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Why Charles Manson's 'Brainwashed' Golden Girl

Probably Won't Go Free
Leslie Van Houten's journey out of the most infamous American cult
in history has been long, cruel, and fascinating.
By Emily Gaudette
on September 8, 2017
Filed Under Death, Drugs, History, LSD, Psychology & Race
Leslie Van Houten was finally found suitable for parole on Thursday, after 46 years in
prison and 21 appearances before Californias Board of Parole Hearings. But if recent
history is any indication, this participant in one of the most shocking crimes in American
history likely wont go free.
By many accounts, Van Houten was brainwashed by Charles Manson from the time she
met him as a teenager in August 1968. Her supporters say the 19-year-old was beaten
down with huge doses of LSD until she lost all sense of reality; she describes her
experience the same way. They also argue her role in the string of killings colloquially
called the Manson murders is overshadowed by her victimhood. Meanwhile, the families
of victims want to see Van Houten spend the rest of her life behind bars.
Van Houtens fate, which will be ultimately decided by California Governor Jerry Brown, is
likely to fire up raging controversy in the coming weeks, regardless of whether she gets
to see the light of day. Last year, Brown went against state recommendation for her to be
In a phone conversation with Inverse, a representative from Californias Board of Parole
Hearings who preferred to remain anonymous confirmed that Van Houtens rehabilitation
has been completed to a degree the board finds suitable.
The hearing is comprehensive, analyzing the facts of the case and the inmates
comportmentwhat theyve done to try and get themselves ready for life on the outside,
and how rehabilitated they might be, a board spokesperson tells Inverse. At Van
Houtens 2016 parole board hearing, the district attorney said, the People of the State of
California believe that the suitability factors are far, far, far outweighed by the
unsuitability factors here. Agreeing that Van Houten had demonstrated being
rehabilitated by her four decades in prison, the deputy commissioner added, You
answered every question that I needed to know to feel safe in my heart and my intellect
that you are ready and you are safe to be released. And I think you have tremendous
insight, and if you are not rehabilitated, I dont know who is.

Object 4

A blog post published on Thursday on, a site for Van Houtens

supporters, reads, the panel commended Leslie for numerous factors detailed as,
defined by law, overwhelming evidence of suitability. Though the board representative
did not use those exact terms in speaking with Inverse, he repeated several times that
Van Houten had been found suitable for parole, as she was in 2016. In fact, at the board
hearing in 2016, the deputy commissioner told Van Houten that her case had single-
handedly changed his mind on the subject of mind control. Its very clear that [Manson]
was a mastermind at mind control at every move, he told Van Houten on record, and
within those few months [...] you were under his control., a site for Van Houten's supporters, published a blog post on the
2017 parole hearing with a photo on September 7.
According to California law, Brown now has 150 days to decide on the boards
recommendation. (He could reject, modify, or accept it.) When the Board of Parole
Hearings recommended Van Houten suitable for parole in 2016, Brown rejected the
decision. He now has until February 4, 2018 to respond to again.
The governor can only reverse the boards decision in a murder case with an
indeterminate sentence, said the board representative, who asked to remain

Object 5

In their 1994 award-winning book, Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
describe how Van Houten broke into a California home on August 9, 1969, with members
of a cult that had completely absorbed her identity. As the parole board in California has
now decreed twice, Van Houten showed no predisposition for violence before meeting
Charles Manson, and has not committed an act of violence in the near 50 years since she
was imprisoned.
According to Van Houten and her attorneys, she had consistently been high on LSD for
months before her crime, and was so deeply ingrained into Mansons cult that she no
longer believed she was an autonomous person. Court documents and eyewitness
testimony confirm that Van Houten held a woman named Rosemary LaBianca down on a
bed while another member of the so-called Manson family, Tex Watson, stabbed
LaBianca to death. Because Charles Manson had instructed Watson to ensure every single
member of the cult had a hand in the murder, Watson told the court he handed Van
Houten a knife and said, Do something.
What Van Houten did in that moment would change her life irrevocably. Believing that
Charles Manson was a deity who had saved her, and believing that her actions would help
let loose a race war and bring on the apocalypse, Van Houten stabbed Rosemary
LaBianca, whom court records later reasoned was probably already dead. She stabbed
LaBiancas body around 17 times.
Van Houten, on the far right, appeared happy throughout her trial, unless someone in the
courtroom spoke ill of Charles Manson.
When Van Houten was arrested and paraded into court with Mansons other young,
female followers, reporters called the teenager Mansons Golden Girl. She was easily
the most beautiful of the group the press deemed the Manson Girls, grinning through her
trial and shouting out of turn to defend Manson, all the while sporting a swastika she had
carved into her own forehead. On March 29, 1971, Van Houten was convicted of first-
degree murder and was the youngest woman in Californias history to be sentenced to

