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Idlewild, Astrid. 2008. I Love to Listen to Beethoven: Andrea Yates and the spatial confinement of suburban isolation. Hidden Geographies: Undergraduates Writing to Transgress, 1(1): 33-44.
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In this paper:
Girl, interrupted: a great mind with a smothered future
Outta sight: re-confining motherhood to the private spacing domain
Nowhere to go, nowhere to stay: uprooting of place and exacerbation of isolation
It takes a non-existent village: the currency of master-planned social capital
Conclusion: avoiding perfect storms
Andrea Yates became a household name on June 20, 2001, namely due to the novel way she systematically used a bathtub at her home in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake City to drown her five children (Sharp 6; Hollandsworth 115; Glenn, et al. 1). In this populous suburb, how did the Yateses’ neighbours fail to recognize warning signs or reach out as pillars of community support? How did her husband fail to notice? The body count dominated news headlines. As more information surfaced, news outlets disproportionately reported on her modus operandi and putative mental conditions that triggered her breaking point, despite years of clinical depression diagnoses (McLellan 1951). Despite being born, raised, educated, and having established her career in the Houston area, Andrea was functionally severed from the outside world by the time her face appeared on the news (Denno 7). How is this even possible in an era when space-time compression, accelerated by globalization and Internet communication, makes reaching out to others seemingly easier than ever, particularly so within urban contexts? (Smart and Smart 271).
This essay does not extend a criminological or psychological analysis. Rather, it frames Andrea Yates as an urban event. While the event raised awareness on mental health issues affecting women, it understated both geography and spacing as agencies of her social isolation and how each agitated an already dire situation. Three isolating factors exacerbated her circumstances. First, the Yates household illuminated how private-feminine / public-masculine spacing dichotomies still persist in twenty-first century, post-industrial settings. These oppositions were largely believed to have fallen from favour during the last few decades as women migrated to the wage-earning workforce. As well, Andrea’s marriage to Russell pulled her into an unintended orbit: his religiously orthodox values, informed by fundamentalist ideals on gendered divisions of labour and social function, essentialized her into a narrow construct of femininity and confined her from view by those outside the family. He convinced her to forfeit a promising professional career to instead give birth to, raise, and homeschool their five children, doing so without his help and functioning within living quarters that were designed to optimally foster a patriarchally-oriented nuclear family unit. This assured her institutional submission to him and infantilized her into a ward of his domain. Lastly, the Yateses’ placement within a master-planned suburban development, although spatially improved over their earlier domiciles, exacerbated her social isolation in housing modes better designed to support mobile careers at the expense of building social capital and spatial-local linkages. Even if Andrea had always wanted to start her own family, it was unlikely she expected to become as disempowered as she was before the morning she drew that bath.
Girl, interrupted: a great mind with a smothered future
On paper, Andrea’s childhood experiences prepared her for an independent, even vibrant future. Before the drownings, before having children, and before marrying, Andrea Kennedy earned her academic membership with the National Honor Society, graduating as class valedictorian, captaining the high school swim team, enrolling to university in autumn 1982, and studying nursing over the next four years (Galanti 349; Denno 8). Well before approaching Russell Yates in 1989, whom she met at the same Houston apartment complex where she rented her own place, she was hired as a registered nurse and remained romantically uninvolved for at least the first year of her career (Denno 8). By 1993, after dating for four years, the couple married (Ibid.). By the next year, she left her eight-year tenure at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to give birth to their first child, Noah (Ibid.). While placing careers on temporary hold during maternity leave is now fairly routine for professional mothers, Andrea’s leave ushered a condition of permanent departure ordained by Russell. Her removal to a domestic sphere proceeded not by her own volition, but by his urging.
