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.  

On that same New Year’s Eve, I was in L.A., at a wild party at The Mission Hotel, fighting my own demons (Chapters 4 and 6: Fire). Still, I consider myself fortunate, Cherokee notwithstanding.

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 HoutenLinda 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 role.

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 prevailed.

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 so-called “establishment.”

Could I have crossed that line?

I like to think that I couldn’t have been swayed to plunge a knife into a human being.

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:

Ella Jo Bailey, age unknown, left the group for good when their activities included homicide. She died in 2015. More...  

Stephanie Schram, 16, tiring of the group’s activities, left in October 1969, and became an important witness for the prosecution in the subsequent Tate-LaBianca murder trials. More...  

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, maybe more.

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.

2023 Addendum

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 Manson Family.

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 small.

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.


Memoir Madness Excerpts: Return to Table of Contents


“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.




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