fierce attachments

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

Category: science/research

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

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 »

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 »

i will never understand men: hard-wired attraction and the quest for companionship

by nikki meredith

group of men2My last memory of Jacob was on a bright, February day. The air had a crisp, astringent quality. We had just finished our monthly hike in the woods behind my house and we were having lunch at a local café. My dog, Alice, still panting from the hike, was tethered to his chair. He leaned down to stroke her ears and she swooned. He loved her and loving a dog was a new experience for him. I was urging him to get a dog of his own. He was lonely. At times, howlingly lonely.

“No,” he said, “I’ll wait until I meet someone.”

“So you want a dog to alleviate your loneliness but you want to wait until you meet someone at which point you won’t need a dog to alleviate your loneliness.”

He laughed.

We argued a lot. We argued about many things but one particular argument we’d been having off and on for more than 25 years. He would only date women who were younger, quite a bit younger. I didn’t like it.

If I had known he would be dead in another two weeks, would I have fought with him at all that day? Or would I have fought more fiercely? Would I have been more insistent that he do what he had to do to open his mind and heart to other possibilities? 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 »

six weeks in the desert: green valley, arizona

by nikki meredith

desert museum landscape

At home above my desk I have posted this poem by Mary Oliver:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Oliver calls the poem “instructions for living a life” and it’s advice I try implementing every day of the year — every day except for the six weeks between Memorial Day and the 4th of July.   I don’t have to work on it then because I spend that time in the southern part of the Sonoran Desert and paying attention is a matter of survival. If I don’t I might find myself with the fangs of a rattlesnake sunk into my foot, swarmed by Africanized bees, or charged by a Javelina – to name but a few of the perils I have encountered. One night when I wasn’t paying attention my husband and I, after dinner at a local restaurant, took a walk under a full moon and an ink black sky. I was wearing sandals and stepped on a hive of harvester ants.  Man, were they pissed-off! I spent the better part of that night dabbing toothpaste on multiple stings to relieve the pain. (It helped!)

Most people who can, leave the area in June because of  triple digit temperatures — many days it’s 110 and above — but initially I came because of the heat. If you’re looking for a place to write, the conditions are ideal. There is nothing else to do for most of the day but stay planted in front of a computer in an air-conditioned house.  If I’m not on the trail, by 7 a.m., my morning walk feels more like a death march. Read the rest of this entry »

the last on my list of the most amazing and possibly even true scientific phonomena that blow my mind, continued: Lucy

by nikki meredith

beach woman holding monkeyLucy was an unabashedly uninhibited girl of the ‘60’s for whom the sexual revolution was beside the point. She was able to tap into her erotic resources with no help from Masters and Johnson and she instinctively took responsibility for her own orgasms without so much as a glance at Our Bodies, Ourselves.   Lucy’s story made an impression on me. A big impression.  After reading about her,  I never felt quite the same about a lot of things – sex, the female anatomy, couches, naked men, images of naked men, vacuum cleaners.

Lucy was a chimp who was raised from infancy by Dr. Maurice Temerlin, a University of Oklahoma psychology professor, and his wife Jane.  The couple treated Lucy as a daughter and, as such, tried to socialize her the way they would a human daughter. They arranged for her to learn rudimentary American sign language, they taught her to sit with them at the dinner table, eat with utensils, dress herself and, to some extent, maintain personal hygiene. They had some success in each area, though they made more progress with table manners than with toilet use. And I first read Temerlin’s account of life with Lucy in the late 1960’s in an article in Psychology Today. All of it was interesting but the following was, well, mind blowing. Read the rest of this entry »

my top ten list of the most amazing and possibly even true scientific phenomena that blow my mind, continued: the coolidge effect

by nikki meredith

rooster and his henI wonder if anyone will take offense if I propose that when it comes to sex, males have an appetite for novelty.  I’m not sure appetite is the right word when you’re talking about non-human animals but scientists refer to the male predilection for variety as the Coolidge Effect.  A bull, worn out from copulation, shows no interest in the cow he just had his way with.  But bring on a new cow, and he’ll be rarin’ to go. I remember interviewing one researcher who said that, in his experience, the Coolidge Effect in rams is nearly infinite. “As long as you keep supplying the male with new ewes, he’ll keep going until his body wears out.”

I came across the Coolidge effect when I was writing an article for Psychology Today about the differences between the sex lives of gay men and straight men.  At the time, gay men, on average, had vastly more sexual partners so seemed more predisposed to the phenomenon. Heterosexual men were barely holding their own and the theory was that in order to be in relationships with women, men had to tamp down their natural appetite for variety. There’s been a cultural sea change since then and in any case, one needs to be cautious when applying biological principles across species.  The term, however, does have its origins with humans. Some people say the following story is apocryphal.  I prefer to think that it’s not because I love it. Read the rest of this entry »

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