"The Myth of Helter Skelter"

Chapter 1 - The Slow Easy Road to Disaster

At the age of thirteen my mother was diagnosed with inoperative cancer and I “inherited” a family of five.  I would come home from junior high school and begin cooking, cleaning, and washing for my father, two brothers, myself and my bed-ridden mother.  I was also the one who had to give my mother the morphine shots as she slowly passed away over the next twelve months.  Upon her death my father increased his drinking until eventually, around my sixteenth birthday, he left one day and never came back, abandoning me and my younger brother to fend for ourselves.

By the age of nineteen I’d survived a series of nightmarish episodes to finally find a moment of stability among a group of people living in San Francisco in the counter-culture environment.  At the time this was not a terrible place to be.  Janis Joplin lived next-door.  Mama Cass of The Mamas And The Papas taught me how to make BLT’s.  We were not “deviants,” we were part of the artist subculture of the era.

That brief moment of stability ended when my friend Ella-Jo and I came home one day to find my place empty – my boyfriend had been arrested and once again I found myself completely broke and on my own.  After three long years of fighting to survive and find some stability I was right back where I’d started.  I didn’t even have a place to sleep.

But Ella-Jo said it was okay, I could stay with her.  And that’s when I met a group of her friends who were all going down to Los Angeles for the summer.  Ella-Jo said it ought to be great.  She said I’d already met one of the guys - he had an old school bus and they were going to just pack it full of people and head off.

It sounded good.  It was the summer of 1967.  Young people were moving around and hitchhiking about the country.  I’d been in San Francisco for a year or two and the prospect and starting over from nothing again didn’t sound very compelling.  How bad could a summer trip to L.A. be?


Hindsight is always perfect - I should have stayed in San Francisco.

The “guy with the old school bus” was, of course, Charles Manson.  The story of how I got from the empty house in San Francisco to Death Row four years later is the single most personally painful story I know.  I do not like remembering it, reflecting on it, or discussing it.  Every year I receive numerous requests from media organizations, college students, law enforcement agencies, and inquisitive people asking for my story, or for explanations or reflections.  Most these requests are tasteful.  Most are sincere.  Some are not.  And every couple years the California Parole Board “invites” me to relive in detail the most horrible three days of my life.



It is only my firm conviction that talking about this now will serve the community that I am undertaking this painful and distasteful subject.

I think it is also important to show that big disasters do not start with a decision to create a disaster, but with a series of small poor decisions.  No one wakes up one morning and decides they are going to run-amuck.  One poor decision leads to a situation where you are forced to choose between two bad alternatives, and that decision in turn leads you deeper and deeper into a hole.

Chapter 2 - The Bus Ride

The bus ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles took several months, moving through the trendy, counter-culture enclaves along the California coast.  Communes and gurus were not uncommon in 1967.  Religious sects and metaphysics were accepted and applauded.  Teenagers were hitch-hiking across the country looking to “find” themselves, or to find some sort of spiritual enlightenment.  One more bus load of truth-seekers was not even noticed.

Once we arrived in Los Angeles the journey to Spahn’s Movie Ranch in Topanga took about a year as we bounced from one open house to another.

This period of time was relatively unimportant in the context of what was to follow except in a few notable ways.

First, this was the period when I got to know most of the people who ended up associated with the crimes.  Bobby Beausoleil and his friends, including Leslie Van Houten and Catherine Share, joined the group.  Patricia Krenwinkel was on the bus even before I arrived, as was Lenette Fromme.  Sandra Good joined shortly afterwards.

And second, once we got to Spahn Ranch we were pretty well isolated from the rest of the world.  Though it was just an hour’s drive north of downtown Los Angeles this was an insurmountable distance if you didn’t have a car.  In the end this isolation made it much harder to avoid the insanity once it started, or to run even if one had the courage.


This is also the time when I got a better idea of who Charles Manson really was.  Unfortunately I did not understand him well enough.  I did not understand him the way I do today.


