Andrea Yates said Satan told her to drown her five children.
Deanna Laney said the Lord sent her signs to beat her three sons with stones.
And the night before Dena Schlosser became the latest Texas mother to take her child’s life, she told her husband she wanted to give her children to God. The suburban Dallas mother was charged with capital murder for severing her 10-month-old baby’s arms. Attorneys were expected to discuss her competency in court Tuesday.
Women who kill their children commonly cite God, the devil and other religious influences for their actions. Although the mothers are also often found to be severely mentally ill or psychotic, the recurring theme of religiosity begs the question: Is religion to blame?
Theologians, sociologists and psychiatrists generally say no. They say religiosity is a common theme among psychotics because hallucinations and delusions usually take familiar forms.
“Most of the people in nut houses are religious because most Americans are religious,” said Rodney Stark, a social sciences professor at Baylor University. “We know what causes schizophrenia and it isn’t going to church. It’s biochemical.”
But some experts suggest mental illness is harder to detect and treat in faiths more inclined to attribute odd behavior to Satan and trust prayer over medicine.
“They’re not seeing this as a mental illness. They’re seeing it as the person having demons, perhaps, or a sin problem or not being spiritually fulfilled,” said Roger Olson, a theology professor at Baylor’s Truett Seminary.
And, in some fundamentalist environments, symptoms of mental illness can appear normal: Obsession over a religious leader can be interpreted as religious fervor, and delusions can be interpreted as religious visions.
Schlosser’s husband wasn’t alarmed when she told him she wanted to give her children to God, according to Texas’ Child Protective Services. The agency took temporary custody of the couple’s other girls, ages 6 and 9, after the baby was killed, and cited the father’s failure to act after his wife’s warning.
The Schlossers attended the non-denominational Water of Life church, led by Doyle Davidson, a self-proclaimed prophet who teaches that women possess a rebellious jezebel spirit and that the Ten Commandments don’t apply to the righteous.
Schlosser’s parents believe Davidson’s teachings helped push her toward a psychotic break, but Davidson dismisses those claims, saying he had little interaction with the Schlossers.
In Laney’s case, the lifelong Pentecostal told her congregation in the East Texas town of Tyler that the world was ending and God told her to get her house in order. No one expressed concern, though psychiatrists later determined Laney was psychotic at the time.
Laney used rocks to beat to death two young sons and severely maim her toddler in 2003. She was acquitted by reason of insanity earlier this year.
Dr. Phillip Resnick, who testified in Laney’s trial, said he was struck by comments Laney’s pastor made when asked about symptoms of mental illness.
“He indicated that, had some of these things come to his attention, he would have referred her to a religious person, rather than to a psychiatrist, to correct her religious perceptions,” Resnick said.
“If you’re a hammer, things look like a nail. So if you’re a religious person, you tend to think of religion as the answer to the problem,” he said.
Olson said that while religion doesn’t cause mental illness, he believes existing conditions can be inflamed by religious environments where leaders demand absolute obedience and claim to speak for God.
People with schizophrenia, personality disorders and a host of other mental disorders may be drawn such faiths for their structure, he said.
“This kind of culture, religious atmosphere, group dynamic can set up a situation where that person is more likely to act out in aggressive ways under tremendous pressure,” Olson said.
In a recent study of 39 Ohio and Michigan women – all acquitted by reason of insanity in the deaths of their children since the 1970s – about 15 had religious-themed delusions, said Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman, a psychiatry fellow at Case Western Reserve University.
Another study of 56 Michigan mothers referred for psychiatric evaluations from 1974-1976 after killing their children found nearly a fourth of them experienced religious delusions, said study co-author Dr. Catherine Lewis, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center.
She said nearly all the women were Christian and many attended fundamentalist churches, but cautioned against assumptions.
“What isn’t clear is what’s causing what,” she said. “Is the church causing people to develop these feelings or are people with these feelings more likely to gravitate toward a fundamentalist church?”
Yates, Laney and Schlosser all followed Christian fundamentalist teachings. So did their husbands, but with less zeal than their wives.
Schlosser’s parents said she became religious in the last several years, reading the Bible and trying to convert them to the Davidson’s teachings. Laney became much more devout before the killings, hearing God’s voice and waking early to study the Bible, according to trial testimony.
Yates, the Houston mother sentenced to life in prison, said she drowned her children in 2001 to save them from eternal damnation. Before the killings, she corresponded with a traveling preacher who taught that only the saved could avoid hell’s fires.
Resnick said religious delusions often convince mothers that they’re saving children from evil or proving their faith to God.
“If you think about why a parent would kill a child, since there’s a natural love and protective instinct, one would say it would have to be overcome with a psychotic belief that they’re doing what’s in the child’s best interest,” he said.