Notes From the Underground:
A Prison Psychologist's Passage

By Ruth Loveys, Ph.D.

"Some of the women were plainly crying out to fathers whom they had never been able to reach in any saner way." -- The author

Ruth Loveys is a graduate of Barnard College, received a master's degree from Columbia University and a Ph. D. in clinical psychology from the University of Maryland. Previously a patient at the Los Angeles Primal Institute, she had recently completed a training workshop at the Denver Primal Center when she wrote this article. Following is an account of her most recent work experience at the California state prison for women, which she describes as absolutely her last government job.

So many of the crimes seemed incomprehensible at first, chillingly senseless. A Black prostitute in San Francisco fatally shooting two sister prostitutes in a restaurant parking lot. A woman in Los Angeles impulsively stabbing her babysitter, a longtime friend and neighbor, 23 times. Even when the robberies or murders were committed out of "love" or devotion to a dominant male partner, as so many allegedly were, an intelligible motive still seemed lacking.

Each evening I would drive the 40 miles of freeway from the California Institute For Women in Frontera westward to Pasadena in the widening, panoramic darkness studded with lights with a gnawing sense of incompletion.

It was Leslie Van Houten who gave me the first clue to the missing pieces of the giant puzzle that had been unsettling me. Leslie is one of three "Manson girls" still imprisoned at the California Institute For Women twelve years after the murders. (Vincent Bugliosi, the Los Angeles District Attorney who prosecuted - as well as financially exploited Leslie and her codefendants, called it "the crime of the century" in his best-seller, Helter Skelter.)

Leslie's annual parole board hearing was coming up in a few weeks time and the board members had let it be known that they were dissatisfied with the previous twelve years of psychiatric and psychological reports (a total of 30 reports, 156 pages of repetitious narrative spiked with one or another of the meaningless numerical labels of conventional psychodiagnostics). This year they were requesting an "indepth" study, along with more clinical observation.

My job was to bridge the seemingly unfathomable gap between Leslie Van Houten, the upper-middle-class, high school prom princess, and the barefoot, hippie participant in the "crime of the century."

Towards this end, Leslie and I spent hour after hour closeted together in my small office in the prison clinic. I saw immediately that Leslie wasn't especially warm or feeling. Over and over again she would intellectualize her crimes and her whole life, which she had down pat after all this time. She was studying creative writing and developmental psychology at Antioch College West via correspondence, and she was clearly having a heyday incorporating the cognitive material of her studies into her established defenses.

Still, after twelve years of incarceration - since the age of nineteen - including four tortuous years in isolation on Death Row with only a couple of books and pencil stubs, not much else could realistically have been expected than Leslie's having ended up "in her head." (And to be fair, I never found a correctional staff member in that cold, sinister prison environment who was any more open or spontaneous than Leslie.) Besides, she was intelligent and extremely articulate as well as grateful for the opportunity to have someone to talk to.

For all her history, she was actually very likeable - incessantly curious and childlike with curly brown hair and large dark eyes which fit well with her vivaciousness. I sat there with her day after day and sometimes took a note or two or nodded encouragement. All the while, underneath, I was listening intensely.

The story flowed readily: An emotionally distant, religious schoolteacher mother who hadn't actually abused her in any open, aboveboard way, had nevertheless managed to instill in her lively, highly imaginative young daughter a heavy sense of social conscience for those she termed "less fortunate, "along with the subtle message that it was wrong to put oneself first or be too successful in life. There had been an inordinately burdensome emphasis placed on such values as sensitivity to others rather than oneself, being ladylike at all times, not making waves and, later, having a role in life which was helpful or healing to others.

Leslie's father longed to leave the marriage atmosphere of repression and secretiveness for the lifeblood of sexuality but held back, keeping up the surface appearances which were all important, until his daughter was fifteen.

Leslie leaned forward across the desk to light yet another cigarette, and as she blew the smoke out through her nose she reflected "Living at home was like living in a mausoleum."

The story went on. In her teenage years she had been pretty, bright and popular. But the success that seemed imminent actually stirred great guilt and fear because of its inevitable meaning of loss of her mother's love and sympathy, which was reserved with no uncertainty for "deprived" types. She began a systematic process of strip herself of all the attributes she possessed for success "dropping out," as it were.

