Houston Chronicle

July 1, 2001, 5:40PM

Yates family's tragedy holds up a mirror to us all

Houston Chronicle

Like other mothers around town and around the world, I was absolutely shocked by the news that a mother had killed her five small children in Clear Lake. Since that terrible day, the mental images of those children's last minutes on Earth has haunted me.

As much as I wanted to push the story aside, part of me craved answers. I read stories on the topic from Houston to Hong Kong, convinced I'd find an explanation, or at least a monster I could mentally crucify for the crime.

But the more I read about Andrea Yates, the more convinced I became that she is hardly more monstrous than I am. A chill ran down my spine as I looked at her yearbook pictures. The smiling face in the photos could have been mine. Both of us graduated at the top of our Houston high school classes during the 1980s and were members of our high school swim teams. (However, I was neither a team captain nor salutatorian of my class.) By the time I saw the photos, I had already read the testimonies of her family and friends, all steadfast in their support of Andrea and in the belief that only something catastrophic would drive her to hurt anyone, especially her own children.

Continuing on my quest for a scapegoat, I switched to her husband, Russell Yates. His calm in the aftermath of the tragedy seemed so eerie that I was convinced there was evil lurking behind it. Perhaps he had abused his wife, I surmised. But after reading all of the news accounts, I grudgingly had to admit to myself that there was no evidence of any monster in Russell Yates either.

I do wonder if his sentiment, though genuine, has been fueled partly by guilt, for not realizing the seriousness of Andrea's illness. But who knows to what extent that illness was downplayed by the doctors treating Andrea Yates, or by Andrea herself? As intelligent as she was, it does appear that she never developed a mechanism for expressing her own needs or for asking for help. Perhaps her own zeal to help others was fueled in part by the denial of her own dark side that slowly began to engulf her after the birth of her fifth child. And was it merely fate that this incident occurred in a state ranked at the bottom in terms of funding for mental health programs?

Then there are the flawed myths driving Russell Yates. He seems to be part of a breed of well-meaning men -- but totally deluded, in my view, and not vanishing fast enough -- who assume that if they pay the bills, provide the family with a home, and coach their sons' T-ball games, they are entitled to as many children as they WANT. PART of this "bargain" is the understanding that the wives will give up their careers, including all companionship, stimulation and income that might improve their quality of life. I don't think $80,000 a year is a lot when you're supporting six dependents. Anyway, it doesn't sound like much of the income was used for vacations, housekeepers or sitters, little luxuries that might have made Andrea's life a little I also fault the religious reproductive philosophy of "Let's have all the kids God sends our way," even though Andrea's previous postpartum depression and suicide attempt in 1999 should have been a clear signal that four were plenty.

It doesn't sound like the Yates' had regular social activities, close friends or anyone who would venture to say, "I think your wife needs help."

While there are probably more details yet to come out, nothing I have read so far leads me to see "monsters" any different than the ones present in every neighborhood: the selfless caregiver, who when finally in need herself, doesn't cry loudly enough for help; the conscientious father/breadwinner who provides for the family's material needs, but not enough for emotional or intellectual ones; the psychiatrist who misdiagnoses or underestimates the seriousness of his patient's condition; the private family who "keep to themselves." And yet, all of them somehow joined forces one fateful morning, producing a monstrous act of violence that took the lives of five small children.

It's heartbreaking because it happened here in Houston. It's heartbreaking because it could have happened anywhere in America. And most of all, it's heartbreaking because it never should have happened at all.

Brundage is a teacher and Spanish language translator in Houston.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle