You say in the introduction to The Manson Women And Me
that you discovered that your life had been affected by some of the same cultural influences as Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel. Please explain.
Nikki Meredith: For four years I lived in the Haight-Ashbury, the district in San Francisco where Leslie landed when she left her family and where she met Catherine Share who eventually hooked her up with Manson. I was attending graduate school of Social Work at SF State and my then-husband was in medical school at U.C. which is on the hill overlooking the neighborhood. At the time, the Haight was the epicenter of a major cultural upheaval nationwide. Everywhere you looked institutions were being challenged and in some cases upended. At SF State there was a major strike -- my school lost its accreditation – and the medical school was also in turmoil. One example: my husband and I were in an ongoing weekend encounter group for married couples led by a doctor on the faculty. The boundary between the professor and the students and their wives was so permeable that our faculty leader, who was married, brought his mistress, not his wife, to the group where they worked on their issues. As I write in the book, on the weekends, the medical students emoted openly -- wept about their childhoods or the pressures of being med students, declared sexual feelings for each other’s wives -- and then on Monday morning donned the usual uniform of boundaries, starched white lab coats, and headed for the hospital. This was just one example of the way society was changing and changing fast.
The conformity of the 1950s had given away to infatuation with change. Alter your clothes, grow your hair, change your name, unleash your sexual inhibitions. Try everything, experiment constantly, accept nothing as given. Timothy Leary, with his tune-in-turn-on-drop-out exhortation to young people everywhere, promoted "the death of the mind" through LSD. Reality, he declared, is an illusion. At the 1967 Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, dressed in white robes, Leary, spouting rhetoric soon to be parroted by Manson, "The only way out is in" and urged people to start their own religions. "You are a god, live like one," was the refrain. Proselytizers like Leary, drunk on drugs, spirituality, and their own grandiosity, either didn't know or didn't care how this death-of-the-mind message got translated to kids like Pat and Leslie who had barely formed minds to begin with or how literally some might take the invitation to act like a god.
Four months after the Be-In and two months before the summer of love, 30-year-old Manson moved out of federal prison and into the Haight-Ashbury. (He’d been in and out of prison for the previous seventeen years for a variety of crimes -- grand theft auto, pimping, mail fraud.) He had discovered a predator’s paradise. "Pretty little girls running around every place with no panties or bras and asking for love," he said in Manson Speaks, a book written with Nuel Emmons, a former prison mate. "It was a convict’s dream after being locked up for seven years."
Question: In your book you talk about reconnecting with Steve Kay who was a friend of yours at Hollywood High. He was second chair to Vincent Bugliosi in the 1971 trial. What role did he play in your book?
Nikki Meredith: He was invaluable in the beginning. He arranged for me to spend time with Patti Tate, Sharon’s sister who, like the rest of her family loved Steve because he was such an ardent defender of victims and an equally ardent enemy of anyone connected to the other side. In the book I talk about observing him in court trying a man for murdering a young model. During the trial, I sat behind the victim’s weeping mother and appreciated how important it is, when a case is being adjudicated, to have dedicated advocates for victims and their families. But when I followed Steve during Leslie and Pat’s parole hearings, I soon realized that, in those situations, he stood for injustice. Every time Leslie appeared before the parole board, he would scour the record for any tiny discrepancy in details about the murders she had reported over the decades and completely ignore her accomplishments. He claimed his opposition was based on knowing the women but he didn’t know them at all. In Leslie’s case, he completely disregarded the opinions of the people who did know her – professional therapists, teachers and friends. At one of Pat’s parole hearing he said she had no more regard for people “like you and me” than she did for a piece of Kleenex you blow your nose into. It was both dishonest and unfair. As much as I liked him, I came to understand that he was not committed to justice he was committed to punishment and would make his case, even if it meant stretching the truth.
Question: What were your reasons for writing this book?
Nikki Meredith: Although I didn’t know it at the time, the idea for this book began to form when I was a child and learned that Hitler had killed six million Jews simply because they were Jewish. Because I had a Jewish grandmother, I assumed I would have been one of them had I lived in Germany at the time. The idea that I could lose my life through no fault of my own but because of a label was terrifying. I was 12 when I read the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. My family was in Europe at the time and my mother told me about Dachau. I started having nightmares about Hitler and it was the beginning of my need to understand, my obsession to answer the question: why?
