Death in the Family

Once you learn the full story of the mom-and-pop cult known as "The Family," you'll understand an unsettling reality: Any of us might have joined in.

From the prosecuting attorneys to the media to Dr. Thomas Meyer to a titillated public, it appeared that justice had been done. A bunch of crazy child-killers had been locked up, put where they belonged. But it wasn't as simple as that. Beneath the lurid story of "The Family" was a human drama left largely unexplored.

SF Weekly spent more than a year researching the family's case, poring over public records and talking to friends and family members of the defendants. Both Campbell and Wright were interviewed in prison, and Wright wrote some 50 jailhouse letters detailing his philosophy, personal history, and feelings about his case.

What the research revealed is more shocking than the story originally told in the press, but in a strange way. Far from being monsters, Wright's wives were actually smart, gutsy, warmhearted people. Bremner and Wilson had been popular student leaders at the center of their respective college-activist communities. They had been, those who knew them said over and over again, critical thinkers and independent women, the last people you'd imagine getting suckered into a cult. Campbell had been a vivacious Manhattan secretary; her family had always believed she would become a teacher because of her love for children. There was no sign she could become the kind of mother who'd let her baby die of malnutrition.

The family's rented home in Marinwood.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
The family's rented home in Marinwood.
Mary Campbell.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
Mary Campbell.

But by the time Ndigo died, Campbell and the other women of this strange family were no longer what they had once been.

An intelligent, handsome law-school dropout, Wright enticed young women to serve him by presenting himself as a guru who could lead them to some form of spiritual enlightenment, individually and as a group. Once the women were romantically involved with him, Wright used what psychologists recognize as classic tactics of psychological coercion -- often colloquially called mind control or brainwashing -- to break down their critical thinking skills. He abused them sexually, physically, and psychologically; he kept them up late at night, isolated them from family and friends, controlled virtually every aspect of their lives when they were not at work. He justified his bizarre behavior by telling them it was all part of a grand lesson.

The women in the family did not appear, from the outside, to be brainwashed zombies; two of them held demanding full-time jobs, where co-workers knew little about their personal lives. But the women weren't whole people, either. Isolation, exhaustion, and mind games had broken their sense of self. When some of their children began to show bone deformities, Wright insisted that the problems were genetic defects, not signs of illness, and these previously independent women simply took his word for it. They'd lived on a steady diet of similarly nonsensical, "alternative" beliefs for more than a decade, and Wright's explanations for their children's maladies didn't even seem odd to them.

Just as most people believe themselves impervious to television advertisements, few understand how a reasonable person could allow himself to be lured into a cult. Barry Borden, the Marin County deputy district attorney who at court hearings asked over and over again why the women didn't "just leave," couldn't understand. That Wright was allowed to plead guilty to child endangerment charges, exactly as his wives had done, and thus avoid a lengthier prison sentence, showed how little the justice system understood.

But such lack of understanding is hardly surprising. In the writings of late Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer, widely considered one of the foremost experts on cults, "People like to think that their opinions, values and ideas are inviolate and totally self-regulated." Psychologists who study coercion know that that's simply not true. Even the smartest, most well-meaning person can be controlled, if he encounters the wrong person, at just the wrong emotional moment. For the women in the family, that person was Winnfred Wright. Their story is one of good intentions and human frailty and an unsettling reality: It could, indeed, happen to any of us.

We never were able to figure out how [Wright] went from the fun-loving student-athlete to what he became. Did he have a mental breakdown? Did he fry his brain on drugs? We just don't know.

-- Sgt. Fred Marziano, Marin County Sheriff's Department

Winnfred Wright walks into the visitors' room at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran dressed in the prison uniform of white T-shirt and bluejeans. A slender man with delicate bone structure, neat shoulder-length dreadlocks, and wire-rim glasses, he looks like he should be doing postgrad work, not hard time. Our introduction is telling: He immediately tries to establish an intimate connection. Smiling shyly, he remembers the sole personal detail I'd included in a letter to him. "I was interested that you've traveled in India," he says in a soft, warm voice. "Are you familiar with the Vedas?"

Wright begins to paint a gorgeous verbal portrait of his alternative family, mentioning, among other things, its focus on Hindu spiritual beliefs. Then he waxes nostalgic for the 1960s, when people's minds were open "just for a second" to a way of life different from the rat race. He seems a slightly spacey but eminently harmless New Age kind of guy.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
San Francisco Concert Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.