Thursday, February 6, 2020

Hadar Aviram's "Yesterday's Monsters"

Hadar Aviram is Thomas Miller Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She is the author of Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment and a coeditor of The Legal Process and the Promise of Justice. She is a frequent media commentator and runs the California Correctional Crisis blog.

Aviram applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Yesterday's Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Toward the mid-1980s, the prosecutor begins to comment on the inmates' absence of remorse. Even before the birth of the concept of insight, remorse already proves slippery and difficult to express, especially for heinous crimes. Epstein, Susan Atkins' attorney in 1985, expresses frustration with the vagueness of remorse: "Just for Mr. Kay to say it doesn't exist because she hasn't talked about it--has anybody asked her about it? How does she speak to that? When--when you ask her if she has parole plans, should she say, 'I have a lot of remorse here'? Or should she it [sic] perhaps correctly at the closing of these proceedings when it's appropriate to tell you how she really feels about this?" Atkins herself says in 1988:
Remorse is not a tangible emotion. I cannot pull it out and put it on the table. If I could, I don't know that it could be recognized, or would be recognized or be acknowledged. What I've tried to do to show how I feel is to live my life in the opposite direction, by doing good, by changing, by growing, and I will continue to do that. I've been told I feel nothing for why I'm here, I've been told I deserve an Academy Award for my performances, excuse me, there are nine people that are, are not alive in this... and it, today, because of me.
The term insight emerges for the first time in the 1984 hearing of Bobby Beausoleil. At this point, it is not a buzzword or a term of art, but merely part of a conversation:
Jaregui: Did you gain any insight as to why you committed the crime?

Beausoleil: Well I know why I committed the crime. Because I allowed myself to be influenced, put under duress, to look up to people who were into things I had no business being involved with.

Jaregui: And how do you feel now?

Beausoleil: ... I like myself a lot. I don't like myself for what I did then. You know, it's the thing that I am most ashamed of. And I'm trying to out, outlive that. I'm trying to overcome that and be something I can be proud of.
Page 99 is a great way to introduce readers to Yesterday's Monsters. The book uses the Manson Family cases--relying on 50 years' worth of parole hearing transcripts, policy documents, and interviews--to discuss the California parole process, and the concepts of insight and remorse are essential to the parole board's inquiry. The text on Page 99 introduces remorse and insight and shows how difficult it is to express and perform them in a way that satisfies the board and at the same time feels authentic. What we see in this page is Susan Atkins' frustration with the conflicting pressures on how to express remorse as well as Bobby Beausoleil responding to the first-ever mention of "insight" at a hearing.

The two quotes on Page 99 are great examples of the Catch-22 bind of parole hearings. Inmates are supposed to offer insight about their frame of mind when they committed the crime, but are admonished for offering explanations that don't expound on their own accountability. On the other hand, if they "talk up" the seriousness of their crime (in an effort to show how much they've changed) they telegraph their dangerousness. They continuously have to come up more psychological excavation to show the depth of their "insight", but are then found to be inconsistent. They need to attend rehabilitative programming in prison (including, sometimes, programs that don't exist) but sometimes are admonished for their programming choices. They have to offer letters of support, but these can be interpreted as glorifying themselves and their criminality. They are encouraged to transform, but if they do so through religion they are seen as either liars or disruptive zealots. They are expected to show remorse, but are not allowed to directly address the victims in the parole room. What originally purported to be an instrument of hope has become--to a considerable extent because of the cautionary tale of the Manson cases--a Kafkaesque maze of carefully choreographed performance, guesswork and unscientific observations.
Learn more about Yesterday's Monsters at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue