Why would a 26-year-old woman marry 80-year-old maniac Charles Manson? I spent a decade inside the state prisons of New York, where inmates met and wed women every day. Witnessing the range of scenarios, from love matches to patient spouses (like mine) waiting for their husbands’ parole dates, as well as everything in between, I know this type is all about fame and mental illness. But it is also the rarest.
Why do people hitch themselves to convicts? Yes, a few devote themselves to the madmen and sociopaths like Mason. Many others find matches of convenience or even love. Do not dismiss the latter because of the former.
A few years after graduating NYU and beginning a career in publishing, I was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Less than two years of heroin addiction had reduced me to robbery. Luckily I never hurt anyone with my pocketknife (used for camping in better days), and the New York media dubbed me the “Apologetic Bandit” because of the contrition I expressed to my victims. I pleaded guilty to five charges and entered a new world, where everything is for sale. Prisons are economic entities where items in low supply and high demand are worth more. Cigarettes and stamps, in lieu of currency, keep the market liquid. Inmates with assets shop as a kind of status assertion. They purchase the best radios, finest sneakers and snazziest glasses.
But there are limits to what a prisoner may possess, so the item most rare — a wife or girlfriend — is also the most valued. Sometimes this leads to marital transactions, a classic jailhouse hustle. It is somewhere between slavery and matchmaking. (Feminism has made few inroads here; to many prisoners, women are objects.) I once saw a prisoner pay $4,000 for the right to wed another’s backwoods cousin. She was missing teeth and addicted to benzos. The bride badgered him for money from a recent six-figure inheritance and spent it poorly. She arrived full of Xanax and whiled away her visits napping it off on the padded floor of the children’s area. After the inmate paid to move her nearer to the prison, she stopped visiting. Nevertheless, she induced plenty of envy for her husband. Years later, I met her actual and original husband, who was chained to me on a transit bus. Far from being embarrassed, he was proud of his wife’s value and bragged that she was married in a few other states.
A spouse who “looks out” on the outside, keeping the inmate’s interest in mind, is a valued commodity. In prison, the word “woman” was rare, “female” was polite and “bitch” was commonplace. There is even a slang term for a wife kept while incarcerated, a “buck-35,” which means a woman sending a hundred dollars a month and 35 pounds of food. The men appreciate the food, clothes and money that their wives help them with. Many unmarried convicts settle for homosexual admirers with credit cards on the outside. To get his bills paid, one friend of mine talked dirty on the phone and mailed his used underwear to an obsessed man.
Famous convicts such as Manson don’t have to buy their brides, though. I spent four years in Greenhaven Correctional Facility with Ronnie DeFeo, famous for murdering his entire family in a nice house in Long Island in 1974, starting the “Amityville Horror” mythology. Stacks of letters arrived for him every day. By the time we met in 2004, he was on his third wife. (Prisoners have a constitutional right to marry and divorce.) His photo albums and recollections suggested he had a type: plump, lonely blondes with a morbid streak. Manson’s women, even from back in his murderous heyday as a cult leader, are younger and prettier, but also clearly nuttier than the frumpy ladies who took a chance on DeFeo.
DeFeo answered his fan mail, as did other well-known convicts I came across. His correspondents returned the favor by arguing at parole hearings that he was a gentle and innocent man. DeFeo read us all the admiring testimony. But I always thought they preferred him guilty. The proximity to death and violence, the chance to share (in the safety of a prison visiting room) a sandwich and a smooch with someone who has done scary things somehow sanctified their adoration. According to a friend of mine on the outside who wrote to celebrity prisoners during a rough patch she had, the communication feels meaningful and flattering. The rare woman who marries a notorious murderer does so because he is a notorious murderer. She also believes her help and understanding will earn her the prisoner’s utter devotion, which deepens the attraction.
I entered prison married, but it had not been a long or a smooth union. Once I realized the sentence would last a decade or more, I offered my wife an amicable split. She stayed, and in gratitude I wrote a lot of letters. I penned two pages a day, five days a week, for the first seven years. (I slowed the pace when I entered a lower-security prison with better phone access.)
New York is one of only two states with conjugal visits. California, where Manson is imprisoned, does offer the possibility, but it’s unlikely to grant him the privilege. Those who win it get 44 private hours in a motel room-like facility within the prison walls; inmates are eligible for three or four of these each year. The Family Reunion Program is known in the vernacular as “trailers,” and they help. Because I was already married, my wife and I had a shorter waiting period to access them (the waiting period is longer if you marry as a prisoner). Using the trailers helped me keep my marriage intact.