Making a Super Villain out of Charles Manson is a mistake.  Claiming he is a criminal mastermind would actually be amusing if it wasn’t at the price of so many lives.

Most of the attention the crimes have been given over the years has been generated by how “inexplicable” they were.  Most people who show an interest do so merely because the motivation for the crimes seems so hard to fathom – people tend to attribute depth and intelligence to anything they can’t understand.

In truth, these crimes were an incredible bungle  an incredible series of mistakes which, once tied together, started a chain reaction which sped on and on, faster and faster, unstoppably to a terrible conclusion.

If I do my job right, by the end of this book you will understand both these crimes and Charles Manson perfectly.  There will be nothing that happened that won’t make sense to you.  You will understand Charles Manson and the crimes in a way the prosecuting attorney for the case, Vincent Bugliosi, never truly did.  You will understand Charles Manson in a way that, unfortunately, few of the young people at Spahn Ranch in the fall of 1969 understood him.  And you will understand him in a way that took me losing my freedom and thirty-six years of my life to understand him.


The two and a half years I had the misfortune to live around Charles Manson was longer than almost any of the people who stayed with him.  Unlike most of the young people moving about the country in the late 1960’s, I didn’t have a family to go back to.  Unlike the prodigal son, I couldn’t hitch hike across the country, sow my wild oats, express my youthful rebelliousness, and return home when I became tired and disillusioned.  By the time I realized what was happening I was stuck.[1]

But it means I was there to see the entire thing develop.  I was there to see why it happened.  So this story comes from someone who saw more of Charles Manson than most the people he associated with, someone who told the police Charles Manson was responsible for the crimes, and someone who has spent the last thirty-six years avoiding his disciples, ignoring his threats, and burning his hate-mail.  In short, I found out more about Charles Manson than anyone would want to, and in the hardest way.

Maybe this book will allow some of you to avoid repeating my mistakes.


Perhaps the best place to start is with a better understanding of Charles Manson himself.  

There is a tendency to simply assume that people in prison for murder are murderers because there is something in them that isn’t like the rest of us.  That’s a very reassuring notion – it sets a very clear line between us and the people we think of as “bad.”  The problem is that you end up believing people who kill do so because they’re murderers on the inside, and the proof they are murderers on the inside is the fact that they killed someone.  This doesn’t leave any real room for intelligent understanding of the factors that lead to crime.

The real question is what led to these crimes.  What led to so many horrifically bad decisions?  Why were these crimes orchestrated?  What did anyone hope to gain from them?

Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi stated that there is no such thing as a motiveless crime – it is an animal that doesn’t exist.[2]

I believe this is true.

Psychologists sometimes speak of sociopaths.  Sociopaths, if they really exist, could be explained as people who don’t understand that other people are people.  That is to say they don’t really understand on an emotional level that you and I have the same needs and wants that they do.  They may understand that you and I are people on an intellectual level – in fact that is usually the source of a great deal of their ability to manipulate others – but this intellectual understanding doesn’t effect them.  Most of us couldn’t steal candy from a baby.  Most of us couldn’t call someone up and tell them their child had been harmed.  We understand what an emotional trauma that would be and we associate with it so closely that it would cause us incredible emotional pain to put another person through that.  According to psychologists a sociopath wouldn’t make that association.  He would understand that people would get upset about their child being harmed, but he wouldn’t identify with the emotional pain at all.  This means a sociopath would be able to be incredibly manipulative because he wouldn’t feel any remorse about hurting people.


Charles Manson may be a sociopath.  Or he may simply be someone who was so badly abused growing up that he had to learn to turn off that part of himself.  Perhaps his emotional responses were beaten out of him.  Or perhaps excessive use of drugs led to paranoia which caused him to develop imaginary enemies who were trying to harm him, blunting any human sympathy he might have had for them.

