The Manson Women and Me
In the summer of 1969, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel carried out horrific acts of butchery on the orders of the charismatic cult leader Charles Manson. But to anyone who knew them growing up, they were bright, promising girls, seemingly incapable of such an unfathomable crime.
Award-winning journalist Nikki Meredith began visiting Van Houten and Krenwinkel in prison to discover how they had changed during their incarceration. The more Meredith got to know them, the more she was lured into a deeper dilemma: What compels “normal” people to do unspeakable things?
The author’s relationship with her subjects provides a chilling lens through which we gain insight into a particular kind of woman capable of a particular kind of brutality. Through their stories, Nikki Meredith takes readers on a dark journey into the very heart of evil.
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About the Author
Nikki Meredith is an award-winning journalist, a licensed clinical social worker, and a former probation officer. She has been a feature reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, the Marin Independent Journal, and the Pacific Sun. Her work has appeared in Parenting, Psychology Today, Health, USA Today, and Utne Reader. She lives near San Francisco. Visit her at www.nikkimeredith.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Formosa Café
I walked into the Formosa Café, adjusted my eyes to the relative dark, and scanned the bar, looking for George, the man I was scheduled to meet. It was 1995 and I was researching a story about settled gypsies, and George, who was one, wanted to meet in Hollywood, far from the authoritarian eyes of the patriarch of his clan in Northern California. I'd suggested the Formosa Café because it was close to where he was living or said he was living, and it was the only bar I still knew in Hollywood, having left the city, my youth, and the bad food at the Formosa more than thirty years before.
I didn't see him when I arrived, so I sat idly watching a tennis match on the TV above the bar. A fleshy man in his late forties, looking uncomfortable in a starched white shirt and pinstriped suit, took the stool next to me. He ordered an Anchor Steam and asked the bartender if he minded switching the channel to the O.J. trial — a request I found puzzling. Even in L.A., most people were taking a break from the proceedings; criminalist Dennis Fung had been droning on for days and all but the most ardent trial watchers had tuned out.
The bartender, a lean, upright man in a waiter's uniform left over from the same era as most of the movie stars whose autographed black-and-white photos were displayed on the walls, handed him the remote. The man clicked through the channels, stopping when he heard "crime of the century." But Dennis Fung wasn't on the screen. Instead, a pretty woman who resembled Mary Tyler Moore was talking about remorse. In 1969, she and three others were involved in the murder of a couple — a thirty-nine-year-old woman, a wife and mother of two, and her forty-four-year-old husband.
"Who is that?" my bar partner said.
"Leslie Van Houten," I said. "One of the Manson women."
I hadn't seen her face for twenty-five years. Of all the actors in that horror show, she was the most puzzling to me. Maybe it was her wholesomeness, her doe eyes, her fresh face.
She was saying that the older she got, the harder it was to reconcile herself to what happened. "Mrs. LaBianca was younger than I am now. I took away all that life."
We were watching a documentary about Charles Manson called A Journey to Evil. There were clips of prison interviews with two of Manson's accomplices: Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten. Both were expressing remorse.
"It's bullshit," the guy on the next stool said. "It's an act. They're sick. The whole lot of them."
Manson's diabolical face then appeared on the screen to proclaim his resolute lack of remorse. "Woman, that doesn't wrinkle my forehead none," he said when the interviewer asked how he felt about Sharon Tate's murder.
He continued with his trademark mumbo jumbo, and the guy at the bar decided he was more interested in the current trial of the century and switched to Dennis Fung. After a half hour I gave up on the gypsy and walked out into the afternoon sun.
It was February and one of those rare L.A. days when the air is cool, the sky the color of cornflowers, and the tops of the palm trees more than an impressionistic blur. The Santa Monica Mountains that bound that end of the city were startlingly clear. I remembered being delighted years before when a man at a dinner party in San Francisco proclaimed that nowhere else on earth was there an uglier juxtaposition of mountain and ocean than in Los Angeles.
I had fled the city because of the usual culprits: the car-choked freeways, the ubiquity of strip malls and asphalt, the lung-bruising air. But I was also fleeing the very thing that drew my grandparents there in the early years of the century: the atmosphere of boundless possibility. Since its inception, L.A. had been a place to experiment, to shed the past. But a place that lends itself so readily to transformation is, by its very nature, ephemeral, and when I was growing up, it all felt a little too impermanent.
