The Andrea Yates verdict is insane

A mentally ill mother is guilty of little more than extraordinary need and dangerous fragility, and both are beyond her control.

Published March 14, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

As a jury in Texas begins to consider the fate of Andrea Yates, the mentally ill mother who killed her five children in the belief that she would rescue them from Satan's grasp, a jury of film industry types is about to consider the fate of "A Beautiful Mind," and actor Russell Crowe, who played the role of mentally ill mathematician John Nash. The Texas jury will decide whether Yates should be executed for her psychotic behavior; later this month, the Hollywood jury will decide whether Crowe deserves an Academy Award for his convincing portrayal of psychotic behavior.

The film itself is something of a mess, but Crowe's depiction of a person experiencing schizophrenic psychosis is relatively accurate. In a dreadful parallel to the Yates case, the Crowe film even features one harrowing scene having to do with a baby in a bathtub, and though the child is placed in jeopardy due to neglect rather than intent, it illustrates the ease with which a psychotic person can behave in a manner completely counter to their most basic, parental instincts.

Millions of people who saw "A Beautiful Mind" were convinced by Crowe's performance that Nash really did see people who weren't there, really talked to them, really did believe that he was involved in some kind of elaborate code-breaking plot that required him to make surreptitious package drops. They witnessed Nash going to bizarre lengths to do what he thought was right for his country -- and they believed that he was crazy.

And yet, 12 people on a jury in Texas would not believe that Andrea Yates reached a state of mental disintegration so severe that she became convinced that by killing her children she was saving them from eternal damnation. Texas law allows a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity only if the jurors believe that the defendant is insane and incapable of knowing right from wrong. But what if Yates was so insane that she thought drowning her children was right? What if she believed in her delusional panic that, as testimony in her trial showed, it would be wrong not to drown them?

To reach the conclusion that Yates was insane at the time of the murders, even by Texas standards, it is necessary to understand insanity. We have to believe that a mother in the grips of psychosis can kill her children as an act of charity. We have to believe it in the same way that we believe that John Nash, in "A Beautiful Mind," is the victim of a frightening illness that is so powerful it dominates his every action -- in his mind, for the good of his country -- and, among other things, puts his child's life at risk.

Of course, the Yates case is real and "A Beautiful Mind," while loosely based on actual events, is a movie that takes place in that same location -- the movie screen -- that we find "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter" and "The Phantom Menace." But I am also convinced that the failure to believe that Yates is innocent has more to do with how poorly most people understand mental illness and the power and vividness of its symptoms. The Yates verdict provides a glimpse of an almost medieval view of insanity and the insane, a view that unfortunately persists in the present.

To someone in the grip of madness, the unreal, the nonexistent -- whether seen or heard -- can be utterly real, compelling and irresistibly forceful. Hallucinations become integrated into the delusional person's world so that what is actual and authentic, good or bad, right or wrong differs radically, even diametrically, to what a mentally stable person knows to be true. This is something I understand from firsthand experience: Over the decades, I've watched people I've known and loved descend into psychosis. And though those events are long past, yesterday's verdict in the Yates murder trial has refreshed my knowledge of the fractured mind and of how people in the throes of mental illness are seen and treated in our society. I know that the experience of the psychotic person is something that, for the mentally healthy person, is almost impossible to grasp. Yet I believe that those who cannot imagine the hell of psychosis have to try, especially when such a person's life is in their hands.

Here is one example among many of how I received my education in the surreal world of mental illness: One day more than 25 years ago, I got a phone call informing me that someone I'd been close to all my life (and still am) had the night before been committed to a psychiatric ward. She's a very bright, creative, independent person with a good sense of humor -- I'll call her Mary -- who had never been in a mental hospital or given any indication (beyond the momentary fits of craziness that all of us exhibit at one time or another) that she was likely to experience a psychotic break.

I drove to the hospital where Mary had been committed and was taken through a locked door to the psychiatric ward. Mary walked across the large lobby area to greet me. She was happy to see me, but seemed edgy; she was nervous about being touched or hugged. She had a ball about the size of a softball and she wanted to play catch with it. I suggested that instead we sit down at a table and talk. She agreed. We took seats across from each other and she proceeded to tell me what she'd been doing and thinking about for the last few days.

Here is part of what Mary believed that day with utter conviction: She was from a planet made entirely of metal (she asked me to remove my ring and wristwatch because of "the magnetism problem"). She could slip around in time and see things that were about to occur, moments before they took place. On the horizon she had seen the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb explosion. The U.S. Army was occupying her town; and she could only drink water that had been boiled "because of the radiation."

Mary's psychosis was short-lived -- about three weeks, and as psychoses go, her skewed perception of reality was not unusual. Many psychotics have even more extreme delusions, which can last years. John Nash comes to mind. So does Andrea Yates.

So how does a person demonstrating such extreme irrationality get by? In Yates' case, plodding through suicide attempts and breakdowns with few breaks in her stay-at-home mothering. Her husband, Russell, is often blamed for this, vilified as an unfeeling spouse who failed to deliver Andrea from a situation that was inflaming her illness. But I know, from experience, that we of ostensibly sound minds are poorly equipped when confronted with a broken one. Our first reactions are the usual: "This can't be," "This doesn't make sense," "Snap out of it," "Just calm down, everything is going to be OK." We deny, discount, gloss over, deflect, we try reason, in the wild hope that this person who we love, count on, need, will get better and not leave us.

In a way, you go through some of the same emotions you do during a car accident ("This isn't happening"), but extended over weeks and months. When the person going out of their mind is someone you love and depend on, such as Russell did Andrea, the need to believe that person will pull out of it, that they won't turn your world upside down, is overwhelming. Russell Yates made errors in judgment that will haunt him for the rest of his life, but his response to his wife's illness was -- to my experience -- absolutely ordinary and typical.

As we wait to hear whether Andrea Yates will be executed for her insanity, I wonder why she wasn't saved from herself, treated like a victim and allowed to get well, before the morning of June 20. Maybe now that we have seen (once again) the horror that comes from untreated psychosis, we will learn to deal with it humanely -- if only out of self-interest.

But for those who wish to see Yates die or wither away in prison, I'll say this: Part of what a person learns as they get close to psychosis and begin to understand the life of these tortured minds is that there is no punishment greater for the psychotic than psychosis. A death sentence for Andrea Yates will be as redundant as it is unjust: Yates' life, like her children's, is already over. A prison sentence is equally superfluous: In or out of a tiny cell, Yates was long ago sent to a prison more hellish than anything the state of Texas can build.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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