Van Houten, 73, was a member of the infamous Manson Family, a hippie cult led by Charles Manson that murdered eight people in the summer of 1969. She’s the first Manson Family member involved in the Tate-LaBianca case to be released, and to say it’s been controversial would be an understatement. While millions of Americans know the story of the Manson Family, very few know the creepy connection it has to the Summer of Love, the Sexual Revolution, free love, and the hippie movement.
Who Was Charles Manson?
Most of us know Charles Manson as the cult leader of the Manson Family, but few know about his early life. Like most serial killers and cult leaders (it’s safe to say that he qualifies as both since he was charged and “convicted with seven counts of first-degree murder”), his early years are indicative of the man he came to be.
On November 12, 1934, 16-year-old Kathleen Maddox gave birth to a baby boy named Charles Milles Maddox. She had trouble with drugs and crime but later married a man named William Manson and had her son take his last name. The marriage only lasted a few years, and Kathleen was convicted for attempted armed robbery in 1939, leaving 5-year-old Charles to go live with an aunt and uncle in West Virginia. After Kathleen was paroled in 1942, she and Charles moved to Indiana, where she shortly married another man.
Charles started committing acts of petty crime as a child (mainly theft and robbery), leading him to spend the majority of his late childhood and adolescent years at boarding schools and detention centers for juvenile delinquents. He spent much of his early adult years in prison as well before being released in 1967, and the then 32-year-old Manson moved to San Francisco, where the Manson Family was born.
Manson’s childhood and young adult years paint a picture of someone who was not only unwanted by his mother but grew up surrounded by instability and crime. Between his mother and himself, all he knew was a life of crime, so it makes sense that he continued this behavior when he was released from prison.
How Manson Used the Free Love Movement To Gain Followers
The summer of 1967 is famously known as the “Summer of Love” for the marked rise of the free love and the hippie movements, which were both products of the Sexual Revolution and the counterculture movement against the Vietnam War. Centered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, this period is often romanticized as a time to be free from social norms by embracing casual sex and drugs, but there were plenty of unwanted consequences like STDs and trivializing sex.
These movements were also a “safe haven” for lost souls. Many were young women who were either troubled or felt lost in navigating young adulthood, making it the perfect hunting ground for predators like Manson. After Manson gained a few followers, he started migrating down to Southern California to recruit more young women.
Dianne Lake was 14 years old when she met Manson. Her parents were proponents of the counterculture movement and allowed her to legally emancipate herself from them when she was only 14. From there, she moved in with a hippie couple in Topanga, California. The couple introduced her to Manson and the women in the Family, which she joined a month later.
Despite Lake being 14 and Manson being 33, they had sex the first night they met. She later recalled, “I am immediately just awestruck. That night he made love to me, and I felt very much like a woman, not just a little girl, so he snagged me there, and the whole scene with the girls, I mean, they were like sisters.”
Lake now recognizes that this was not only predatory and statutory rape, but it was a manipulation tactic to get young women to join his cult. She claims that he used the idea of sexual freedom to lure them in, as she told ABC News, “He was pimping us out, but it was in the name of freeing your sexual inhibition.”
She was only 16 when the infamous murders took place and was sent to a psychiatric facility when the police realized that she’d been sexually abused and severely traumatized by Manson. She told Elle Magazine, “It's embarrassing – or it used to be – for me to admit that I spent eight months in a mental hospital. But I realize now, years later, that I needed that time. I was safe, I was protected. I went to school. I learnt how to play the flute and to crochet. I was being normal, and those things took me a long way after I got out.”
Lake was later adopted by a police officer and went on to live a normal and happy life with a husband and children. In 2017, she published the book, Member of the Family: My Stories of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended The Sixties and hopes her story will help others realize the danger of cult leaders. While it’s good to know that her story has a happy ending, the same can’t be said for other Manson Family members.