Signs of his spousal dominance were evident at their wedding. Before their guests, the newly-minted Yateses vowed how they hoped “to have as many children as God gave them,” although it remains unclear whether Andrea or Russell expressed this (Galanti 349). During their engagement, Andrea began joining Russell in his ongoing Bible studies, led in part by the spiritual guidance of Michael Woroniecki (Hyman 196). Whether Andrea was devoutly religious prior to Russell also remains nebulous (she was raised in a Roman Catholic household), but Woroniecki’s reputation as an aggressive, “itinerant fundamentalist preacher” with an arrest history for disturbing the peace, even as his wife and children obediently assisted his crusading ventures, inspired Russell to foster a domestic milieu wherein Andrea was expressly verboten to work outside the home while he dutifully headed their household (Waite; McLellan 1951). Under this arrangement, not only did he proscribe baby-sitters or other forms of outside daycare, but as their children grew old enough to attend public school, he also wanted Andrea to homeschool and teach his (and Woroniecki’s) religious values — “protecting” them from the “temptation . . . of un-Christian ideals that [Russell] believed were prevalent in public schools” (Hollandsworth 116). Andrea acceded to his request, but at no point did Russell assume co-parenting duties to help her raise his children. In fact, at no point between Noah’s birth and his drowning seven years later was Russell known to have changed even a single diaper (Galanti 349).
Outta sight: re-confining motherhood to the private spacing domain
Despite being a native Houstonian, Andrea was apparently on her own as she endured six pregnancies (one miscarried) (Hollandsworth 117). As her mental health deteriorated following each pregnancy, her social support network became conspicuously absent. Pregnancy, nursing, parenting, homemaking, homeschooling and caretaking for her elderly parents monopolized her time and energy. One hypothesis to account for her social isolation is that her loyalty to Russell’s religious values provided her with less common ground upon which she could connect with other mothers at nearby church groups, local motherhood support groups, or with mothers who posted to online message forums (assuming she even had internet access at home, much less any time to set aside for web surfing).
Within a decade of graduating university, Andrea’s psychogeographic horizon atrophied from one limited only by her career aspirations to one of servility in which she turned to Russell first (Stein 23). While no evidence supports that he was physically abusive with Andrea, his behaviour nevertheless echoed a non-consensual, master-servant power balance reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution’s deterministic, middle-classed precepts on citizenship and domestic space: visible citizens (men) articulated public spaces, rationality, and political activism, while women and children (both “insignificant to citizenship”) remained hidden within the private realm of home as mothers shaped sons with moral values necessary to assume public citizenship while preparing daughters to marry such men (and to engender good moral values within his home) (Valentine; Gabriel 269). Speaking from the temporal context of 2001, and from the spatial context of an urbanized North America, Russell’s approach was anachronistic: his leverage over Andrea was adverse because he had effectively quashed her participatory citizenship with the outside world, cloistering her socially and, thus, spatially.
Nowhere to go, nowhere to stay: uprooting of place and exacerbation of isolation
The Yates house on Beachcomber Lane was designed and constructed at the tail end of a period when suburban form advanced paternalistic ideas on domestic spacing best framed (and somewhat ironically) by Lewis Mumford, who advocated for nuclear family systems: “by sympathetic magic [family housing] will encourage women of child-bearing age the impulse to bear and rear children, as an essential attribute to their humanness” (9). Russell’s embrace of this biologically deterministic worldview, vetted by Woroniecki, posited a masculinist revanchism against an egalitarian trend that has largely moved away from making participatory citizenship conditional on the basis of gender or biology. Russell re-gendered the domestic domain as his primary placement for Andrea’s womanhood — even though women no longer necessarily ascribe the home as a primary space identified with gender, “but rather [as] one space among many” (Gregson and Lowe 226).
Andrea’s domestic isolation was doubly compounded: not only did Russell prepare all living arrangements, but these were also manifest in modes beyond stationary housing. As his career flourished, contracting for NASA as a computer systems engineer, Russell was inspired by Woroniecki’s nomadic ethos for living “‘light’ and easy’”; he leased their house in Houston and corralled his then two-child family into a recreational vehicle (RV) bound for Florida (Denno 27–8). Russell’s move from house to RV, meanwhile, was not out of economic necessity, but it did remove Andrea from her parents and the only urban region she had known as he crammed her into a box on wheels with infant and toddler in tow (Ibid.). If she challenged his move, then it was to little avail.