In the book, the story of the Tate-LaBianca murders is the starting point -- an investigation as to the why of it -- but I include a look at the large scale events in my lifetime that share similarities with those murders: the massacre at My Lai; the genocide in Rwanda where neighbors slaughtered neighbors and friends, almost a million of them, and where my family visited in 2006; the killing of farmers by the Janjaweed in Darfur where my daughter worked with Doctor Without Borders in 2004; Abu Ghraib, where the Americans brutalized and tortured prisoners and now the horror of ISIS. In all of these cases people who, like Pat and Leslie, had seemed normal their whole lives, whose parents had loved them, who had material advantages but inflicted terrible suffering, murdered people for no apparent reason. Why?
Question: How did you attempt to answer the question of “why?”
Nikki Meredith: In addition to talking to the women themselves, I tried to penetrate the mysteries raised by the behavior of these women by peering through several different prisms — neuroscience, culture, family, psychology, and social psychology. In doing so, I learned a great deal about human behavior, much of it disheartening, but some of it was proof of our capacity as humans to transform ourselves, even those of us who have committed unspeakable crimes.
Question: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about the women?
Nikki Meredith: To this day, the most surprising aspect of the case was this: after brutally murdering those people, it took Pat and Leslie a full five years to feel anything remotely like regret or empathy for the suffering of their victims. And it wasn’t because they didn’t observe the suffering. Both of them could describe in troubling detail how their victims responded but they felt nothing. It was always one of the first questions I asked neuroscientists when I wrote to them. If we had been able to hook their brains up to functional MRI’s, what would it have shown? The brain science isn’t there yet.
I interviewed a former member of the Unification Church who helped me understand the way an organization or an individual like Manson infiltrates the brain and is able to replace someone’s basic values, actually someone’s humanity, with his control.
Another way of looking at it was provided to me by a social psychologist at the University of Texas who is researching young jihadists. He talks about the process of identity fusion with a group. Young people who are feeling dislocated, fuse with a group in such a visceral way, the group supplants their individual moral values. Pat and Leslie along with Susan Atkins were isolated in a make-shift death row for the first five years of their incarceration. I wonder if that isolation actually helped perpetuate the fusion by sealing them off from the prison community.
Question. You have said that in the beginning you saw yourself as different from these women and after getting to know them and thinking about your history, you no longer believe that. What do you mean?
Nikki Meredith: I mean that many of us believe we aren’t the kind of people who could ever ……….. You fill in the blank. For me, one example of that was being in an abusive relationship. Some of the ways Manson manipulated Pat and Leslie, even to the point of having them murder for him, were characteristic of abusive husbands. I’ve done articles on this issue in the past and I believed I wasn’t one of those women. It wasn’t until I started spending time with Pat and Leslie that I remembered I was that kind of woman.
In the process of looking back on my life, I remembered that the most significant relationship I had in college was with a guy who abused me. I talk about it in the book. He was no Charles Manson but it’s a reminder that many of these things start out in a different way than they end up. And one of the disturbing conclusions of this book is that it’s often the small steps that make the difference. By the time Manson asked Leslie if she would kill for him, it was too late.
In the summer of 1969, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel carried out horrific acts of butchery on the orders of the charismatic cult leader Charles Manson. At their murder trial the following year, lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi described the two so-called Manson Women as “human monsters.” But to anyone who knew them growing up, they were bright, promising girls, seemingly incapable of such an unfathomable crime.
Award-winning journalist Nikki Meredith began visiting Van Houten and Krenwinkel in prison to discover how they had changed during their incarceration. The more Meredith got to know them, the more she was lured into a deeper dilemma: What compels “normal” people to do unspeakable things?
The author’s relationship with her subjects provides a chilling lens through which we gain insight into a particular kind of woman capable of a particular kind of brutality. Through their stories, Nikki Meredith takes readers on a dark journey into the very heart of evil.
Praise for The Manson Women And Me
“Meredith delves into the lives of two young women who participated in one of the most infamous murder sprees in American history.”
—Susan Kelly, author of The Boston Stranglers
“A fully dimensional view of the Manson–led killings that we have not seen before.”
—Michael Krasny, author of Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life
“Thought-provoking . . . combines a compassionate memoir with meticulous journalism.”
—Julie Smith, author of the Skip Langdon mysteries
“Utterly absorbing and engaging.”
—Sue Russell, author of Lethal Intent
“A must-read book . . . a disturbing reflection of America today."
—Suzy Spencer, author of Wasted