Did the Devil Make Her Do It?

Andrea Yates's lawyer offers her belief in the devil's urgings as evidence she's crazy. Is that a good reason?

This piece first appeared on Beliefnet in February 2002. Andrea Yates's murder convictions for the drowning deaths of three of her five children was overturned January 6, 2005 by an appeals court. The court ruled that a witness for the prosecution had given false testimony at Yates's original trial.

Months after their deaths, the five drowned Yates children still linger at the edges of our minds, like silent, patient ghosts. The whole tragedy is a mystery. We can't imagine how any mother could do such a thing. We can't understand why the shock of the first limp body didn't stop her from killing any more. We can't even picture how she was physically able to do it. Those maternal arms look so thin; how could she hold a squirming 7-year-old under water for all those endless passing minutes?

The whole scene is incomprehensible. The children, sad and silent ghosts, can't tell us how it happened. The deed appears methodical, irrevocable, and numb; it feels like it's all happening underwater.

For Andrea Yates, however, things were anything but silent. As we listen to her broken statements, it's apparent that she lived in a landscape that was jagged, shrill, and threatening. Cartoon characters told her she was a bad mother. Satan, who she says put a visible "mark of the beast" on her head, told her to get a knife and kill her firstborn son. Her lawyer points to these statements as evidence that Yates was insane when she murdered her children.


When we hear Yates say Satan commanded the awful deed, a cartoonish TV figure jumps up to mimic her words: the comedian Flip Wilson, dressed as his alter ego Geraldine, exclaiming, "The devil made me do it!" Some readers can recall how swiftly this catchphrase spread back in the 1970s. It was fun to proclaim, buoyantly and belligerently, that you hadn't really wanted to take that second piece of pie: "The devil made me do it!" It was funny because it was so transparent. Everybody knew you were just kidding; everybody knew the devil can't make us do things.

This is not the same as saying he doesn't exist at all; in fact, belief in the devil is rising. A 1992 survey by the Gallup Organization found that just over half of Americans thought the devil was real. When they returned to the question in 1995, 65 percent said yes. Two years ago a Harris poll upped the figure to 72 percent.

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Frederica Mathewes-Green
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