The politics of money and insanity

Readers respond to a Sept. 11 widow's anger at cartoonist Ted Rall, and to Douglas Cruickshank's criticism of the Andrea Yates verdict.

By Salon Staff

Published March 21, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Read "Wrath of a Terror Widow" by A.R. Torres

On Sept. 13, 2001, a friend of mine died. He was in his 30s, and left a wife and two children. He was in excellent physical shape, but while on his regular jog that morning, he collapsed and died. His death had nothing to do with terrorists. Would Torres have us believe that her loss is somehow more tragic, "worth" more, more important because she lost her husband to murderous terrorists?

If so, she falls right in line with the "terror widows" Rall satirizes in his comic strip.

Torres would have us believe that the millions of dollars in "gifts" are justified by the very public nature of her husband's death, and to a certain extent she may be correct. But she defeats her own argument: For someone who values the privacy of her loss and grieving as much as she says she does, she HAS written three rants on this very subject for Salon.

People die unexpectedly every day. They often leave behind spouses and children who are forced to make do financially, while grappling with their loss emotionally. Can Torres be so self-absorbed that she doesn't grasp this, can't understand why other people might construe "terror widows" as greedy media hogs? I doubt Rall means to assert that all terror widows and widowers are greedy, media-savvy opportunists, but he's got a strong case that some are. It's not Rall giving "terror widows" a bad name, but rather people like A.R. Torres, who DO court the media.

Torres has every right to be offended by Rall's comic, and I can't say that I wouldn't be, given her circumstances. But while many others might simply write a letter to the editor to complain, she published an article on a widely read Web site.

-- Paul Lorentz

I admit that I've become impatient with the popular media's tendency to confuse victims with heroes. It's easy to become cynical (although Rall's cartoon blasted past cynicism and landed on Just Plain Mean).

I want to thank Mrs. Torres for her honesty and for reminding me that, in the end, it really just comes down to people and pain and loss and overwhelming, crushing grief.

-- Marla Hill

Thanks to Ms. Torres for reminding us all that the Ted Rall cartoon, unfunny though it is, is eerily accurate. She doesn't seem to understand that the prospect of people who collect nothing from the government simply because they have already collected $1.6 million or more from other sources (not including charity, of course), is perfectly acceptable to many of those of us who are expected to pay for her for the rest of her life.

The death of a loved one is not supposed to be an economic opportunity to get as much as possible. It is only generosity, not obligation, which dictates that the families who suffered losses in the WTC tragedy should be assisted by taxpayers. To see the generosity met with requests for more is galling.

Many people die every day in a wide variety of tragic circumstances -- does Ms. Torres also believe that society cheats the families of those whose loved ones are killed by drunk drivers simply because the federal government is not instantly on hand with multimillion-dollar tax-free checks? As much as I sympathize with the WTC families, I do not sympathize with their expectation that someone else is responsible for solving their tragic problems.

Essentially, the world is a rough place. People die unjustly. Usually, their loved ones get nothing. Almost never do they get $1 million-plus checks in compensation. Ask the families of the 300,000 heroes who gave their lives in defense of the U.S. during World War II how many became millionaires as a result of the injustice perpetrated on their loved ones by enemies of our nation. I'll wager that the answer is zero.

-- Josha

I hope Salon realizes what an amazing woman they have in A.R. Torres. Her three commentaries here have moved me in ways that so many other writers have failed to do. She is so real and so honest. I feel thankful that she chooses to write and share her emotions and experiences with the readers of Salon. After I read her commentaries, I often find myself thinking about her, her child and her husband throughout the day. Please let her know how often I pray for and think of her.

-- Leigh White

Ms. Torres, it seems to me you deliberately and disingenuously misinterpret Rall's cartoon as an attack on the grief of all 9/11 victims' families. Clearly, Rall is making a distinction between ordinary, private, personal grief and the public, gaudy, self-serving, in-your-face variety of some -- I repeat some -- of the 9/11 widows.

This latter postmodernist style of grieving (after all, it's a mark of sophistication to make a buck and bolster your ego as you heal, don't you know) is unfortunately becoming all too ubiquitous in Warholian, celebrity-drenched 21st century America, and it's high time that someone stepped up to pillory it. If you want your grief to be sacrosanct and unimpeachable, Ms. Torres, then do not undermine or muddy it with self-promotion, self-aggrandizement or self-enrichment (I trust you're making a fair piece of dough for your pieces) or even the appearance of such.

