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Interview: February 20, 2004

February 20, 2004

In June 2001, Andrea Yates drowned her five children. The following year she was sentenced to life imprisonment for these murders. Suzanne O'Malley, a journalist, covered this trial for numerous publications and had unique access to Andrea and Rusty Yates. As the author of ARE YOU THERE ALONE?: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates, O'Malley talks to's Diana Keough about Andrea and Rusty Yates, the depths of Andrea's mental illness and what she has been hearing from readers.

Q: You are the only writer in communication with Andrea Yates. Did that change how you feel about her? What do you feel about Andrea Yates?

SOM: Receiving 30,000 words of correspondence from Andrea Yates informed my thinking about her --- big time. I encourage readers to read Andrea Yates's letters themselves and form their own feelings and opinions.

Q: You are the only writer who got to spend considerable time with Rusty Yates. Did that change how you feel about him? What do you feel about Rusty Yates?

SOM: Sure, spending time with Rusty Yates changed my thinking about him. But the 2,000 pages of Andrea Yates's medical records affected me more. Before I read them, I felt Rusty Yates was a monster.

Q: Who do you feel is most culpable in the crimes of Andrea Yates?

SOM: I'd say "what," not "who," is the question. My answer is Ignorance and Fear. In writing ARE YOU THERE ALONE?, I discovered that Andrea Yates was misdiagnosed, improperly medicated, and inadequately treated. There are psychiatrists who could have diagnosed her over the phone. Trouble is, there are only about 5 of them in the world. This is why parents, grandparents, educators, physicians and lawyers are reading "Are You There Alone?" Postpartum depression is THE most common adverse event of childbirth. If this scenario could happen to the Yates family, it could happen to you.

Q: You are a mother. Did you have to turn a part of yourself off emotionally to be able to listen to the tapes of Andrea describing how she drowned each child, how they struggled, etc.?

SOM: No. As Anna Quindlen wrote in Newsweek, what got to me was that forbidden look that passed between women that secretly said "I understand how this could have happened."

Q: Were there any other things you listened to or discovered during the course of the trial or researching this book that were emotionally hard to hear/write about?

SOM: For me, nothing is as hard to endure as not being allowed to learn. However difficult a piece of research was for me, it was always less painful than the ignorance that preceded it.

Q: You repeatedly reference the strong religious beliefs of not only the Yates, but also the Woronieckis, as well as other friends of the Yates and the entire state of Texas. What is your own religious background?

SOM: I am Roman Catholic.

Q: How do you feel about strong religious beliefs in others?

SOM: I respect strong religious beliefs held by others. Religious beliefs that result in civil strife, however, are tragic and antithetical to my idea of religion. Not to mention making me furious.

Q: Do you consider religion to be a crutch?


Q: Is there something about religion in Texas ---- the state where you were raised --- that's different than religion as practiced elsewhere?

SOM: The only places I have lived for a significant time are New York City and Texas. In my experience, there's a stunning difference between the two places in the overt practice and integration of religion in daily life. My opinion is that New York is more secular and religious beliefs are often more metaphorically held than in Texas. I imagine these differences exist in other parts of the country (where I have less experience to draw from) as well.

Q: While you touch on religion and the Woronieckis as having a hand in Andrea's crimes, you never completely "go there." Why did you not hit this issue harder?

SOM: I didn't hit harder on the Woroniecki issue because I don't believe religion causes mental illness. But as I describe in ARE YOU ALONE?, the Woronieckis earmarked me --- as they did Andrea Yates --- to be potentially among their chosen, and that was a sometimes startling experience.

Q: Do you think Rusty has forgiven Andrea?

SOM: Absolutely.

Q: How do you explain that?

SOM: How I explain it is that Rusty Yates understands his wife is mentally ill. For him, the crime of killing their five children never required forgiveness --- the deaths were a tragedy from which to seek future safeguards, not blame.

Q: Can Rusty Yates ever forget that a psychotic person like his wife is capable of such crimes?

SOM: No.

Q: You reference a number of letters that Andrea wrote you. At any point does she speak of her feelings for Rusty?

SOM: Yes, Andrea Yates frequently speaks of her feelings for her husband in letters to me. She's in love with him.

Q: Do you think that a woman with her degree of mental illness is incapable of knowing what she really feels about another person?

SOM: I believe that Andrea Yates is capable of knowing what she feels about another person and expressing those feelings. Many mental illnesses, including Andrea Yates's, "wax and wane." The letters excerpted in ARE YOU THERE ALONE? were generally written when she was stable; she is unable to write when she is incoherent.

Q: At this point is Andrea getting treatment for her illness in prison?

SOM: Andrea Yates is receiving appropriate medication for her illness in prison. However, the point of prison is punishment for crime, not treatment for mental illness.