But now the city stirred some ineffable longing in me; it was no longer the bad air, but other particulates — the night-blooming jasmine, seedy cocktail lounges, red hibiscus, and bungalow courts — that made it hurt when I breathed. What once seemed so transient had become bedrock.
I walked down Formosa Avenue past the Warner-Hollywood Studios, the costume supply and post-production companies, and stucco garden apartments with bars on the windows. Even in the days when Hollywood could claim some glamour, this neighborhood was the underbelly. I thought about the Manson women and how the guy in the bar declared them "sick" with such certainty. His characterization was kinder than prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's who, in Helter Skelter, the best-selling account of the murders, described them to the jury as "human monsters, mutations without hearts, without souls."
I first read Helter Skelter in 1975 when I was at home luxuriating in what were supposed to be deliciously indolent days following the birth of my youngest child. A good friend had given it to me, as he wrote in the inscription, "to entertain you while you nurse your new baby." My husband thought another book for my infant care collection might have been a more appropriate gift, but this friend and I had long shared an interest in the murders.
We'd met working in a residential program for young, first break schizophrenics. At the time, I was the program director and a psychiatric social worker; he was an intern getting his PhD in psychology. We were both interested in looking at disturbed behavior in the context of family systems. The young people in Manson's group had rejected their families of origin and had created a new one — one that redefined family and, in the process, stripped them of their basic humanity.
Jacob, the book giver, knew I had more personal reasons to be interested in the case. I'd attended Hollywood High School where I'd been friends with two key figures in the Helter Skelter story — Stephen Kay, the young deputy district attorney who assisted Vincent Bugliosi at the trial; and Catherine Share, aka Gypsy, who had assisted Charles Manson in recruiting young girls into his tribe.
Also, there were issues in my own family of origin that were somewhat parallel, though certainly not as extreme. My brother had served time for a home invasion robbery, and Jacob knew how that had affected me. Like the young people in Manson's group, my brother was the offspring of middle-class parents who had high expectations of him. Like Leslie Van Houten, he was popular, smart, good looking, affable. He, too, dropped out of college, lived both aimlessly and recklessly, saturating his brain with psychedelics. This described thousands of kids in the 1960s, but few of them committed crimes like my brother — a frightening home invasion that involved an older couple. He had been incarcerated at the California Institution for Men in Chino, just a few miles from the prison where the three Manson women ended up.
So, despite my personal reasons to be interested in the case, I had just as many reasons to avoid it, reasons about which Jacob was oblivious. He was not yet a father and had a limited understanding of the psychological vulnerabilities of nursing mothers. While Helter Skelter was indeed a page-turner, I was so frightened by the contents, the book itself became a totemic embodiment of evil that I couldn't bear to have in the same room as my freshly minted daughter or my six-year-old son. The idea of random savagery is especially terrifying when your protective hormones are at their peak and safeguarding your baby's every breath is your total preoccupation.
But it wasn't Charles Manson, an old-fashioned psychopath with a New Age angle, who was the source of my terror. Because he looked deranged, he was somehow easier for me to dismiss. It was the women. Their seeming normality coupled with the barbarity of the crimes, their insult-to-injury behavior during the trial, their mocking disdain for the grief of the victims' families — ten families in all — was unfathomable. And because I had known Catherine Share, Manson's chief recruiter, when she was a bright, pretty, and all-around appealing high school student, her devotion to him was even more startling. While she didn't directly participate in the Tate-LaBianca murders, she committed other crimes at his direction.
In my mind, the description of the murdered Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, curled in a fetal position, her silky blond hair and the pattern of her floral lingerie nearly obscured by a cloak of blood, were superimposed on the photos of Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins at the trial, holding hands, skipping down the courthouse halls singing Manson's songs, looking as though they were on their way to some kind of hippie hoedown. The images of those girls and the brutal murders would float in and out of my consciousness for the next couple of decades.
Since the Tate-LaBianca murders, Charles Manson had achieved almost mythic status in the country. To a subgroup of disaffected European and American youth he was a folk hero, an inspiration, an eternal rebel without a cause. To the rest of us, in his pint-size way, he had become as much a symbol of evil as Hitler. Though Manson didn't personally kill any of those seven people, he was more widely known than any other serial killer.
