John Waters on his friendship with Manson Family murderer Leslie Van Houten

(Above, trailer for upcoming movie, "Leslie, My Name Is Evil")

Here's Part 1 of a 5-part excerpt from John Waters' forthcoming book, Role Models (2010) running in the The Huffington Post. Waters writes about his friendship with Leslie Van Houten, the Manson Family member who is serving a life sentence for murdering Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in 1969.

200908030931 I have a really good friend who was convicted of killing two innocent people when she was nineteen years old on a horrible night of 1969 cult madness. Her name is Leslie Van Houten and I think you would like her as much as I do. She was one of those notorious "Manson girls" who shaved their heads, carved X's in their foreheads and laughed, joked, and sang their way through the courthouse straight to death row without the slightest trace of remorse forty years ago. Leslie is hardly a "Manson girl" today. Sixty years old, she looks back from prison on her involvement in the La Bianca murders (the night after the Tate massacre) in utter horror, shame, and guilt and takes full responsibility for her part in the crimes. I think it's time to parole her.

I am guilty, too. Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims' families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case. I became obsessed by the Sharon Tate murders from the day I read about them on the front page of the New York Times in 1969 as I worked behind the counter of the Provincetown Book Shop. Later, when the cops finally caught the hippy killers and I actually saw their photos ("Arrest Weirdo in Tate Murders", screamed the New York Daily News headlines) I almost went into cardiac arrest. God! The Manson Family looked just like my friends at the time!

I'm looking forward to reading the other four parts of this excerpt, though I seriously doubt it'll change my opinion that Van Houten should spend the rest of her life in prison.

Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship, Part 1 of 5, by John Waters | Part 2


  1. “I seriously doubt it’ll change my opinion that Van Houten should spend the rest of her life in prison.”

    Mmm, so you don’t believe humans have the capacity for redemption? I’m not saying every Tom, Dick and Leslie needs to be set free after saying “I’m sorry”, but surely there’s a better solution to this than keeping her in jail for another 20-30 years.

  2. In case anyone was wondering, the name of the song is “Black Grease” by “The Black Angels”.

  3. “Mmm, so you don’t believe humans have the capacity for redemption? ”

    Redemption doesn’t have anything to do with it. She went to prision because she was convicted of a crime. It’s called punishment. It’s what happens when you do something bad.

  4. Takuan, forty years in jail is punishment. What purpose is served by continuing to imprison a 60 year old for the crimes of a 19 year old? In some cases, maybe the 60 year old is still dangerous. But if not, isn’t it a waste of taxpayer money?

    On the other hand, I’m not sure how a person is supposed to survive in the outside world if that person has spent his/her entire adult life in prison and has no connections on the outside.

  5. Dealio, This kind of reasoning is why our(USA) prison system is in the kind of mess it is in now. Prison is meant to remove threats to society, and hopefully allow their return to society when they are no longer a threat. Using it as punishment gets some poor sap 30 years for having one hit of LSD on a sugar cube(Due to the weight of the sugar) and a guy who shoots his wife in the face with a shotgun seven.

    Leslie is no longer a threat and keeping her there won’t turn the clock back on the murders.

  6. This isn’t going to turn into a crime and punishment thread, is it?

    I saw an interview with Van Houten and one of the other girls a few years ago. It occurs to me that if they had been executed as they were originally sentenced, they would have possibly gone to their deaths in that brain-washed, giggling state with zero remorse.

    After over 40 years, apparently all the killers save Manson himself, are remorseful. Van Houten stated that she wakes up every day and remembers what she did and has to live with it. Personally, I think that’s a true punishment.

    On another note, without taking anything away from the victims, it’s truly sad to think of the lives that were wasted. Going to prison at 19 or 20 and now it’s 40 years later. Even is she is paroled, so much of her life is gone now. Yes, she’s responsible for her actions and she seems to truly own up to that. But it’s still quite sad overall.

  7. thorny, very thorny. If mine had been the victims I can’t see any end to the vengeance I would exact. Ever. I see the error, but I honestly don’t think I would master it.

