the eyes of the Bible and the law, and this fact ultimately made her ineligible for an insanity plea, although professional psychiatric witnesses on both sides testified that she was possibly delusional at the time of the crime and suffered from severe mental illness—one psychiatrist even went so far as to describe Andrea Yates as one of the five sickest patients she had ever treated, and she had treated six thousand patients throughout the course of her career.

texasmonthly.com: Can you remind us what the verdict was, and what sentence Andrea received?

SO: In March of 2002, Andrea Yates was found guilty on three counts of capital murder. She was only tried on three counts—for the deaths of Luke, John, and Mary—because the prosecution wanted to preserve its option to prosecute the other two counts in case they could not get a conviction the first time around. Andrea was sentenced to life in prison; she narrowly escaped the death penalty because during the sentencing period, it came out that a key witness for the state had erred in his testimony. Wisely, in light of that information, the prosecution pulled back on its call to give Andrea death, and sent messages to the jury, I think, that giving her life in prison would be just fine.

texasmonthly.com: Now that the criminal trial is over, what are your reflections on the way the Andrea Yates case was handled by the state?

SO: At some point, it occurred to me that one million dollars was a lot of public money to spend on a trial for Andrea Yates. On both sides, prosecution and defense, countless expert witnesses were paid to decide whether Andrea was legally sane at the time she committed the crime. How many expert witnesses do we need to argue over a definition? If you add up the public cost of the criminal trial, the cost of the forthcoming appeals process, and the cost to keep someone in prison for life, you begin to question the logic; perhaps it would have been more economical and humane for the district attorney to say, “Let’s accept a plea and put Andrea Yates in a secure mental health facility, maybe for the rest of her life. Let’s skip the media circus and the million dollar trial.”

texasmonthly.com: Do you think the Andrea Yates trial would have turned out differently in another state? How does Texas compare with other states in terms of laws on mentally ill defendants and insanity pleas?

SO: Without making any judgment as to whether I agree with the way the case was tried, I think Andrea Yates’s conviction and life sentence would’ve been the same in a majority of states. The laws here are nearly identical to sanity definitions in more than half of the states. I think the jurors took their task very seriously, I think they deliberated hard and well, and I think it was a tough case.

texasmonthly.com: Rusty Yates, Andrea’s husband, was a rather easy target for the media in the period immediately following the crime; on paper, he looked like an ignorant man who had barricaded his mentally ill wife in their suburban home, forcing her to give birth to his five children against her will. This was, more or less, your opinion of him when you went down to Houston—but something made you change your mind. What did you find out about him, and why the change of heart?

SO: What made me change my mind about Rusty Yates was a two-thousand-page stack of medical records. Within those records were accounts from physicians and nurses who had treated Andrea Yates, and the medical records were very consistent: During Andrea’s four hospitalizations prior to the murders, Rusty visited his wife every chance he got, and his dedication is recorded right there in black and white—nurses described him arriving with flowers for Andrea, or calling at midnight to ask how his wife was doing. Sometimes, he brought the five children to visit their mother in the hospital. I am a mother, and I know what it’s like to take a child to a hospital, let alone five at once. Just getting them dressed and strapping them into their seatbelts is quite an accomplishment. So it became clear to me that Rusty was not the ignorant, insensitive husband who had deserted his wife in her time of need, but rather a normal man struggling with his wife’s illness.

texasmonthly.com: I know you spent many hours interviewing Rusty Yates; based on what he told you, how does he view his wife’s horrific act?

SO: Your question reminds me of a particular experience I shared with Rusty Yates: I was with him the day of the Columbia shuttle disaster; he and I were driving to visit Andrea at Rusk Penitentiary when the shuttle broke up over Texas. By the time we arrived at Rusk, pieces of the shuttle were falling on the building’s metal roof. Rusty, as irony would have it, is a NASA computer engineer, and shuttle safety systems are part of his job. To me, the shuttle’s explosion that day embodied the unexpected, catastrophic collapse of his world. I think he came to view the demise of his family in the same way he saw the shuttle disaster—both were these impossibly terrible, disastrous accidents, and no one really knew how they could’ve happened. For Rusty, safety is what he does for a living, and he tried to run his family that way, but despite his efforts, his life was struck by this shocking, unbelievable tragedy.

texasmonthly.com: Why do you think the public and the media reacted to the Yates murders the way they did?

SO: I think we need to blame the Yates family rather than think of Andrea’s crime as the product of a severe mental disorder. As long as we can find some isolated factor or some bad guy to blame, then it distances us from that kind of horror. We want to be reassured that something so tragic and incomprehensible couldn’t happen to our families, and I think that’s an understandable, human response to such grim circumstances. But the truth is, the statistics don’t lie, and one or two out of every one thousand women will suffer from postpartum psychosis. It’s a real medical emergency that threatens the lives of both the mother and her children. In the final analysis, if any one thing had gone right, those children would still be alive today and the Yates family would be living in anonymity; had the doctor decided to change Andrea’s medication, had Rusty overslept that morning, this might not have happened.

Resources

The Mental Health Association of Greater Houston http://www.mhahouston.org

Postpartum Resource Center of Texas http://www.texaspostpartum.org

Postpartum Support International

http://www.postpartum.net

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