John Waters: Manson Family Member Should Be Free Nearly 40 years ago, Charles Manson and his commune of followers embarked on a gruesome killing spree in California. Now, director John Waters argues for one of the murderers' release from prison.
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John Waters: Manson Family Member Should Be Free

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John Waters: Manson Family Member Should Be Free

John Waters: Manson Family Member Should Be Free

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.


And I'm Madeleine Brand in California, where 40 years ago, the Manson murders shocked the nation.

(Soundbite of TV news)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Broadcast Journalist): In a scene described by one investigator as reminiscent of a weird religious rite, five persons, including actress Sharon Tate, were found dead at the home of Miss Tate and her husband, screen director Roman Polanski. Miss Tate, who starred in "Valley of the Dolls," was eight months pregnant, and was found in a bikini-type nightgown with a rope around her neck attached to the body of a man.

BRAND: That was August 9th, 1969. The following night, Manson and his group killed again. This time, it was a middle-aged couple seemingly chosen at random, the LaBiancas. This next story is about one of those LaBianca murderers, Leslie Van Houten. She was 19 at the time, and she is still in prison; she'll be 60 this month. And she should be released, says her friend John Waters -filmmaker John Waters, known for his movie such as "Hairspray" and "Pink Flamingos," films full of misfits and rebels. Waters says he's been obsessed with the Manson family ever since he read about them in 1969 because in some strange way, he could relate.

Mr. JOHN WATERS (Filmmaker): We were making movies that were trying to humorously outrage the world and shock hippies, even. And the Manson family did this without wanting to be art or having any - but we had an outlet for it. So, it always fascinated me how these people, under the control of one real madman, could do this. And so I went to the trial, and it was one of the first big media trials, and I became obsessed by it only because I wanted to figure out what happened and how these kids - that were very much like my friends from my neighborhoods and stuff - ended up doing something.

BRAND: What do you mean, that you were a lot like them?

Mr. WATERS: Well, we took LSD. We were - thought the revolution was coming, we were '60s radicals - kind of a movie group, though. All the stuff we did in those early movies like "Pink Flamingos" and stuff, that wasn't real. What they did was real and that was the very, very terrible difference.

BRAND: That you had an outlet for that?

Mr. WATERS: I had an outlet for every anti-social, angry thought I had at the time. And I started out with kind of a smart-ass, punk rock attitude, and I radically changed through the years. It's been 40 years ago. I taught in prison for a long time; I think that helped a lot. I got sort of serious about it, as realizing that this was something that had happened, that making any fun of it was certainly very detrimental to not only the relatives of the victims but also the families of the kids that had joined up with them.

And I went to visit Leslie Van Houten to try to interview her for Rolling Stone magazine. And she said she had no interest in being in a magazine for what she had done. She was greatly ashamed by it. And we suddenly became friends. And I never wrote about it until this book that I have coming out, that one of the chapters is - it's a book called "Role Models," and it's about people that have inspired me. And in a weird way, she has inspired me with her patience and complete responsibility for the terrible thing that she did once, and how can you ever change that.

BRAND: Tell us a little bit more about her as a person.

Mr. WATERS: I tell you, Leslie Van Houten could be out of jail with me with any dinner - professional dinner party in New York, or L.A. and she could pull it off. No one would ever, ever know that she had been in prison for 40 years. She's not a yuppie but she, I mean, you know, she's well-read. She's smart. She cares about people in prison. She's taught people to read. She's done the AIDS quilt - no one in that prison doesn't think she should get out. I mean the guards, all of the people, the psychiatrist - I mean, even when they had the one negative thing, they said she responded very well to an evil leader and now that she's in jail, she responds very well to the good causes. Well, you're damned if you do or if - you're damned if you don't, that way. All she can be is to try to make up for this terrible thing that happened. She wasn't violent. She talks about, and when I - in my chapter about how she was like a machine that was caught. And that she was so brainwashed that she believed all this. She thought it was the right thing. You know, they were really out of their mind. He did a good job on them.

BRAND: Yeah, I mean, this a is young woman at the time who was from an upper-middle-class family, she was…

Mr. WATERS: In the '60s, though, remember?

BRAND: …in the '60s. And how did she fall under his spell?

Mr. WATERS: It was a commune. It started out like every commune. And we were hippies. It was never into - no violence or anything. When it got to that point, it was too late. I asked her once, I said, did you ever think you were cool? And she looked at me like, cool? I had no idea what that word even meant. We thought the end of the world - were happening, the Beatles were talking to her, she thought she was an elf. I mean, this was really pretty serious stuff here we're talking about.

BRAND: And this is all from taking LSD over and over again?

Mr. WATERS: Yes, that. But also, like all - same thing Jim Jones did, same thing David Koresh did, what all cult leaders do. They take you away from your family, they preach, they don't let you sleep. You stay up all night. You only see other people that believe in this stuff. These are kids, he was a pimp. That's what she said. I - it took me years to realize that he treated us like a pimp.

BRAND: She has been a model citizen in prison, and she has received all favorable psychiatric reports about her. She has never shied away from the fact that she committed these horrible crimes. And yet she has been denied parole.

Mr. WATERS: Yes.


Mr. WATERS: Because nobody ever imagined how this case would never go away and end up being a Halloween costume, and be in Madame Tussaud's wax museum and become a horror movie, basically, and be the scariest hippie that every parent ever wanted to have. It has a life of its own that she has tried not to contribute to.

BRAND: You've been posting excerpts of this chapter that you have in your book on The Huffington Post…

Mr. WATERS: Yes.

BRAND: …and the readers of The Huffington Post are generally left-leaning. Yet the general sentiment seems to be she should remain where she is, in prison, because anyone who does something as depraved as she did that night deserves to spend the rest of her life in jail.

Mr. WATERS: Well, I never said this was a popular position, and ever taking the chance of paroling somebody that once did a murder is a hard thing. I understand that.

BRAND: Well, what do you say to that sentiment, though, that there's something about just the horrific nature of this crime that's…

Mr. WATERS: Yes, that's the one thing…

BRAND: …we can't release her.

Mr. WATERS: …she cannot change. Several judges have overruled the parole board by saying stop telling her - if that's the only reason to keep her in. She can't change that. And you're effectively turning her sentence into life without parole. And she did not get that. Leslie has taken responsibility, and she has followed the rules, the rules that they have told her to follow to get parole. And she said, now I have, after 40 years' work, become the person I would've become before I met Manson or took drugs.

So I do believe in rehabilitation. If you think no one can be rehabilitated and you should never get out, well, that's an argument. I personally do not believe in that, and don't think the prison system can be run without some sort of goals and some sort of hope. And I think she's the poster girl for the California prison system. She went in a baldheaded girl thinking the end of the world was having - the Beatles were talking to her. And if you've heard her talk, that's all she can really do. And as she say - ask for mercy that she did not give.

BRAND: John Waters, thank you very much.

Mr. WATERS: Thank you for having me.

BRAND: That's filmmaker John Waters. We were speaking about Leslie Van Houten, convicted of participating in the LaBianca killings 40 years ago. Another member of the Manson family, Squeaky Fromme, will be released from prison this month. She did not participate in the Manson murders. She was convicted of trying to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975, by pointing a gun at him. Squeaky Fromme, now 60, spent 34 years in prison.

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