(WOMENSENEWS)–Other mothers have killed their children since the Andrea Yates tragedy hit the headlines in June 2001, but they don’t always make news beyond a local area.
I’ve encountered one such emergency scene myself. One day last October, I was visiting friends in San Francisco and happened to be near Pier 7 when screaming sirens stopped traffic. A psychotic young mother had just quietly thrown her three children into the cold water of the bay. The three boys–6 years, 2 years and 1 year–died. Their mother, Lashuan Harris, began her long journey through the legal system; so far she has been arraigned and ordered to stand trial.
These mother-murders abound: a U.S. mother kills her child at the rate of once every three days, according to legal scholar Michelle Oberman at Santa Clara University in California. Nevertheless, the extremes of the Yates case continue to draw attention: five children, two prior suicide attempts and a smiling, well-employed husband who expected the whole family to live in a bus.
"I could pretty much predict that Mrs. Yates would have another episode of psychosis," testified psychiatrist Eileen Starbranch in Houston during Yates’ second trial. The first trial ended with a murder conviction that was overturned on appeal because of false testimony by a prosecution witness. Starbranch treated Yates after her overdoses with sleeping pills in June and July, 1999, and warned her and her husband not to have any more children.
How did Andrea Yates move from a seemingly happy bride in published photos to a killer? As her second trial plays out, it’s clear that there were three steps in her metamorphosis: an oppressive marriage, repeated childbirths and mismanagement of mental illness.
Andrea and Russell Yates came under the sway of an itinerant evangelist who said that a woman not obedient to her husband was a "contentious witch" like Eve, seen as having argued with Adam and cursed the future of the human race. As the demands on Yates increased, she fell short and judged herself harshly.
Psychologist Harriet Lerner says that when a woman "does more giving in and going along than is her share" and loses control over her choices, she enters a "de-selfed position."
Repeated childbirths further weakened Yates physically and mentally, and her family history suggests a predisposition to certain mental disorders. Abrupt changes in her medications in the weeks and days prior to the killings may have been the final trigger. Yates became convinced that Satan was within her; she deserved execution, but her children could still go to heaven if sent while they were still innocent.
As in the Yates case, most mother-murders are caused by social isolation and despair, sometimes accompanied by mental illness, according to the research of Oberman.
An E-Mail About Escape
Last week I received an e-mail from a woman who escaped from a situation that, while crucially different from Yates’ in some ways, was also very similar. She allowed me to share the essential facts of her situation while changing her name to protect her privacy.
Sarah contacted me because of an article I wrote four years ago pointing out the role of conservative Christian churches in empowering abusive husbands. She happened to find it while searching the Internet and reached me through the Web site of Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.
"I was married to a conservative Christian husband and we had five children," Sarah wrote. "I left a social work career to stay at home and home-school my children." Yates also gave up her work as a registered nurse and home-schooled her children, as required by her husband.
"I then spiraled down to a dark and dangerous place emotionally," Sarah continued. "I felt every day that I was not a good mother. I was never good enough. Every pregnancy brought more health problems. By the fourth child, I would pass out from low blood sugar while the babies would be unattended. This makes me shiver now." She now recognizes that she was suffering from untreated clinical depression.
Unlike Andrea Yates, Sarah managed to get out of this predicament. She decided to go to graduate school and earn a master’s in social work. (What a choice; grad school with five young children would have been enough to drive me to desperation.)
Sarah had another method of moving out of the "de-selfed position." She had a few affairs. Unable to speak up for herself, she unconsciously started to end her marriage by becoming sexually involved elsewhere. "I wanted to make a statement to my husband," she writes.
The result was a divorce in which her ex got custody of her five children. Sarah has regrets, but she and her children are all alive and well today. She has a satisfying job. "Going to graduate school was the best decision that I made. I moved up professionally pretty quickly," she reports.
Sarah misses her children and still struggles with depression, but it is controlled with medication. Though Andrea’s diagnosis of post-partum psychosis was much more serious than Sarah’s depression, their family profiles were remarkably similar.
Sarah’s recovery proves that there are ways of helping troubled mothers who are isolated and under pressure.
First, help women regain their sense of self, their voices and power over their own choices. Family therapy can help accomplish this. Some child-free activity outside the house can also be a life-saver. As in Sarah’s case, a job or further education can be key.
Second, prevent further childbirth. Don’t add the post-partum element to a depression or other mental illness.
Third, activate community responsibility when the warning light of possible psychosis is present. Doctors must not only warn but follow up. Is medicine taken? Is birth control being used? In addition, the church must be prevented from pressuring fragile women into additional childbirths. Any church that forbids contraception must be told: "This woman may die. Her children’s lives are at stake."
Finding Our Roles
All of us can find a place in this important work. Pro-choice organizations need our energy and financial support. Doctors and mental health agencies need to move from a hands-off stance that stresses patient rights to a position of engagement with the community surrounding a patient.
Those of us in faith communities need to take on fundamentalist groups denying choice to women, as well as the oppressive reproductive policies of the Roman Catholic Church.
The San Francisco drownings illustrate an often overlooked aspect of the problem: the fixation on patients’ rights that tends to keep children in the home of a troubled parent. In many cases preserving parental custody may be good, but when family members see signs of danger alarm bells should go off. When Lashuan Harris stopped taking her Haldol, a medication for schizophrenia, the children’s grandmother attempted to gain partial custody but was refused, according to a family member. "They said she was sane, that they couldn’t do anything," Joyce Harris, aunt of the children’s mother, told the San Francisco Chronicle last October.
The issues are complex, but there are things that all of us can do for troubled mothers. Churches, clinicians, friends, families and pro-choice activists can defuse the pressures that entrapped Andrea Yates and Lashuan Harris.
Anne Eggebroten is a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at University of California, Los Angeles. Her pro-choice book "Abortion–My Choice, God’s Grace: Christian Women Tell Their Stories" (New Paradigm, 1994) is available online or in bookstores.
For more information:
Harriet Lerner, "The Dance of Anger"
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus:
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