Outtake: A Note on the Manson Family and the “Cult of Personality” (with a 2023 update)
On New Year’s
Eve (1968), Charles Manson told his murderous Family:
“Are you hep to what the Beatles are saying?
Helter Skelter is coming down. The Beatles are telling it like it is.” – Family member Brooks Poston.
Although Charles Manson and his entourage of adoring girls, when not at
Spahn Ranch, hung out at some of the same Hollywood places I and my friends
frequented, I do not remember meeting any of them. They weren’t widely known in
late 1968 and early 1969 – the Tate-LaBianca murders hadn’t yet occurred.
But, what if?
What if I had remained in L.A. and continued to wander around the streets
aimlessly? What if my grandfather had given up on me and the Manson Family
found me? The timing would have been exactly right, and I might have been drawn to such a
group – that is, before the murders. Would I have had the courage and strength
to leave after the situation turned ugly?
To my credit, after the episodes with the spiked tea and the bullet fired
through Rudy’s apartment window (Chapter 12: Downers), I did ditch Rudy and his family-esque
entourage. I have no reason to believe that Rudy was a killer like Charles
Manson, but he did share some similar characteristics, such as attracting young
women and holding sway over them. But other than the spiking of my tea, which I
did not appreciate, Rudy treated me okay – “okay” being a relative term –
and allowed me some space: when I refused his sexual advances, he didn’t press
too much. But the girls in Rudy’s orbit seemed to be totally devoted to him,
even when he treated them like objects, expecting them to do sex work for his
financial benefit (Chapter 8: Rudy). Would they have also killed for him? I don’t know.
Although some of the Manson girls left the Family when Manson started
ordering the murders, Susan Atkins, Leslie van Houten, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel remained and participated in those heinous acts, although Kasabian, later
granted complete immunity for her testimony in the Manson trial, did not
participate in the murders but acted as an outlook and getaway driver.
When they joined the Family, these young women had not set out to murder
innocent victims; they had been ordinary young women in transition, looking for
someone to accept them. Manson, the archetypal heart of darkness, filled that
I, too, was a young woman trying to find my place in the world. Yet I
also seemed to enjoy natural instincts that warned me against people who would
prey upon me – certainly, as a savvy six-year-old child who wandered the
streets of L.A. alone, I had been able to fend off potential predators, by
running like the wind when they offered candy and unknown substances (another
life, another book, not yet written – perhaps never to be written).
The Family rule about group sex would have given me pause; I found
indiscriminate sex repugnant, preferring to establish monogamous relationships,
albeit with the wrong men. However, at the time, I was extremely vulnerable to
peer pressure – and Family pressure to engage in sex with several partners
The young women who joined the Manson Family were very much like me, middle
class girls ranging in age from 15 to 28, and experiencing issues with their
families and looking for acceptance from anyone who would offer it. They bought
into the hippie lifestyle and took drugs – LSD, amphetamines, marijuana, and
even heroin. They rejected the establishment, but some of them crossed that
proverbial line, murdering ordinary people and celebrities who represented the
Could I have crossed that line?
I like to think that I couldn’t have been swayed to plunge a knife into a
Certainly, some of the Manson girls did leave the Family shortly
after the murders. The following three have reportedly led exemplary lives and,
after the murders, had nothing to do with Manson, for example:
Linda Kasabian, 20, who was present – waiting outside of the murder scenes in the getaway car –
at both the Tate and LaBianca murders but supposedly did not participate,
turned herself in Concord, New Hampshire, December 1969. She turned on the
Family, becoming the prosecution’s star witness at the Tate-LaBianca trials,
for which she was granted complete immunity. On January 21, 2023, she passed
away at age 73 in Tacoma, Washington.
