At the time of her infamous crime, Andrea Yates was a devout Christian, devoted wife, and dedicated mother of five biblically named children--Mary, Luke, Paul, John and Noah-- ages 6 months to 7 years old. She had given up her career as a nurse, deciding, with her husband's support, to be a full-time mother and to home-school her children. All seemed to be going fine at first. But after the birth of her first child began her gradual descent into hell.
Andrea became increasingly sad and despondent. The birth of each of her subsequent four children exacerbated her symptoms, and she was eventually diagnosed with postpartum depression. She felt convinced she was a terrible mother, deserving of punishment. "I think the Devil's in me," she confided to her brother. Fearing that her children "weren't developing correctly," she started to have thoughts about killing them to save their mortal souls: "They were not righteous," she felt, and would surely burn in hell if she did not terminate their still young, innocent lives.
Andrea concluded that her murderous thoughts toward her children must be from Satan, that she had been possessed by the devil. She made several suicide attempts in a desperate, instinctive attempt to protect the children from herself. Psychiatric treatment--consisting primarily of various combinations of antidepressant and anti-psychotic drugs with brief cognitive therapy-- provided some tenuous stabilization. However, when her father died, Andrea's condition deteriorated, resulting in hospitalization and a new diagnosis of schizophrenia.
On June 20, 2001, Yates fulfilled her filicidal fantasy: Left alone at home with her children while her husband Rusty was at work, she systematically forced each of her offspring face down into a bathtub filled with water, one after the other, holding their heads beneath the surface as they struggled vainly for life, until each had died of deliberate drowning. She then dialed 911.
In jail, Yates was once again psychiatrically evaluated, bipolar disorder being the latest diagnosis. Charged with multiple murder, she went to trial in 2002, pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. As in the vast majority (75%) of cases invoking the insanity defense, she was found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. But Dr. Park Dietz--a famous forensic psychiatrist and expert witness for the prosecution who opined that Yates was not legally insane and therefore responsible for her evil deeds--told the jury what later turned out to be an untruth regarding her likely motivation. The conviction was promptly appealed and overturned in 2005. In her second trial, Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Now 40, she remains confined to a locked psychiatric facility.
What possessed Yates to kill her own children? Motivations vary from case to case. ( I presented another recent case of filicide by drowning in a previous post.) On one hand, she suggests she was moved by love: To spare her children "eternal damnation," she had to save their souls by ending their lives. This implies she believed she was doing good, not evil. On the other hand, she told police in her confession: "I realized that it was time to be punished...for not being a good mother," and that she did what she did because she wanted the criminal justice system to punish her. This sounds like she knew what she was doing was illegal, evil or wrong, clearly understanding and desiring the negative consequences.
Yates, a perfectionist with a long history of bulimia, evidently suffered from pathological guilt regarding herself and her performance as a mother, and masochistically sought castigation. But whether or not she fully comprehended the quality and nature of her deeds and believed her behavior to be wrong at the time the crime was committed--the fundamental litmus test of legal insanity--where did these seemingly unthinkable thoughts come from? From whence springs such evil?
When asked why she had killed her own children, she allegedly stated it was "because I didn't want them tormented by Satan like I was." "It's something I was told to do...to kill them," she said, speaking of the devil. "I felt like he was inside me giving me directions...about harming my children." Was Yates possessed? And if so, by what? If she believed it was the Devil egging her on, why then did she do his evil bidding?
It is not unusual for religious or spiritual individuals to deny or repress the daimonic: sexual, angry, aggressive, hostile or other impulsions or feelings they themselves deem evil. Psychologically speaking, such disowned cognitions and unacceptable affects are symbolized by the idea or image of the devil or Satan. Whatever our religious inclinations, we are all to some extent culturally conditioned to feel that these primitive impulses are "negative," shameful, and antithetical to goodness or spirituality. In extreme cases, over time, these denied impulses strengthen and can no longer be repressed. At that point the psychological defense mechanism called projection kicks in: now the person is shamefully aware of these evil, nasty, profane feelings, but attributes them to the influence of some nefarious external agency such as the CIA, extraterrestrials, demons or the devil. He or she feels driven and controlled by these infernal forces, sometimes being urged by a voice (command hallucination) or compelled, despite moral resistance, by evil entities to carry out uncharacteristic, bizarre or even diabolical behaviors. These are extraordinarily dangerous states of mind.
I suspect Yates felt overwhelmed and resentful about her family responsibilities, but unable to admit it--even to herself. Was that chronic denial a misguided and finally catastrophic effort to be a "good Christian," a good wife, teacher, and mother? This is precisely the problem of what C.G. Jung termed the shadow: those morally ambiguous aspects of ourselves we deem unacceptable or evil, and dissociate. A classic (and highly cautionary) tale of the dangers of denying our shadow is Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Could Yates' repressed shadow--her dissociated Mrs. Hyde-- have been acted out in this heinous crime? Was it the shadow that made her do it? The devil? Demonic possession? Or was it, as mainstream psychiatry dogmatically maintains, aberrant biochemistry that made her mad, post-partum depression, a "broken brain" and raging hormonal imbalance to blame for her evil deeds? How can we make sense of such senseless acts? How much responsibility must we bear for "negative" feelings, thoughts, impulsions, and dealing with them? Could ongoing intensive psychotherapy and closer monitoring have foreseen and possibly prevented this tragedy? Or was this evil inevitable? Complicated questions. You be the jury.