Another young woman Manson recruited was Patricia Krenwinkel in 1967. She was only 19 years old and lived with her sister in Manhattan Beach when she met Manson. Similar to Lake, they had sex the first night they met, and Krenwinkel fell head over heels for Manson and joined his cult only a few days later. Before joining the Manson Family, she struggled with low self-esteem and enjoyed doing drugs. By 1969, she’d do anything Manson told her, including murder.
Another significant recruit was Leslie Van Houten, who joined the Manson Family in 1968 when she was 19. She lived a seemingly picture-perfect life with her family in Altadena, California, but everything changed when she was 14, and her parents got divorced. Despite being popular in high school and being prom queen, she was heavily involved in sex and drugs, leading to an unexpected pregnancy when she was 17. Shortly after her mother forced her to get an abortion, she dropped out of high school to join the hippie movement. When she joined the Manson Family, her drug use increased. A year after joining, she participated in one of the most brutal murders in modern history.
As the cult grew, Manson moved them to Spahn Ranch, an abandoned movie set outside Los Angeles. As he continued manipulating his followers through sex and drug use, he began to believe that a race war was inevitable. He thought that The Beatles were trying to send him a message through the song “Helter Skelter,” which is the name he called the so-called race war. When the war didn’t start, he believed the Family had to start it themselves by committing brutal murders and trying to shift blame to the Black Panthers.
The Charles Manson Murders
The first murder took place on July 27, 1969. Manson Family members Bobby Beausoleil, Susan Atkins, and Mary Brunner murdered 34-year-old musician and former friend of Manson, Gary Hinman, in his Topanga Canyon home. After the murder, Beausoliel wrote “political piggie” with Hinman’s blood on the wall in an attempt to frame the Black Panthers.
Beausoleil was arrested on August 6, 1969, for sleeping in his car. Out of fear that Beausoleil would confess and wanting to take control of the narrative, the Manson Family decided to commit another murder. These murders would go down as some of the most shocking and brutal crimes in American history.
On August 8, 1969, Manson enlisted Family members Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian to kill the residents of a ritzy home at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles. Manson’s connection to the house was through a music producer, Terry Melcher, who he believed screwed him out of a record deal. Melcher had recently moved out of the home, and it had been purchased by famed director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate.
At the time, Polanski was filming a movie in London while Tate remained in Los Angeles because she was eight months pregnant. Three of her friends, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, heiress Abigail Folger, and aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, stayed at the house with her to keep her company. The Manson Family arrived at the home around midnight, and shot and killed 18-year-old Steven Parent, who saw them arrive at the house from his car. After the first killing, Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel went into the house, while Kasabian, who was the only one to have a valid California driver's license, stayed in the car.
Watson killed Sebring and Frykowski by shooting and stabbing them. Krenwinkel stabbed Folger to death, while Atkins stabbed Tate to death after she begged her to spare the life of her baby, who didn’t survive the brutal murder. When the murders were complete, Atkins wrote “pig” on the wall with Tate’s blood.
The murders shocked Los Angeles, but Manson wanted more and ordered Watson, Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten to commit another murder on August 9, 1969. The targets were grocery store executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary LaBianca. It’s believed that they were targeted because their house was simply convenient. Watson killed Leno by stabbing him, while all three of them stabbed Rosemary to death. After the murder, Krenwinkel wrote “Rise,” “Death to Pigs, and “Helter Skelter” on the walls and refrigerator with blood.
It took a few months for the Manson Family to face justice for the Tate-LaBianca murders. Several Family members were arrested for suspected auto theft in October, leading the police to take note of them. A few weeks later, Atkins was arrested for the Hinman murders and told her cellmate that she had killed Sharon Tate. Bragging about the crime, she said, “We wanted to do a crime that would shock the world, that the world would have to stand up and take notice.”
Her admission led to the arrest of the rest of the Family members who participated in the Tate-LaBianca murders.
