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Blame Anybody Except She Who Did It

July 11, 2001|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. E-mail:

Andrea Yates. The name meant nothing to us a month ago. But now it's a household curse and one that will live on in infamy. We will always know her as the woman who systematically drowned her five young children in a bathtub one morning after her husband left for work. We'll remember her as the woman who, after dispatching four of her brood, calmly wrapped them in a sheet and placed them neatly, side by side in bed, as if asleep. The fifth she left floating in the tub, face down; perhaps so as not to see the dead, unblinking eyes staring up at her, frozen in their last frantic gaze of horror and disbelief.

It's a crime whose magnitude only Greek mythology seems able to approach. Somehow the devil doesn't cut it. Neither does Freud, nor the whole accumulated arsenal of his profession, the American Psychiatric Assn.'s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Nth edition, revised, updated, expanded--whatever. The index finger lands on postpartum depression. Then psychosis. Then one of those trusty catchalls like mental collapse or breakdown. We can't be sure.

But, since the evening news will demand it, we grope for an analogue in literature, just as we did when Susan Smith, like Niobe, all tears, sent her two toddlers to their own watery graves. Or was it Medea we finally settled on in that case? Yes, that was it. The spurned lover. The witch. Right.


But all of this, of course, comes by way of letting mommy dearest off the hook. And feminist soldiers are only too happy to play along. Why, they'll even go further. For naturally, the blame lies elsewhere. It doesn't land in the woman's lap because, by definition, when you're a feminist, it never does. Women are A-OK all the way. Guiltless across the board. Everything they do--everything from castrating their husbands right down to the dunk with Mr. Bubble--is eminently understandable given the stresses and strains, the utter holocaust of being a woman in Amerika, or worse, a wife at home with the kids.

Oh patriarchy. How could you make her do it? If only more gals had taken Betty Friedan to heart and escaped the gulag of domesticity, we wouldn't be in this fix. If only those five brats in Houston and every other drool-encrusted, gunk-besmeared, urine-soaked ingrate like them had never been born. The wages of unplanned parenthood. You see? We told you so.

If only all those needy, greedy little monsters weren't--right this very second--barfing on newly laundered apron fronts, screeching incessantly for porridge or grape juice, smashing their cacophonous plastic toys to pieces on hardwood floors all across this country, we wouldn't have good women in jail for justifiable homicide.

And it is justifiable. For reason of maternal insanity--an insidious, all-too-common brand of dementia for which we would long ago have had a proper name and a cure if men suffered it and if the medical establishment weren't so egregiously neglectful of women's health. Sure, tell her it's her fault. Tell her it's all in her imagination or her hormones, and send her home with a sugar pill.

Postpartum indeed. Hah. Child's play. It can't even compare. Just try being a mother of two, much less five kids under 7 and see how long you keep your hair, let alone your sanity. Just try being pregnant five times in almost as many years, and see how deftly you navigate the mood swings. It's a scandal. No wonder she snapped. Shame on her plenty-potent husband for enslaving her thus. Shame on the backlash for making stay-at-home motherhood compulsory again. Absolutely. We pronounce. For shame.

What's that you say? The death penalty? No. Not a bit of it. We say: Free Andrea! That's right. Free her at last. And above all, keep abortion legal.

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