Janet Scott Barlow missed the point completely in her article about the Houston woman who drowned her six children in June (“Hearing More, Feeling Less,” Vital Signs, September). She interpreted the woman’s husband’s matter-of-fact, emotionless demeanor in front of the press the day after the killing as a byproduct of “an explosion of coverage.” Thus, Mrs. Barlow’s central point seems to be a strong disapproval of “media whores.”

At the press conference, the husband clearly stated his wife’s drowning of the children was a symptom of her depression; that she did not mean to kill the children, but that she was sick; that she loved her children. He was there in front of all those journalists to defend his wife’s innocence. He explained her behavior as if it were the case of a mother who failed to feed her children after she had suffered an acute attack of meningitis, causing her to lose consciousness—no intention, no guilt, just a biologically determined phenomenon.

The husband’s demeanor and behavior were perfectly in line with the official position of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Medical Association (AMA): Depression and many other “mental illnesses” may cause a person to kill another person unintentionally. The killer is not a murderer but a victim who deserves compassion and treatment rather than blame and punishment. In short: The husband was using an “insanity defense.”

The insanity defense is an invention that has nothing to do with biology but a lot to do with whitewashing, for a fee, troublesome human behaviors. This ever-expanding ideology has left little room for guilt. Every evil behavior is “sickness.” Stealing, gambling, gluttony, obscenity, or killing are all symptoms of mental illnesses, according to the APA and the AMA. The insanity defense is a safety valve that permits people to close their eyes to the darkest pits of the human soul.

The truth is that depression, phobias, and anxieties do not cause people to change or lose their moral sense. To attribute bad (or horrible) behavior to them is not merely false; it provides an easy way out for some and stigmahzes the majority of those afflicted by those emotional states.

        —Nelson Borelli, M.D.
Chicago, IL

Mrs. Barlow Replies:

I did not characterize the Houston father’s response in the presence of reporters as “matter-of-fact” or “emotionless.” Nor did I “interpret” his demeanor as a “by-product” of intense media coverage. Further, I paid no attention to the content of his revelations about his wife’s emotional history. Neither what the father said nor how he said it was of interest to me. What did interest me—what unnerved and disturbed me—was the mere fact of the father’s voluntary participation, at that personally catastrophic moment, in a front-yard press conference, and the further fact that neither he nor the assembled reporters appeared to consider this participation in any way questionable. My only point, aside from Dr. Borelli’s correct notation of my loathing of media whores, was that we would be a more self-respecting society if victims of horrific human loss—e.g., the Houston father—possessed neither the desire nor the emotional wherewithal to share the intimacies of their feelings with mass television audiences and a pathologically sensationalistic press.

As for Dr. Borelli’s preoccupation with, and apparent disapproval of, AMA and APA support for the insanity defense, I must again confess disinterest (notwithstanding my inclination to agree with him). What I tried to express in my article was a personal resistance to glib and easy understanding of a mother who methodically drowns her children. The criminal-justice system now demands accountability for Andrea Yates’s actions, so the debate will rage on: the clinical argument (she is mentally ill and therefore to be treated as a patient) vs. the moral argument (she is a murderer and therefore to be treated as a criminal) vs. the political argument (she is the victim of a patriarchal society and therefore to be treated as an icon). While these arguments range from questionable to less questionable to idiotic, the fact remains: I do not understand what Andrea Yates did, and I’m not sure I want to understand it.

Finally, Andrea Yates had, and drowned, five children, not six, as Dr. Borelli states. This is not a petty point. Except for the fact that the “issues” generated by Yates have their origins in her children’s death, those children—four boys and a baby girl— have been nearly irrelevant to the story. As the media continue to “define” Yates’s actions and “understand” her behavior, her five children are all but forgotten. Nothing is written of their individual uniqueness, their irreplaceability in this world, or their suffering as they died. The motivations of a jailed woman are a story. The humanity of five dead children is not.


On Acute Observations

I should like to tell you how immensely I admire your magazine. Chronicles—its acute observations, its brilliant style of writing, even its selection of poetry—but I lack the skill to do so. However, please be aware that the arrival of Chronicles each month is a joyous and exciting event.

Thank you to all of the fine people who write for and help you produce such a marvelous magazine.

        —Tom Perkins,
Huntersville, NC