I am working on a book right now about all the interesting people I've ever met. The Manson Girls take up an entire chapter. For a short version here, I was asked to go speak for Career Day at the Women's Prison at Frontera, California in the mid-70s. I guess the warden thought my success as a Hollywood columnist would help stimulate the prisoners to want to become something. The auditorium where I spoke was full. When my speech was over the warden asks me if I would "go meet some special prisoners." I said, "Sure." As we were walking across the grounds, he told me they were the Manson Girls. I stopped dead in my tracks. I told him the I had just seen Sharon Tate the week before the murders and I would never say yes to talking to people who killed her.
Then, the reporter in me took hold. "On second thought, I'll do it."
I was led to a special cement house all by itself on the grounds. There were guards in front. The yard was completely fenced in, including a top. It looked like a wire bubble. I saw the worn circular path in the grass where they must walk in circles every day.
I entered a foyer with more guards, and was told to take off all jewelry, valuables, my purse, anything sharp, and leave it with the guards. Inside of me I was freaking out. A steel door opened and I entered a reception area. When that door slammed behind me I thought I was never getting out and I broke out in a cold sweat.
Sitting on a bench was a beautiful young girl wearing a tennis sweater, jeans, and Gucci loafers. She had long, thick, brown hair, a full-lipped wide smile, and sweet eyes. IT WAS LESLIE VAN HOUTEN. I thought she was a former USC sorority girl from my class. I couldn't believe it. I had on Gucci loafers, too, so we laughed about it. Talking to her was easy and natural. There wasn't an ounce of anything scary or dangerous. As wild as it seems, I thought we could be friends.
Quickly, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkle appeared. Both were in prison garb. Susan Atkins has crazy eyes and looked at me like she'd cut me dead if I moved a muscle. Patricia Krenwinkle was cold and tough, but it was clear that Atkins was the more dangerous one. Atkins looked completely deranged.
I ended up visiting Leslie many times through the years. She told me that she ran away from home, after being named the Homecoming Queen, because her parents were too strict, especially her father. She was just one of those runaway kids who ended up in San Francisco. She said she'd really missed her father when she'd run away, and was very lonely.
"One night I was invited to a party and I saw the nice, clean-shaven young man playing the guitar and singing 'The Shadow of Your Smile.' He looked right at me and asked me to sit with him. He was older than most of the kids, and he just made me feel safe," said Leslie.
CUT TO: Leslie and all the others are at the Manson Ranch. Every day Manson makes them line up for the morning LSD. Same thing at night. "I never knew where I was or what was real," explained Leslie.
The day after the Tate Murders, Leslie heard through the grapevine that "something bad had happened." SHE WAS NEVER AT THE TATE MURDERS, A FACE THAT PEOPLE FORGET.
The next night Manson told her to go with Tex Watson and Pat and Susan. She didn't want to go. "We ended up at some house with a boat in front of it. Tex made us all go in and told us to kill whoever was inside. I stayed in the kitchen hoping to not get involved. I remember studying the colors in the refrigerator. We all were on LSD," said Leslie. "Tex came in and told me that Charlie told him that if I didn't kill someone that Tex was going to kill me. I was terrified and was pushed down the hall."
According to Leslie, she saw Mrs. LaBianca on the floor and thought she was dead. Tex was watching so she picked up a knife and stabbed her repeatedly. Leslie told me the only way she could keep doing it was because she believed Mrs. LaBianca was dead, and she did not want to die, too.
Leslie has been a model prisoner and has earned more than one college degree. She has never been a discipline problem and is horrified by what happened. She told me that, at one point, the prison doctors had to show her photos of Mrs. LaBianca's body just to have her remember, because she'd been on so much LSD. She lives with pain and regret every second of every day.
Leslie Van Houten has paid her debt to society in an exemplary way. I understand that LaBianca family members are upset. I wish they would meet her. Whether or not Leslie had been there the night of the murders, the LaBiancas would have been killed by the other people who went.
More than anything else, the story of Leslie Van Houten, because she was such a legitimate "good girl" who ran away because was "cool," shows the tragedy that can happen when parents and children don't communicate.
Let's see what Jerry Brown does.
And you can read my book(when I finish writing it, obviously) to hear all the rest of the Leslie stories as well as how much Patricia Krenwinkle has changed for the better, and the many myths and truths about the Manson Murders that have needed to be straightened out once and for all.
Susan Atkins died in prison. Good. That was as it should be.