Once his Florida assignment ended, even Russell recognized that the RV alone offered too little space for Andrea and their two children (with their third on the way). He returned the family to Houston and moved them to a bigger space — not into an apartment or house, but onto a lot which gave him enough space to buy Woroniecki’s bus conversion (Denno 27; McLellan 1951). Woroniecki had converted an old Greyhound bus into living quarters, and he used it to easily move his family to locations which he had singled out for religious protest (Denno, 27). Incredibly, for Russell to exercise this manoeuvre, despite owning the house he rented out, he dismissed the Houston area’s generally available (and affordable) supply of housing stock. Why he elected to do this was the same reason as the decision to cram his family into an RV. It also assured that Andrea would have trouble running into and creating social networks with neighbours: although he never openly expressed this, Russell wielded the unilateral leverage to move the bus elsewhere if he felt that other people were encroaching on his belief system or the moral values he wanted Andrea to instil in his children. Compared to the RV’s cloistered quarters, Andrea (and eldest child Noah) actually spoke in favour of upgrading to the bus (Ibid.). Although it offered a bit more room, at least temporarily, one cannot help but wonder whether her agreement to move into the bus was a decision borne out of a fait accompli rather than one of her own independent volition. Apparently, Andrea preferred the bus to Russell’s next move. It was prompted by the urging of Andrea’s parents. The Kennedys were worried about Andrea’s mental health and the questionable sanitary conditions on the bus, so Russell agreed to buy a house in Clear Lake City which “even had a place to park the bus . . . [something] still very important to Rusty” (Denno 37, 40).
Andrea no longer held substantive leverage in the marriage, much less a voice of empowerment. Further, because of her isolation, she also lacked the social connections to reach out for help. This is instructive: until historically recently, the “myth of motherhood” advanced an overarching, but essentialist idea that being a mother was a universally joyous domestic undertaking; ostensibly, those exempt from the experience — men — stood to institutionally gain from it. This mythology was later challenged by Betty Friedan, who questioned why more attention was not being directed towards the “alienation, loneliness, boredom, and oppression . . . women . . . experienc[ed] at home” (Valentine 76). While motherhood remains for many women an extraordinarily enriching, rewarding life event, it advances that other circumstances must also exist to assist with that positive momentum.
In Andrea’s case, the very inertia she needed was absent, compounding her isolation further: “Restricted access to resources (whether a car, telephone, or relatives living around the corner), recent geographical mobility, and certain types of dwelling may all make lack of social contacts more likely” (Bell and Ribbens 231). To counter this isolation, Bell and Ribbens argued that locality in the proximity of other mothers is a necessary component for helping mothers compare their own experiences against those of peers, all of whom in effect act as “‘social agents’ on behalf of their spouses and children, linking them to the world beyond their household” (Ibid. 234). With Russell’s unusual choices of location to situate his family, the spatial stability Andrea needed to establish her peer base was compromised, if not entirely derailed whenever he changed their location.
But even this impediment should not provoke mothers to kill their children. Other attendant considerations must be brought into the equation. For instance, Andrea was exceptional in that she pursued a professional degree early in her life and was a member of an educated class of women by the time she began her engagement with Russell. Diane Rothbard Margolis, a sociologist who set aside her career to raise a family, drew insight from her own experiences and framed the added challenges confronting educated women who become mothers in labour-driven economies:
“Market-oriented social theory assumes that social action . . . presupposes two sides, a kind of quality between the sides, and the power to possess and trade alienable property. Markets require isolated individuals who can sell their labor as freely as they can sell any other commodity. [. . .] The problem is, most of those who need care, babies, for instance, have nothing to trade. [. . .] Thus, as men became subject to a market morality and were required to sell their labor power, women, along with people Rudyard Kipling called ‘‘lesser breeds,’’ continued to perform obligatory labor” (228).
This construct, Margolis argued, helps distinguish how placing people — she referred to this through its common usage (e.g., putting him back into his place) — also essentializes arbitrary social roles as somehow being “natural” rather than constructed (229). She likens this social power of placing to the entire making or breaking of a person’s existence, even if they don’t give consent to be placed by others in that context (Ibid.). Put another way, were others to define you as a ham sandwich, even though you knew you were something else, then you are nevertheless still placed as a ham sandwich.
