The Houston Mom: Medea or Madonna?

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