30 JUNE 2001, Page 18


Bien-pensant Americans are arguing that infanticide is an understandable by-product

of a stressful lifestyle, writes Mark Steyn

New Hampshire WHAT do you have to do to get a bad press these days? Last week, by her own admission, Andrea Yates of Houston killed all five of her children. Not in a burst of gunfire, but by methodically drowning them all in the bathtub. Anyone who's tried to give an unwanted hair-wash to a kid will appreciate the effort involved in holding five struggling youngsters under water. The oldest, sevenyear-old Noah, was the last to die. He wandered into the room and saw his baby sister lying lifeless in the water. 'What's wrong with Mary?' he asked. 'Get in the tub,' his mother said. He understood. He ran, for his life. But she caught him and dragged him back to the bathroom, and forced him under, legs kicking, arms flailing. He was old enough to know, as he looked up into her eyes and fought against the weight of her hands, that his own mother was killing him.

It is obvious that what we're dealing with here is a sickness. Not Mrs Yates's, but the rest of the nation's. The husband, Rusty, set the tone. He was 'standing by her'. 'I'm supportive of her,' he said. 'The woman here is not the woman who killed my children. ... That wasn't her; she wasn't in her right frame of mind.' You can say that again. In fairness to Mr Yates, as he gave his press conference on the front lawn and showed off the happy family snapshots to interviewers, he was either in a state of shock — he'd lost his kids, he didn't want to lose his wife as well — or he was covering his ass. Andrea had been not just on antidepressants but also on Haldol, a very strong antipsychotic drug. To be just the teensy-weensiest judgmental about these things, if your wife's on Haldol, you probably shouldn't leave her at home all day every day, alone with five children under the age of seven. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out, though by forlorn coincidence Mr Yates is: he's a computer expert at Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston. According to Officer Frank Stumpo, who found the bodies, the house was filthy. Mr Yates was used to the mess: offered a drink of water by Officer Stumpo, he said he doubted that the cop could find a clean glass. But he evidently didn't think the domestic chaos portended anything more significant.

And, once he'd given the thumbs up to stick by the rnissus, everything else fell into place. Andrea's family insisted she'd always been a wonderful mother until the 'postpartum depression' thing got out of hand. The usual mound of memorial teddy bears piled up on the lawn. Mr Yates joined other 'supporters' in a candlelit vigil outside the house. And the media scrambled for their rolodexes to get hold of the experts. It turns out that the expert on postpartum depression is Marie Osmond. As in Donny and Marie. Miss Osmond apparently is the author of Behind the Smile: My Journey Out of Postpartum Depression. After the birth of her seventh child in 1999, Marie felt depressed, walked out on her kids, realised she was ill, got her life back under control and published a book about it — all in less than two years? Appearing with Katie Couric on NBC's Today Show, Miss Osmond was full of insights into the afflictions of Andrea Yates. 'She loved her children, she was a caring woman,' said Marie. 'How else could you explain something like this. . . ? The fact is, Katie, you know, men come home to the wife, not the house; children come home to the mother, not the toys. . .. We're just expected to do all of it nowadays, and I think by trying to do all of it, I think stress could be a big factor — lifestyles, diet, nutrition... . '

The trick with this kind of story — some nobody kills some other nobodies — is to expand it from the particular to the general, to figure out what the big picture is — or, more crudely put, what's in it for me. For Ted Kennedy, it's about the Patients' Bill of Rights' that he's trying to get through the Senate. At a press conference for his Bill, he played up the topical angle: 'We've all been reminded in this country, in these 24 hours, like never before, about the challenges of depression,' he announced, 'and what it means not only for an individual, but what it means in terms of families.' Ted's Bill isn't really about patients or doctors, but about lawyers and insurers. A couple of days before she killed the kids, Andrea was taken off Haldol. Maybe she killed 'em because she was taken off the medication. Or maybe she killed 'em because it was the wrong medication in the first place. Who cares? Under Ted's Bill, the Andreas of this world would be able to sue their insurers for prescribing and/or not prescribing the right and/or wrong medicine. That way Andrea could collect millions, move to another state, maybe start a new family. This is Senator Kennedy's response to 'the challenges of depression': more lawsuits. Of course, if this Bill becomes law, health insurance will get more expensive and a lot more women won't be on any medication at all, which along with lifestyles, diet, nutrition, etc. will only add to the stress.

If one in ten women suffers from postpartum depression, and one in a thousand suffers from postpartum psychosis, and presumably only a further tiny fraction thereof fall into a psychotic state sufficiently prolonged to enable them painstakingly to dispatch five children, that doesn't mean the 99.99 per cent of women unafflicted by Mrs Yates's condition don't know what she's going through: indeed, on the distaff side of the punditocracy, there's been a positive stampede to shriek 'Been there, almost done that'. Newsweek's Anna Quindlen knew what it was like to be 'tired' and 'hot' after she'd 'been up all night throwing sheets into the washer because the smaller of her two boys has projectile vomiting'. 'She could have been me. Or you. Or your wife,' pronounced Susan Kushner Resnick of Salon. 'She didn't want to kill her children. No sane person would.' But motherhood'll do that to you — whether you go out to work or stay at home. If you're a working woman, you're riddled with guilt because the right-wing sexists keep telling you you're neglecting the kids. On the other hand, if you stay at home, you go nuts like Andrea. It's a tragedy — not that the children died, but that it took their deaths to draw attention to the pressures mothers are under.

