fierce attachments

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

Category: politics and religion

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?


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 »

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 »

can we please talk about torture? please?

by nikki meredith

ladies out to dinnerIn mid-December, a few days after Diane Feinstein released the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture, I was dining out with friends. About an hour into dinner, after we’d talked about grandchildren, books, work, movies, our growing list of age-related maladies, there was a pause in the conversation and I blurted: “Can we talk about torture?”

I knew it was abrupt. I knew it was inconsistent with what’s expected in a congenial dining experience but I was desperate to talk about the report. My husband had been away when it was released and I’d been in a self-imposed period of isolation to get some writing done. The report was upsetting to me, not because of any bombshells but because the graphic detail it contained made the monstrous suffering of those men palpable. (Twenty-six of whom, by the way, were later found to be innocent.) The report also revived my anger at Obama. While it’s true that he ordered torture discontinued when he took office, he’s done nothing to promote accountability for what happened or instituted safeguards to prevent it from ever happening again. (I like and respect Obama and agree with him in many other areas…that’s why his failing in this one is heartbreaking to me.)

The answer to my request at dinner that night, as we picked over our pasta and creamy hummus on seared salmon, was a resounding “no.” No one wanted to talk about torture. Read the rest of this entry »

we’ve come a long way, baby. or have we?: is women’s sexuality a substitute for women’s equality?

by nikki meredith

vintage pornI’ve been thinking about sex a lot lately and it all started when I read an account of an all girls circle jerk in a Manhattan Upper East side apartment.  Okay, to be fair, as far as I know, no one but me is calling it a circle jerk.  Jenny Block, a columnist for The Huffington Post, attended a masturbation party…or, more precisely an orgasm party — after all, the former without the latter wouldn’t make much of a party. Again, to be fair, and I’m trying to be, sort of, it wasn’t a party it was a workshop though it had many aspects of a party, or a kind of party. All of the participants were naked and there was lots of sex, and booze.  Okay, actually, I don’t know about the booze.  I can’t seem to stop myself from trying to make the event sound ridiculous as though I don’t trust that the participants can get there on their own. And, speaking of getting there on their own, or, rather, not getting there on their own, a traditional young boy’s circle jerk, as far as I know, doesn’t involve a teacher. (If it did, someone would call the authorities.) The teacher of this, uh, class, was 85-year-old artist Betty Dodson who, in the buff, pranced — okay, maybe she didn’t prance –  she floated from woman to woman administering hands-on instruction.

It may not sound like it, but my purpose here is not to ridicule the workshop but rather to sort what it is that offends me about the whole enterprise.

Does the visual of Dodson’s hands-on work trigger my heretofore undiagnosed homophobia?   Or, does the mere mention of sex and nudity in the same sentence as an 85-year-old woman elicit from me the same bias against old people and sex as expressed by the likes of Chris Rock and Bill Maher?  (I’m just guessing about Bill Maher, but Chris Rock, in a riff about Sex in the City, once declared that the actresses on that show were way too old to be showing their “titties” on camera.) Or is my problem even more primitive?  Does my discomfort put me in the same category as, say, Rick Santorum, who, I’m quite sure would stroke-out if he found himself in the room with all of those masturbating women.  God knows, there are areas of my mind that are more narrow than wide. But, because I find my judgmental self so distasteful, an alarm goes off when it surfaces.  If I find myself rejecting something simply because it wasn’t done in my time or, if it was done, it wasn’t acceptable, I want to know if I’m just lagging behind culturally or if there are reasonable grounds to object. Read the rest of this entry »

Ebola is real. Our risk is not. Protect front line health-workers.

by caitlin meredith

PPE removal.1.1As a field epidemiologist, I have responded to disease outbreaks all over Africa during the past 10 years, from cholera to meningitis to Hepatitis E. Any other year, I’d be in Liberia right now, in gumboots with a map and a spreadsheet, trying to track and contain Ebola’s spread alongside my colleagues. Because of a new baby, however, I’m watching from the sidelines.

So far, what I’ve seen from the bench makes me concerned – not about Ebola’s threat to the United States, but about the mixed messages our leaders are sending and the mob mentality that results when fear overtakes facts.

Though my professional career in international health has been primarily with Doctors Without Borders, I am not speaking on behalf of the organization or my colleagues. I don’t know Dr. Craig Spencer personally, though he worked in Guinea with some of my good friends. I’ve never met nurse Kaci Hickox in person (that I know of) but we corresponded about project data a few years ago. I have e-mailed both of these colleagues messages of support in the past few days, but haven’t been in touch – i.e. I have no insider or personal information about either.  The facts I’m writing about here all come from mainstream news coverage.

Based on my experience as an epidemiologist and aid worker, I offer four main areas of improvement for the U.S. to start getting Ebola management right. Read the rest of this entry »

knocking on doors while black: my neighborhood, my neighbors, my confusion

by nikki meredith

front doorLast week, around noon on a weekday, a young African-American man knocked on my front door. He was there to talk me into signing up for AT&T high speed internet.  As most people know AT&T and Comcast are fiercely competing for subscribers. He said he could save me a lot of money if I switched. I told him we had actually scheduled a switch a couple of weeks before but after interviewing neighbors who had made the change and didn’t like it, we decided to stick with Comcast.   I added that all of my doubts about AT&T were confirmed when I was on hold for 45 minutes while I waited to cancel the installation appointment. He laughed. “Yes,” he said, “there’s been a problem with the way customers have been treated. We’re trying to improve the situation.” He works for a company that contracts with AT&T. Their mandate is to improve customer relations.

There was something about this young man I liked. For one thing there was no hard sell. For another, he had dimples. I’ve always been a sucker for dimples and he was boyishly handsome in a way that reminded me of my son when he was in his early 20’s. Also, there was something endearing about his enthusiasm for the new and improved AT&T. I never thought I would find enthusiasm for AT&T endearing, which gives you some idea of the man’s appeal. I told him to come back in a year and maybe I’d reconsider.

He was nicely dressed in a navy blue blazer, khaki pants, a crisp white shirt and a tie. There was not a single thing about him that signaled danger. These facts will later become relevant. Read the rest of this entry »

Chris Bully Boy Christie: Obesity and Empathy and the New Jersey Govenor

by nikki meredith

Chris Christie snarlingWhen I was in high school, my best friend and I were walking across the parking lot at a southern California beach where my family camped every summer. Three boys our age were walking towards us. My friend and one of the boys, a hefty guy…okay, a fat guy, got into one of those do-si-do routines: each time she stepped to the left, he stepped to his right; each time he stepped to his left, she stepped to her right – neither one could move forward. It’s the kind of situation where someone with good humor, if not much wit, says, “Shall we dance?”  This guy, however, had neither good humor nor wit. He planted his feet in a wide stance, folded his arms, and snarled, “I’m not going to move.”

My friend put her hands on her hips and examined him from head to girth to foot. “You couldn’t move,” she said, “even if you wanted to.”

I was gobsmacked.  On the one hand, I’d been taught by my parents never, ever, to ridicule or even comment on a person’s physical traits.  On the other, I wanted to yell a 1960’s equivalent of you go girl. The guy was a bully and clearly the back-up of his snickering buddies bolstered his bullishness.

I think of that incident and my dual reaction almost every time I see Chris Christie on television and I’ve been seeing him a lot lately because of an incident involving the George Washington bridge where he is alleged to have thrown his weight around with, if not dire consequences, certainly inconvenient ones for a considerable number of people. I’ll get to that in a minute but first let’s review some highlights of the Gov’s bullying tendencies: Read the rest of this entry »

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