The Houston Mom: Medea or Madonna?

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When
her lover decides to ditch her in favor of a more blue-blooded match,
Medea, a character in Greek Mythology, takes her revenge by killing
their adored sons. A rapacious killer and schemer to rival any villain
of the opposite sex, Medea has, however, undergone a literary transformation
in recent decades. Even at their most ferocious, our society now
insists that women are no more than passive victims, capable of
few free choices. Medea has now found a place in the annals of women's
studies courses as a symbol of a woman in revolt against the patriarchy.

Assisted
along by this view is Medea's latter-day sister, Andrea Pia Yates.
Last month, Yates, whom the media persist in calling "a Houston
mom," (technically incorrect and morally reprehensible) methodically
drowned her children aged 6 months to 7 years.

One
reporter wondered why the police had offered no explanation for
how Yates drowned five children without any escaping. Let's see:
How difficult is it to corral your unsuspecting, completely trusting
and likely adoring charges for bath time? A promise of ice cream
after ear scrubbing used to do wonders with my no-longer tiny tot.

The
reporter's assumption about the woman's daintiness forms part of
the "vocabulary of motive" now being established by the
experts and the media. Accordingly, a woman will engage in violence
only when provoked, or brought to the brink of desperation. Premeditated
brutality is simply not part of her biology. If a woman is driven
to kill, it is for good reason. Conversely, When men kill or abuse,
it is because they are hardwired to do so.

If
she kills her newborn, and, in the case of Yates, throws in the
rest of the brood, the woman is said to have likely suffered from
Postpartum Depression. Deployed as a legal defense, PPD may see
her exonerated. Canadian killer and sex offender, Karla Homolka,
who combined with feral gusto an active social life with the dedicated
activity of abduction, murder and rape, was able to avail herself
of the Battered Woman defense.

Homolka
is immortalized on video raping and killing three women, including
her sister. Because of her gender, the experts that are now pontificating
about Yates don't consider Homolka a sadist or sexual deviant. The
consensus in psychological circles is that sexual deviance in women
is practically non-existent and hence recidivism unlikely. Consequently,
Homolka did not receive the mandated treatment our state-run prisons
administer to sex offenders. What she got was a jailhouse protocol
called "Improving Your Inner Self." This New Age fatuity
has helped her, in her words, to "get rid of mistrust, self-doubt,
and misplaced-guilt." While this monster was growing her dangerously
gargantuan ego on the taxpayer's dime, research had already begun
to unveil sexual deviance in women, indicating that it was far more
prevalent than previously thought. The public, however, would continue
to be shielded from the realities of women's crimes.

The
rhetoric intended to exculpate Yates continues relentlessly. "Yates,"
we are told, "had spent her adult life catering to the deepest
needs and visions of others." When she did commit acts of aggression,
these were only ever turned on herself in the form of a failed suicide,
leading one mental health maven to proffer that this murder is a
form of suicide by proxy. Yates, he says, lost touch with reality
to such a degree that she thought of killing her children as killing
herself. He doesn't explain why, with all the confusion about her
psychic boundaries, Yates herself emerged unscathed, which is more
than we can say about the children.

No
less repugnant are the collectivist explanations for this crime.
"There's blood on everybody's hands," fluted one infanticide
expert. The premise here is that children belong to "Rotten
Rodham's" Village, and that somehow, because raising kids ought
to be a tribal affair, the blame for killing them must also repair
to members of the clan. The same casuistry was offered up in defense
of the marauding Hutus for killing almost a million Tutsis in Rwanda.
Progressives deflected from the deeds of the machete wielding mobs,
by blaming the genocide on the amorphous forces of Western Imperialism.

Anyone,
who has been at the receiving end of abuse from a mother, a wife
or a female lover, knows that these explanations simplify and infantalize
women. We persist in draining the crimes women commit of moral or
rational content, writes Patricia Pearson in her 1997 book entitled
When
She Was Bad
. Pearson combines "chilling real life examples
with scholarly research" to show that violence committed by
women is every bit as ferocious, albeit different, as violence perpetrated
by men.

