This series looks at the origins of American counterculture through the lens of Charles Manson and the murders credited to his name.
Prosperity gives the prosperous lots of choices. The poor and desperate must dedicate their resources to what they need, but the prosperous can dedicate their resources to what they want, and post-WW2 America was very prosperous indeed relative to the widespread poverty of previous generations. Millions were lifted out of poverty and freed from farm and factory work in the early 20th century as the American industrial machine revved up. A new professional class lived in the newly created suburbs, and middle class women in these places began to contemplate what kind of life they wanted outside of marriage and motherhood.
The men had greater choices as well. Often, men and women had conflicting visions of what they wanted, and since no one was on the brink of starvation, and the demanding tasks of the farm were not a factor either, families began to fracture and break apart. In the period from 1900 to 1980, the divorce rate in the United States quadrupled, and most of that increase was in the childhood window of many of the girls that would go on to be “Charlie’s Girls”.
We take it for granted now that the freedom for women that was so enthusiastically embraced by the boomer generation was a positive development without giving much thought to what it was like for the young ladies that were coming of age in a culture that was radically changing. Girls born in 1948 were 14 in 1962, and then 18 in 1966. Only those moored to a religious upbringing in an intact home could have resisted the dominate cultural themes of sexual ‘liberation’ and experimentation.
The girls that fell into the orbit of Charles Manson were unmoored from traditional views of womanhood or religious modestly, and in most cases, they were fractured from their families as well. At just the wrong time, they encountered an older man whose sexual attentions were focused on very young women, and who had developed his sexual practices in prison.
For those young ladies, Charles Manson was an unmitigated tragedy.
Three of the many women Charlie controlled were convicted of murder and sentenced to die. One has died, two are still in jail after more than 50 years. Each has a story of vulnerability that occurred at the wrong personal and cultural moment.
Susan Atkins was born in May of 1948 to a married mother and father who were reported to be heavy drinkers. In what was probably the defining event of her life, her mother died of cancer when she was a teen and her dad functionally abandoned her and her brother. She had been a member of the church choir, but after her mother’s death, she began to drift and then in 1966 she took a December trip to San Francisco and never returned home to complete her senior year. Sadly, no one came looking for her.
It was here that she fell in with Charles Manson, and he assumed the role of whatever she needed. He gave her a new (stupid) name, Sadie Mae Glutz, a fake ID, and is reported to have pimped her out. By October of 1968, she was pregnant, and she gave birth to a child that Manson named. When she was later convicted of murder, all of her parental rights were terminated, and she never saw her child again.
Atkins played a role in the killings at all three murder locations most closely associated with Manson including the most infamous which was the stabbing death of Sharon Tate. By the time she was caught, she had lost all sense of judgement and propriety and she spoke openly, even boastfully, of what she had done, first to other prisoners, and then under oath. Her open admission of stabbing Tate and declaring she had no mercy sealed into the public imagination Atkins as the most bloodthirsty of Manson’s horny, slutty, hippie killers. She later recanted this story, claiming that “Tex” had killed Tate, but her reputation would prove to be an impossible stain to ever remove from her character, and she died in prison at 61, having spend most of her life in incarceration for what she did at the Tate house in the space of just a few minutes.
Patricia Krenwinkel was another Los Angeles native born in in December of 1947 who, while being from an intact family, seemed to have both a strong interest in religion combined with a substandard belief in her own physical beauty. She suffered from an endocrine condition that caused excessive hair growth on her body. She contemplated being a nun, of all things, in the middle of a social revolution and was primed for a philosophical reversal when she met Charles Manson at the beach in 1967. He told her she was beautiful, and like Atkins, Manson seems to have provided her with something she deeply needed at the time. He had unerring instincts in that way. In short order, she was with him and Atkins and others, traveling around the country in a school bus with no goals or destination. Charlie called her Katie.
Unlike Atkins, Krenwinkel seemed more of a journeyman family member who did as she was told with little feeling. She was the primary killer of Abigail Folger, and when asked how that felt about stabbing someone to death, she said “Nothing, I mean, what is there to describe?” She has expressed deep remorse for her pat in the murders, but as with Susan Atkins, her declarations at the time sealed her fate forever.
Leslie Van Houten was born in August 1948 in Los Angeles, and her parents divorced when she was 14. She reports beginning to experiment with drugs by 15, and by the time she was 17, she was pregnant. Her mother forced her to have an abortion. Nevertheless, she graduated from high school, and was the Homecoming Princess at Monrovia High School in 1966. She took a secretarial course afterwards but had a strong interest in communes and communal living even before she met Charles Manson. She met him through friends of friends and joined his family in 1968. She reported that they did a lot of LSD, enough to blend out any firm reality. He named her Lulu.
