Home / John Waters on Leslie Van Houten Is Shockingly Thoughtful

John Waters on Leslie Van Houten Is Shockingly Thoughtful

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August 9 and 10 mark the 40th anniversary of the murders that made Charles Manson and his followers infamous, and with the anniversary comes a flurry of activity on the Manson front.

Squeaky Fromme, who though she had been lucky enough not to have been chosen for the Tate-La Bianca slayings, eventually, sort of, tried to assassinate Gerald Ford. Fromme, nevertheless, is about to be let out of prison after 24 years. Susan Atkins has been in the news for seeking a compassionate release from prison due to brain cancer that has left her partially paralyzed.

And the Huffington Post has just serialized a five-part excerpt from filmmaker John Waters’ upcoming book, Role Models, which they have entitled “Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship.” The release of the essay and the anniversary of the slaying is obviously not coincidental. (Note: the above link is only part one and you'll need to do a Google search or the equivalent to continue on to the later parts.)

I can’t say that it surprised me much that John Waters, the filmmaker, who is considered the “king of bad taste and shock value” by both his supporters and detractors, has spent over 20 years visiting and corresponding with a member of the Manson Family. So much gruesome fascination with the case has been spewed out by the media over the years that it would have been extremely difficult for even Waters’ version to be significantly worse than what media and entertainment have done to cash in on America’s favorite bogeyman, Charles Manson.

Tom Snyder interviewed Manson. Geraldo Rivera interviewed Manson. Were it not for the fact that California passed a law against it, Jerry Springer would have eventually interviewed Manson, the prisoner who has received more mail than anyone else in U.S. history.

Therefore it turns out to be splendidly shocking that Waters has written perhaps the most thoughtful and compassionate piece on the original event and its long aftermath that I have ever read.

I have my own history with the case.

When I was six or so, I used to check out my parents’ books, look through the pictures, and read the captions. This turned out to be a huge lifetime mistake. I’m pretty sure that I made it through Alive without ever realizing that it was a book about cannibalism, but I wasn’t nearly so lucky with Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. I was looking for pictures of wildlife, or whatever, and instead found gruesome, graphic pictures of randomly murdered bodies, where the killers seemed to have stabbed everybody about as many times as humanly possible and then wrote a bunch of threatening and offensive words in their blood. Please God, let your children watch Reservoir Dogs, if they have to, but keep them away from a hardback copy of Helter Skelter.

I don’t think I’ve dealt with falling asleep well ever since. About seven years later, I got one more final image of terror to close the deal. I woke up at something like 3:55 and wandered towards our basement television set. As luck would have it, what I immediately saw was Steven Railsback, as Charles Manson in the last 30 seconds of the movie, rocking back and forth on his jail cell cot like an autistic baby until he suddenly turns his head and gives the most frightening glare in the history of cinema. I’m guessing that I didn’t sleep for at least a week after that. I would have been better off being forced to stay awake long enough to see every single Stephen King movie in one sitting.

Since that youthful scarring, my insomnia seems to guarantee that I watch most of my television in the middle of the night. That’s basically when infomercials and specials about the Tate-La Bianca slayings are on. Unfortunately, even with my history, perhaps because of my history with Charles Manson, even I can somehow never turn the channel once I see that a new examination of Crazy Charlie and his clan is on. I watch them knowing that it is going to leave me scared out of my mind for the next three hours that it will take for the sun to rise. The worst instance of this occurred during my time in Los Angeles, when I realized that my friends and I often frequented the Mexican restaurant where Sharon Tate ate her last meal. The Hollywood Hills are beautiful and they scare the hell out of me, because of what went down there.

Charles Manson has been a huge boon to cable television. The Nazis may own the History Channel, but the rest of the channels sadly worship at Charlie’s altar. He’s Hitler with a rock and roll beat. Charlie fits into almost any network's jurisdiction whether it be CNN, MSNBC, MTV or E! It wouldn’t entirely shock me to find an hour-long special about the slayings on the Food Channel because of the forks and knives that were involved with the slayings.

Sadly, this story seemingly has everything an American could crave in entertainment — sex, drugs, buckets of insanity, and lots of extremely gory and graphic violence. I’ve seen networks claim to have a new slant on the case, but they are almost all pure exploitation with little or no spiritual worth.

I can’t say that at all about Waters’ take on this well-mined affair. Instead, it manages to be funny, horrific, sad, life-affirming, and thought-provoking all at once. As can be expected, Waters jumped into this world with his usual fascination for the gossip, fame, gore, and drama of the affair, but he ended up with a deep, understanding impression of the true horror of the case and the numerous lives that to this day remain deeply scarred and full of pain.

Waters’ main purpose here is to argue for the parole of Leslie Van Houten, who participated in the La Bianca murders, but he clearly hasn’t come to that opinion lightly. His piece shows a deep sympathy for the families of the victims. Waters recognizes that not only did these relatives lose their family members in the most grisly fashion possible, but that they are forced to appear year after year to relive the events every time another member of the Family comes up for parole. Waters stunningly relates how relatives of the La Biancas remember with complex emotions the family carving knife that signaled their youthful holiday dinners and how it became the main instrument in the horrific crime that brutally maimed that family forever.