"In thinking back, I think sometimes maybe I almost had too much going for me and I just started to put myself down. I dated guys who were losers . . ."

At the same time, of course, she was also divesting herself of considerable pressure - the many expectations which had been imposed on her, first to be a schoolteacher to fill her mother's needs, and later to go to business school to please her father.

At fifteen Leslie had felt very much abandoned because her mother, under the pressures of a divorce, four children returning to work, etc., was always "preoccupied." Shortly thereafter she quite literally made herself into a "fortunate," deprived person -- "with dirt between my toes to use Leslie's graphic expression - in a symbolic attempt to tell her mother that she was suffering, too. She turned herself inside out to become the kind of person toward whom her mother would direct her deepest, otherwise hidden feelings.

Along with submission, there was naturally a good deal of anger and resentment for all that she saw as restrictions. For example, she was not permitted to go to dress designing school, which was her own choice, because this was not a particularly practical or "ladylike" thing to do.

All the resentment stored through her whole life was soon to find expression in the sixties' cult of alienation. "I longed to give up as much of myself to the Family as I could." Leslie was speaking now of her life with the other Manson followers at Spahn's Movie Ranch.

While the actual ramshackle setting and the particular mores of the ranch, which included LSD fests and group sex were not familiar to Leslie, whose background was solidly middle-class, the ideas of sacrifice and renunciation as the notions of social-economic injustice which were prevalent in the group, albeit in distorted fashion, were all too familiar to her. Certain members of the group were highly critical of Leslie, who could seem to do no right, and this reinforced her feeling of being "at home."

In an emotional sense, she had been primed to be programmed" -- that is, to have her own individuality and "ego" taken away - by Charlie. She was prepared for another person to dominate her reality and she was prepared to try desperately to please this person.

Prior to finding a niche in this ultimately tragic group, Leslie, who had an inordinate need to belong and be accepted, had felt very keenly that she did not fit in anywhere. Not at her mother's, certainly not at her father's with his new bride. She looked everywhere for people would who like her no matter what; at the same time wondered why anyone would like her at all. Her search ended at the ranch.

Later, when she deliberated as to whether she could kill for Charlie, her belief was that she had to do something enormously hard to prove herself worthy of acceptance. It is significant, I believe, that her immediate feeling after the La Bianca murders was one of unworthiness - that she "failed as a soldier" in not having taken a more active role in the killings.

Shortly after one of these marathon office sessions I stepping into the 7-Eleven store, a lonely outpost on country road which skirts the prison and the only place to buy lunch for miles in any direction, when it hit me -- the only possible reason for Leslie to have committed the crimes which will always haunt her.

I got back in the car and scribbled the heart of it down on a scrap of paper lest it leave me before it had really sunk in: See me, Momma. At long last, see I need, too.

That afternoon I phoned Leslie at her job as clerk for the prison's Supervisor of Education and told her my insight.

For once Leslie fell silent. After a while she tossed off, "I never thought of it quite that way."

"No, you couldn't have." Because Leslie's "primals" -which has occurred over a period of three years of terror, dread and guilt - remained, for all their intensity, incomplete.

There had been no one there to help her go deeper into the feelings and to finally connect them with the center of her being. In the end, she had survived the terror of those feelings - especially the terror that she would be overwhelmed by the enormity of her crime and her personality would disintegrate into lasting psychosis - by closing up around those aborted primals which became, in effect, new defenses.

Leslie had gone only so far into her feelings, and yet she couldn't be blamed for stopping where she did. Surely it was all that any prisoner could do in the stark, frozen atmosphere of state prison with its quick, pancreatic Christian "rebirths" and endless, dreary, sluggish Bible Study classes - a place where true feelings in all their nakedness were not acknowledged except in the survival, creature warmth of illicit homosexual embraces.

Actually, she had gotten quite far on her own. She had ended up in county jail just after her arrest, with a shaven head and an X cut into her forehead "feeling like a great big lethargic shell." It was at this desperate time that the process of her "rehabilitation" began.

