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Love Behind Bars

Aired June 17, 2003 - 20:49   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as Scott Peterson awaits his trial on murder charges, he at least has something to keep him occupied. Stacks -- and we're not just talking about a few -- but stacks of letter, many from women, have been arriving at the Modesto jail.
And believe or not, this sort of thing happens all the time. Convicted killer Eric Menendez has been married while in prison. He's doing time for murdering his parents. Even the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy got love letters, and shortly before his execution, got married while in prison.

By now you're probably asking yourself why. Perhaps Maria Niehouse can explain. She married a man convicted of armed robbery when he was in the fifth year of an 11-year sentence and she joins us tonight.

Maria, thanks very much for being with us.

MARIA NIEHOUSE, PRISONER'S WIFE: Thanks for having me.

COOPER: What made you write to this man in prison in the first place?

NIEHOUSE: Well, there's some Web sites out there that I wasn't aware of. A friend of mine had been writing to my husband for probably about a year-and-a-half. They became very good friends, and when she told me about it, I thought it was bizarre, and I pretty much looked up the Web site just out of curiosity to see what it was all about.

COOPER: Was it attraction to this man in particular, to his picture, or was there something about the fact that he was in prison that was attractive to you?

NIEHOUSE: Well, the fact that he was in prison was the unattractive part. My husband is an attractive man. His picture was initially what drew me to his ad. And then when I read the ad, he just seemed like a very genuine person who was just looking for a friend to write to.

COOPER: One -- you know, having a friend to write to is one thing. You ended up marrying this man. Why?

NIEHOUSE: Yes, I did. This was not anything that I had anticipated that would even happen. I thought that our friendship was going to be purely just that -- a friendship through the mail. I live...

COOPER: By the way, we're looking at some pictures from the ceremony in jail.

NIEHOUSE: Yes, that was October 28 of 200, about five or six months after he and I had started corresponding and talking on the telephone.

COOPER: But now you've since -- or he has -- I know you're in the process of getting divorced. What happened? And do you feel the man you -- do you feel like you know who this person really is?

NIEHOUSE: Today, I have to question that.

They live a totally different lifestyle, obviously, than what we do here. It's almost like they have their own little community, and not being familiar with that lifestyle or that type of element, I don't think I was aware of what I was getting myself involved in.

COOPER: Do you really -- at this point, do you feel like you know who this guy was? I mean, the image he presented to you initially, do you think that was reality?

NIEHOUSE: I think the image that they portrayed to me was the person that he really wants to be. But where he's living, it doesn't allow him to be that person.

COOPER: All right. Maria Niehouse, appreciate you joining us, shedding some light on probably a thing that probably a lot of people are confused about.

Thank you very much.

NIEHOUSE: Thank you.

COOPER: All right. Want to move from the language of the heart to the language of science now.

Psychologist Lois Nightingale has written articles on dangerous relationships, as she calls them, and counsels people who are involved with prisoners. She joins us now from San Francisco.

Can you explain why people would write letters -- women would write letters to guys in prison? Why they're attracted to, like, a Ted Bundy?

LOIS NIGHTINGALE, PSYCHOLOGIST: Well, I think there's a couple elements that are really important to remember.

One is that when you're talking about people like Ted Bundy and serial killers and people who don't, you know, exhibit a conscience, you're talking about what we call sociopathy and sociopaths. And sociopaths, there's a lot of elements to them, like not learning from their mistakes.

But they all tend to have a woman in their corner. If you watch a cop show, the cops break down the door and there's a woman there. It's either mom or girlfriend or wife, and they say, Where's Joe? And the woman says, I don't know...

COOPER: Well, I get that. I mean, you can argue they're manipulative and therefore they can attract...

NIGHTINGALE: But you know, it's almost they have an external conscience. It's like Jimminy Cricket to Pinocchio.


COOPER: But what it that attracts a woman to get in their corner in the first place?

NIGHTINGALE: The other -- the other part of that is what I call the caged cougar effect. And if you have -- if somebody just has a domestic housecat and it's nice to everybody and it's tame, you don't really have something that is unique and exotic. But if you have a caged cougar, you have this thing that could be dangerous to other people, something that could turn on you, something that you've tamed, that nobody else could tame. Now there's a feeling of power, of specialness, there's a feeling that you are special in a way that nobody else is.

The problem with the caged cougar is that eventually the caged cougar changes, just like this woman talked about. The caged cougar eventually turns on the person who has felt special and important and unique by getting that dangerous element tamed just for them.

COOPER: You don't really hear about men writing letters to female inmates behind bars.

NIGHTINGALE: Well that's because there's fewer women behind bars. But men also have this caged cougar effect. They will be attached to borderlines and women who are beautiful by cheat on them all the time.

Men get just as sucked into these sociopaths -- we call them axis 2 character logical disorders, and they're very, very sick people. But there's a magnet for some other people, and granted that's a sickness as well. But there's a magnet for this excitement and exoticness. And it's always the same pull. If I could tame them, if I could have them calm, if I could them, you know, loyal to me, and they're dangerous for the rest of the society, now I've elevated myself to a place that nobody else could do.

COOPER: And obviously....

NIGHTINGALE: And there's something very intriguing about that.

COOPER: And I guess notoriety plays a role, but a lot of these people are not famous and nevertheless, they get written to. They're quite popular.

Lois Nightingale....

NIGHTINGALE: Notoriety....

COOPER: Sorry.

NIGHTINGALE: Notoriety does play a part in it. But you're right, a lot of people are writing to prisoners -- and looks have some part in it, but it has much more to do with the power and exoticness than it has to do with looks.

COOPER: All right. Lois Nightingale, thanks for joining us.


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