Stripped
of the clinical vernacular that attenuates their deeds, women hold
their own in the country's crime statistics. "Women,"
writes Pearson, "commit the majority of child homicides in
the United States, a greater share of physical child abuse, an equal
rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter
of child sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killing of newborn,
and a fair preponderance of spousal assaults." The African-American
man living in Chicago, for instance, is at the greatest risk of
being killed by an intimate partner. Eighteen percent of black men
killed in Chicago between 1966-1996 died at the hands of their mates;
65 percent of these men had no record of violence, abuse or other.
"Ten to 20 percent of the six to eight thousand Sudden Infant
Deaths reported each year in the US conceal accidental or deliberate
suffocation," usually by mothers. How many deadly assaults
by mothers are finessed as the "condition" termed Munchausen
syndrome by proxy is hard to tell.

Nowhere
are the myths about female pacifism more robust than in spousal
violence orthodoxy. There are hundreds of sociological surveys conducted
with mathematical randomness that attest to the fact that women
assault their partners as often as, or more often than, men do.
Gender symmetry in violence between couples is as well documented
as it is well concealed by government number crunchers. In the acclaimed,

Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising
, Prof. John Fekete references
the dozens of two-sex surveys conducted in Canada and in the US
over the past 30 years. All "show that women in relationships
with men commit comparatively as many or more acts of physical violence
as men do, at every level of severity." It is a slap for a
slap, beating for beating, knifing and shooting for knifing and
shooting, on the evidence of women's own self reports. The fact
that women are more likely to be injured in domestic altercations
points to differences in physical strength between men and women,
not in culpability. Physical weakness is not to be equated with
moral innocence. What we have here is indeed one of the most astonishing
episodes of dishonest science in our times.

Women's
aggression is different to that of men, which is why it so easy
to misconstrue. From an early age, women opt for underhanded and
manipulative strategies such as "bullying, name calling, excommunicating
and gossiping," to achieve their ends. Consider honor killings,
undoubtedly the grisliest of crimes against women. In the Palestinian
Authority, fathers and brothers murder 20 to 40 women every year
in order to defend family honor. But when studying female aggression
in the territory, anthropologist Ilsa Glaser observed that women's
gossip plays a causal role in the events leading up to the butchering.
By spreading gossip about the targeted woman, and by putting pressure
on the men to act, women were instrumental in instigating the murders.
Although preparing the grounds for murder is not tantamount to taking
a life – the fact remains that women are in on the act.

Anthropological
insight strongly advances our case. In her book Mother
Nature
: A history of mothers, infants and natural selection,
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy shows that the maternal instinct, which supposedly
elevates women above men, is not as natural as mother's milk. In
primate species, mothers are known to reward males who kill their
young by soliciting copulation with them. And there are many conditions
in the wild "under which mothers abandon and cannibalize the
young." If, like me, you are not fond of extrapolating from
monkeys to men, then Hrdy supplies human parallels of "sex-selective
infanticide in several of the world's cultures." Here, as in
the Palestinian Authority, women are willing participants.

Besides
irreparably biasing any potential pool of jurors, the Woman-as-Madonna
myth making renders the victims of Andrea Yates faceless. Is there
any point asking the reader to imagine each child once he grasped
that death was about to dawn? The baby girl might have just whimpered
briefly and then ceased. Imagine the older children; think of the
woman's deadly grip, the small bodies convulsing, the little limbs
flailing until, no more. Think of the resolve necessary to take
a life, to say nothing of 5 lives.

All
of which suggests that the old stereotypes must be replaced with
a nuanced understanding; one which recognizes that if women can
match men in almost every way that is good and fine – then
so can they harbor the potential to be as sinister as men.

July
17, 2001

Ilana
Mercer [send her mail]
is a freelance writer. Please visit her
website
.

Ilana
Mercer Archives

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