And if you and your fellows do choose to chase public attention for yourselves, then no, you can not expect us to "concede that [your] experiences in the last six months can not be characterized by those who have not had them too." In seeking out public pity (and compensation), you leave yourself open to public criticism. That's how celebrity works, and just because you're grieving as you chase your 15 minutes doesn't mean you get a free pass.

And furthermore, every day countless thousands experience the shock and grief of abruptly losing a loved one under tragic (if far more banal) circumstances, and their loss and pain is none the less for the fact that a sensation-hungry press does not eagerly clamor for the chance to trumpet it to the world or to privilege it as special. In that, count yourself lucky, Ms. Torres; most of these mundane, conventionally grief-stricken folks (and we can include the Oklahoma City families here) never receive any financial compensation (much less public support) for their suffering. Do you see why that might make it a tad difficult for some of us to accord your shrill anger over having to wait for, and pay taxes on, your $1.6 million payout the respect you demand?

-- Sandeep Kaushik

Read "The Andrea Yates Verdict Is Insane" by Douglas Cruickshank

I agree with Mr. Cruickshank completely. Those who have never experienced psychosis have no idea how to deal with it in others. They don't understand how much the human mind manufactures reality, and how little one can do if their mind is not manufacturing the same reality as everyone else. We all live inside our own brains, and when the health of that organ goes south, we are capable of believing anything we are able to conceive. And there is no limit to what the human mind can conceive. It's pointless to punish a psychotic, as Mr. Cruickshank says, because they are already living helplessly in a world built solely of the most terrifying ideas they can conjure up.

I think anyone who has had a very bad trip on psychedelics can relate to this, as I can. I understand how pointless, and possibly counterproductive, people's demands that you "just snap out of it" are. The only thing one can think under those circumstances is "No, YOU snap out of it!" It's confusing and scary beyond anything simple language can express. By its very nature, it is the worst experience possible.

But I was lucky. My serious break from reality only lasted a few hours. I don't want to even think of what I could have been capable of had it lasted months or years, as it did with Mrs. Yates.

This woman's supporters shot themselves in the foot with their feminist yammering and "postpartum depression" talk. Their insistence that "it could have been anyone" was way off. Andrea Yates isn't a normal woman turned murderer through the oppression of evil males and the black magic of hormones. She's a very sick woman living in another universe where killing one's kids is the right thing to do. Judging her on the same grounds as someone like you or I is more than just unfair. It's irrelevant.

-- Aaron Batty

"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." This final assertion is cute and trite and true only in a virtual sense. The bare fact remains that Andrea Yates murdered her five children. The prison of psychosis she lived in did nothing to prevent her from harming them.

Should psychotics receive medical treatment? Of course, and Andrea Yates had been receiving medication. One can argue about its effectiveness and the competence of her doctors, but she's the one who waited until she was alone, placed the plug in the tub, filled it with water and then methodically held her children submerged until they were dead, dead, dead, dead, dead. And then she called 911.

Did she think what she did was morally right? Perhaps. Did she know what she did was legally wrong? Her actions before and after proved it.

-- Anson Kennedy

I am rather closer to mental illness than you ("sanity" and "insanity" are legal terms, not medical terms and have no necessary overlap with a diagnosis of mental illness), having suffered from clinical depression for 19 years: severe clinical depression with, at times, psychosis; visual and aural hallucinations with long bouts of actions that were actively harmful to myself. At no time did I ever not know that slicing my arm with broken glass, drinking heavily or overdosing on pills was wrong or somehow bad for me. I merely didn't care. At some point in the progression of my illness, it becomes "reasonable" to do things I know are wrong because they seem less painful than alternatives. But I still know they are wrong, irrational, harmful, even potentially deadly.

Since every manifestation of mental illness is its own little oasis of tics and foibles, at first it might be possible to argue that Yates perhaps thought she was killing something other than her children. But her own words contradict that. She knew she was killing her kids. She also knew that such an act was wrong. End of case, for her. Allowing mental illness as an excuse for non-responsibility is fine if it is pertinent. It is not in this case.

More to the point is not her guilt, but the complicity of, primarily, her husband and the indifference of the medical community that allowed her to be in a situation where she could act upon the irrational impulses of an ill mind with no checks or balances. Her husband should be tried and sentenced as an accomplice to the five acts of murder she perpetrated and a thorough peer review with possible censure and stripping of license should be given to every doctor recently involved in her case.