One of the impenetrable mysteries of Hitler's Holocaust continues to be the unspeakable brutality of ordinary Germans — middle-class people who contributed in direct and intimate ways to the slaughter of Jews. Similarly, the enduring potency of the Manson myth derives not only from his involvement in the murders but from his deft extermination of the humanity of seemingly normal young people who killed at his behest.
After a glimpse of Leslie Van Houten's and Patricia Krenwinkel's apparent penitence, I wanted to find out about their journey, and that of Susan Atkins, the third woman who was convicted with them. I remembered Leslie's attorney, Maxwell Keith, pleading with the jury: "Study her, don't kill her." The jury had decided to kill her anyway — a decision that was later reversed when the California Supreme Court declared the state's death penalty law, as it was then written, unconstitutional. (See chapter 7.)
So had she been studied? Did the women have, as Vincent Bugliosi contended, something "deep in their souls" that would have propelled them to violence even without Manson? Or were they simply forlorn, impressionable youngsters whose minds were rendered useless because of a combination of social turmoil, drugs, and the exquisite manipulative skills of a psychopath? From their perch of middle age, what was their understanding of why on two successive nights in 1969 they participated in the murders of seven people they did not know?
I wrote to Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel at the California Institution for Women at Frontera, requesting interviews. For reasons I will explain later, I decided to hold off on contacting Susan Atkins.
ABIGAIL FOLGER'S SMILE
The nightmare started on August 8, 1969. Though decades later some of the particulars of the murders are still in question, we do know that Charles Manson instructed Tex Watson (22), Susan Atkins (20), Patricia Krenwinkel (20), and Linda Kasabian (19) to drive to 10050 Cielo Drive — a gated estate at the edge of Benedict Canyon — and rob and kill everyone inside. Manson did not include Leslie Van Houten that first night nor did he go himself. He remained at Spahn Ranch, an old movie set in Chatsworth on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where he and about twenty young people were living, commune style.
Why Manson targeted that house, on that night, and for what reason is still subject to debate, but we do know that his connection to the house involved record producer Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son. Though he had since moved out, Melcher once lived at 10050 Cielo Drive with his then girlfriend Candice Bergen. Manson was obsessed with the idea that Melcher, with whom he was acquainted, would help him become a recording star. When Melcher reneged on producing a long-promised record, Manson, according to Susan Atkins's subsequent grand jury testimony, decided to scare the hell out of him.
Once they got to the estate, the four — armed with bolt cutters, a gun, ropes, and knives — severed the phone lines and scaled the fence. Walking toward the house, they encountered an old Nash Rambler driven by Steven Parent, an eighteen-year-old friend of William Garretson, the estate's caretaker, who lived in the guest cottage at the back of the property. Parent was on his way home. Tex Watson shot and killed him.
While Kasabian stood guard outside, the other three went into the house where they found four people. The best known was Sharon Tate. Tate was a veteran of more than ten films, mostly of the B variety, but she hadn't gained public attention until 1967 when she starred in Valley of the Dolls with Patty Duke and Barbara Parkins. Lovely, luminous, sweet, sexy are the words her family and friends still use when they talk about her. One of those friends, Mia Farrow, described Tate in her memoir, What Falls Away, as a fairy princess, "as sweet and good as she was beautiful."
Tate met Roman Polanski in 1967 when he cast her as the female lead in The Fearless Vampire Killers, a horror spoof, and they were married a year later. In August 1969 she was eight months pregnant with their child.
At the time of the murders, Polanski was in London writing the script for his next film. He was still riding high from the previous year's success of Rosemary's Baby — a film starring Mia Farrow about a young woman who is forced by her husband into an alliance with a group of devil worshippers. After the murders, of course, the film would come to seem mysteriously prophetic.
In the first frenzied weeks after the murders, there were rumors that Polanski had been involved. To some, his preoccupation with violence and the occult as reflected in his films made him suspect. Any connection was soon disproved. His preoccupation with violence was a logical consequence of his childhood during World War II. Polanski, who is Jewish, was consigned with his family to live in the Krakow ghetto. When his mother was four months pregnant, she was captured by storm troopers and sent to Auschwitz, where she was gassed.