If you believe that the murders were too horrific to ever possibly let anyone associated with them out of prison, Waters seems to completely understand your argument. He so understands the horror of the incidents that it seems that even he’s not 100% sure. His narrative will, in fact, impress upon you just how terribly hard a question that is. Waters relates his phone call begging John Gray, the director of CBS’s unnecessary remake of Helter Skelter, to treat the subject and Van Houten with restraint and respect. That’s an extremely long personal journey from the days of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble.

This is the man who opened his autobiography Shock Value thusly: "To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like getting a standing ovation."

Nevertheless, Waters manages to tastefully evoke a lot of sympathy and respect for Van Houten, and what she has done to live honorably since her imprisonment and to show true remorse for her crime. There isn’t a single moment where Waters lets you forget how horrific those crimes were, but he nevertheless can’t help but think how similar Van Houten is to his group of LSD-using friends at the time of the murders.

Waters has no use for Manson as anything other than the insane, hustler beast that he is, but he makes a fairly good argument that Manson’s followers were fed so much LSD and insanity that the only difference between Van Houten and he is that she was unlucky enough to meet Charles Manson.

He never once argues that this justifies her crimes, but because of his experiences in similar states and environments, Waters is able to show just how much horror Leslie Van Houten has experienced since she came to truly realize how evilly brainwashed she had become and how horrible a thing that she had done.

Here Waters sums up how complex the issue has become:

Through the years the district attorneys have been very effective at keeping Leslie incarcerated. They can be brutal. When one psychiatrist talked of Leslie being 'charming', Stephen Kay correctly wise-cracked, "I'm sure Leno and Rosemary La Bianca didn't think she was so charming." But recently, the D.A.'s arguments for not granting Leslie parole seem almost desperate. One of the very few mixed psychiatric reports once stated that Leslie "possesses a degree of verbal acumen that is very convincing. The obvious question is whether this represents real change in reconstructing your personality or someone who is so smooth in their manipulation that they are barely perceptible… Under the control of evil, she did excel; now under the control of what could be called society's rules and regulations, she has excelled. She has attempted to please authority no matter if it is good or bad." In other words: Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Waters makes a compelling argument that there is little reason to keep Van Houten in jail except for the gruesomeness and notoriety of the case. More impressively, he makes you genuinely feel for Van Houten and the horror she too is forced to relive every time she comes up for parole, and he’ll make you feel ashamed for even thinking about watching these events live on Court TV. If ever someone could be worthy of parole for a crime as heinous as the Tate-La Bianca slayings, Waters argues convincingly and from the heart that it is Van Houten.

Water has said, "Lesley just wants to live a quiet, humble life somewhere. She will do that. She ain't going to be going to premieres with me. She has talked to me about how terrible she feels when people ask for her autograph, and I've seen it — she looks stricken."

Waters even finds room within himself to feel "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 would have never thought it possible, but in a sea of exploitation, John Waters has produced a work that is enormously informative, thoughtfully persuasive, and a philosophically impressive look at evil, guilt, culpability, and the possibility for redemption. It should be read by everyone.

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About Brad Laidman

  • Jennifer Bland

    I don’t believe this is a real friendship, and I don’t believe this book will kick it off.


  • As someone who has followed John Waters from the beginning I have always found him to be thoughtful and very concerned about the state of our society. Behind all the eccentricities is a man who has a huge heart.

  • Fromer Splane

    We must never allow trash like John Waters to profit from the selling of murder.

  • Jeff

    Fascinating: What sophomoric minds find as “enormously informative, thoughtfully persuasive, and a philosophically impressive.” Hmmm? Reminds me of what Ms. Van Houten found as, “enormously informative, thoughtfully persuasive, and a philosophically impressive” so many years ago!

  • chele

    screw some of y’all.

  • Darlene

    Hmmm. After reading this articile is it about Brad Laidman and how the Manson murders affected him or John Waters and his book? Never the less regarding Leslie Van Houten given all of the information that has been spewed over the last 40 years. This woman assisted and did kill two people. The justice that she was given is, she has the pleasure of sitting in a US prison and is allowed to be among the prison population instead of sitting on death row. I believe she was given a break not being put to death. Instead of parole hearings she would have been up before the prison board every time asking for her life, just to live inside those walls.

  • Tara

    I don’t feel John Waters is the best spokesperson for the Manson family. John is a man with an obesession with serial killers even having memorablia from some of societies biggest sickos. He has not shown any true compassion or sympathy for the victims. He made fun of Sharon’s murder in Multiple Maniacs! How can someone make fun of something like that. She was 9 & a half months pregnant. That’s sick. Leslie may not have personally inflicted the wounds that killed Sharon but she let the others do it & that makes her responsible too! How anyone could even live with themselves with those memories is beyond me. Other people who aren’t guilty of heinous crimes like Pete Ham of Badfinger, Pete Duel, Capucine, Del Shannon etc. just can’t live anymore because of problems & depression & kill themselves. That these people don’t wish themselves dead is beyond me.

    If Leslie & co. have changed so much they should want to be an example to sickos out there who are thinking of committing crimes as to what happens when you do sick, evil & bad things: Life imprisonment!

    • JustAcat

      Just wow!

  • Brian G.

    Add me to the list of people who would love to see her get out someday. She was a kid who made a terrible mistake. She has grown up and matured in prison and seen the error in her ways. Its that simple. She is in no way a threat to society at all. Some people have done alot worse things with far lesser penalties. I am an upstanding citizen and I fully support her parole!