Van Houton was not present at the murders where Sharon Tate was killed, but she was there for the murders of the LaBianca family. Like Atkins and Krenwinkel, she did little to help herself at the trials and her odd behavior assured she would be convicted which she was, twice.
Over the years, these three women as well as the others have been written about, photographed, interviewed, and studied to the point of exhaustion. Many journalists and feminist writers have tried to separate them from the Manson phenomenon and reclaim their identities from the media narrative that portrayed them as nubile sex-bots that could be programmed to kill. They have always been caught in a paradox where they were held responsible for their actions AND portrayed as under the control of Manson.
Sadly, for these girls, they made their choices in a moment of cultural change that mandated they be held liable for their actions without excuse. For example, in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. This and other changes came about because of the loud calls to further grant rights and privileges to wider and younger groupings based on the idea that if an 18-year-old can be drafted and sent to Vietnam, then they should be allowed to vote, and have all the privilege of adulthood.
Women specifically were to have all manner of new rights, both legal and cultural, in this period. The Supreme Court case that found a right to abortion was released in 1973. Charlie’s girls, as they had been called by many who knew of the ‘Family’ walked right into this, loudly proclaiming that they were free from traditional morality, that Charlie was who freed them, and at court, they even stated that they were explicitly NOT under his control and did what they did on their own. This may have been another manifestation of the control he had over them, since they seemed to be trying to help him by denying he had sent them on any murder missions, but the prosecution and the larger legal system took them at their word, and in the spirit of the age, convicted the women of murder and sentenced them to death, just like they would any man.
Had these girls been born 10 years earlier, their lives would have been very different. Had they been born 20 years later, and they had done the same things, they would not have been treated the same way by the legal system. But they fell into the crack in the culture that treated them like programmable sexual robots and willing accomplices. All three were pretty girls, and they were leered at by the press. Over time, their status changed from killer to victim, but by then, it was too late. Infamy wedding them to Charlie, and there they have stayed. Krenwinkel and Van Houten have been paroled, but more than one governor of the State of California have overridden the parole boards and kept them in jail. None want to be the governor that let the Manson killers go free.
For the other women who were in Manson’s sick orbit, life did not generally turn out well. They have all been part of multiple marriages and divorces, and a few have been to prison for lesser crimes than murder but that include the attempted assignation of a president. They have moved around a great deal, and none seemed to be able to put together either a coherent career or a stable family. Their brief exposure to Charlie and their interaction with the counterculture and its norms prevented them from succeeding in traditional family life or career success. They have bumped along, forever marked with the stigma of association with sexual excess and gruesome murder.
In June of 2021, Leslie Van Houton participated in a podcast called Ear Hustle and she spoke about how she has tried to make a meaningful life for herself though she has spend 50 years in jail and may well die there. She doesn’t think of prison as home, and she knows she may never go home. Home, she says, is just a distant memory and she’s been homeless, thanks to Manson, all of this time. She also says that in the early nineties, she became aware that Manson’s public persona was changing, and he was becoming a cult figure. She was contemplating speaking to the media, and somehow, Charlie found out. Always the hustler, he got a letter to her, threatening her if she spoke further. That drove her to speak publicly, and try to stop the Manson worship before it got started. It was, however, too late. Manson was already a cult hero to the new misguided youth who saw him, as she had, as an agent of change that set young people free.
Her interview is here, and she speaks about the letter starting at minute 42:
There were other girls who were part of the family and the links here lead to interviews where a few share their stories:
Squeaky Fromme – The last true believer.
Catherine Share – Share describes a time Manson beat her in front of the others.
Linda Kasabian – The first to turn on Charlie. This is a long doc and recreation but features Kasabian’s account of what happened at Cielo Drive
Sandra Good – Another true believer who as late as 1989 was still spouting Charlie’s nonsense.
Ruth Ann Moorehouse
Kathryn Lutesinger – An interview taken while was she sitting on the street during the trial.
Ella Jo Bailey
Sherry Cooper – Interview with Sherry Cooper and Danny DiCarlo a few years after the killings.
Barbara Hoyt – When it was discovered that she might testify against Charles Manson Ruth Ann Moorehouse drugged her food.
Mary Brunner – The first, and the mothers’ of one of Charlie’s three children.
Dianne Lake – Dianne Lake tells the story of how her parents introduced her to the counterculture and the violent side of Charles Manson.
Deana Martin – Daughter of Dean Martin, she has a brief fling with the Family, which she does not talk about any longer.
Next – Part 5: Controlling the Men