  8. True. I can’t imagine being one of the victim’s family. So I can’t say with any certainty of course what I would feel or want to see happen to any of them. Manson, no problem. He should die in prison.

  9. I probably saw that same interview…all of the women seemed so…normal. Just like any boomer mom, you might stand next to in line, at the supermarket…

    I see some parallels between the Manson family, and Vietnam veterans, actually…both groups of misguided young people, that got a little more brutality than they bargained for, and wound up paying a very heavy price for it.

  10. Act I.

    “Abolish the death penalty! Life in prison is far worse a punishment than death! And it’s cheaper than all the appeals that lead to execution.”

    Act II.

    “What is accomplished by keeping a 60-year-old in prison? Don’t you believe in redemption? Don’t you realize how much it’s costing the taxpayers?”

  11. #10: How about this?

    Capital punishment is wrong. Period. Most murderers should be given life with no parole. Some murderers depending on the circumstances, may get parole. You know, something flexible that works on a case-by-case basis, because this is a complex issue and black and white solutions are just too blunt.

  12. the argument for abolishing the death penalty is that governments kill enemies, not necessarily the guilty. And anyone, even you, might become an “enemy”.

    I might believe in capital punishment on a personal level. I wouldn’t trust anyone else to get it right. Certainly none that rule me now.

    As to release from life sentence for murder: some do manage to forgive. As I said, I doubt my own ability, but I can recognize it when I see it in others.

    As to expense: how about releasing the pot smokers, the jay walkers, the paupers, the drug addicted needing treatment and the political enemies and those of the wrong skin colour first?
    Then there should be plenty of money to jail the psychopathic killers.

  13. What is the point of prison? If it’s a life for a life, they should have been executed, though the number of perpetrators to victims is off a lot of the time. If this is our real criteria, we should take a serial killer’s loved ones or nearest relatives, saving him for last. Clearly this doesn’t work.

    Is it punishment? Many years locked up, forced labour, torture, pop music? This comes down to a ruined but maintained life in exchange for the one taken. This resonates with the toddler in us all.

    How about rehabilitation? Combined with some incarceration or even light torture (controlled whipping, etc) this is both the most attractive and usual choice for our collective animal brain.

    Interestingly, recidivism rates for serious crimes like rape and murder are less than 1 in 3, but for minor theft and pot possession are over 60 percent. If prevention were a real factor, the destitute hungry man would get a life sentence for stealing that first loaf of bread, in order to feed him for life!

    Thorny questions indeed.

  14. I can’t imagine the pain that the families must feel, but I do think that the 19 year old is very likely a different person than the 60 year old. When I was 19 I believed an entirely different set of things than I do now (a mere decade and a few years later) and one of those things has a lot to do with how I view authority and where my core morality and ethics derive their compass. I wouldn’t have killed anyone when I was 19 (I hope not anyway) but I might easily (and came close) have killed myself. In the intervening years, my cognitive dissonance was resolved through a lot of therapy, and some of the things that made me feel anxious have been resolved. And some never will be, because that’s just my brain chemistry. But I have a different set of tools for dealing with the things that used to drive me (quite literally) crazy. The 30 year old self has strengths and experience to draw from that the 19 year old self did not.

    I would still express reservations about freeing Leslie, particularly as Freshaconcci and Joe noted, the world has changed a lot and I believe Van Houten would require a lot of therapy to deal with it. (Not that this should preclude her getting therapy if she needs it.)

    In the end, I am glad it is not my decision to make.

  15. I, for one, do not believe in redemption. It would be a wonderful world in which problems just go away, but they don’t. She was ill then, she’s ill now. And, as those of you who have worked with the mentally ill know, those will mental illness are great people 99% of the time. It is because of that small percentage of the time that they are not in their right mind that we cannot, for the safety of others, let them out on their own recognizance. That does not mean they are to be tortured; they’re human beings and deserve to be treated as such. They just need to be kept apart from others

  16. And I do want to say that I agree largely with Takuan’s comment about releasing the classes that our current system discriminates against. The whole system could use an overhauling.