Psychologists still argue over how to separate true sociopaths – those who truly don’t have a concept of other people as anything other than objects – and those who simply no longer care about the needs and rights of others.  There is a tendency to say that anyone who does a heinous crime is a sociopath because they obviously had no feelings for the hopes and dreams of their victims, but this is a mistake.

 Almost always you will find that these are people who were hardened and embittered to the point they no longer cared about anything – not even their own life.  But they still had a concept of other people as human beings.

Considerable media attention has been given to Charles Manson’s ability to “control the minds of his followers.” His ability to “brainwash” people.  “Hypnotize.”  “Zombyize.”  But if you look at his methods of controlling people you will see no mystic clairvoyance, no unearthly super-power.  What you will see is that he knows no more about brainwashing than any other pimp in Los Angeles.

He took young people, primarily girls, who had poor family relations, low self-esteem, and who felt they didn’t belong.  He took them away from all their familiar surroundings.  He took them to an isolated place where he could control what they saw, heard, and learned.[3]  He prevented them from making any attachments outside his group.  He took away all their money under the pretext that the Family would provide for them – which not only prevented them from leaving but also made them dependent on him even for their clothes, food and shelter.  He sowed dissension and bitterness toward outsiders.  He encouraged them to become dependent on drugs – drugs which he alone would disperse.[4] And then, to polish it all off, he threw in a sizable portion of brutal physical abuse. [5], [6]

I think most people would be surprised to learn that Charles Manson’s “brainwashing” often took the form of beating a teenage girl to the point she was bloodied and screaming when she didn’t do what he wanted.  Diane Lake was fourteen when thirty-five-year-old Manson broke a chair over her head for talking when she wasn’t supposed to. [7]  When Mary Brunner tried to take her son away from the Family she was beaten so badly she couldn’t get out of bed for three days.

Often, Charles Manson’s “mind control” took an even crueler turn.  When Linda Kasabian wanted to leave Spahn Ranch after the Cielo and LaBianca murders, her daughter was moved away from the ranch to a secluded place surrounded by armed thugs.  Charles Manson claimed the children were being “protected” but in reality the they were being held as security to prevent their mothers from leaving - the obvious message was that Charles Manson was in complete control of the children’s lives.[8], [9], [10] This is the same type of “persuasion” which helped contribute to my decision to recant my Grand Jury testimony and “confess” that Charles Manson had nothing to do with the murders – Charles Manson sent his followers to suggest that it might be better for me and my son if I decided not to testify against him.[11][12]

This type of cruelty has nothing to do with “mind control.”  It takes no special powers to threaten and brutalize teenagers and young adults.  This is not a very impressive achievement and Charles Manson deserves no awe or respect for it.  Such brutality does, however, take a special type of person.[13]

 And Charles Manson was a social person, he is not a loner or an isolationist.  He has to have people around him.[14]  Such a need is sometimes the sign of someone extremely insecure about themself.  It can also be the sign of someone with extremely low self-esteem.  Both are probably true for Charles Manson.  His insecurity probably shows through in his belief that he had to mirror back at people what he thought they wanted to see.[15]  His low self-esteem probably shows through in his need to degrade, brutalize, and control weaker people around him.

Charles Manson is also a con-man.  He will constantly try to get you to underestimate him.  He will try to make you feel sorry for him.  He will tell you how bad life has been to him, and how rough his upbringing was.  That his mother didn’t want him.  That his teachers were mean to him.  That society withdrew from him.  He will tell you that fate itself and nothing else pushed him to the place he is now.  But this is just a learned con – it is not true.

Charles Manson had everything.  At one time he had almost twenty young girls taking care of him.  He hobnobbed with the Beach Boys and attended Hollywood parties with musicians and movie stars.  He lived for free off the generosity of soft-hearted people who believed in him - like Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys - and off the hard work of the young girls who took him in.  He never once had a job in the three years he was out of jail.  Free drugs.  Free sex.  Famous people around him.  He lived a dream life.  He was offered everything America could offer a single man in the late 1960’s.  And he had it in the most hedonistic city in the country – Los Angeles.

