It's always enlightening - and a little disturbing - when issues divide almost uniformly along gender lines. Such was the case in response to a recent column I wrote about Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who is charged with drowning her five children.
In the column, I disagreed with the state's decision to seek the death penalty in a case in which the person charged was, to me at least, clearly insane. This wasn't a wild guess on my part: Yates was being treated for depression and psychosis, intermittently taking high doses of mind-altering chemicals, had been diagnosed as suffering postpartum depression after the births of several of her children, had put a gun to her head and tried to commit suicide by taking her father's Alzheimer's medication.
One needn't be prescient to draw certain conclusions concerning her mental instability. Given that history - and the unthinkable nature of the crime with which she is charged - I have no trouble figuring that the woman is terribly sick. In theory, at least, most Americans disapprove of killing people who are insane or mentally retarded.
I also suggested in the column that Yates' husband, Russell Yates, was at least morally culpable, not because he participated in the killings but because he was party to an insane situation: the creation of five children under the age of 7 with a wife who was emotionally and mentally disabled. Mrs. Yates not only cared for five children, the youngest of whom was six months, but was expected to home-school them.
She's the one charged with committing the unforgivable, yes, but she gave ample warning in advance of her delusional meltdown, and no one took note. What kind of father leaves his children to the designs of a person he himself described as recently having been "withdrawn" and "robotic"?
I remember no other column that produced such an avalanche of reaction. What surprised me, even after 13 years of this exercise, was that men so strongly disagreed and women so strongly agreed with me. Not so much on the issue of capital punishment - they were fairly evenly divided on that question - but on the subject of Russell Yates' immoral complicity.
Women, with an exception rate of about .001 percent, said, in less-polite terms than I used, that the man should be tried along with his wife. Men, again with few exceptions, suggested that I was suffering from a lifetime of spurned relationships. This was also couched in terms less polite than I can use here.
My guess is that these gender-specific differences can be accounted for by two current trends:
Men are weary of being the feminists' whipping boy for everything that goes wrong, and they have zero tolerance for anything that smacks of excuse-mongering. Women, who typically shoulder the greater load of child care - and who have experienced the bizarre hormonal shifts that occur even in the best of postpartum circumstances - sympathize with a woman who was essentially under house arrest, hostage to five children and an emotionally distant husband.
The danger here is our tendency to over-identify with the players in what can only be described as a remarkable case. Just as Lorena Bobbitt's epic brutalization of her husband clarified nothing for students of domestic violence, Andrea and Russell Yates shed little useful light on modern marriage. Both represented extremes in a culture that typically is less extreme.
The only thing that seems clear at this juncture is that Andrea Yates lost her mind and doesn't need to be killed by the state. And that Russell Yates should have left his wife alone, but never with the children.