When summer finally creeps in and I begin to feel the sopping clouds of humidity that hang in the air during the hottest months, a familiar anxiety nags at me. Whether in present day New York City or recalling the Florida summers of my youth, when the heat finally lands and begins feeling permanent, I start to fear people’s reactions to the rising of the mercury. Do The Right Thing aside, heat begets crime and the possibility of crime triggers my typically well-hid neuroses.
As far back as I can remember, my most persistent dread has been of home invasion and ultimately murder at the hands of strangers. It’s probably not a coincidence then that my other morbid fascination left over from childhood is a fixation with stories of Charles Manson and his Family.
I used to push myself to the edge of terror, first by asking my parents to relay child-appropriate versions of the lurid tales, and later by reading or watching anything I could that depicted the atrocities at the hands of Manson’s followers.
It was always about the Family for me — I could care less about Charlie himself. It was his mindless, soulless flower children-cum-killing machines that were truly disturbing. The television loved their stories, but more their faces; some were jolie laide and some straight stunning. They seemed normal. All in all, they were you and I, and then they weren’t.
On the 40th anniversary of the infamous Tate/LaBianca murders, my macabre intrigue has been reignited and my mental masochism enabled by a new stream of topical media — a disparate batch of fresh news, cash-grabs, and historical retellings in a variety of mediums.
Throughout this latest media onslaught, my own coping strategies for handling details of the grisly crimes have shifted in step with the story I’m hearing: I’ve felt anger toward the impressionable culprits, sadness for the victims, acceptance for our penal system and a newfound belief in rehabilitation. It’s like some twisted, manipulated pop culture version of the five stages of grief, but all the while I find my analytic mind handicapped by my childhood fear of death.
My latest trip down the blood-soaked rabbit hole began when I watched an advanced copy of “Manson,” the forthcoming History Channel docudrama built around a new interview with Linda Kasabian, who stood guard during the Family’s murders.
But the two-hour program felt trivializing, too cheesy in its reenactments of Manson rants and LSD-fueled group sex. The obviousness of the soundstage locale was distracting, as was the stylized camera filter, which made the whole thing look like Jessica Biel’s version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While Kasabian’s firsthand account of the events leading up to the 1969 murders may seem compelling, the visuals were laughable and I was led back to her more sober late-’80s appearance on A Current Affair. Still, her palpable weakness, even 40 years later, was deplorable and her legal immunity infuriating.
Next came news of Manson girl Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who while not directly involved in the murders was arrested for pointing a gun at President Ford, and was recently released from prison after serving 34 years of a life sentence. In 1987, Fromme escaped from prison in an attempt to visit an ailing Charles Manson. Maybe since then her loyalty has waned.
Regardless, her parole has inspired a couple "Where are they now?" features, detailing the lives of Family members like the still incarcerated, nearly paralyzed Susan Atkins and the born-again Tex Watson, leading me deeper into the homicidal abyss. Reading each killers’ accomplishments from behind bars is harrowing and leaves me conflicted, as these days they sound like such laudable people. It takes a minute to remember the amount of steel and ammo that keeps things orderly. Remove the chains, both figurative and literal, and what changes? Maybe nothing.
Still, the most enduring part of the Manson Family’s “legacy” are questions of prison, repentance and rehabilitation. The most transcendent insight on the subject has come from a man with a cult of his own, the director John Waters.
In a five-part series entitled “Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship,” excerpted from his upcoming book Role Models, Waters tells the sprawling and ultimately humanizing tale of his friendship with Manson girl Leslie Van Houten, who was 19 when she participated in the 1969 murders.
The homecoming princess from suburbia who gave up her title for acid. The all-American girl who went beyond insanity to unhinged criminal glamour just like Mona, my last girlfriend, who took LSD and shoplifted and starred in my underground movies all under my influence.
Waters dedicated his 1972 classic Pink Flamigos to the Mason girls: “Sadie, Katie and Les.” Then, he tried to interview Van Houten for Rolling Stone.
She was pretty, out of her mind, rebellious, with fashion-daring, a good haircut, and a taste for LSD — just like the girls in my movies.
Leslie, ashamed of her crime, ultimately refused his interview, hoping her infamy would fade, but the two became real friends and have remained close over two decades.
By now I certainly knew that what Leslie had done was anything but “art”. Her participation in the La Bianca murders was a very real atrocity that she could never make go away like a bad hairdo or a dose of the hippy-clap. This was no youthful recklessness that today some baby boomer might turn into a nostalgic tattoo. No, this was fucking awful.
Waters’ sympathy proved to be quite a buzzkill for his almost ironic, post-modern appreciation of Van Houten’s one-time insanity. Instead, he became a one-man Amnesty International, making a heartfelt case for forgiveness both legal and spiritual. Oddly enough, he looks to the Amish for guidance.
"The Amish community believes forgiveness is about giving up," he said, "giving up your right to revenge. And giving up feelings of resentment, bitterness and hatred, replacing them with compassion toward the offender and treating the offender as a human being."
It’s easy to tell when someone supports a friend completely and rationally. An earnest emotional appeal makes a compelling case, and Waters has no reason to lie, no real stake in Van Houten’s parole. Here, his sincerity transcended my obsessive confusion and conquered my fear.