For Andrea, then, she dealt with a double-bind. She was not only the wife of a patriarchal husband who expected her to adhere to his orthodoxy on spiritual and social placement, but she also possessed the internalized knowledge that her training and experience as a registered nurse were highly marketable, in demand (if not in Houston, then certainly elsewhere), and conceivably one way to re-assert her sense of self-empowerment if she saw a way out. Nevertheless, by the time she gave birth to their fifth child, Mary, she was no doubt aware on some level that returning to her career was impossibly remote, if not entirely lost. Margolis drew a distinction between her experiences as an educated woman and mother which, even though she wrote before the Yates event, distinguished the elective capacity of her own parenting path: she wasn’t forced to choose between career and motherhood, adding that her husband was an anchor of support in her own choices (Ibid. 229–30). By this distinction, Andrea was never supported by Russell to be independent or autonomous, and there was nowhere she could go within her locality to ameliorate her situation — temporarily or otherwise. By June 2001, she had internalized Russell’s religious views, believing she was a woefully inadequate individual, and eventually this self-defeatism narrowed her worldview to the solitary confinement of a domestic sphere (of his house, and of supporting her aging parents at theirs).
It takes a non-existent village: the currency of master-planned social capital
Given what was known about the Yates household, Andrea’s ability to move about the city without Russell’s approval limited her to the most rudimentary of outside contact. Aside from checking in on her father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Andrea’s connection with her outside surroundings was, gently put, sparse (Hollandsworth 2001). The Camino South subdivision offered relative access to community services, provided that one also had access to a vehicle (Harris County Tax Office 159–78). But this subdivision — not a neighbourhood so much as a developer’s tract designed for the function of single family housing — was hardly a mixed-use urban neighbourhood built upon historic layers of cumulative urban events. As with many North American suburban developments conceived after World War II, community development took a back seat as an emerging middle class with enhanced mobility (from more affordable car ownership) led the push for cheap family housing (Pacione 87–8). If Andrea had somehow managed to wriggle away from Russell’s household to develop and nurture her own social, civic, and creative capital, what kind of community would she have found?
Attending church services could have enabled her to network with other mothers. This was not an option under Russell’s purview, since no church nearby was compatible with Woroniecki’s teachings. Likewise, had Andrea managed to enrol the kids into a public school, opportunities to create social linkages in a parent-teacher association (PTA) could have enabled her with more opportunities to meet other mothers who, like her, were raising multiple young children. For the same reasons the Yateses did not attend church, even as they hosted several times weekly a Bible study at their home, the PTA was also beyond Andrea’s grasp (McLellan 1951).
In both examples, these communities constitute a membership-based social network predicated by common interests or experiences — not communities built on spatial interdependency. As dramatized by the film Radiant City, this is not terribly surprising given how the low density urban form of master-planned subdivisions are designed to maintain residential space in one place, civic space in another, and commercial-retail in another yet still — all requiring heavy dependence on cars to navigate between them (Burns and Brown). Urban sociologist Robert Putnam argued that “for a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital” where “networks of civil engagement . . . encourage the emergence of social trust” (121). By this, Putnam assigned value to proximity — a quality afforded to denser, diversified-use urban communities, where chance interactions with other neighbours can open opportunities to connect with social resources within the locality. For example, had the Yates family settled in Brooklyn Heights, NY, Andrea invariably would have run into people on the sidewalk, in the subway, and at local shops in ways impossible within Clear Lake City’s low-density form. Over time, these chance encounters could have triggered conversations — if not with her directly, then between neighbours speaking about her situation.
Granted, there is no way to test this theory, but given the odds of these hypothetical conditions, Andrea could have run into someone with the social capital to know where she could go for reaching out to other community members and curtail her isolation. In Camino South, the most her neighbours actually did was observe her from afar, utterly unaware of (or unfazed by) the extent to which Russell actively sequestered her from other people (Hollandsworth 115–6). By having her raise and educate his children so as to steer them away from those “temptations” which he believed the outside world possessed, Russell also steered Andrea away from the public realm — lest she reclaim any “tempting” ideas about self-empowerment or being affirmed by peers or colleagues for reclaiming it. Even access to a church group could have enabled her to reach out: they “constitute the most common type of organization joined by Americans; they are especially popular with women” (Putnam 123). Russell expressed no interest in organized religion, so this was a non-starter.
