Friday, August 3, 2018

Keeping Faith with the Manson Women

By Jeffrey Melnick August 1, 2018


Every August since 1969, we, as a culture, have taken a deep breath and tried to figure out how we are going to live with Charles Manson. This year marks the first time that we will manage this reckoning without the "wild-eyed leader of a murderous crew," as his Times obituary described him, in the world. The news of two major motion pictures about the Manson family—one directed by Quentin Tarantino and the other by Mary Harron—suggests that we retain our taste for Manson art. These cultural creations range from serious, book-length investigations and extended musical works to seemingly thoughtless shout-outs, which individually serve to undercut Manson's scariness but collectively underscore the cult leader's centrality to American conceptions of race, class, sexuality, and family. Signs of Manson and his followers are far-flung and include writing in blood on the wall, the trope of the sexy-weird female hippie, and charismatic men with beards and "Southern" accents. Every year, we add to this of stock of sounds, images, and stories, as we continue to absorb the Manson-family trauma.

August, 1969, of course, is when members of Manson's Los Angeles-based commune killed Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, and Steven Parent at the home of Tate and Roman Polanski, in Benedict Canyon, and then killed Rosemary and Leno LaBianca the following night, in Los Feliz. I won't recount the details of the gruesome murders; perhaps you've read the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's true-crime bible "Helter Skelter," from 1974, or seen the television miniseries based on it. Even if you haven't, you probably know the basic details of the crime—the feral hippies, the messages left behind, the off-the-hook race-war motive that Bugliosi developed almost immediately after being assigned to the case and that he convinced so many of us was Manson's true animus. The Tate-LaBianca murders, as the novelist Zachary Lazar has suggested, very quickly moved into the realm of what he calls "contemporary folklore." For decades, we have used the Manson family and its crimes to indict the putative excesses of the counterculture.

I want to borrow from some of the enormous cultural power that Manson has accrued to call attention to the life and work of another key figure in the history of the "family," who also died last year: Karlene Faith. Faith's name probably won't ring loud bells, if any at all. She was a radical-feminist criminologist who spent her career as a teacher and a researcher at Simon Fraser University, in Canada. In 1972, while a graduate student in the history-of-consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Faith co-founded the Santa Cruz Women's Prison Project. Through this group, Faith came into close contact with three of the Manson "girls": Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten.

The fact that these young women are so often called "girls"—in historical narratives, in film, and in fiction—begins to hint at our confusion regarding who they were and how they lived. There was a complex array of women who came to be known as the Manson girls: some were exploited and abused minors, but others seem to have exercised a fair amount of power in the family. The "girls" were vulnerable runaways, pragmatic sister-wives, and terrifying tricksters. But, in the wider culture, the women got treated most frequently as objects of prurient male interest. Thomas Pynchon, in his novel "Inherent Vice," imagines the appeal that the Manson women hold for his character Doc, and to so many other men: "Submissive, brainwashed, horny little teeners . . . who do exactly what you want before you even know what that is. You don't even have to say a word out loud, they get it all by ESP."

The coalition of feminists associated with the Santa Cruz Prison Project treated the women of the Manson family like active subjects—as people who could liberate themselves. The Santa Cruz radicals were there at the invitation of Virginia Carlson, the warden of the California Institution for Women, where Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten were imprisoned in the Special Security Unit. These feminists were enacting a profound form of rehabilitative practice. Soon after the end of the trial, the women (and some men) of the Santa Cruz group recognized that the three convicted women would need to see themselves as belonging to a different community—a new family of sorts—that was rooted both in the individual dignity of each woman and in the power of collective support and education. Prison administrators approved a program to raise the consciousness of the imprisoned women according to feminist principles. More than forty years after the experiment was devised and implemented, it is still more than a little shocking that it was approved.

Carlson had to have known that members of the Manson family had been taken up by a range of observers with problematic motives: from Bernardine Dohrn rhetorically offering the family the Weather Underground stamp of approval to Joan Didion shopping for dresses (literally) at I. Magnin to help make sure Linda Kasabian would be ready for her closeup at the trial, it did not take long for an appealing outlaw aura to develop around this hardscrabble bunch. David Felton, who co-wrote, with David Dalton, Rolling Stone's cover story on Manson, in 1970, told me that he and Dalton were prepared to greet Manson as some kind of organic rebel, when they made their trip to interview him in jail. Then they actually met him.

