fierce attachments

a mother-daughter blog about the fierce attachments in our lives… title inspired by Vivian Gornick's wonderful memoir

governor brown bows to pressure and reverses former manson family member leslie van houten’s parole approval

by nikki meredith

I’m discouraged that Governor Brown, for the second year in a row, has refused to follow the parole board’s recommendation to release Leslie Van Houten. I’m also surprised. For those of us who have followed his political career from a law-and-order hard liner as a young governor to a humane, seasoned and, we thought, wise leader as an older governor, this is a major disappointment. When he was younger, he didn’t believe in rehabilitation. Now he’s known as a governor who believes in second chances, but not in this case. Here, he’s bowing to pressure from the loudest and the most reactionary voices in the criminal justice system.

The murders of Mr. and Mrs. La Bianca were horrific. No one disagrees. To this day, the description of the events of that night takes my breath away but to keep Leslie Van Houten locked-up almost 50 years later is not just, by any stretch. If it had not been a high profile crime, she would have been paroled many years ago. There isn’t a single person who actually knows her who believes that she’s dangerous and that includes mental health professionals who have evaluated her, professors she’s studied under, journalists who have interviewed her, correctional officers she’s worked with side-by-side. Her case file is filled with reports demonstrating that she’s not only rehabilitated now, she has been for several decades.

[Brown] also noted Van Houten’s exemplary conduct in prison. Supporters and prison staff have described her as a model inmate who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and, as Brown put it, “exceptional work ratings as a tutor.” Van Houten also took leadership roles in self-help efforts among inmates. (LA Times)

Brown acknowledges her many achievements but he’s still keeping her locked up. His rationale last year was that Leslie remains an unreasonable risk to society because of her “inability to explain her willing participation in such horrific violence.”

I spent 20 years interviewing among the best and the brightest social psychologists and brain scientists who couldn’t, with any accuracy, explain Leslie’s participation in such horrific violence. How was it was possible that a young girl raised by loving parents, a girl with many gifts and much promise was able to mute her basic humanity to such a degree that she murdered Mrs. Rosemarie LaBianca, a woman she did not know, on the orders of Charles Manson?

At a 2002 parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: “I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson.” (LA Times)

I’m sorry to call our governor a liar but he’s certainly not being truthful when he claims that she doesn’t take responsibility for her involvement. Only someone determined to distort who she is can make that statement. The determination to distort who she is has been the problem since the first parole hearing.  In 2002,  San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Bob Krug harshly rebuked the parole board for ignoring Leslie’s exemplary prison record, accusing the board of denying parole for Van Houten in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in deciding that she remains a threat to public safety based solely on the severity of her crime. “They can’t keep using the crime forever and ever. That turns her sentence into life without parole,” the judge wrote. “If I was Miss Van Houten, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do….”

So what gives with Brown? At the age of 79 his political future can’t have figured prominently in his calculations. Is this about his legacy? If so, I can’t argue with that. No one would have erected a statue in his honor for doing right by a former member of the Manson family — so yes, it would have taken courage, apparently courage he doesn’t have.

The travesty is that he allowed himself to be pressured by people who don’t know Leslie at all – victim groups and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. The disproportionate power these two groups have wielded in the parole process has resulted in the mess our correctional system is in now. But, thanks to the passage of Proposition 57, a measure the governor supported, the power is being returned to parole boards and away from D.A.s. Leslie’s case is a perfect example of why that needs to happen.

Victim groups and district attorneys are invested in keeping the pain and anguish of the original crimes fresh. For families of victims, cleaving to that pain is a way of honoring the ones they lost, but it’s also fueled by revenge. Prosecutors aren’t generally interested in how inmates have changed. Rehabilitation is not part of their vocabulary. Their priority is to make sure everyone remembers how bad the crime was – especially in high profile cases. It garners votes.

Violent behavior of ordinary people has bewildered civilized society as long as there’s been civilized society. How do people who have been identified as “normal” become killers? In Rwanda, how could ordinary Hutus slaughter 800,000 of their neighbors, friends and relatives? How could “normal” Germans participate in the annihilation of 6 million Jews? How was it possible for a platoon of regular U.S. soldiers in My Lai to massacre hundreds of innocent Vietnamese villagers — women, children, old people? There are theories and there are clues but we are not yet at the point of understanding cause and effect at the most fundamental level. We do know that those who murdered in these situations weren’t all psychopaths. They weren’t all monsters. They were “normal” people vulnerable to social forces that turned them into killers and sometimes rather quickly. We have a designated place in our chamber of horrors for psychopaths. We have no such place for someone who is “normal.”

Instead of helping her, Leslie’s positive attributes – of which there are many – have repeatedly been used against her. Steven Kay, the former deputy district attorney who argued against her release for over four decades always viewed her rehabilitation with suspicion. He said more than once and to more than one reporter, that of all the former members of the Manson family, Charles Manson was the one he continued to respect: “Charlie has changed so little over the years. He’s basically the same old Charlie.”

