Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Whose Write?
by Ruth Pennebaker

When I first heard that Suzy Spencer was writing a book on the Andrea Yates case, I was surprised. Spencer, whom I have known casually since we moved to Austin five years ago, has excellent professional credentials, with two previous true-crime books, and she is driven, thorough and articulate. But she was writing about one of the most horrifying crimes of our time Ė a motherís murder of her five children Ė and she is not a mother.

After seeing Suzy on national television several times, talking about the case and promoting her book, Breaking Point, I finally ran into her at a literary event. I thought I asked her the question fairly directly: I wanted to know whether someone who is not a mother could really write the story of a mother who had murdered her children.

Suzy didnít answer the question I thought I had asked. She said she thought most mothers could not have written Breaking Point; it would have been too threatening and horrifying for them. We didnít have much time to talk, so I didnít pursue the question. Either I hadnít asked it clearly, I thought, or Suzy hadnít heard it correctly.

By the time I talked to Suzy Spencer again, I had read Breaking Point. I read it hoping for easy answers and someone to blame. I finished it with no answers and a multitude to blame.

Reading the book is like watching a tragic, macabre game of pinball, as a desperately ill woman ricochets from overwhelming family demands to mental hospitals and back again, getting good treatment, getting bad treatment, getting no treatment, occasionally getting better, but inevitably and finally getting worse. Insurance companies, a deeply flawed mental-health system, a husband who seemed both loving and blind, and the continuing stigma and secrecy that surround mental illness all contributed to the deaths of those five young children.

It has now been almost two years since Andrea Yates killed her children and many months since a Houston judge sentenced her to life in prison. During this time, Suzy Spencerís book has been published and has sold well. It is time, finally, for her to stop thinking and talking about the Yates case, her friends tell her. It is time for her to move on.

Spencer, 47, never had children because she was not able to. But she believes she understands what it is like to be like Andrea Yates Ė always eager to please, never asking for anything for herself, always feeling herself a failure if she is not perfect. Like Yates, she has suffered from depression, as well, although hers has been lower-level and chronic. "Iíve never come close to the depths of Andreaís suffering," is how she puts it.

After I talked to Suzy Spencer, I thought about the question I tried to ask her and about why Andrea Yatesí case has haunted me so. I am a mother who has grappled with depression myself. I am also the child of a mother who suffered from severe post-partum depression, as well as recurring depressions throughout her life. My mother was never able to tell me why she was hospitalized for two weeks after I was born. Similarly, it has been the most wrenching and difficult task I have ever faced to speak to my almost-grown children about my own depressions. It is hard to talk to children, of any age, about your own deepest terrors and flaws.

I think that we as writers and human beings define ourselves by the stories we tell Ė and the stories we do not tell. To Suzy Spencer, the story she wants to tell is that mental illness must be recognized, treated and covered by insurance so that other, new tragedies can be prevented. It is too late for Andrea Yates and her children, but perhaps she can help others. She canít let go of the story till she feels she has done more good with it.

As a mother, my vantage point is a little different. I think of all the mothers out there who are overwhelmed by the responsibility of having young children, who feel lonely and depressed and isolated, as both my mother and I once were. Andrea Yatesí unthinkable act must terrify them Ė as it would have terrified me when my children were young. It is all the more terrifying because it is so unspeakable, hidden in our deepest and worst fears about ourselves.

Suzy Spencerís answer was right. As a mother, I could never have written a book like Breaking Point.

But if I am going to write, I have to tell the stories that scare me the most. Otherwise, why bother at all?
Ruth Pennebaker, a contributing columnist to The Dallas Morning News, says that most of her work is based, unfortunately, on personal experience. She has published essays and articles in The New York Timesí Hers column and op-ed page, the Washington Post, Parents, Redbook, McCallís, Cooking Light and other nationwide publications. She has also written for public television and radio, KERA Channel 13 and 90.1 in Dallas, including Channel 13ís statewide production of Votersí Revenge.  Ms. Pennebaker is the author of three critically acclaimed young-adult novels, Donít Think Twice, Conditions of Love, and Both Sides Now, and she has been a featured author three times at the Texas Book Festival. A Texas Family Time Capsule, which is Ruth Pennebakerís most recent book and a collection of her best newspaper columns, is what most mental-health experts would call a cry for help from a woman who finds herself trapped in a world teeming with Martha Stewart and Monica Lewinsky, middle-aged centerfolds in Playboy and remote-control fireplaces, holiday newsletters that induce nationwide nausea, abuse of apostrophes, and time-management tips for toddlers. One of the essays from this book, on his and hers versions of pregnancy, is being produced by the Dallas Museum of Artís Arts & Letters Live series in February 2003. Ms. Pennebaker lives in Austin with her mad-scientist husband, two adolescent children, and a neutered cat, and claims she is now working on another novel.