Over the years, other women drifted away from Manson’s influence,
including the three women who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
In 1972, California overturned the death penalty and imposed life sentences
with the possibility of parole:
Susan “Sadie” Atkins,
arguably the most notorious Manson girl, had embraced Charles Manson’s
beliefs fully. At the Tate murder scene, she had rounded up the victims and
helped her accomplice Tex Watson tie them up. When Voytek Frykowski tried to
escape, she stabbed him in the legs, crippling him so that Watson could finish
him off. Atkins reportedly held Sharon Tate down. As Tate, eight months
pregnant, begged for her and her unborn son’s life, Atkins said, “Look, bitch,
I don’t care a thing about you. You’re going to die and there’s nothing you can
do about it.” Watson then stabbed Tate to death. After the killings were over,
Atkins dipped her finger into Tate’s blood and painted the word “Pig” on Tate’s
front door. By 1974, Susan Atkins had become a born-again Christian and
even started a ministry at the California Institution for Women (CIW). In 2009,
terminally ill, she applied for parole, citing “compassionate grounds,” which
was denied. She died at the Central California Women’s facility in Chowchilla,
California, on September 24, 2009, of “natural causes.”
Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel had, on the night of August 8, stabbed Sharon
Tate’s friend Abigail Folger several times and, on the following night, stabbed
Rosemary LaBianca. In a 1994 Diane Sawyer interview, Krenwinkel expressed
remorse: “I wake up every day knowing that I’m a destroyer of the most precious
thing, which is life; and I do that because that’s what I deserve, is to wake
up every morning and know that.” As of June 2023, Krenwinkel remains
incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in the Chino district of
Corona, California. Her next parole hearing is scheduled for November 17, 2023.
Leslie van Houten, who had stabbed Rosemary LaBianca 16 times in
the back, gradually pulled away from Manson’s influence and, reportedly, became
a model prisoner. The Manson Women and Me, by Nikki Meredith, offers some more insight
to van Houten’s prison life, although some critics feel as though this book is more
about the author than the Manson Girls.
According to Wikipedia, despite
the California parole board’s recommendation that van Houten be paroled, Governor Gavin Newsom blocked it several times. However,
On May 30, 2023, a California Court of Appeal in Los
Angeles set aside Governor Newsom’s denial of van Houten’s parole, thus
becoming the first Manson family member to have a Court rule in her favor for a
parole recommendation. On July 7, 2023, the governor announced that he would
not appeal to the California Supreme Court to block her parole, paving the way
for her release. Van Houten was released on parole on July 11, 2023.
At least two of the women remain faithful to Charles Manson:
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme received a life sentence for her 1975
attempted assassination of then-President Gerald Ford. However, in 2005, Fromme
became eligible for parole and was released from the Federal Medical Center,
Carswell, on August 14, 2009, reportedly still loyal to Manson.
Sandra Good, who currently lives in Hanford, California, where Charles Manson served his
life sentence until his death on November 19, 2017. She credits the Manson
Family for saving “my health, my brain, my emotional health, my mental health,
my physical health. I’m thankful to them all.”
I could have been on my way to being any one of these women, living
either in a bricks-and-mortar prison or experiencing another kind of prison,
the knowledge that I, as an immature teenager, had participated, albeit
indirectly, in activities leading to the destruction of at least eight lives,
What would I have told my son, and, years later, my grandchildren?
A more chilling possibility: a Missing Leads story suggests that the December 30, 1969, abduction and slaying of Marina Habe, 17, daughter of a film actress and novelist, may have been linked to
the Manson Family. The
girl’s body was discovered in West Hollywood on New Year’s Day 1969, at a time
when I was still in the area. Police suspect that Habe’s murder may have
been related to her ties with the Manson group. Although nothing has been
proved conclusively, this murder does suggest that at least some of the
Family members were in Hollywood area at the same time as I. Missing Leads...
I not only hitchhiked with Stoney and others and with Rudy “for money,” but I often hitched alone, mostly on the
strip, getting into cars with strangers. At various points in the memoir, I
mention some close calls.
Fortunately, in the end, I wasn’t confronted with choosing Manson’s path,
nor was I a victim of the Family or a predatory driver.
My close call: early on New Year’s Day, when faced with the dense teargas smoke at the Mission Hotel, I was presented with two choices: to go out a second-story window – from where I could see – and drop from the window onto a concrete slab or run blindly toward the stairs. Fortunately, I chose the right course by choosing the stairs. (Chapters 4 and 6: Fire).
Despite close calls on the streets of Hollywood, I never encountered the Manson Family, and, perhaps, I have my grandparents to thank for that.
As I wrote
this essay back in 2008, I was astounded at how one man – one who was totally bonkers,
evil, brutal, and not even physically attractive – could influence a stable of
young women and men to do his murderous bidding, but I wonder no more.