  17. I wonder if Mr. Waters ever asked the families of victims if they “like her as much as I do.”

    I’m guessing not.

    You do the crime, you do the time.

  18. Societal Scapegoat

    The scapegoat was a goat that was driven off into the wilderness as part of the ceremonies of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in Judaism during the times of the Temple in Jerusalem. The rite is described in Leviticus 16.

    Since this goat, carrying the sins of the people placed on it, is sent away to perish [1], the word “scapegoat” has come to mean a person, often innocent, who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes, or sufferings of others, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes.

  19. Eternally long jail sentences are just as wrong as capital punishment. There is just no sense in 20 and 30 and 40 year prison terms. Might as well just execute them if you are going to put them away for that long. There has to be a better way of honoring and comforting the victims of violent crime than jailing people for decades upon decades when the money could be way better spent elsewhere instead of just pumping the prison industry.

    On a separate note, the John Waters book looks insanely fascinating and I can’t wait to read it.

  20. freshacconci,

    Argument from assertion is a fallacy. “The death penalty is wrong. Period.” is as convincing as “Homosexual relations are wrong. Period.” I don’t care about what you think is wrong. In fact, the simple fact that you can’t come up with a better argument predisposes me to reject your assertion.

    I’m not even a big fan of the death penalty – unless it’s executed at the scene of the crime by the would-be victim – but if we’re going to replace it with life sentences, then they’d better be life. Yes, the 60-year-old is in many important respects not the same person as 19-year-old. But the concept of continuity over time, while perhaps an illusion, is a socially useful illusion. There’s enough short-term thinking in society as it is. In matters of life and death, we need to do everything possible to encourage long-term thinking and continuity of identity and consequence.

  21. The article reads like Waters admires these people. He’s obviously envious of their fame and mystery and shadowy cult status, and probably a little jealous of all the free LSD they took, but he seems to genuinely admire and care for them. Them, of course, being murders. I was never a fan of John Waters, and always thought he was a little odd, but now I’m just down-right scared of the man.

    I don’t believe Mason and his followers are people who we should be making friends with. They’re people who should have been locked in a hole and forgotten about. People tend to forget about the terrible things they did, and people like that don’t deserve our compassion. I feel for their families and the families of the people they murdered, and everyone else who’s lives they ruined, but I have no sympathy for cold-blooded murders.

    I really agree with Mark, and I hope Van Houten rots in prison for the rest of her life. Redemption isn’t the issue here, nor is compassion or forgiveness. There’s a limit to one’s ability to redeem and forgive, and there are some people and actions that are beyond human redemption. If you’re able to forgive these people, then you’re either a much stronger person then I am, or a much weaker person.

  22. Utilitarian talk about prison is difficult because, in our society, there’s no consensus about what the purpose of prison is supposed to be. There are four different purposes that generally show up in discussion:

    Punishment: Prison punishes the criminal for his or her wrong-doing, which is what he deserves.
    Deterrence: Imprisoning (or otherwise punishing) criminals frightens off other would-be criminals, preventing further crime.
    Isolation: Prison keeps the general population safe by isolating criminals.
    Rehabilitation: Prison offers the imprisoned a chance to better themselves, preventing further crime.

    Some of these goals work together (like punishment and deterrence); others work against each other (like punishment and rehabilitation).

  23. What is prison for? A deterrent? Punishment? I think in this case “deterrent” and “punishment” have long since lost meaning; crazy people don’t care about deterrents when they kill, and Van Houten’s best years have been taken away from her (rightly so)– in fact letting her out now may even be worse punishment (who will house her, who will give her a job, how will she survive?)

    To look back on your life and see what a mess you’ve made of things, of your own life and the lives of others . . . that’s a punishment she will carry around forever, prison or not. If she truly is an insane monster then none of this matters anyway. I think any one of us could have been (or could someday become) monsters: the wheels of the world effect us in ways we can’t predict or understand.

  24. I think the difficulty here is in grasping that someone can be both a perpetrator *and* a victim. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Manson’s followers are also his victims, but part of what made them victims is that he turned them into perpetrators. Not either/or. Both.