Were she truly unable to tell the difference between right and wrong, such a worldview would have been obvious to her husband long before the murders she committed. If she were able to tell the difference but in so much pain that she no longer cared, that also would be obvious to even a nodding acquaintance.

-- Rob Perry

I felt compelled to tell my story after hearing the Andrea Yates story and now her guilty verdict. I have two children now, Alyssa who is 3 and a new baby boy, Jacob, who is 3 months. I fell into postpartum depression after the birth of both of my children, and more significantly after my second child. It took me by complete surprise when I started feeling the way that I did after having Alyssa. I cried endlessly, I didn't eat, I dropped 30 pounds in about two weeks, I wanted her to go away. I thought this was supposed to be the happiest time of my life, or so that's what it is assumed to be.

I am even an obstetrical nurse in labor and delivery and was so unaware of the debilitating nature of postpartum depression. We never addressed it in our discharge instructions at the hospitals I worked in, so I really never gave it much thought. The hospital I delivered both my children at did not address baby blues or postpartum depression either. It is an uncontrollable disease and until you have experienced it to the degree that I and many other women have you will never understand it or understand the very dark place that Andrea Yates was.

It took a lot of support and medication for me to get better and I still struggle with varying degrees of depression. I had a tubal ligation done six weeks after my second child was born because I knew if I had any more children I may have succumbed to the place that Andrea Yates was at. I think instead of a guilty verdict and time in prison she should have been found insane and got the psychiatric and mental help that she needed. I can guarantee that none of the female jury members on that panel have ever experienced postpartum depression because if they had their verdict may have been different.

-- Penny Stueber

I think this article entirely misses the point of the insanity defense argument. While many people might dismiss the terrible power of mental illness, I am not one of them. I have seen very healthy, intelligent people flip between madness and sanity. No doubt Andrea Yates was completely out of touch with reality when she murdered her children -- do you suppose she did it for the insurance money? The issue is how to treat such people when they commit a crime. I, for one, believe mentally ill persons should be treated precisely as everyone else.

People suffering from an illness should receive treatment -- people who commit crimes should be in jail. If someone suffering from an illness commits a crime, they should receive treatment -- in jail. A crime of this magnitude -- like Yates, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc. -- requires people to be removed from society for a long time. Does the author envision Andrea Yates walking out of a hospital in a few years, saying, "I know I murdered my own children, but I'm all better now. Let me get married again, have more kids, I promise to give a ring if I feel psychotic ..."?

-- Dennis Stevens

Three (three!) articles berating the Andrea Yates verdict. I know that everyone at this online paper is a raging liberal, but don't you think it's informative to offer both sides of the argument? A jury, predominantly made up of women, found Yates guilty. Furthermore, there are plenty of Americans that believe the verdict was just. Discuss both sides of the issue and Salon stands a chance of becoming a little more engaging to the reader.

-- Tom Andresen

Thank you so much for your editorial on the Andrea Yates verdict. Most people easily dismiss mental illness because it's too frightening to recognize that one day your brain could actually betray you.

-- Denise Brauer, Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study, UCSD

OK, so I here sit, one of the few people in Texas who does not support the death penalty. The reason I don't support it is very Texan, though. I don't trust the government to do it. Not one bit. Then this case comes along. A woman who kills her five children, claims mental illness. I don't want her to die. I don't want anyone to die at the hand of the government. The verdict comes out. She is found guilty, is facing the death penalty. Suddenly, I am fine with that. Why? A point made in this story: A black man who committed the same crime would be convicted, without regard.

It comes down to this: Wrong is wrong, even if you are without your faculties at the time of the crime. This woman knew right from wrong. She took several minutes to kill each child, and then calmly called the police and told them she killed her children. If she didn't think it was wrong, what is she doing calling the authorities? I don't want her to die, though. Lock her up for good. Even if she was insane, certain deeds must be punished. That is justice. Justice is not always pleasant. But don't kill her. Don't kill anyone. I don't trust the government with my tax dollars, I don't trust them with my private information, so I sure don't trust them with the ultimate punishment which is without reversal on appeal.

Andrea Yates is guilty of the highest degree of murder. She snuffed five innocent lives. I don't care if she had postpartum depression. Wrong is wrong, even in those circumstances.

-- Jeff Holsinger

Salon Staff

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