Even so, the post-WWII suburban housing model — whose signature trait features rows of driveways and garages, rather than stoops and porches — was built on foundations of efficiency and reproducibility. It reflected a much larger trend from what sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies defined as a Gemeinschaft (social communities built on kinships, friendship, neighbourliness, strong moral codes, and collaborative ties) to a (sub)-urbanizing trend of a Gesellschaft (social communities of weak relationships, cultural heterogeneity, impersonal and brief relationships, and few shared moral codes) (Richardson and Tepperman 112–4; Pacione 368). These social oppositions attempt to distinguish rural from urban, organic from inorganic, and communal from competitive — how each have altered the way people live as they migrated from rural, pastoral settings to rationalized urban systems.
This doesn’t preclude the possibility of establishing tight and lasting communal networks within major cities: Jane Jacobs spoke at great length on the power and value of the urban neighbourhood as an integrated, tight-knit social community (Jacobs). In the context of “creating communities” through master-planned means, engineering an urban environment to re-create a Gemeinschaft has challenged some of the best known urban planners. This kind of social environment develops from the ground up, on its own, and not within the framework of a master plan. Over time, a top-down, master-planned community like Clear Lake City could conceivably develop those polycultural linkages typically ascribed to mature communities. As portrayed by Radiant City, however, transforming a monocultural suburban development into something more diversified than its original designed function is no minor planning challenge (Burns and Brown).
The Gesellschaft social constitution of Clear Lake City was optimized to accommodate highly mobile professionals looking for affordable, yet convertible family housing. Andrea’s spatial relationship to the Houston metro area was less than optimal in terms of her ability to easily reach out and seek community support. J. Eric Oliver, who explored correlations between mental health and suburban development, observed:
“In places where social contact between neighbors is more difficult, stressful, or conflict ridden or where inhabitants find greater difficulty integrating into more formalized social exchanges, feelings of isolation, loneliness, and low self-efficacy may be common, all of which are correlates of depression and psychological distress. Although much of the research linking both physical and social environments is contradictory and inconclusive, these two categories are a useful starting point for examining suburban ennui” (230–1).
Subsequent to his quantitative research, Oliver identified an increased sense of isolation as it related to the income levels prevalent within that locality. Specifically, people of higher income levels with a higher incidence of commuting from the suburban communities experienced a lowered sense of satisfaction in the neighbourhood — linking a correlation between lowered psychological well-being with fewer social connections prevalent in more affluent areas (241–2). Camino South, as with much of Clear Lake City, falls within a purview of the middle-class, although in varying degrees (Harris County Tax Office 159–78).
What this establishes is a relationship between Andrea’s social-psychological condition and her geographical confinement. The juxtaposition of these triggered her mental breaking point. She was imprisoned spiritually by Russell; imprisoned socially from women who were better disposed to understand what she was experiencing as a mother; imprisoned indefinitely from her professional livelihood; and imprisoned spatially by the anomie of Clear Lake City’s arrangement as a monocultural residential project engineered for those with regular access to a car.
Conclusion: avoiding perfect storms
“I was dreaming like a Texan girl. A girl who thinks she’s got the right to everything. A girl who thinks she should have something extreme” (Stewart and Lennox).
This essay’s title was ironic. Despite a music video which graphically portrayed a woman’s mental breakdown inside an isolated suburban household, “Beethoven (I Love to Listen to)”’s lyrics were ill-suited to Andrea. It is instructive to recognize how this essay acts not to absolve her from filicide, since in the end the Yates family were a contemporary tragedy from which no one walked away unscathed. The children, unwitting participants in a lopsided marriage, died before they came of age. A woman, whose brilliant mind was stunted, whose aspirations were suppressed, and whose compassion was downplayed, screamed for help in a most horrific way. A man, whose husbandry was perhaps the wickedest example in recent memory of using social confinement to orchestrate spousal emotional abuse, no longer has his first five children, his first wife, or his own anonymity.