Also in the house that night was hairstylist Jay Sebring, thirty-five, whose clients included Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, George Peppard, and Paul Newman. Sebring and Sharon Tate had once been lovers, but now he was a family friend.
Abigail Folger, twenty-five, an heiress to the Folger Coffee fortune, was also there that night. In spite of her pedigree — she grew up on Nob Hill in San Francisco; boarded at the Santa Catalina school in Monterey (as would Patty Hearst ten years later); held her debutante ball at the St. Francis Hotel; graduated from Radcliff — she veered away from the high society path after moving to Los Angeles. She worked in the inner city for the L.A. County Welfare Department as a volunteer social worker and in the months before she was murdered she had joined Tom Bradley's 1969 campaign to become the first black mayor of Los Angeles. When Bradley was defeated by Sam Yorty, Folger, according to her friends, was incensed by the racist tactics used by Yorty's campaign staff.
The fourth person in the house that night was Abigail Folger's thirty-two-year- old lover, Voytek Frykowski — a bon vivant, and a sometime writer. As a youth, he'd been friends with Polanski in Poland, but Abigail met him in 1968 through Polish novelist Jerzy Kosinski.
The victims, who were located in various rooms, were apparently not immediately alarmed by the presence of strangers. According to subsequent testimony by the murderers, the victims must have believed that they were connected to someone in the household. Susan Atkins, who had slipped into the house through a back window, walked down the hall and poked her head into a bedroom where she saw Abigail Folger lying on the bed reading. Sensing someone at the door, Abigail looked up from her book and smiled.
Excerpted from "The Manson Women and Me"
Copyright © 2018 Nikki Meredith.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Caitlin Meredith xi
1 The Formosa Café 9
2 Abigail Folger's Smile 16
3 "Healter Skelter" 21
4 Banned-Tools of the Trade 25
5 Unfathomable Remorse 27
6 Wallet on the Beach 33
7 Mrs. Tate's Fury 37
8 Living Without Hope 40
9 Orphaned by the Holocaust 44
10 Mondo Video A-Go-Go 55
11 Disordered Thoughts and Demented Machinations 61
12 "I Felt Like a Predator" 66
13 Folie à famille 69
14 Falling in Love with Anne Frank 74
15 Everybody Can Be a Killer 82
16 "Is There Anything Worse Than Dying in Terror?" 88
17 The Empathic Brain 91
18 Unforgetting Retribution 96
19 Dues-Paying Member of the Little Wildlife Society 98
20 "They Were on a Tear" 104
21 Dreaming of Hitler 107
22 The Need for a Scapegoat 109
23 An Abiding Friend to Families of Victims 114
24 The Agony of Mothers 117
25 Homecoming Princess 122
26 A Good Soldier 126
27 Searching for a Cessna 133
28 The Metaphorical Microscope 142
29 Decoding Manson 151
30 Broken Empathy Circuit 154
31 "Leslie Is My Daughter" 160
32 Ich bin ein Jude 164
33 Bad Apples or Bad Barrel? 169
34 A Psychedelic City-State 173
35 "Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo" 182
36 Micheltorena Hill 188
37 Mule Creek Prison 192
38 Every Facet of Her Mothering 202
39 A Lethal Convergence 209
40 "You Couldn't Find a Nicer Group of People" 212
41 Pat's Anger 215
42 Scapegoats-The Need to Blame 220
43 "She Did Appeal to My Humanity but I Had None to Give Her" 229
44 The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang 232
45 Heaven's Gate 238
46 A Different Pat 241
47 The Terror of Being Excluded 243
48 Hatred More Powerful Than a Mother's Love 245
49 The Shade Trees of Hollywood High 251
50 Fused Identities 255
51 A Drop of Jewish Blood 258
52 A Make-Believe Dodge 270
53 "A Damn Good Whacking" 275
54 The Swastika 278
55 Yes, She Would Kill for Him 280
56 Insatiable and Warped Need for Love 282
57 The Ultimatum 284
58 The Truth Is, the Truth Doesn't Matter 288
59 Not That Kind of Girl 299
60 We Are All Rwandan 311
61 "You Took God Away from Me" 314
62 Unforgetting, Unforgiving 320
63 "I'd Be Nice to a Stray Dog If It Needed Help" 326
64 The Mothers Who Poisoned Their Babies at Jonestown Haunt Her 331
65 Starlight Ballroom 336
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is 15% about the Manson women and 85% about the author coming to terms with her Jewish Blood. Save your money. Nothing new to learn, unless you are having trouble dealing with being Jewish! I paid $1.99 for this book, and still feel I paid $1.90 too much!
