Senior Stories

The Insane Judgment of Andrea Yates

This column is my first in three years that isn’t about seniors. It isn’t even funny.

It’s about justice and Andrea Yates.

Although no one can possibly know exactly what was in this mother’s head when she systematically murdered her five children, I have traveled to the dark outskirts of that hell in which she found herself. I feel compelled to tell you what it was like for me.

Twenty-four years ago, I was trapped in a world of psychosis.

Unseen voices insisted that I kill my wife.

Often, I hallucinated, seeing traveling captions under Chicago’s TV news programs – a la CNN – instructing me to drive into a cement viaduct, to blow my head off with my 12-gauge shotgun, to pluck out my eye in accordance with the Christian injunction of Matt. 18:9.

I was, in a word, nuts. And possibly very dangerous.

I knew killing and suicide were wrong. Knowing that meant little during those times when every fiber of my being screamed that I must follow those demanding inner demons.

It was only by the grace of God that I didn’t have to act on those unrelenting voices, visions and delusions.

Andrea Yates wasn’t as fortunate.

I wasn’t as deep into madness as she. From my experience, I know with the certainty of death that, once captured in that inescapable vortex of Yates’ hell, resistance was ultimately futile.

We need to understand that mental illness is a condition, not a crime. Any crime, no matter how foul, must be the result of free will. Without it, there can be no culpability.

Just knowing the difference between right and wrong – the standard used to prove sanity – shouldn’t be enough to convict. Without free will, right and wrong are hollow and pointless.

Think about it.

Suddenly Trivia: On any given day, how many Americans with severe mental illness are incarcerated in federal and state jails and prisons? a) 62,000 b) 114,000 c) 283,000.

Yates’ shrink said, “She would rank among the five sickest – and most difficult to get out of psychosis – people that I’ve ever treated.” Yates, too, had considered, even twice tried, suicide. As she told a psychologist, “I had a fear I would hurt somebody. I thought it better to end my own life and prevent it.”

Compounding her torment was a husband who insisted that nothing was wrong that giving birth to more children couldn’t cure, and a shrink who inexplicably took Yates off of antipsychotics just weeks before the killings.

I write all this to say: Unless you’ve actually been psychotic, there’s no way for you to know how compelling hallucinations can be. Especially if they assure you that murder is the one way to “save” those you most love from overwhelming and everlasting evil.

It’s time to reconsider this entire legal insanity thing. Our current “knowing right from wrong” insanity law has been around since 1844.

The Andrea Yates case was tragic. She and her children are victims of mental disease, something we as a nation have a tough time looking at. Yet, some good can come of all this if we realize that a person without free will cannot be held responsible, and change our laws accordingly. Yates, and those thousands of others locked away for similar “crimes,” need treatment, not punishment.

As for me, this is the first time I’ve mentioned my illness to anyone since therapy released me from that particular hell 24 years ago. I am truly blessed. I’ve had no symptoms since.

Suddenly Trivia Answer: c) According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, some 283,000 person with severe mental illnesses are being prison bars. In contrast, there are approximately 70,000 persons with severe mental illnesses in public psychiatric hospitals, and 30 percent of them are forensic patients.

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