Medea of Suburbia: Andrea Yates, Maternal Infanticide, and the Insanity Defense

Article excerpt

On May 12, 2003, in the town of Tyler, Texas, Deanna Lajune Laney called the police to inform them that she had just stoned her three children to death. Laney's husband slept through the children's murder, emerging from the house in his nightclothes at 12:52 p.m. to find the police in his yard. In their reports, the police stated that when they arrived they found Joshua and Luke dead in the front yard, and Aaron lying critically wounded in his crib. A fervent Christian with no known history of criminal activity or mental illness, Laney explained to the police that she "had to do it" because God told her to kill her children. When she was interviewed in her prison cell later that day she was described by Sheriff J. B. Smith as "incoherent . . . sometimes [she] lays in a fetal position, sometimes walks around her cell singing gospel music. Sometimes she seems to realize what she's done and says Oh, no!'" (Cohen, 2003).

Laney's crime, sensational in its own right, gained further notoriety by its uncanny similarity to that of Andrea Yates, another devout Christian from the suburbs of Houston, Texas, who in June oi 2001 drowned her five children in the family bathtub. Both Laney and Yates were left alone without supplemental help to care for and home-school their children, and both invoked divine injunction to explain their crimes. Because Yates's life and trial received such extraordinary publicity, a local judge immediately issued a gag order on those involved in the Laney case (2003, Accused Mom). In their initial speculation about the trial, however, lawyers and other commentators predicted that the prosecution, like that in the Yates case, would seek the death penalty (Cohen, 2003).

cases of maternal infanticide are gripping because they seem to violate an inherent natural law, calling into question the essentialist notion that women are endowed with a nurturing maternal instinct. Incidents of maternal infanticide garner more press than paternal infanticide and evoke greater outrage from the public. Manuel Gamiz, Jr. (2002) of the Los Angeles Times, for example, compared the press coverage devoted to the Yates case to that surrounding the case of Adair Garcia, a Pico Rivera man who intentionally killed five of his children by lighting a barbecue in his house and poisoning them with carbon monoxide. Though in the first four weeks of the Yates trial "more than 1,150 articles" were published about her case, only 77 articles were written about Garcia (p. 3). Gamiz argued that the radical disparity in coverage was evidence of a gender bias in the reporting of infanticide-there was something more shocking and forbidden about maternal violence than paternal infanticide. In the case of Yates, men and women uniformly called for her death on radio talk shows and public Internet forums despite the evidence that she was suffering from mental illness. Others, particularly feminists, called for leniency, seeing Yates's life as emblematic of the contradictions between maternal ideology and the daily practice of motherhood, and her crime a consequence of postpartum psychosis (Cohen, 2002; Williams, 2001).

In this essay I consider the public reception of Yates's acts to examine why maternal infanticide generates such heated debates among the public, particularly those who are feminists or religious conservatives. I demonstrate that infanticide is thought by some to be comprehensible only when viewed in relation to popular conceptions of maternal responsibility, whereas others see the act as purely a crime, a form of murder. In doing so, I explore the ways in which the law, because it is predicated on a universal subject, is unable to account for someone like Yates, a woman suffering from a gender-specific mental disorder. The particular form in which Yates' disorder made itself manifest, moreover, indicates the extent to which a clinical entity cannot be extracted from the larger culture within which it is embedded. Yates' belief that she was possessed and an evil mother stemmed from the disjunction between her life and the cultural construction of idealized maternity, a schema of interpretation that finds little room ill a court of law. …