    How long is long enough in prison? I have no idea.

  25. The first and foremost reason that humans band together into a societal community is for protection- protection against predators, thieves, even the elements and starvation, but mostly against other humans. We build prisons to protect ourselves from known criminals, to prevent them from victimizing anyone else.

    Takuan is quite right- a lot of people in prison are no threat to others, and don’t belong there.

    I was a menace to society when I was 19. Now I am not. I don’t belong in prison, and I don’t think Leslie Van Houten does either. Jurisprudence is not about how the family of victims feel- it’s about protecting ourselves. Leslie is no longer a threat and should be freed. Charlie? I think he wants to die in prison. Let him.

  26. “I seriously doubt it’ll change my opinion that Van Houten should spend the rest of her life in prison.”

    It saddens me that you think the issue is this black and white – and it shows that you have zero understanding of cult mentality; It also bothers me that you have clearly already made your mind up, and have no intention of learning any better.

    In a very real way, the “Manson girls” were just as much victims as the poor people they were convinced to kill.

    With a charismatic leader, and the right type of introduction to a subject, even intelligent people can be convinced to believe just about anything; I even know people who believe that the creator of the universe came to earth as his own son, did a few magic tricks, and then died so that this dad (himself) wouldn’t be mad at them anymore! – because a bloke in a dress told them so! How fucked up is THAT?!?

    What benefit is there to society for keeping a 60-year old woman in jail for the crimes of a 19 year old girl? – a girl so brainwashed that she is – to all intents and proposes – a completely different person?

    Would I feel this way if they killed my family; no, probably not – but that’s why we have a justice system, rather than just letting the families have-at the ‘murderers’ with a baseball bat!

  27. I believe in redemption. However the irony is this. The only ones deserving of being released from prison would be thsoe who recognising their crimes would accept their fate and ask not to be released.

  28. I don’t understand the comments that maybe she’s better off in jail because the world has changed sooo much. This isn’t Shawshank and she’s not Brooks. The world hasn’t gone from horses to Edsels. They have computers and internet in prisons now. Cell phones too. She’s pretty filled in on what it’s like… “out there”. Sure, maybe she missed a few seasons of Friends, but I think she’ll ease back ito to this racing post-Friends world soon enough.

  29. #18 posted by Vic…

    I, for one, do not believe in redemption.

    Then you are doomed.

    And if you are correct, and there is no redemption, then so are we all.

  30. the only likely redemption for murder that I can see is the killer accepting and acknowledging the harm done to the living, the survivors accepting the killer’ remorse, and the killer then spending the rest of their life trying to make restitution. A gruesome, long business of much tears and pain and no reward until death comes. This is the only sensible thing to do but since it is hard and much work, we have prisons instead.

  31. I come from a family who had a member, age 9, murdered. He would be 33 years old now. I do not believe that killing another proves murder is wrong. I believe in life without parole, but additionally, I believe redemption is possible. The anger and need for revenge in this country are frightening. The money spent on the largest prison population in the educated world (U.S.: 5% world population, prison percentage: 27%) is ridiculous. I wonder how much the vengefulness inside us contributes to crime. Let’s look to other countries and consider the effectiveness of their systems. Perhaps we could improve not just our prisons, but our societies.

  32. @ Takuan #35:

    You can’t continue to exact vengeance against a person who doesn’t exist anymore. In a very real sense, this 60-year-old woman is not the same person who committed those crimes. Psychologically and physiologically that girl is gone. Even the cells in her body have died and been replaced six times over.

    I think redemption is a thing of beauty.

  33. quite so, quite so. That is why I expect it would be brief, bloody and spectacular. Have you ever wondered where suicide bombers come from?

  34. It seems to me the principal reason we as a society keep people in prison is to isolate criminally dangerous individuals for the protection of the rest of us. If this woman (who as a delusional and disturbed 19 year old stabbed an already dying woman sixteen times) continues to pose a deadly threat to society as an infamous 60 year old, she should be kept in jail; if not, she should be set free on probation. Based on what I know, it seems a little ridiculous to think that she would be dangerous if set free, so I don’t really see the point in continuing, as a society, to pay to incarcerate her. I don’t really understand all the obsession over punishment, either.