Because most inmates are not famous, marriages are generally quiet. Meetings are arranged through relatives and friends, sometimes even mothers. Courtship means letters, then phone calls, then visits. A prisoner romancing a woman invests: He spends his meager earnings on gifts ordered from catalogues or bought from prisoner-artists: leather workers and soap-carvers. The prisoner writes with a dictionary, and drafts with his most calligraphic penmanship to present himself as the perfect mate. Success is rewarded with packages, money, trailer visits and jailhouse status. A woman’s appearance doesn’t matter to men who have 25-year sentences, the standard for a murder. Even if a woman isn’t pretty, or if she’s old enough to be a convict’s mother, other attributes compensate: Sometimes the wives are asked to be drug mules. I saw a baby lifted to reveal cocaine in his bedding.
For these reasons, the authorities perform marriages as required by law, but they don’t make it easy. Every milestone requires a waiting period: The results of HIV testing must be disclosed to the women, along with the exact nature of the prisoner’s crime. (This means an uncomfortable conversation with a counselor.) Marriages are performed on weekdays by a clergyman handling several couples at once; they require witnesses and feature a reception of sorts. I was once a best man, and despite the wedding cake allowed in, the festivities were somewhat dampened by the rule that the new spouses may not use the trailers until after another waiting period. The 44-hour honeymoon is a year away.
It’s not true, from what I saw, that the women who marry prisoners are too unattractive to find companions on the outside. Incarcerated husbands can be good husbands. The wives appreciate the lengths that the prisoners go to make the experience romantic; I was frequently asked my rates for writing love poems. As a Cyrano, I probably could have earned as much as a working poet; the most accomplished balladeers charged three digits per note. Prisoner husbands are always grateful. On visits, they massage and listen. They never come home drunk wearing someone else’s perfume. And wives get to decide how much of their spouses they actually want to see.
Still, these relationships are very difficult to preserve. The women, often older, want their help compensated with affection, but after a while the prisoner can no longer keep it up. He has already benefited from the added status of his wedding band, the only jewelry beyond rosaries and crosses allowed. I watched one such relationship, which had unfortunately gone as far as a child, crumble when the convict had a chance with a nurse who worked in our prison. She was a decade older than he was, but the respect he would win for his affair with her tempted him enough to break up with his wife, even though the nurse made no promises to replace her. He did it during a visit, a table away from me. After throwing a cup of breast milk in his face, his spurned spouse departed with the baby, forever I hope. Soon afterward, authorities learned of the liaison between staff member and convict; the nurse ended the affair to keep her job, and the prisoner was sent far away — out of the reach of the nurse and the mother of his child.
Occasionally, though, there is a truly lovely match. Jessica had never imagined she would marry a man in prison and was cajoled into writing by a neighbor who had dated a swindler convicted of running a pyramid scheme. She didn’t expect anything. “I wrote out of curiosity to see if I might make a friend,” she told me. But when she began corresponding with Brian, a friend of mine serving a long sentence for embezzlement, she found love. Brian is intelligent, witty and charismatic, but no Adonis. He’s also almost seven feet tall. Still, she said, “it was like lightening to my heart. I never expected to feel that way about a man who was in prison, much less someone I only knew through letters. We collectively understood that we were going to be married within a few months of meeting in person.” Their courtship, conducted mostly by telephone, was simple, she explained:
One of the few benefits of our position is that we had nothing to do but to get to know one another. No distractions, just hours of talking. We have delved the deepest places of each other’s hearts faster than couples talking over breakfast for a lifetime.
I was released in February after completing my minimum 123 months, and next February Brian will follow; he made parole, even though he expected two more years. When I heard, I took Jessica for a walk. She is understandably nervous. Her neighbor’s relationship lasted only a week after her imprisoned boyfriend got out, and she has never spent a night with Brian, because the waiting periods imposed on newlyweds never permitted a trailer visit. She’s skittish about revealing her middle-aged body to him. (I know he feels the same way, and I was the most nervous of all, returning to my yoga-teaching wife with a mature belly.) Nevertheless, Jessica says, “The biggest obstacle is the wall between us. I count the days until his release, looking over at an empty pillow and knowing that soon his head will be there.”
For the decade I was away, my wife resisted the pressure to move on from all who wished her the best. This motivates me to make her proud. But the women who married Ronnie DeFeo are no different from the collectors of his art: voyeurs excited by holding hands stained with blood. Chatting with counselors and clergy members, I learned that the prison policymakers, tasked with keeping dangerous men stable, are wary of the way convicts and their outside spouses manipulate each other. They would generally prefer to deny prisoners the right to marry. And it’s true that the young woman marrying Charles Manson is complicit in his sociopathy and egotism.
But then there is Jessica. Should we deny her and Brian their future because of the sicknesses of others? Certainly not. So the priests and magistrates stiffen their lips and perform the ceremony. Only the traditional question — about anyone knowing of a reason why the couple should not be joined — is tactfully omitted.