As they say in her husband's line of work, Houston, we have a problem. Not Andrea Yates's problem, but a much wider one. 'Postpartum depression' certainly exists, though whether in most instances it's just a fancy name for an entirely natural discombobulation by a life-changing event is another matter. Mental illness isn't like physical illness: there are no scientifically measurable pathogens behind the symptoms. If you notice a blemish on your arm, it might be melanoma, or a lesion indicative of Aids, or a mild cliscolouration because you fell off your bicycle the other day. But at some point the objective cause of the blemish will be known. By contrast, with mental illness the symptoms are mostly self-defining: you hunted your sevenyear-old through the house, pulled him back to the bathroom and drowned him? Must be postpartum psychosis. `No sane person' would kill her children. You killed your children. Therefore, you're not sane.

In his book The Untamed Tongue, Thomas Szasz wrote. 'What people nowadays call mental illness, especially in a legal context, is not a fact, but a strategy; not a condition, but a policy; in short, it is not a disease that the alleged patient has, but a decision which those who call him mentally ill make about how to act toward him.'

That's well put. As Brian Doherty noted in Reason magazine, mental illness 'is primarily used in our culture for either imprisoning the innocent (for treatment in mental hospitals) or exculpating the guilty (through the insanity defence)'. In the old days, the incarceration of the innocent predominated; nowadays, in an almost complete turnaround, the principal societal use of mental illness is to exonerate the guilty. Human action is gradually being medicalised — to the degree that a harassed housewife and a multiple killer are merely points on the same continuum. Or as Newsweek headlined Anna Quindlen's column, Playing God On No Sleep. Isn't Motherhood Grand? Do You Want The Real Answer Or The Official Hallmark-Card Version?'

Okay, you want the real answer? By comparison with the lives of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, women today enjoy a peachy Hallmark greeting-card version of motherhood. Even Anna Quindlen. Why, she was 'throwing sheets in the washer'! A century ago, there would have been no washer to throw 'em into, and fewer sheets. And she wouldn't have had a mere two boys, but thrice that number. I pluck at random from the genealogies of my reasonably typical Yankee town: 'She was the mother of ten children: Kerzia, Mindwell, Theoda, Abigail, John, Oliver, Sylvanus, Sarah. Elizabeth and Moody.' And don't bleat on about how in those days there was a far greater support structure of extended family to share the burden. 'She had 34 grandchildren and 41 great-grandchildren' — so even if gran'ma devoted a modern working week entirely to her grandchildren, they'd still get only an hour apiece. Au contraire, aside from the ten kids, the Anna Quindlens of the 1800s would most likely have had an aged relative or two living at home and adding to their burdens — some 14 people living in a New England farmhouse that today's realtors would advertise as a 'three-bedroom home'.

True, in those days women didn't have the dreary chore of shopping: instead of loading the trunk once a week at Price-Chopper, they had to grow it all at home. And the work they had to do wasn't a little light telephone sales or Newsweek punditry but brutal and back-breaking and unending — which is why so many of the worn, grey-haired rural wives in early photographs prove on close examination of the dates to be in their early thirties. In the 20th century, the refrigerator, dishwasher et al. so transformed the average woman's life that by the Fifties she was sitting in a house in the 'burbs bored and unfulfilled. So then women started going out to work. And, though life's a bitch with the job and the school-run and collecting 'em from daycare and picking up takeout at the drive-thru on the way home, the average woman cares for fewer kids and fewer aged demanding relatives, has more mechanical assistance and more mobility, and does less physical labour and housework than any generation in human history.

But boomer narcissism knows no bounds. So, for the new generation of sob sisters, infanticide is an understandable byproduct of the burdens of contemporary lifestyle. And, if we're all guilty, then no one is. Conversely, if we're all insane, then no one is, except the last poor boob who insists on standing up in court and taking personal responsibility for his actions — like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, whose insistence that he be tried as a sane man was taken as conclusive proof of his insanity: after all, you'd have to be insane not to plead insanity, right?

So it goes with Andrea and her lawyer, who's upbeat about her prospects of beating the rap. She's being tried for quintuple homicide: she killed five people, consecutively, and then called her husband at the office to invite him back to take a look. Suppose she is 'ill'. She still did something truly evil, for which others in Texas would be executed, and it's hard to see why she should be exempted from that possibility simply because she's the mother of the victims. If she was as loving a mother as her family claim, she would, now the alleged psychotic raptus has passed, accept the enormity of her crimes and plead guilty, period. But instead she's working out her strategy with counsel, because in the end it's all about her, isn't it? And, in that sense at least, the solidarity of the scrupulously non-judgmental columnists is genuine: call it a sisterhood of self-indulgence.