Q: Characterize Rusty Yates for us. He seems like a man who things happen to. The world seems to circle around him with him not really taking grasp of any issue except as a topline thought. He knew Andrea was ill, but never hired an attorney or other advocate to help him get her the care she desperately needed. He knew she was ill, but still left the children with her that morning. Andrea's attorney was hired by her three brothers without Rusty even being consulted. This does not seem like a man "in charge." Are these sentiments on target?

SOM: No.

1) There is a Rusty Yates standing on every street corner in America. I don't perceive him to be different from many spouses. If you are talking to him about feelings on a Sunday afternoon in front of the television set, he will interrupt what you're saying to appreciate a touchdown or a really good putt.

2) Read the book excerpts from the 2,000 pages of Andrea Yates's medical records. If there's one thing Rusty Yates is, it's an advocate. When psychiatrists are unable to diagnose an illness after years of family effort, I wonder how a family, a lawyer, or any layman can succeed.

3) Hindsight is 20/20. Andrea Yates was left alone with the children for an hour that Wednesday morning when Rusty Yates left for work. Andrea and the children were watching television and Rusty's mother was on her way over to look after them. When Andrea had been ill the first time (in 1999, after the birth of her 4th child), she had twice tried to kill herself. The family's focus was on making sure she didn't try to kill herself again. They never thought she would harm the children.

4) Andrea Yates's attorney was hired by her then 72-year-old mother two days after the murders (with the consultation of her three brothers). Prior to that Friday morning, Rusty Yates was identifying the dead bodies of his children at the coroner's office, selecting their coffins, making funeral arrangements, seeing a NASA grief counselor, ferrying relatives to and from the airport, giving the Assistant District Attorney a tour of the crime scene, and seeking advice from a friend who is an attorney. Rusty Yates had also scheduled a meeting that Friday afternoon with noted defense attorney Mike Ramsay (who recently won the Robert Durst murder and dismemberment case in Galveston, Texas). Ramsay had been recommended to Yates by the office of NBC's Katie Couric. So had the attorney Andrea's mother had selected. Rusty Yates agreed with his in-law's choice of George Parnham.

Q: In his grief, just about everything Rusty did --- from creating a website in his children's memory to the way he methodically cleaned out the bathtub and removed the bed the children were placed on after they died --- seems like the actions of someone rather emotionally detached from the situation at hand. Did you feel this way about Rusty?

SOM: First, let me say that, it was Randy Yates --- Rusty's brother --- who cleaned the bathtub. Relatives had begun to arrive for the funeral and some were staying at the house. Rusty says he himself was never able to set foot in that tub. He had it removed and smashed to pieces with a sledgehammer.

Rusty Yates is a career NASA engineer. His job is safety systems for the space shuttle program. It is fair to say he is methodical.

Q: Are Andrea and Rusty hard people to read or did your editor discourage you from including more of your own insight?

SOM: My ambition was to be the reader's proxy --- to uncover facts that enable readers to have their own insights.

Q: Do you have any personal insights on them that you didn't include?

SOM: Nope. I left it all in the book.

Q: It seems incredible in this day and age, between the Internet and e-mail, that the key fact about the falsehood of the "Law and Order" episode about the mother killing her children from postpartum depression and getting off was not vetted immediately by the defense. Why do you think this happened?

SOM: Yates's defense attorney George Parnham asked forensic psychiatrist and expert witness Park Dietz whether he was a consultant for the television series Law & Order. Dietz said yes and volunteered the information regarding the episode. Who had any reason to think Dietz was mistaken? More than that, Dietz had consulted on 300 episodes of Law & Order --- who was going to screen them all to see if he'd made a mistake?

Q: High profile trials like this one often take on a media frenzy that gives them almost a life of their own. How was this trial similar or dissimilar to others that you covered?

SOM: I believe that the unprecedented media frenzy surrounding the Yates case --- not even 9/11 knocked it out of the headlines --- was in large part due to the gag order the trial judge placed on witnesses. An information vacuum drove the mystery. A month after Andrea Yates was sentenced to life in prison, the gag order was declared unconstitutional by a special prosecutor.

Q: Is this a case that will haunt you, or does your role as a journalist not allow this?

SOM: No, this case won't haunt me --- though it would have if I hadn't written the book. Once you pull back the curtain, shed light in all the dark corners, the haunting vanishes.

Q: What is the question you are most being asked as you do media for this book? What are you hearing from readers?

SOM: The question I am most asked is: 'How could this have happened?' What I hear often is how sorry people feel for Andrea Yates and her family. How they don't think she belongs in prison. Shocking, considering she killed five children. Not a single person has condemned Andrea Yates during interviews with me.

Q: What's your next project?

SOM: I've begun writing another book that solves a case which has withstood twenty years of legal and media scrutiny with no conviction.