[1]     “For Susan, I realized, the Family was her only family.” [Vincent Bugliosi] (Helter Skelter, pg. 255)
[2]    “Occasionally writers refer to “motiveless crimes.” I've never encountered such an animal, and I'm convinced that none such exists.” (Helter Skelter, pg. 184)
[3]    “As Manson himself once remarked in court: “You can convince anybody of anything if you just push it at them all of the time. They may not believe it 100 percent, but they will still draw opinions from it, especially if they have no other information to draw their opinions from.” Therein lies another of the keys he used: in addition to repetition,  he used isolation.” (Helter Skelter, pg.  654 & 655)                       
[4]    “...grass, Peyote, LSD, whatever was available -- Manson rationing them out, deciding how much each person needed. “Everything was done at Charlie's direction,” Paul [Watkins] said.”( Helter Skelter, pg. 318)
[5]    “Once a pimp acquires a girl who is willing to work as a whore, he must have three qualities to hold on to her. All three actually amount to maintaining some kind of respect, the nature of the girl establishing the procedure the pimp must use. Fear and intimidation control most prostitutes...” (Manson, in His Own Words, pg. 92)                    
[6]    “...Still, through the drugs and listening to the ways a particular leader or guru maneuvered his people, some of their rap may have become embedded in my subconscious. Planting fear in their people is the way a lot of leaders keep control. At the time, love and doing our own thing was what held us together and that's the way I wanted everything to be, but at a later date, the things I was exposed to... may have come back to me.” (Manson, in His Own Words, pg. 123)                   
[7]    “Apparently not finding Dianne [Lake] submissive enough, Manson had, on various occasions: punched her in the mouth; kicked her across the room; hit her over the head with a chair leg; and whipped her with an electrical cord.” (Helter Skelter, pg. 275)
[8]    “...The mothers were not allowed to care for their own children. They separated her [Kasabian] and Tanya [her daughter, two years old]...” (Helter Skelter, pg. 349)    
[9]    “Her [Kasabian’s] testimony was also at times very moving. Telling How Manson separated the Mothers and their children, and relating her own feelings on being parted from Tanya, Linda said, “Sometimes, you know, when there wasn't anybody around, especially Charlie, I would give her my love and feed her.” (Helter Skelter, pg. 434)
[10]      “Linda told me [Bugliosi] that she decided to flee after the night of the LaBianca murders; however, Manson sent her to the waterfall area later that day (August 11) and she was afraid to leave that night because of the armed guards he had posted.” (Helter Skelter, pg. 389)
[11]    “Since the birth of my [Susan’s] baby, Charlie had an additional grip on me to go along with my addiction to his internal power, which I thought was from God. If I got out of line, Charlie would subtly maneuver me to the children and go to work on me about their security and future. He frequently became cruel, manifest most horribly when he would take my baby by the feet and swing him around and around high over his head and then down to within an inch of the rocky ground. He was crazy at those moments.”  (Child of Satan, Child of God, pg. 115)    
[12]     [Editor’s Note: At Susan’s 2005 parole hearing the Board read a letter sent to them from Barbara Hoyt who told them how Susan wasn’t allowed to see her son, although Hoyt seemed to remember that Linda Kasabian was.]
[13]    “I [Bugliosi] would learn, from talking to other Family members, that Manson would seek out each individual's greatest fear – not so the person could confront and eliminate it, but so he could re-emphasize it. It was like a magic button, which he could push at will to control that person.” (Helter Skelter, pg, 321)
[14]    MANSON: “...I was a long way from being a recluse, for certain parts of my make up demand I have someone around me...” (Manson, in His Own Words, pg. 137)
[15]    “Manson --a mirror which reflected the desires of others.” (Helter Skelter, pg. 438)