Stories Behind the Story

 

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There was that moment, (you knew there would be one, didn’t you?), when Kimberly Faith Hickman, the insightful and masterful director of MOTHER OF RAIN, took me by the hand after the show and said, “You have to hear this story.”

This was on Saturday, following the Talk Back session, a time when audience members were given opportunity to ask questions of the actors, the director, or Paul Pierce, who adapted the novel for the stage, or of me. I’d never really had a sit-down with the actors or with the director, so I had no idea that sometime during rehearsals that Hickman had shared with the actors the story of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children.

And they had no idea that while I was writing MOTHER OF RAIN, Andrea Yates was the stone in my pocket – the thing I kept turning over and over. I was a journalist in the newsroom in June 2001 when the story broke that a Texas mother had called police after drowning her five children in the bathtub.

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It was a disturbing tale. Even more so for me because I had a good friend who had suffered postpartum psychosis following the birth of her two children, ten years apart. Of course, back then, when those children were born, we had no idea what we were dealing with. It wasn’t until after the suicide attempt following the birth of her second child, that she was appropriately diagnosed and treated. She’s fine today. Great actually. And her outcome is completely different than that of Andrea Yates.

Because of what I had witnessed with my sweet friend, I had more than a glancing interest in the Andrea Yates’s case. I spent hours over the next several years researching, watching documentaries, interviews, reading whatever I could find on Andrea Yates, her husband Rusty and the doctors who treated her. I even tracked down her lawyer and requested an interview with Andrea. Thus far she has denied the requests of every major news broadcaster in the nation, I had no expectation that I would be granted an interview. Still, her attorney, who just so happened to be from Columbus, Georgia (my hometown, too) did highly recommend to Andrea that she interview with me. Something, he told me, he had never done before. She declined.

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Here’s the thing I know even without the interview: Andrea Yates needed our help, not our condemnation. Postpartum psychosis is an illness. A treatable illness. If Andrea Yates had received the medical attention she needed, her children would be alive today. The problem is that too often postpartum psychosis is misdiagnosed or left untreated.

The reason I put MOTHER OF RAIN in the 1940s is to show how little we have advanced in how we deal with the mentally ill.  The worse thing we can do for anyone dealing with mental illness is to isolate them and yet, that’s exactly the response we most often take when encountering the mentally ill or their families.

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It was the response Rusty Yates reportedly took with Andrea. The sicker she got, the more he isolated her. He reportedly ignored the doctor’s warnings to not have any more children. With each pregnancy, Andrea grew more and more detached from reality.

A problem common to those who suffer from postpartum psychosis.

Paul Pierce’s stage adaptation of MOTHER OF RAIN powerfully communicates the message of how helpless a community and a family can feel when confronting mental illness. How do we best help the mentally ill?

These are all the questions I wrestled with while writing MOTHER OF RAIN.

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Although we had never spoken about all this, Kimberly Faith Hickman instinctively understood that those were the questions I wrestled with, which is why she told me I needed to hear the story that the stage manager had to tell.

“Rusty Yates is my cousin,” Jessica Adams said.

Jessica is the same age as Noah Yates, the oldest of Rusty and Andrea’s boys, the one who ran from his mother when he realized that she had killed his siblings. He was 7 at the time of his death. He had put up a fierce fight but was overpowered by his mother, the former nurse.

Jessica and I met for coffee.

She is a bright and engaging young woman. I’d had the opportunity to meet her parents, who came in from North Georgia to see the play. They are rightfully proud of their daughter.

Sitting there at the Iron Bank, talking with Jessica about her plans for the future, I couldn’t help but think of all that Noah missed out on.

And all that Andrea missed out on as his mother.

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Jessica’s parents had not kept their daughter sheltered from what happened. They spoke openly with her about Noah and his siblings and how their momma had drowned them all.

That sort of news might scare some kids, but Jessica took it in stride. Jessica said her parents were hippies who didn’t believe in keeping things from their kids. They were direct and honest about the hard things of life. (There’s a lesson in that for helicopter parents).

Jessica’s father told me he was glad when Andrea was moved from prison to a mental hospital. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty. She was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison. That was amended on appeal, where she was found guilty by reason of insanity (the only correct verdict in this case). Andrea is currently at a low-security mental hospital in Kerrville, Texas. The courts have denied her the opportunity to attend church, the only request she’s made. Her visitors are limited to her attorney and his wife, and one other friend.

Rusty Yates divorced Andrea Yates and remarried. He became a father again. Rumor has it that he and his wife Laura are now in the midst of a divorce. To his credit, Rusty understood that the woman who killed their children was not right in the head.

If only he had come to that conclusion sooner and followed the doctor’s advice.

If only all of us would take postpartum psychosis as the serious illness it is, and instead of withdrawing from the mentally ill, demand that they get treatment that goes beyond hurling them into a comatose state and focuses on healing them instead.

It is our hope that MOTHER OF RAIN, the stage play, will be shown in wider venues. If you have some ideas about how to help make that happen, please contact Paul Pierce at Georgia’s Springer Theater or me. You can find us both on Facebook. AD62B3DD-9640-41EB-A9FF-7036799B9C82

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of MOTHER OF RAIN, the sequel BURDY. Coming in 2017, RAIN, the end of the story. (Mercer University Press).

 

 

 

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

2 Comments

AFRoger

about 2 years ago

Another installment of God's poetry here, isn't it? My nine years of ministry among homeless folks, many of whom could be diagnosed with various types and degrees of mental illness, have shown me a few things. 1) The human condition does not divide neatly into the polarities of mental illness and mental wholeness. We are much more of a continuum than that. 2) Gifts and insights are scattered all along that continuum. 3) Enormous amounts of healing and improvement are possible, but a sobering amount of the possible remains unrealized but for a bit of attention and allocation of resources. 4) Mark chapter 5 has quite a story to tell us if we sit patiently enough to hear it. If we dig beneath the fearsome vocabulary and imagery of the demonic, we see something very startling. A man was made well through Divine power, of course. This was a man who lived with great pain and guilt, a man who self-medicated with more pain, self-inflicted. It's all he has come to expect of the world. But the jaw dropping power of the story is the INSTRUMENT used to bring that healing. Jesus used his humanity in healing that man. He used his full humanity, with the breath of the Spirit filling its sails. We, in fact, share that full humanity; and we have been promised that same Spirit as a gift. We must think bigger than mental illness. We need to think of mental health, mental wholeness. We need to think of the possible. In 69 years of life, the best prayer request I have ever heard and prayed for came one evening from a man self-described as mentally ill and usually in a very different place from most of us. He said, "Pastor, we're all the time praying for the sick. I think we should pray for the people who are WELL....... so that they can understand what it's like to be sick." Amen. A thousand times, amen!

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 2 years ago

So many truths here, Roger. Yes, we need to strive for mental wholeness, but all of us fail to meet that standard at some point in our lives - maybe many times in our lives. Yet, we are fearful of mental illness in whatever form it takes and it can take a wide variety of forms. Thank you for your insights, your stories. Yes, more God's poetry.

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