From 2015 to present day, I have observed a cult of personality sweeping the U.S. – one-third of the voting population
– around a man who became president, one who threatens to repeat his atrocity
of an administration.
Even out of office, he continues to do untold damage to our democracy.
Despite his two impeachments and numerous criminal indictments, his acolytes
are sticking with him.
I don’t get it, but I can’t dispute the facts – people I know and love
would possibly follow him to the death, and that scares me.
This ex-president could be re-elected, and I guarantee that if this
happens, a second term could prove to be disastrous for the United States.
Democracy could give way to a Putinesque autocracy, including mass
incarceration – and worse – of the political opposition and protesters because his
enablers do nothing to stop him.
This evil man exhibits signs of a cult of personality, complete
with loyal followers:
1. Acolytes believe
everything, no matter how nutty, their beloved leader – usually a patriarch
– wants them to believe, holding complete sway over his True Believers. Adrian Teodor Popan defined a cult of personality as a “quantitatively
exaggerated and qualitatively extravagant public demonstration of praise of the
leader.” In other words, members exhibit unquestioning loyalty to the cult, its
leader, and ideology.
2. Acolytes will do
anything for their leader, even if the act goes against their core beliefs. For
example, some evangelists fully support the former president, although his personal
life and actions go against everything their faith dictates. They rationalize: “I
know he’s not a very good person, but he votes the way I want” (which is not
necessarily true). This blind trust has already had serious consequences:
remember January 6, 2021? Many of those faithful followers are doing hard prison time for participating
in an insurrection against the U.S.
3. Acolytes refuse to
question the faults and foibles of their leader; no matter what he does, it is
always right, no questions asked. Thus, little dissidence exists within the
cult founded by the leader.
4. Without question, many
acolytes would die for their leader and his or her beliefs. Remember the Heaven’s Gate cult?
5. Chillingly, all-in acolytes
would kill for their leader, should they be asked, as happened in the
6. The leader, typically
extreme right-wing (but not always), demonizes “the other,” such as Muslims, Jews,
Blacks, Progressives, Intelligentsia, Democrats, LGBTQIA+, etc. For a leader’s cult
to succeed, there must be a bogeyman.
7. If the “cult” is a
country, patriotism is comically exaggerated, which is promoted by its leader
by way of symbols, flags, large rallies, and slogans. Often, acolytes will fly
numerous flags on their houses, automobiles, and trucks, creating a carnival effect.
However, there is nothing funny about a cult of personality and his movement.
8. The leader and the
enablers around him employ extensive media and social media to spread the word: TV,
radio, and internet. The leader encourages his flying monkeys (henchmen)
to troll websites of “the other,” attempting
to spread chaos and discourage counter movements.
9. Unknowingly, the
mainstream media often falls into the cult leader’s trap by offering outsized
coverage of the cult’s activities, thus drawing in even more True Believers.
Once the media catch on and begin issuing warnings, the leader and his enablers
work within the system to get their henchmen elected in positions of power.
They then work on enacting laws that limit freedom of the press and other
rights, such as a woman’s right to choose her own reproductive options.
10. Ironically, the leader despises his lower echelon followers, often mocking them and their perceived stupidity and views them as expendable, albeit necessary as foot soldiers for maintaining his power. He would never socialize with them except at rallies, and, even then, he maintains his distance. Women are typically regarded
as inferior, often used as objects of pleasure and as breeders for future generations.
Charles Manson’s reach, while deadly to eight people (and possibly more)
and life-changing for the young women and men who followed him, was relatively
The reach of this present-day evil authoritarian, however, is vast and
could spell the doom of millions.
Could acolytes kill in the name of our present-day autocrat should he be
reelected? I’m afraid so. Like Manson, autocrats keep their own hands clean of
blood and farm out this job to their followers.
One last thought: when a democracy dies, it’s nearly impossible to restore.
Once his acolytes realize their mistake – and some will – it will be too
late because once power is seized, it’s game over.
“A Note on the
Manson Family and the “Cult of Personality” (with a 2023 update)” is copyright © 2008 (updated 2023) - present, by
Jennifer Semple Siegel, and may not be republished or reposted without express permission
from the author.