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Andrea Yates--Not a Women's Issue

Explaining the modern Medea is beyond the powers of feminism and psychiatry.

11:00 PM, Mar 13, 2002 • By DAVID SKINNER
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ON JUNE 20, 2001, Andrea Pia Yates killed her five young children and set off a wildly huge news story. As the whole English-speaking world surely knows by now, Mrs. Yates and her defenders claimed she had murdered her children during a psychotic episode of postpartum depression. On Tuesday a Texas jury rejected her plea of innocent by reason of insanity, convicting her of murder and capping several months of loud public debate.

Until then, one could hear (as I did more than a couple of times) intelligent women point to the case as a key development for raising public awareness of a serious women's health issue. Which was puzzling. Just as puzzling is why the murders became so big a story to begin with.

Am I suggesting the attention was disproportionate to the horror of the crime? Not at all, but it wasn't the horror of the crime that caused most of the attention. Don't believe me? If you run a Nexis search on the name of Andrea Yates for the three weeks after the murders, it will be interrupted for exceeding a maximum yield of 1,000 stories. Do a search on Adair Garcia for the last three weeks and you'll get only 54 stories.

Why in the world should these two numbers be comparable? Because three weeks ago, on February 21, Adair Garcia, a 30-year-old father of six living near Los Angeles, was arrested for murdering his five children, ages 2 to 10. "Apparently despondent over marital troubles," he "allegedly lighted a charcoal grill . . . in the living room of the family's home," the Los Angeles Times reported. Thus did four of Garcia children die that day and a fifth the next day--all from asphyxiation.

In one or two ways, the Yates story is perhaps even more dramatic, but not much more. After drowning her children one by one in the bathtub, the 36-year-old mother of five called her husband to tell him to come home. She also called 911. When a police officer came to her door, Yates immediately confessed, saying "I killed my children." Also known within a day of the incident was the fact that Andrea Yates suffered from depression and was receiving psychological treatment including medication.

Still, any humane guesswork would suggest that two news stories, both about a parent murdering five of his/her children, would have something like an equal claim on the public's attention. But that hasn't been the case. A story about a father killing his children is a story of evil; shocking, but of temporary public interest. A story about a mother killing her children is a story about women and the ills female flesh is heir to; shocking, plus a matter of grave concern to men and women everywhere.

In part, this is the strange position in which feminism has left the public mind. Rather than distance themselves from killers like Andrea Yates, NOW and other feminist organizations embraced her and her homicide as proof of the problems of being female. Once upon a time feminists sought just ends like equal pay for equal work. Now anything that happens to any woman anywhere is a potential cause. Even the problems of female murderers are somehow within the purview of modern feminism.

Psychiatry, too, played a questionable role in the affair. Yates had attempted suicide twice and had been hospitalized for mental illness several times. After a suicide attempt in 1999, there had been a child services investigation, which had been called off because the mother was receiving care. But whatever was wrong with Andrea Yates was clearly beyond the reach of therapy or medication. Besides, it's sheer nonsense to say murder could have anything more than a passing association with depression. After all, millions of people suffer depression without committing murder. And plenty of mothers give birth without ever killing their offspring.

The jury seems to have convicted Yates precisely because neither the feminists nor the psychiatrists could capture what was going on in her mind when she killed her five children. In a sense that's not surprising. So horrible a deed takes both the activist and the shrink far beyond the boundaries of political injustices and everyday psychological problems. But their confusion about what constitutes a women's issue is our confusion too. We weren't ready to condemn what we'd been in the habit of excusing. And that is why the horrible news of Andrea Yates became a national scandal.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.