If that’s the yardstick he’s using, he’s right. Leslie is not the same old Leslie. She understands the gravity of the crimes and the terrible harm she caused but she is also an example of what kind of rehabilitation is possible when everything works the way it should — an individual who is motivated to change, family and friends who support her in that change, the availability of psychotherapy and education and the opportunity to help others. Leslie is an example of what can happen when the system works the way it should. In recommending her release, the parole board recognized this. How long will it take for a governor to?


manson’s followers, and what they reveal about human nature, are his true legacy

by nikki meredith

Sociopaths are a dime a dozen but we would not even know Charles Manson’s name without the young people he attracted and manipulated.  Manson’s legacy is not only the violent, senseless deaths of innocent people, it’s the way normal people – people like you and me – came under his spell. We dismiss those people at our peril:  the methods ISIS uses are the same, the methods Jim Jones used were the same. There are bloody examples throughout the modern world from Nazi Germany to Rwanda. What attracts people to them, crazy as it sounds, is the false promise of a better world.  These relationships are fueled by a twisted idealism that puts the objects of their focus in grave danger.  Manson was very good at telling people in search of meaning and family what they wanted and needed to hear. The legacy of his notoriety should be studying ways to interfere with the influence malevolent charismatic leaders have so we can better predict and prevent the violence they perpetuate.

My book, The Manson Women and Me, will be published in March, 2018.

that brief period where I tried to hold on to my sanity: news blackout in the time of trump

by nikki meredith


I took a break from life in the mainstream – a six-month break to be exact. After the election, I dug a hole in the sand, firmly planted my head in it and vowed that I wouldn’t pull it out until there was evidence that my husband had won the worst fight we ever had. Let me explain.

On that dreadful morning when the country, at least the civilized portion of it, was trying to comprehend what had just happened, I looked across the breakfast table at my husband and noticed that he didn’t look terrified. “Don’t you dare not be undone by this,” I said. “I don’t want to hear any of your optimistic bullshit. This is a disaster of disastrous proportions…there is no good face to put on it.” He, nonetheless, dared: he said he continued to believe that our checks and balances were, eventually, going to right the ship. I told him he was dead wrong. The Republicans controlled everything. It was over. Read the rest of this entry »

my mother, my country

by nikki meredith

I had my teeth cleaned last week and while my mouth was rendered unusable by me, the dental hygienist started talking about her husband. He works for a Bay Area police department and had just returned from some kind of law enforcement conference in Florida. At one point her conversation veered to the political and I held my breath or as much as I could hold my breath with someone’s hands in my mouth.  I braced myself for a right wing rant.  But that’s not what happened.  She said when her husband returned home from his trip, he walked in the door and flopped down the living room couch.  He looked at her and said,  “I don’t recognize this country any more.”



While he was in Florida he saw campaign signs – apparently many of them – that freely, openly and unapologetically, used the n word in their anger-relled declarations.

“Can you imagine,” she said to me, “what it must be like for African- Americans to drive around and see those signs?” Read the rest of this entry »

dogs trump division: making canine peace with friends that support trump

by nikki meredith

donkey elephantThere’s a woman at my gym I like. A lot. We do weight training in small groups and I like bitching with her about how heavy the weights, how awkward the positions or how sore we’ll be the next day. I like gossiping with her about the gym manager’s love affairs. I like laughing with her. We laugh a lot and we laugh at the same things. I like the way she looks. She has intense azure eyes and an off-kilter smile.   She has an abundance of warmth and…let me stop there because I’m describing chemistry and everyone reading this will know what I’m talking about. I’m attracted to her in that ineffable way people are attracted to each other and usually prefer not to analyze because there’s an element of magic to it… but I’ve been forced to think about it because of Donald Trump.

About a year ago, she and I were pedaling side by side on elliptical machines and watching CNN. Trump’s face appeared on the screen and she said:

“I get a kick out of him.”

“Trump?” I asked, astonished. Read the rest of this entry »

where the rubber hits the road: a closeted prude listens to modern sex advice

by nikki meredith

I have a new secret pleasure. It’s not actually secret — I’ve mentioned it to a few people – and, though it involves sex, it’s not exactly pleasurable for reasons I’m about to explain. Come to think of it, it’s not even very new.

Every Tuesday, for the past six months, I put a leash on my dog, ear buds in my ears and head out the door to my local gym and on the way to that gym I listen to the Savage Lovecast, billed as love and sex advice from America’s sweetheart, Dan Savage. I kind of love Dan Savage. I say kind of because a while back he would occasionally go on fat people rants that I found offensive and not consistent with his generally compassionate approach to people. He doesn’t do it any more but I haven’t quite forgiven him. He is, however, an ardent advocate for LGBT rights…actually for lots of rights, gay and straight and, with the fat exception, I agree with him about 99 percent of the time when he’s not talking about sex. When he’s giving advice about sex, I agree with him about 97 percent of the time. Maybe it’s actually 95 percent or possibly 90. Sometimes it’s closer to 50 percent of the time or 20 percent. Perhaps, it isn’t his advice I disagree with. It’s the whole premise of the show. Read the rest of this entry »

I helped elect Richard Nixon in 1968.

by nikki meredith

nixon with fist

I recently had to remind myself of this fact. It was the only way to stop my rant against Susan Sarandon, a Bernie surrogate, after she told Chris Hayes on MSNBC last month that she wasn’t sure she’d vote for Hillary against Donald Trump. My adrenalin oozed a liter or two when she said that electing Trump wouldn’t be so bad because it would hasten the revolution…and, with an impish smile on her face added, “…if he gets in, things will really explode.” My forbearance does not extend to a rich white movie actress who cheers on a revolution in which neither her life nor her lifestyle would be imperiled.

