If you've seen Mystic River, you know there's one moment that will never leave you. A young woman has been murdered. Sean Penn knows it's his daughter. But no one will tell him. And so he tries to bull his way to the body through a sea of uniformed cops who have no intention of letting him get through. The camera goes close on Penn: howling, struggling, quite literally flailing. And you think, "Dear God, that must be how it is when your child dies."
Now take that moment and multiply it by five. And then you'll have the smallest idea of what it meant to be Rusty Yates on a June morning in Houston in 2001, rushing toward his house, begging a cop: "What did she do to my kids?"
"All five have passed away," the cop said. With that, Rusty Yates fell on the ground and began to scream. As Suzanne O’Malley writes in ARE YOU THERE ALONE?, "At length, Yates got up from the ground and, in his pain, grabbed a plastic chair and threw it at nothing in particular. Then he fell to the ground and coiled into a fetal position, still screaming."
And how’s this for contrast: Inside the house, his wife Andrea was putting the finishing touches on an other-worldly, affect-free confession that had her drowning their five young children because she had been a bad mother and they were clearly destined to go to hell.
Like almost everyone who saw the headlines and watched the news bulletins that day, I was instantly obsessed with Andrea Yates. And with every factoid, every minor revelation, I became more and convinced that more had happened in that house than what we were hearing. Andrea Yates may have known what she did was "wrong," but she clearly was insane and not legally responsible for her acts. (Given that Texas is a state fond of executing even the retarded, that was no guarantee she wouldn’t be strapped to a gurney.) More interesting was the question of co-conspirators, or, more correctly, enablers. Because tragedies like this don’t occur in a vacuum --- there are always many hands on the tiller.
You may have thought what I did: Rusty failed her. All those kids. Home-schooling. The years of living in a converted bus. The flirtation with an extreme version of evangelical Christianity. And, most of all, failing to grasp the fatal implications of his wife’s breakdowns. Others failed Andrea --- who among us believes you’re going to get state-of-the-art psychotherapy in a public hospital in Texas? --- but if you had to choose one person who should have done better by Andrea, it was Rusty.
I thought I had read it all and had my accusing finger firmly pointing the right way. Then I read ARE YOU THERE ALONE? Packed in these 261 pages is more news than everything we have read or seen put together. For a simple reason: in addition to medical and court records, O’Malley interviewed Rusty more than thirty times, had 30,000 words of correspondence with Andrea and had unique access as well to Michael Woroniecki, a self-proclaimed prophet who was, for a time, spiritual adviser to Andrea and Rusty.
O’Malley is the best kind of narrative writer. She doesn’t tell you what to think, she just piles the evidence higher than the mountain of pills that Andrea was wrongly prescribed. And that evidence tells a very different story than the one the media has suggested. For as O’Malley tells it, there was no fiercer advocate for Andrea than Rusty --- the problem was the mental health professionals who misdiagnosed her.
Reading the timeline that opens the book, you can see the roadmap that led to this tragedy --- four hospitalizations and numerous out-patient treatments for Andrea. With each release, she was not getting better, but rather plummeting deeper and deeper into her personal psychotic hell. I would love to have seen the expressions on the faces of her doctors when the news broke on that June day. It seems unfathomable that her illness could have eluded them.
Well, not just them. In her Bookreporter.com interview, O’Malley downplays religion as a factor in Andrea’s ultimate breakdown. That’s charitable. There are evangelicals who seriously are interested in saving souls and see each of us as children of God, and then there are evangelicals who crave our allegiance and money more than our salvation. Andrea and Rusty had the bad luck to fall under the influence of a fire-and-brimstone preacher who painted a vivid picture of Hell and an even more terrifying vision of what it would take to attain Heaven --- in Michael Woroniecki's view, only eight people, most of them his relatives, were likely to ascend. For a desperately crazy woman like Andrea, he could well have been the torch that lit the bomb.
But what the general reader will take away is the importance of talented therapists. These murders were far from inevitable, O’Malley suggests. What was lacking? An understanding of post-partum depression, and an awareness of its power to ravage even the most loving mother. And an acknowledgement that this post-partum depression most likely triggered a deeper psychosis within Yates that was never explored. Andrea Yates had, at even turn, the wrong care; only now, in prison, is she finally getting decent treatment.
She might improve a great deal before she’s released --- she won’t be eligible for parole until 2041, when she’ll be 77. As for Rusty Yates, O’Malley nails all that is ahead of him in a single sentence: "Even before his wife was arrested, Rusty Yates had been sentenced to life."
One final note. An "expert" testified at Andrea's trial that, as a fan of Law & Order, she had very likely seen the episode in which a mother "uses" post-partum depression to kill her kids --- and get off. Fortunately for Andrea, Suzanne O'Malley had written for Law & Order and was able to get in touch with the producers, who assured her --- and the court --- that there was no such episode. Unfortunately for Andrea, the jury had, by then, found her guilty.
We'll never know if O'Malley's intervention saved Andrea from the death penalty. We can, I think, confidentally say that if if mental health professionals and concerned family members read this book, many women --- and who knows how many children --- will find health instead of hell.
Reviewed by Carol Fitzgerald on January 20, 2011