This event was avoidable. Andrea experienced severe post-partum depression, and the help given to her was strictly remedial, not holistic. Russell supported Andrea by giving her a place to live. In return, he expected the world from her. He disallowed non-family friends to support her. Had Russell shared with Andrea the daily parenting affairs of the family, their living arrangements, and their social activities, then perhaps Andrea might have found a social support network beyond him and the kids. If he had allowed a vetted third party to come into their house to homeschool and teach his religious values, then Andrea might have had just enough breathing room to reach out for help. Instead, she blamed herself for failing at motherhood. She may not have wanted her children to discover the humiliation that a smart, aspiring woman — the most successful at her high school — was reduced to a shadow of herself as she carried the crippling burden of managing the Yates domestic sphere on her own. Losing her father just weeks before the killings probably did not help.
In other words, no single condition triggered the drownings. The perfect storm for creating these conditions cannot exonerate her actions. This convergence nevertheless aggravated a novel psychological breaking point — one without precedent in the collective memory of this generation. Arriving to this new conclusion — that geography mattered — means learning to sympathize with her stifling circumstances and, to a lesser degree, empathizing with her domestic-bound isolation. It means trying to imagine what it feels like to be removed from everything, everyone and everywhere most intimately known without actually leaving the city most familiar to one’s memory. It means admitting that North America’s existing urban form still allows for this potential of social isolation.
Breaking points do not exist in vacuums. Breaking points only exist when extreme, imbalanced pressures cannot be relieved through productive channels of catharsis.
- The Eurythmics song title, complemented by the companion promotional music video, is a semantic metaphor. In the video, Lennox portrays a suburban housewife, one confined to a domestic sphere — cleaning, preparing dinner, grocery shopping, etc. At every turn, she is clearly teetering on precipice of a mental collapse — compounded by social isolation, spatial confinement, and mind-numbing domestic routines. Eventually, Lennox’s character snaps and her identity becomes dissociative. It was the first instalment of a Eurythmics song-video trilogy which later hinted that even her housewife persona might be a dissociation from her core self. Andrea Yates experienced a mental breaking point which, while severe, was not necessarily manifest by or diagnosed as a dissociative identity disorder.
- Clear Lake City is not a municipality. It is actually an annexed suburb of Houston whose notoriety during the 1960s and 1970s was fuelled by the establishment of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The region was built on undeveloped, unincorporated greenfields. Several master-planned subdivisions, built in phases over four decades, have housed families of aerospace industry-related workers and contractors — including Mission Control flight specialists and astronauts. In this sense, Clear Lake City’s distinction as a suburb derives from its incipient demography. On a note of disclosure, the author of this essay is intimately familiar with this suburb’s geography, having spent her formative years there between 1979 and 1989; her parents were not employed in the aerospace industry. Also, while she personally did not know any party related to this urban event, she is aware that the Yateses’ residence at 942 Beachcomber Lane was located four blocks, or 500 metres, from the middle school she attended.
- Psychogeography is defined as “the attribution to and representation of space in the topography of the human mind.”
- Given the dearth of historic literature published on Clear Lake City, the author must rely briefly on personal life experiences and her first-hand knowledge of this region’s geography. Camino South constitutes one of a few “core”, master-planned subdivisions built before subsequent phases were added from the late 1970s to the 1990s. The area, at least through 1989, was not served by an integrated public transit system, thus mandating the functional dependence of private automobile ownership. One available reference nevertheless indicates that the rough date of Camino South’s development began sometime between 1966 and 1967.
- Once more, the author draws upon personal experiences, wholly aware that while income dynamics can and do change over time, the basis for Clear Lake City’s many subdivisions — prepared and built in several stages — offers housing for several income levels. Excluding apartment complex rentals, the majority share of housing stock in the area ranges from working middle class, single-family houses in subdivisions (e.g., Camino South, Oakbrook, and Middlebrook), to upper-tier subdivisions (e.g., Bay Oaks or Bay Glen) which host more upper middle class households.
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