A Cautionary Tale of Sex and Brainwashing
While the brutal murders were enough to horrify the public, nothing could compare to how callous the murderers seemed during the trial, which began on June 16, 1970. Manson, Atkins, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel faced trial together, while Watson was tried separately. Since Kasabian didn’t actively participate in the murders, she earned immunity in exchange for her testimony.
Manson showed no remorse for the crimes, and neither did the women. The behavior exhibited was nothing short of something from a cult horror movie. The women would show up to court smiling, singing, holding hands, and wearing colorful dresses. At one point, they shaved their heads and carved Xs onto their foreheads, just like Manson.
Krenwinkel later confessed that all of this was orchestrated by Manson. In a 1994 interview with Diane Sawyer, she said, “The entire proceedings were scripted by Charlie. Every day we’d meet, and he’d decide, ‘Well, today I want you to stand up and hold your hands in a stupid symbol, you’re gonna get up and scream, you’re gonna carve an X into your head, you’re gonna go bald,’ and that day we proceeded through the events as he said it.”
At the end of the trial, all were found guilty and sentenced to death. When California abolished the death penalty in 1972, all sentences were commuted to life in prison.
How did Manson manipulate these women to not only savagely kill innocent people, but not regret it and even brag about it during the trial? A lot of it had to do with how he manipulated them through sex. In a 1994 interview with Diane Sawyer, Van Houten said, “It didn’t happen overnight. He spent a lot of time taking middle-class girls and remolding them. I was an empty shell of a person that was filled up with Manson rhetoric.”
Cult leaders are master manipulators because they know how to play into their follower’s vulnerabilities. They often start by offering a person what they desperately want in life, giving them a sense of belonging before making them question everything they’ve ever known. When it came to Van Houten and Krenwinkel, their insecurities were as clear as day. Van Houten was searching for a home after her father left, and her mother forced her to get an abortion when she was 17, while Krenwinkel was deeply insecure about her appearance. Manson allegedly told Krenwinkel, “You should come away with me. You’re so ugly, and I’m ugly. We’re the only two people who will tell each other we’re beautiful.” Krenwinkel recalled that they had sex very soon after meeting each other, during which Manson told her she was beautiful which led her to tears.
Manson himself has been vocal about his “sexual prowess.” In a 1994 interview, he infamously said, “What they really liked about me? You wanna really hear it? I f*** real good.” As gross as it is, this made his young female followers “putty in his hands.” Women release oxytocin, often known as the love and bonding hormone, during sex. This hormone creates feelings of closeness and attachment and often results in women developing feelings for men after having sex too early in a relationship, which Manson intentionally used to make women his followers.
Both Van Houten and Krenwinkel were desperate to find validation and places to belong, and neither had healthy support systems, making them the perfect prey for a predator like Manson.
Manson’s influence extends beyond the 1969 murders, though – there are still women under his spell. Lynette Fromme and Sandra Good didn’t participate in the murders, but both women are still devoted to him. Manson met Fromme in 1967 after she ran away from home, and she has considered him her savior ever since. She not only supported Manson through the trial but went to jail for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975 and stayed in prison until 2009. In a 2019 interview, she said that she was “still in love” with Manson.
Like Fromme, Good supported Manson through the trial of the Tate-LaBianca murders and went to prison herself in 1975 “in connection with death threats against more than 170 corporate executives” before being paroled in 1985. She showed that she was still devoted to Manson in a 2019 documentary, Manson: The Women. Regarding the Tate-LaBianca murders, she said, “How can you point the finger at us and call us evil for being good soldiers and doing what needed to be done?”
Like Van Houten and Krenwinkel, both Fromme and Good had sexual relationships with Manson, which he used to brainwash them into following him for over five decades since the Tate-LaBianca murders.
The Manson Family is a disturbing cautionary tale about the power of sexual manipulation. Manson used the ideals of the Sexual Revolution, free love, and hippie movements to recruit followers and used the biological attachment they developed through sex with him to carry out his perverse and evil fantasies. Many of these women thought they were breaking the chains of the patriarchy to pursue casual sex, only to become attached to one of the most predatory men in American history.
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