The governor of California used to be into Zen.
Now he wants Leslie van Houten to explain how
she transformed from an upstanding teenager—homecoming
princess no less—into a killer who tied a pillow over Rosemary
La Bianca’s head with a lamp cord, held her down while another
member of Charles Manson’s Family stabbed her seven times,
then joined in knifing the corpse. If she can’t, he’ll refuse her parole.
It’s a question she’s failed to answer twenty times.
Maybe he’s mixing them up—parole board hearings and dokusan—
quasi-judicial hearings and interviews where Zen teachers grill
their students. Maybe demanding an explanation’s like posing
a koan—”How do you get the goose out of the bottle without harming
the goose or breaking the bottle?” Charlie made me do it,
is an answer California’s governor won’t accept. Her lawyer
knows from nothing about geese and bottles. He leans
on pop psychology instead. Leslie’s divorced single mother
performed this big backyard burial for the fetus from the abortion
she forced on her daughter—no wonder she fell
under Manson’s spell and wielded that knife.
She’s only 66 (Manson’s 81). Maybe she’ll get it right
the twenty-first time. Explain her transformation so precisely
the light bulb goes nova in the governor’s head. She’d deserve
not just freedom but a Nobel Prize in some brave new field
that hasn’t even been invented. Transpredictive neurorecidivism?
Molecular karmatics? Meanwhile, she’s a model inmate
who’s got herself two degrees, runs groups helping fellow convicts
provide themselves self-help. She’s no longer the person she was,
her lawyer argues. Next time up put the governor in the dock
ask him to explain—if there is no self, what
can be transformed?
Copyright © Murray Reiss.
Murray Reiss lives on Salt Spring Island with his wife Karen, a ceramic sculptor. His first book, The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild, won the 2014 Gerald Lampert Award and was runner-up for the Fred Cogswell Award. His second collection, Cemetery Compost, came out in 2016. A chapbook, Distance from the Locus, was published in 2005. Reiss also brings his words to life on the stage as well as the page as a Climate Action Performance Poet and founding member of Salt Spring’s Only Planet Cabaret.