But the Santa Cruz collective, with its commitment to radical social change, seems to have remained untouched by celebrity worship. Karlene Faith was a central figure in this effort and wrote about it in detail in her book "The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten," from 2001, and in a monograph on women's confinement and resistance. For years, Faith embodied restraint, keeping a low profile in her work with the Manson women. Susan Atkins, for her part, was not shy about promoting the importance of Faith's work. Atkins, in her autobiography, writes with deep gratitude about Faith, whom she refers to as a "light in the darkness." Building on the women's-studies curriculum that Faith and her collaborators brought to the Special Security Unit, Atkins was able to develop a new sense of how she had "walked into" her own oppression. Through the intervention of Faith and the other feminists, Atkins experienced a revolution in her mind: "Suddenly I found myself free."

Virginia Carlson, the prison warden, must have been some kind of feminist herself. According to Faith, Carlson wanted to "raise the women's consciousness to a point where they would be able to think clearly for themselves, and recognize how deeply their subordination and rote obedience to Manson had degraded their humanity." From 1972 to 1976, Carlson invited "carloads of graduate student instructors, professors, law students, artists, performers and community activists from throughout the state" to "corrections valley," where they came to teach a curriculum that included studies of women and the law, ethnic studies, creative writing, and radical psychology. (Carlson did pause the program briefly in its first year, after Faith ended a letter to one imprisoned woman with the word "venceremos," meaning "we will overcome." Carlson may have approved of the general goal of consciousness raising, but aligning this closely with Che Guevera was too much.) According to Faith's account, the volunteers were especially affected by the work they did in the Special Security Unit with Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten. Here they met "three young, attractive, intelligent and unexpectedly endearing and vulnerable women," who appear to have thrown themselves into their studies with great energy. Faith and the others were moved, especially, by the talent that the women displayed in handicrafts and singing (apparently they sang a beautiful, close-harmony version of Buck Owens's "Cryin' Time").

The conversations that took place among the jailed women and their visitors seem to have been wide-ranging and lasting in impact. In addition to the regular instructors, the prisoners had visits from a number of key figures from the emerging "women's music" scene, including Meg Christian, June Millington, Holly Near, and Linda Tillery. They learned about poetry from Judy Grahn and took seminars with the radical writer Paul Krassner and with scholars who spoke on politics, the blues, and women's history. This was not "deprogramming," as it came to be familiarly called in the nineteen-seventies, but, rather, an acknowledgment that a holistic political, social, and cultural education was the most powerful tool to help transform Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten back into the "independent, promising young people" they had been before being turned into, as Faith put it, "obedient disciples who lost their ability to think for themselves."

In our current era of mass incarceration, it is crucial to remember the example of the Santa Cruz collective. These radicals never lost sight of how the prison system itself was at the root of the whole tragedy. Faith was aware that Manson's patriarchal "dogma was an inventory of the flaws of the society that rejected him and infantilized him as a prisoner without choice or responsibility." Aside from the Santa Cruz feminists, very few in the world of politics, journalism, academia, or popular culture have worried much about the intellectual or emotional well-being of the Manson women. Though Atkins underwent a religious conversion and attracted the notice of some who were putatively interested in her soul, for the most part, these women have never been the object of much public concern—not when they were vulnerable young women and not now, when they are elderly prisoners. (Atkins died in 2009.) The filmmaker John Waters is atypical, to say the least, in his decades-long advocacy of parole for his friend Leslie Van Houten.

Harron's film on the Manson family is due out later this year, and it is, at least in part, based on the work that Faith published in "The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten." This surprised me: not only is the book a sober, theory-driven work, but when I corresponded with Faith, in 2014, she made it clear that she took seriously her commitment to protect Van Houten's privacy. She told me that since publishing the book she has been regularly contacted by "people (usually men, often lawyers) who want to make contact with her, or who want my/her help with a planned film, theatre piece etc." "I reply briefly," she continued, "and turn down all requests." I'm not sure what made her say yes to Harron, but, whatever the provenance of the movie, it gives me hope that we might develop a more enlightened approach to the incarcerated women of the Manson family. With empathy for the surviving family members and friends of those murdered in August of 1969, I hope more of us will join John Waters and a handful of others in agitating for the parole of Van Houten and Krenwinkel. Not only have they paid their debt in time served, but, thanks to Faith, her Santa Cruz colleagues, and themselves, they were rehabilitated a long time ago.

This essay is adapted from Jeffrey Melnick's book "Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America's Most Infamous Family."

Jeffrey Melnick is a professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Read more »

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24 comments:

Doug Smith said...

I went to Simon Fraser University. Karlene started teaching there a year or two before I started. I later met her via her kids. They were in the same social circle via punk community in Vancouver.

Karlene was later involved with Prison Justice Network and, Human Rights advocacy here.

