Lori Anderson: Reality of loving men on death row

Charles Manson at Corcoran State Prison. Picture: Getty
Charles Manson at Corcoran State Prison. Picture: Getty
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LORI ANDERSON wonders if love is truly blind or does criminal notoriety offer an attraction that simply can’t be found elsewhere

‘Postie, Postie do not tarry, take this to the one I’ll marry.” My intended’s address is c/o Cell Block 18, Maximum Security Penitentiary. They say marriage isn’t a word, it’s a sentence and for some women that pithy aphorism has never been more true. Many young girls grew up writing a list of qualities they hoped their future beau would possess, but it’s hard to imagine “jail bird” ever made the top ten.

There are some women who are not content with all those bland profiles on match.com and Tinder, and who have now decided to expand their pool of prospective “life” partners to those currently being held at their respective government’s pleasure.

Before we dismiss this mindset out of hand, there are some pros. If you suffer from pathological jealousy, there must be some comfort in always knowing where your “better” half is on a Saturday night – not to mention every other night of the week and hour of the day. Chores are minimal – no extra laundry – and the clarion call “Can you not put the toilet seat down?” will never fall from one’s rosebud lips. Cooking will always be what you are in the mood for, unless, of course, you wish to indulge in a little light baking of cakes with concealed files. There will be no argument over whose in-laws are visited come Christmas Day.

It seems women who fall into this category do so for different reasons. There will be those who form an emotional connection, who believe their husband is now a reformed character and that his crimes lie in a distant and opaque – if bloody – past, before their own redemptive presence entered his life. There are, however, others who will take a dark, disturbing pride in the notoriety of their new husband’s crimes.

In the shorthand of popular cinema, this is known as “Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome” but, for psychologists, it is referred to as hybristophilia, which is grimly defined as: “A paraphilia of the predatory type in which sexual arousal, facilitation and attainment of orgasm are responsive to and contingent upon being with a partner known to have committed an outrage, cheating, lying, known infidelities or crime, such as rape, murder or armed robbery.”

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It is a debatable point if this condition correctly describes the estimated 100 women in Britain currently involved with men on death row in various states in America, a figure first reported by the documentary, Death Row Dates in 2010. After all, they aren’t entitled to conjugal visits.

Dr Lorraine Sheridan, a forensic psychologist at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, also examined the appeal, saying: “Women who get into relationships with death-row prisoners often have much in common with those who spend their lives creating shrines to, and writing to, celebrities. These women have a relationship, in their perception, with an exciting, high-status person.

“The death-row romances take this a step further, in that they are able to have a reciprocal ‘celebrity’ relationship. There’s also the factor of having nabbed an ultra alpha male, one who has carried out the greatest of violent acts.”

The subject of why a woman would marry a convicted killer has been dragged back before the court of public opinion by the announcement that Charles Manson, one of America’s most notorious killers, has become engaged to Afton Elaine Burton, who, at 26, is 54 years his junior, as if their union wasn’t creepy enough. In November, the couple applied for a wedding licence and earlier this week Miss Burton was photographed wearing a wedding ring.

She seems to fall into a different category, that of the “saviour”, anxious to help what she views as a poor, misunderstood man. For Burton believes Manson did not kill anyone with his bare hands and, in a way, she is correct. Manson wasn’t present at the murders of which he was later found guilty, but he was found “guilty of conspiring” to commit seven murders. The founder of an apocalyptic cult, Manson wound up the members of his “family” and then set them off like lethal automatons to commit murders he believed would bring about a race war. Among the victims of the Los Angeles murders that resulted was Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski. Since first contacting Manson as a 16-year-old, Burton has been campaigning for his release and insists he did not get a fair trial.

The unswerving faith in the innocence of their beloved also appears to be a common trait among many women and their convict beaus. When a reporter for the New Republic magazine investigated this phenomenon, she noted that the women who married their husbands while they were serving jail time appeared better educated and more affluent than the standard prisoner’s wife who had endured life before and after the prison bars came between her and her beau.

The comedian Catherine Tate once wrote a sketch that accurately skewered the way such women minimise their new husband’s past behaviour. It was about a British woman who married an American cannabalistic killer but insisted: “He only ate a bit of one of 
them – when he was a student.” They say that love is blind; perhaps, but in the case of Afton Elaine Burton and Charles Manson, one word that can never be used to describe their union is innocent.

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