  35. It was quite some time ago that I heard that it costs $50K a year to keep a person in prison- probably quite a bit more now. Most of these people couldn’t earn that much on the outside.

    I wish we could do something more productive with Takuan’s Victimless Criminals, and isolate them from the real ‘menace-to-societies’. I’ve known guys who went ‘up the river’ for pot and drugs, and when they get out, they’re hardened. They’re ex-cons, and see themselves as such. That ain’t right. Even DUI’s, tho I’m not very sympathic, I don’t think hard-core prison is right them.
    With the pendelum of politics swinging the other way now, maybe we can fix some of this stuff, and stop making soft criminals hard.

  36. Ha! When I first saw that Human Kidney lunchbox it gave me the creeps…
    Why is it printed in English? Are the English surgeons buying them? If so, why are they crying about it??
    I’m not sure it’s such a bad idea, selling the organs of prisoners put to death. We spend a lot of money keeping them in prison. It’d be nice to get something back. In fact, we wouldn’t have to execute them- just take the marketable organs. They probably won’t wake up. If anesthesia is humane enough for good, law-abiding citizens, it’s humane enough for cons.

  37. @ Troofseeker #43:

    Wow, you actually came up with an idea that’s more perversely ripe for corruption than America’s privatized prison system.

    Forget about prison guard unions bribing politicians to continue the drug war- now we’ll just have rich folks using the system as their own personal organ banks. It’ll be a libertarian utopia!

  38. Brainspore- so it’s best we just dispose of healthy organs and let people die without them because there is potential for corruption? Think of the potential for corruption when they come up with a cure for breast cancer! Shall we stop the research now to prevent the AMA from seizing power?

  39. #10 hit it right on. First, abolish the barbaric death penalty in favour of life imprisonment and then claim life imprisonment is itself barbaric and demand that parole be considered. As to calls for a case by case review of “lifers” I’m somewhat curious as to why we don’t consider the logical counterargument, why not case by case consideration of the death penalty for lifers when its become apparent that no rehabilitation is possible?

    As for this particular case, while I have no great sympathy for a murderess, I think that measures other than parole can be considered. Perhaps moving her to a minimum security facility.

  40. @ Troofseeker:

    Yeah, because treating cancer is exactly the same thing as killing people and selling their organs to the highest bidder.

  41. So these massively powerful Prison Guard Unions (??!) will pressure politicians into imposing the death penalty for drug offenses, so the guards can sell the organs of drug dealers on the black market for huge sums. Uh huh. Where are you? Venezuela?! I don’t think the guards get to choose who gets executed- not in the U.S.

  42. @ Troofseeker #49:

    Who the hell said anything about the prison guard unions deciding who to execute? I just brought them up as one example of how a profit motive can corrupt the penal system.

    If you don’t think the prison guard unions have a powerful say in what policies get enacted then I encourage you to look into who has been funding the opposition to lighter sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

  43. Let s/he who never did any goofy shit when they were a teenager cast the first stone.

    Everyone else (the honest ones): now imagine that you were somehow ‘befriended’ by a manipulative ghoul, and you were too young to know. Like, say, MK-Ultra.

  44. Brainie-
    You said “…prison guard unions bribing politicians to continue the drug war…”
    Then showed us how they contributed $1.8M to the campaign against the proposition for lighter sentences for drug offenders.
    Contributing money for or against a proposition isn’t the same as bribing polititions.

    Struggling to get back on topic, I think there’s a lot of people in our overcrowded prisons who shouldn’t be there, and some who probably shouldn’t be alive. I don’t have a problem with using their good organs to save lives. If that’s “perversely ripe for corruption”, thank the AMA.

  45. “…screws want easy, safe people to guard…”

    That, and when they’re corrupt enough to smuggle in contraband, the drug cartel people are the ones they’ll hook up with. The rapists and car thieves have little to offer.

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