I find it astonishing that Sarandon failed to learn anything about consequences when Ralph Nader helped defeat Al Gore in 2000. She was serving as co-chair of Nader’s national steering committee when he argued that electing George W. Bush wouldn’t be so bad because it could serve as a “provocateur,” awakening the power of the left. “If it were a choice between a provocateur and an ‘anesthetizer,’ I’d rather have a provocateur. It would mobilize us.” Hey Mr. Nader, Ms. Sarandon, how did that turn out for you? For us? For the people of Iraq? For all of the Middle East?

But back to Nixon and me. Read the rest of this entry »

Carol Doda, Rest in Peace

by nikki meredith

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 9.52.59 AMA national treasure died last month and because I had the opportunity to intersect with her, my life and even more, my husband’s life, was a tiny bit more thrilling. Carol Doda was a true pioneer — one of the first women, at least in the Bay Area, to have her breasts pumped up with silicone injections. One morning her bust size was 34B, later that day it was 44DD. A star was born. She was widely credited with triggering a nationwide topless revolution as a 26-year-old go-go dancer in 1964 and it was that year that I first saw her. Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 9.53.28 AMI was a student at Cal eating my lunch on the grass when I saw her walking across campus with the student body president, Mel Levine. In those days, Levine, who later served in the California State Assembly, was known as a bit of a prig but that day, strutting next to the lovely Miss Doda, he looked like he’d won the lottery. Pleased as punch comes to mind. In my memory he was wearing a three-piece pin striped suit but, in fact, it might have been a blazer – it was clear, however, that he was dressed for an occasion. As I watched them make their way to the Student Union, I was a little worried about Miss Doda. She seemed a little wobbly in her three-inch heels and because she was so tiny, gave the illusion of being perilously top heavy. (I say illusion because I don’t think liquid silicone is heavy.) It looked to me that Mr. Levine was trying hard to focus on walking and talking and not stealing sideways glances at her breasts. Anyway, they were on their way to some kind of appearance, though, for the life of me, I can’t remember for what event. A lecture on quantum physics? The history of the rotary engine? The silicone chip? Maybe I don’t remember the topic because I didn’t attend, I only read an account of it the next day in the Daily Cal.

Before I relate the account, let me set the scene. Read the rest of this entry »

rice sock: pretty weird, sometimes useful

by caitlin meredith

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 9.12.18 PMI just opened a better-forgotten drawer at the bottom of my dresser and a flutter of tiny moths burst from dark to light. Though I should’ve just shoved the drawer closed and deleted the event from my working memory so as to not have to launch counter warfare (which we all know is impossible – my favorite line from an article about how to eradicate moths from your home: That said, it is possible to defeat moths. You could, for instance, burn your house down.) I peered into the drawer to see what piece of clothing I’d be dumping in the bin. Instead of cloth, however, I saw….rice. What the fuck? There were tufts of pastel pink and blue threading surrounding the main pile, with a nicely tied twine bow laid to the side. I’ve been accused of moderate hoarding (I say it doesn’t count if your favorite childhood bathing suit is in a box labeled “can’t throw away for some reason”) but pantry supplies in the bedroom were never my weakness. Finally it hit me: The fucking rice sock.

Did you know that you can go your whole life without hearing the term “rice sock” and then all of a sudden have it rain down on you like bird poop in a bad parking spot? Read the rest of this entry »

daddy’s home: how getting a dog can break relationship rules

by nikki meredith

couple in matching shirtsI’d like to blame my husband for this deviant practice but, in truth, I started it. Even so, I think I can still blame him because the practice doesn’t bother him as much as it bothers me. In fact, it may not bother him at all but I’m too busy being bothered by it to focus on whether it bothers him.

I wish I could say that the “practice” to which I refer involves sex because it’s been an awfully long time since anyone proposed a new and/or unusual and/or exotic sex practice – so long, in fact, I can’t even remember what such a sex practice might have been. I fear that what I considered new and unusual sex practices in my day, what most people considered unusual and/or exotic sex practices in my day, are all now de rigueur for kids in the sixth grade.

While it doesn’t involve sex, it does involve marriage, my marriage. But to start from the beginning: when we were in the early stages of becoming a couple I knew at some point I would have to divulge my two relationship rules. Although the first rule doesn’t have anything to do with the second one, and the second rule is more or less the subject of this post, I’m going to mention both because I hope to establish my credentials as being, if not precisely cool, at least not entirely un-cool in the domestic arena.   Also, I want to mention both rules because, I believe, that having only two demonstrates that I’m hardly tyrannical in the relationship department. (It’s possible that I’ve established a few more since then, but never mind.) Read the rest of this entry »

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