Please note: Italicized portions of this post are quotes from my book Breaking Point, the story of Andrea Yates.
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In the days following the June 20, 2001, murder of Andrea Yates’ five children, the City of Houston buzzed with shock, gossip, and confusion. But on September 11, 2001, it was eerily desolate, a quiet stillness I’ve never experienced in decades of traveling to the Bayou City.
I think I was the only lunch hour customer in the sidewalk cafe not far from the downtown courthouse — the place where the Andrea Yates competency hearing was supposed to be underway. I sat by a multi-lane street, its silent emptiness a contrast to the screaming panic, chaos and violence in New York, Washington, D.C, and on a field in Pennsylvania.
My waiter and I traded polite smiles and whispered our words as I asked for, and he tried to provide, news updates. I think I wanted him to stay with me, but he left me alone. I leaned back in my chair. I stared down the street. I watched the fear, in the form of greed, that was overtaking our nation — a convenience store worker walked outside, looked up at his towering gasoline sign, and repeatedly raised his prices.
I paid for my meal and got in my car and drove past the gas station. I wanted to steer west onto I-10 to Austin, to my home and my family. I drove east on I-45, towards Friendswood, to park in front of a former home of Rusty and Andrea Yates, to walk up the sidewalk of their former next-door neighbors, and to knock on their door. In my arms I carried my bag, notepad, recorder, and a nearly foot-high stack of Andrea Yates’ medical records.
With constant replays of the burning and collapsing World Trade Center playing on a large screen TV, Andrea Yates’ … friend, fan, and fellow nurse wanted to study Andrea’s medical records. She read out loud from the Methodist Hospital records, as Katie Couric described the falling buildings over and over again.
We sat at the family dining table, and as the woman read aloud, her husband munched on tortilla chips like this was any other mundane Tuesday and talked over his wife. “Nice guy,” he said about Andrea’s husband, Rusty. The man cocked his head toward the TV.
“I know Rusty didn’t drown those kids,” the wife said. “She did.” But the wife – a psych nurse – believed Rusty slowly killed Andrea.
Her husband tried to stand up for Rusty, pointing out that Andrea was severely depressed. The husband and wife bantered back and forth, she defending Andrea, he defending Rusty.
“Rusty—he’s a pretty good man,” the husband said.
“You can’t say that,” the wife interrupted, then argued that Rusty knew Andrea suffered from postpartum depression, kept having babies, had her living in a bus. “He’s keeping her confined 24/7 and she’s having no interaction with anybody else but the kids and him… That’s evidence there …”
And if I recall correctly, a child wandered in and out of the room as this discussion of insanity and murder wore on and 9/11 raged in the background. I remember worrying about such a young child being exposed to such violence. I stared at the TV as reporter Ashley Banfield watched a gray cloud speed toward her. She screamed at woman with a child, “Get out of here! Get out of here! Look out for your baby!”**
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But the woman in Houston, Texas, staring at Andrea Yates’ psychiatric history, turned to her husband and said, “How can you say this is such a good guy when he’s stupid?”
“He doesn’t have the knowledge that we do.”
“He’s controlling and selfish.”
I spent hours in that home, and all I wanted to do was get to my home.
Finally, well past dark, I was on I-10, tuning my radio to KTRH NewsRadio Houston. As I drove, I listened to the reports coming out of New York, I watched the waning moon, and I prayed … and I realized that this day of death was my cousin’s birthday, and I’d completely forgotten. I reached for my phone and dialed her number. “Happy Birthday.” How does one say those words cheerily on a day when our nation is burning and thousands are dying?
* * *
She thanked me for calling, and we hung up. I kept driving. The last thing I remember that night is seeing the bright lights of a gas station on the outskirts of Austin. Cars were lined up, their owners fearfully waiting to top-off their tanks. Just as I’d passed by that gas station in Houston with the jacked-up prices, I passed by this one too. I didn’t want to feed into the panic. I just wanted my mother’s voice in my ear, as I phoned her and reported, “I’m home.” Safe. Sound. In the quiet stillness of my own bed.
I wonder if that’s how Andrea Yates’ children felt – safe, sound, in the quiet stillness of their parents’ bed as they went home to Jesus. I know many will disagree with me, but combing through Andrea’s medical records for hours on end, for months on end, knowing them better than one of her own defense attorneys did, I believe with all my heart and soul that that’s all she was trying to do the morning of June 20, 2001 – send her children home where they’d be safe and sound from the evils of this world. For her, that evil was herself. For America, on 9/11, it was Osama bin Ladin.
I will never forget Andrea Yates’ children.
And I will never forget September 11, 2001.
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* To read The Writing Life I Live, part 1, click here.
** For that one action, I will always respect Ashley Banfield.