An interesting look at two of the women in the Manson family. The author details her visits with Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krewnwinkel in prison. I with Meredith left out the stories regarding her own background and family because they didn't exactly fit into the narrative. This book reads more like a memoir than true crime.
Nikki Meredith’s personal experiences and relationships with Patricia Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten is a fascinating and in depth dealing with understanding and empathy. The book is not a sensationalised account of two murderers and a journalist hoping to find an angle that will push this further. What we have is a book that is thought provoking and raises questions on the human spirit and asks can a person change from their early self. Meredith has a very interesting writing style that delves the reader into the subject matter without speaking down or pushing her ideals forth. Her strengths comes with providing the facts and letting the reader come up with their own understanding and she gives you enough time to digest the information before moving on. Interestingly enough, the author was in high school who would become a Manson member years later. She looks into their relationship at this point and examines how they both changed as people. Starting out with very similar views but leading very different paths. This is what makes the book rich reading from my point of view, Meredith examines the situations with Krenwinkle and Van Houten and relates this to her own life and her own decisions and experiences. Leading in through this perspective, lifts the subject matter above the usual fare that is out there dealing with the Manson family or any true crime books out there. Meredith has provided an interesting subject and personalised it to become real. As for people’s understanding or changing of perspective on how you feel about Krenwinkle or Van Houten will depend on your own personal views but this book will challenge even though who have very strict views on this. This is an outstanding look into the lives of two women who made some bad decisions which lead them down a dark path whilst in their late teens to early 20’s and the prices they have paid. It deals with changes of personality, thoughts and overview people have as they go into their 60’s to 70’s. It is a fact that as we mature, we are seldom the same person we were in our younger days than what we are now. This is a must read and highly recommended. Fascinating, personable and thought provoking in an intelligent and personal way.
Thank you to the publisher Kensington Books who provided an advance reader copy via NetGalley. This book focuses primarily on Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, members of the notorious Manson family imprisoned since the 1970s involving the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders in LA. While author Nikki Meredith also interviewed former Manson member Tex Watson in prison, she established a twenty-year relationship visiting Van Houten and Krenwinkel at the Frontera prison where they both are inmates. When the author initially broached interviewing these women, she also reached out to fellow former Manson family member Susan Atkins, also an inmate at Frontera. Although Atkins initially seemed open to it, she ultimately denied access claiming it would interfere with another media project she was involved with. In hindsight, Nikki Meredith was relieved of the abandoned Atkins interview opportunity; she sensed an inherit evil about Atkins that she did not find in Van Houten and Krenwinkel. Atkins died in prison in 2009 from brain cancer. Not only is this book about the Manson women, but about the author herself, and some connections she has to people involved in the Manson/LaBianca orbit. She was high school friends with a girl named Catherine Share who later became Manson family member and recruiter "Gypsy". She also was high school friends with Stephen Kay, who became deputy district attorney in LA, working directly under lead Manson prosecutor Victor Bugliosi during that trial. She also has the experience of her brother having spent a short time in prison, and leading a rehabilitated, meaningful and successful life afterwards. Finally, Meredith has been a magazine writer, NPR reporter, award-winning Bay Area journalist, family therapist and probation officer. It is with this varied professional and personal background that she delves into the psyche of these Manson women. The parts about the book I found most interesting were the author's meetings and conversations with Van Houten and Krenwinkel in prison. She also had the opportunity to interview a couple of their parents. Throughout the book, she tries to come to conclusions as to whether they are rehabilitated, how they really feel about what they did, and to figure out how they became brainwashed by Manson. Interspersed throughout the book she cites various psychological studies regarding people who murder and how they can become immune to feeling anything about it. Although I read a least half of these accounts, I admit I tired of the medical jargon and began to page through these sections. I was more interested in the one-on-one experiences the author had with the Manson women. Ultimately, the author's opinion (and that of the parole board) is that Leslie Van Houten should be paroled after her almost 50 years in prison. However, Governor Jerry Brown once again declined her parole in January 2018, although this had still been undecided at the time of this book's writing.