Susan Atkins, ex-Charles Manson follower and convicted murderer of Sharon Tate, died today. Her death brought me back to when I was fifteen years old and staring across the room at Charles Manson.
The room was a courtroom in Los Angeles, crowded with spectators who had stood in line for hours outside to witness a trial that shocked the nation. Tate, more than eight months pregnant, and several others, had been found stabbed to death, apparantly in a brutal crime spree by a cult of drug-addled young people.
The doors of the courtroom had just opened, and I was filing into my seat with two of my high school friends. I had long red hair down to my waist and was wearing a green 'granny dress', and knee high boots. My teenage friends also looked like hippies.
Just before I found my seat, I turned to look at Charles Manson, the defendant, and found him staring at me. I had seen his face plastered all over the newspapers in Los Angeles---the crazy wide eyed stare that left no doubt that he was capable of doing the things he had been accused of.
To my shock, I found that the face I was staring into was not the same face that I had seen in the newspapers. "Charlie" was smiling at the three of us, a big wide beaming smile that indicated he felt we had come as supporters and welcomed that. His face had no trace of the craziness of that other newspaper photo. His smile was infectious, luminous, charming, as he beamed it across the room at us.
And we smiled back. Why? Because we thought he was innocent, we thought he had been framed. The societal and generational divisions of that time were so deep that some of us who were in the 'counter culture' thought that anytime someone who was relatively young and looked like a hippie was arrested, he or she must have been framed.
Linda Kasabian, one of the Manson girls who had turned witness for the prosecution, was speaking.
I don't remember exactly what she said, but I remember looking across the room at her and again being struck by how 'normal' she looked, this soft-spoken, dark-haired,conservatively dressed young woman.
Out in the hallway on break, I met "Squeaky" Fromme, another Manson follower who went on to be convicted for the attempted assasination of Gerald Ford, and who was released from prison just a few weeks ago.
She was blonde, tiny and pixiesh, with an open face and an earnest expression. She definitely could have been 'the girl next door'.
Except for the red X etched in her forehead, a protest emblem that all the Manson girls had put there as a symbol of solidarity for Charlie.
"Of course Charlie is innocent," she said. "How could they possibly be doing this to him?"
I was fifteen, raised on super-hero comic books and good-and-evil Westerns. Murderers weren't supposed to look like this, not like smiling charmers and sweet-faced girls next door. In the comic books and movies, you can always tell who the murderers are by their slimey aura and the evil they emanated.
Murderers were not Us. They were Them.
The Charles Manson trial shocked me out of that presumption. These kids looked exactly like me and my friends, and that was horrifying.
Despite all the talk of being 'framed', I sensed somehow that they had done the things they were accused of doing.
Later, after I became a criminal investigator and investigated many a murder trial, I learned how easy it is for a sociopath or psychopath to put on a convincing front. But I also learned how easy it is for a seemingly 'normal' person to slip in a matter of minutes from innocent to murderer--an instant of rage, a drug-filled evening, a descent into individual or group madness that in which you are convinced in absolute self-righteousness that 'the other' deserves to die.
"She deserves to die a horrible death, after all she's done," said a part of me when I saw Susan Atkins dying on the news. This was probably the part that knows what it's like to survive the murder of someone you love.
But another part of me, the part that I prefer to breathe into, saw that her attorney James Whitehouse had married this creature who did the unspeakable, this "sociopath." I watched him coaching her as she recited the Lord's Prayer and I saw the palpable love that passed between the two of them on her death bed.
And I was happy for her, that no matter what she's done, she was able to die next to someone who loved her.