A year later, on Death Row, she began gradually to re-enter "the normal world of house and car payments, raising children, that sort of thing" through eavesdropping on the conversations of the correctional officers stationed outside her cell. In her clearing vision people once again became people and no longer "shells with egos," as Charlie had taught. Then began the three-year period of "terrifying grotesque melted masks - I'd see them when I'd shut my eyes to go to sleep."

As she became more able to deal with the horror of what had happened she felt a "presence" watching over her that she identified as Mrs. La Bianca.

"As I was breaking off from the other girls - seeing that Charlie was not this given person come to earth. . . all of my changes have gone through the direct connection with Mrs. La Bianca - being right there - that part has wiped me out. Just feeling her spirit - I know it was my guilt. It happened the minute I'd be left alone."

There was another pause over the telephone, then Leslie said vaguely: "It's really good to have someone who can give me a different perspective on things." She quickly covered over the crack in her intellectual armor. "The developmental point of view, I mean . . ."

I was absolutely certain of one thing. Leslie had acted out so as to make of her life one long sacrifice and had tragically fulfilled her mother's early teaching that suffering is noble and purifying. On the bottommost level, I began to see that Leslie's actions had been a horrifying, symbolic attempt to shock her mother into at long last recognizing her need. But this connection was missing for Leslie.

What Charlie had done was provide her with demonstrations and protestations of "love" that promised to relieve her lifelong feelings of deprivation. "I love you so much I would die for you," Charlie had said to her time after time.

In this connection, a number of correctional staff before me had noted in the record Leslie's peculiar "childlike" quality and unusual impressionability. Growing up had meant for her the unbearable end of her hope that she would ever get what she needed from her parents.

After that day I began to recognize it everywhere: "See my need, Momma. See my wretchedness in what I've come to" written all over the naked, still strangely expectant faces of so many women whose horrendous crimes seemed otherwise inexplicable.

I'd step outside the clinic door and see the lingering traces of this hope in the sullen faces under the knitted watch caps and in the vigilant eyes of the lovers who roamed the "campus" with their arms around each other.

Some of the women were plainly crying out to fathers whom they had never been able to reach in any saner way. Several women I interviewed in the next few weeks seemed especially to exemplify this longing for Daddy.

I didn't leave my job at the prison three months later because of Leslie or any of the women. I left to survive.

I had to get at least a little distance away in order to write my resignation, which had to be addressed to the Chief Medical Officer of the prison according to bureaucratic protocol, and so I sat out on the front lawn near the parking lot that fronts the mail administration building.

Only later did I learn from a clerk in the prison personnel office that my letter of resignation, which I believed at the time should have wide distribution - I even envisioned passing out mimeographed copies to inmates and staff alike, a helicopter dropping copies over the campus, or at the very least, publication in the prison newsletter - never even got into my personnel folder. Instead, it was immediately squelched by the Chief Medical Officer along with the Superintendent, an austere, expressionless black lady whose qualifications included having once been a prison guard.

But in the stirring and burgeoning of my feeling, all that was not really important. It was incredibly exhilarating to be able to reclaim the lost freedom of being able to say what I wanted to say without looking over my shoulder.

I began to write of the impossible work overload - the great, bottomless well of need that the prison really was -and my increasing sense of fragmentation with the many demands for therapy and report-writing constantly coming at me from many directions. I wrote that all of this left me with an enormous sense of sadness and loss, as well as a lingering desire to speak not so much to the Chief Medical Officer or anyone in administration, as to the women themselves.

I wrote: "If I could speak to the women now, all of them gathered together, I would want them to know that part of me will always grieve for the pain and trauma of their lives -those I have managed to reach in therapy and the rest I did not yet reach as well. This part of me will always grieve for the sessions we will never have together."

I would want them to know that if I could have made the Institution into a feeling place, for them and for me, rather than the flurry of empty activities to fill the days that so much of it is - if there had been any chance or any way - I would not have left them. I would want them to know that all of them, whatever the legal label of their crime, are united in a larger way - in pain and emptiness - and for this they should not turn against each other.

Somewhere inside me, I will never forget any of them and I will always feel the pain of their lives, which is mirrored in my own.

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