Van Houtens most famous ally for decades has been John Waters, the alt filmmaker and
essayist. When Waters was assigned a story on Charles Manson at Rolling Stone, he
opted instead to reach out to Mansons girls, including Van Houten. Though Van Houten
said she didnt want to be in Rolling Stone, the two began a correspondence that
blossomed into a friendship. For HuffPo in a series of essays on Van Houten, he wrote:
Leslie Van Houten always seemed the one that could have somehow ended up
making movies with us instead of running with the killer dune-buggy crowd.
She was pretty, out of her mind, rebellious, with fashion-daring, a good
haircut, and a taste for LSD just like the girls in my movies. Instead of being
a good soldier for Charlie and participating in the murders of Leno and
Rosemary La Bianca, which she certainly believed was the right thing to do at
the time, I wish she had been with us in Baltimore on location for Pink

Waters also argues in Role Models, his book of essays on extraordinary people, that Van
Houtens chances at release have been affected negatively by TV shows and movies
about the Manson family. Luckily for Van Houten, the next big movie project adapting the
Manson family murders to the big screen, directed by Quentin Tarantino, will hit theaters
after the deadline for Governor Browns decision on her parole.

John Waters and Leslie Van Houten pose in front of a fake "outdoors" backdrop in prison.
Waters describes the irony of this treasured photo of two friends at length in his memoir,
'Role Models'.
Flavorwire reported on Van Houten and Waters long friendship: Van Houten was a
poster child for how the horrors of drugs, free love, and communal living could ruin a
nice girl from a well-to-do family in the late 60s; shes exactly what the parents of
Waters generation warned their kids about, and the type of antihero Waters typically
puts in his films.
Waters long friendship with Van Houten, forged when the writer was intending to profile
his subject, is similar to the bond that formed between Truman Capote and convicted
murderer Perry Smith, while Capote was writing In Cold Blood. In both his
groundbreaking account of Smiths murders, and in his later writings, Capote described
seeing himself in Smith, as they were both ostracized in their youth, though Capotes
circumstantial privilege allowed him to engage with his own unhappiness by creating art.
Its as if Perry and I grew up in the same house, Capote wrote, then one day, he
walked out the back door and I walked out the front. Though the writer never confirms
that he fell in love with Smith while writing his book, In Cold Blood does include a long
passage describing a conversation Capote had with Perry on the subject of being queer.
Capote found an emotional intimacy with Perry before Perry was hanged for his crimes,
one that might have damaged Capotes career if In Cold Blood hadnt been hailed
immediately as a seminal work of literary non-fiction.
John Waters, similarly, brands himself as a purveyor of strange cultures and
uncomfortable truths, so his friendship with a member of the Manson family hasnt
damaged his image. Both writers believed, at least partially, that circumstances in White
and Van Houtens lives had led them to choose violence. They also believed though
Waters argues for Van Houtens release with more conviction than Capote ever did

regarding Smith that some murderers can be rehabilitated.

Truman Capote and his subject, Perry White, in an infamous photoshoot for Capote's non
fiction crime book, 'In Cold Blood'.
No one, including John Waters, can say for sure what kaleidoscope of cultural and
personal events led to Van Houten joining the Manson Family cult and murdering
innocent people. The most pressing question, over the past four decades, has actually
become: what exactly does the prison system need from Van Houten to prove that she
has been rehabilitated?
Many have called for proof of remorse, especially because Van Houten was markedly
guiltless during her trial, telling the press that she simply couldnt change what she had
done. After being deprogrammed and extracted from Mansons influence while
incarcerated, Van Houten told Waters, I became saturated in acid and had no sense of
where those who were not part of the psychedelic reality came from. I had no
perspective or sense that I was no longer in control of my mind. The parole board has
noted the subject of brainwashing in every meeting with Van Houten, and though every
board member hasnt agreed on whether she was entirely controlled by Manson that
night in 1969, they do all agree that she has demonstrated that she is no longer a threat
to society.
Even after spending years in prison, according to Waters, Van Houten reportedly cut
holes in the back of her uniform shirts to make room for the fairy wings Manson told her
shed grow. Her bizarre delusions, when Waters lays them out both in HuffPo and his
memoir, Role Models, begin to sound less like the ravings of a murderer, and more like
the fever dream of a teenage girl on acid. In the words of the deputy commissioner in
Van Houtens 2016 parole hearing, Manson carved her identity out of her using drugs and
his charisma, and she was simply gone.
What does society do with a killer elf who decades later is now all better? Waters asks.
Who could understand?

A quote from the 2016 Parole Board Hearing Transcript, published as an image on
The parole board granted Van Houten suitability for parole on September 7, which began
a countdown to Governor Browns final say. Within 150 days, we will know if Mansons
golden girl has legally earned her right to walk free.
Politically, it will likely never become uncontroversial to release a member of the Manson
family on parole. Thats a reality of which Governor Brown who, at 79, has spent two
different spells as Californias top legislator and remains one of its most experienced
veterans is acutely aware.
Regardless of whether Van Houten is released from prison, our fascination with the
Manson family murders and Helter Skelter isnt going to dissipate over time. If
Tarantinos film turns the maelstrom of LSD-infused brainwashing and murder into a
stylish, sensationalized pop culture product as he did with the German holocaust in
Inglorious Basterds and American slavery in Django Unchained the delicate analysis
required to decide Van Houtens fate will be drowned out by a flashier, more dramatic
version of what happened.
Photos via, NY Daily News, Flavorwire, Ed Rants, ABC News
Written by Emily Gaudette
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