Monday, May 19, 2014

Penny Daniels on her epic Manson interview in 1989

Most of us remember this interview conducted by Penny Daniels, then the anchor of Inside Report which was nationally syndicated. The Manson interview was their first big interview, designed to promote the newly syndicated show. Inside Report was syndicated for a year – from 1989 to 1990. The interview has since become a YouTube Manson classic.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Ms. Daniels, who is no longer in the media and is now a partner in a major communications consulting and coaching firm with offices located across the country.


These are Ms. Daniels' recollections as told to me in her own words:

I remember it was a beautiful morning, not too hot but very, very sunny. My photographer Dale and I took some kind of a shuttle boat to get to San Quentin, which is on a peninsula near San Rafael, California. It was great being on the water,  knowing I was about to go into a twilight zone of sorts.

When we arrived, we had to go through a lot of security to get inside.  San Quentin is quite an imposing structure, very historic, huge, and daunting. Built in the 1850’s, it is the oldest prison in California.  Manson was only at San Quentin for a brief time. He was transferred out to another California prison later that year (1989.)  I feel fortunate that I was able to interview him there because the boat ride, the history, the massive imposing structure all contributed to the mystique of that day for me. Once inside they put us in a small room with a large table and two chairs.  I sat down at the table to wait. Two guards were stationed in there with us – both in front of the table, in the left and the right corners of the room. There was also a PR guy there, he stood in the left hand corner in back of me, and Dale was in back with the camera on the right.

After awhile, Manson was brought in – in shackles – hands and feet, sunglasses on. They took off the handcuffs and leg cuffs immediately and he stood there at the door looking at me, saying "where is the French guy? Are you the French guy?" Very abrupt.  I was scared but I said "do I look like a guy to you?"  You can see that part of the tape, it's all over the Internet. I was young (early 30's) and good looking in those days if I do say so.  It wasn't like I was na├»ve – I had been reporting for years by that time, and seen a lot, but I still looked young and too pretty to be taken seriously. So I had to act tough, which I did.  After I said that Manson proceeded to tell us that he had been promised a tape of the interview by some French reporter – he wanted to send the tape to his "old lady" (who turned out to be Squeaky Fromme). I honestly cannot remember if we promised to do that or said we didn't know or said no…..in any case he decided to do the interview and sat down. Then the fun began.  I know you have access to the complete interview so I won't bore you with the details, but there were several things that went through my mind:

He was a mass of highly focused, wiry energy. I felt that he could jump across the table and strangle me if he wanted to and no one could stop him – not one of the 4 men in the room could match his strength – despite the fact that he was short and skinny – tiny, almost – he appeared to weigh about 100 pounds So small was he that I felt technically I could actually "take" him – I was pretty strong – but he seemed strong way out of proportion to his size.

He was either very, very smart or very very crazy or very very wily or a great actor, or most likely, all of the above. He was hypnotic. You sort of went into a trance listening to him. I could see why impressionable young people would follow him.

He was at times malevolent, at times sort of normal acting, other times laughing maniacally, other times serious and sincere.  He was full of drama and performance – jumping up to dance, shouting and screaming unexpectedly (clearly designed to startle me).  I did however believe that it was mostly an act that he had performed before.

He did make a lot of sense at times. People don't want to hear this, but some of what he said made a lot of sense. For example, he kept saying "I wasn't there that night. I was up in (some northern California county) in bed with some broad" but they have pinned the whole thing on him. You do start to think about why is this man so much more vilified than any other villain? But more so he made sense when saying things like "I'm not in prison you're in prison." I asked him if he ever hoped to get out of there, and he said "do I ever hope to get out of here? I'm out. You're in. Your little world of sane is a prison." Then he sort of went on about the world of the mind and how he was free in the world of the mind and I was not. Honestly when you're listening to him it kind of makes sense.  Because we all do sort of live in our little boxes, some more than others. And we do sort of imprison ourselves, forcing ourselves to color inside the lines.  It's the nature (and for some, the burden) of living in society. A burden Charles Manson does not have to carry.

He's got quite an act. I did think it was bullshit when he kept talking about ATWA – Air, Trees Water and Animals. But who knows? Maybe he has become an environmentalist of sorts in prison. One more thing I do remember. He talked a lot about music. He kept saying "I played music, that’s why young people were around me, it was the music." He denied they were his “family;" he said they were kids who wanted to listen to the music. He also said that he wasn’t of their generation, he wasn't a hippie, that wasn't true, he said he was much older than they (well maybe 10 or 12 years? Not sure.) And that he was more about the 50's than the 60's. He basically said all he cared about was music – and ATWA. He did say at one point that it "wasn’t his problem" if kids took things he said out of context or something like that. He has never taken responsibility for any of it and I guess he never will.

Afterwards we came out into the sun and it was 11AM – we'd been in there for 2 and a half hours. I was completely dazed. I remember thinking if I was a drinker I would want a drink right now.  I did tell Dale I wanted ice cream. So we went and had ice cream.  Then we drove up into Marin County to meet with this woman one of my producers had found somehow who was young and attractive and totally in love with Charlie. We interviewed her at this lovely playground, and she was way nutty. We also interviewed a guy who was following Charlie. He was also fairly young and unlike the woman, this man was not what you would call lucid.  He was talking in riddles, really, really fast.  I think whatever drugs he was taking had sent him completely over the deep end.  Quite an experience.

Then we left – went home to Florida – and set to work screening tapes and writing. That’s all! And to this day it's still all over the Internet. Bizarre.

Recently I reconnected with Dale (25 years later!) and he said to me something to the effect of, our interview didn't really "break new ground." But we are among a very small select number of people who were allowed a face to face interview with one of the most notorious American criminals of all time. And that’s pretty cool.

It took me years to agree, because I had so many amazing experiences as a reporter over the years that for me, really overshadowed the Manson interview. However, looking back and seeing the incredible reaction that people had, and have, when they hear I interviewed Manson (or see it on the Internet) I realize that, however small, it is a part of history. And that is actually pretty cool.