Really nice woman. I *think* LVH may have lived with her and her kids when first paroled.

Cheers

jerseydevil said...

I recently read this book once you get through the 1st hundred page's which drag along & the author is all over the place it's actually a pretty good book he also mentions our blog along with Cielo drive.com & a couple others

Mr. Humphrat said...

Interesting article. I hope you don't mind me putting a link here to an excerpt from the new book about Altamont. It is so well written and gets into a lot of the details of the moments leading up to the Hell's Angel's attack on Meredith Hunter. I think some readers here would find it interesting.

http://www.vulture.com/2018/08/peace-love-and-tragedy-with-the-rolling-stones-at-altamont.html

ColScott said...

he did not mention THE ONLY OFFICIAL TLB blog though he used a lot of my research.

I am finding it to be the best book in years surpassed only by the Tom O'Neill Book (released only in the 7th dimension)

In other news Orca Tate is tweeting that "Quinton" whoever that may be has allowed her to read the script about her pregnant sister being stabbed to death and she is down with it. For $15,000 in small unmarked bills.

Peter said...

Just give her an associate producer credit.

Peter said...

You think all that smash the patriarchy crap gets one laid up in Cambridge ? It must, right?

Doug Smith said...

Quintron & Miss Pussycat?

https://youtu.be/ko7TPYJg6Jw

Lol

Matt said...

I was a functional human being before I watched that video, Doug...


jerseydevil said...

Anyone else receive their copy of Squekies book yet ?
Got mine today I'm about 60 page's in really enjoying it

Mr. Humphrat said...

Doug Smith that is indeed very wholesome entertainment!

Doug Smith said...

Crazy eh...on a blog centered on one of the most compelling/confounding/twisted/polarizing/bloody and depraved events and, on the truly wacky/depraved/cast of brain-numbed outcasts who made up the peeps...that a video of an outlier oddball band (that's been known to play children's fairs) has truly frightened you/weirded you out!

Hats off to Debra Tate for the heavy lifting.

Doug Smith said...

Perps

Doug Smith said...

The newer stuff with Pusseycat has puppet shows

Dan S said...

Lol better than the Residents! How many drummers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

JC said...

That's a very well-written and thought-provoking piece.
I will certainly check out Melnick's book.

JIM HAYES said...

https://youtu.be/Pnft0V-pJdw

JIM HAYES said...

i was in athens and quintron was blowing the roof off and michael stipe was standing next to me quintron wanted to do an encore i yelled "face down in the gutter" he pointed right at me and said "you're on!" it was the greatest version of face down in the gutter ever.

Doug Smith said...

The only time I was next to Stipe was in his restaraunt - The Grit - in Athens Ga. He was super nice but, holy crap, was he ever ripe

Doug Smith said...

They should do a song (w/puppets) for QT's film.

Imagine the terror in the artistry of the Manson Puppet Family

brownrice said...

Good article

JIM HAYES said...

jesus it was 1230 the liquor store was closed I pulled up “whatcha want jim? Jesus!” who is doug smith-yeah im friends with jucifer-yeah. i wrote a book about them maybe ten years ago. oh yeah this is a charlie blog-y'know nick in cumming? y'know dent in kennesaw? drop a line. oh! i live in the Pub in Marietta Georgia, this chick was telling but how this guy was stalking her. The guy charlie called a pimp. yeah that guy, look i ordered all the new books I'll tell Matt my critique. and i say hi to everybody. best jim

nikkistardust said...

I waver between intense interest in this book and thinking how abigail folger must have felt when she was stabbed to death by Pat Krenwinkel. If Pat and Leslie are doing good works in prison, that is great-I believe in redemption. But when I think of them getting paroled, I cannot get pass the sheer brutality of their crimes and the terror their victims had to go through.

David said...

nikkistardust,

Great handle by the way.

The book isn't about freeing Van Houten and Krenwinkel. This article is taken nearly word for word from a section of the book. I think likely to enhance sales as the book is rather academic. It is about how Manson has impacted, Creepy-crawled, into our life. It focuses on his impact on art, music and such and also carries on a discussion that says Bugliosi attempted to kill the counter culture with his book, thus creating Manson the boogey-man whileSanders attempted to divorce Manson from the counter culture. After the first 100 pages or less, there is very little about Krenwinkel and Van Houten.

Clearly, he thinks the HS motive is crap but he doesn't focus on the crimes, offering very little there and frankly getting some of the commonly accepted facts, wrong.

Doug Smith said...

https://youtu.be/nnjEs9O7slo

Athens, Ga

Jack White...you should be ashamed...DEX n CROW!

https://youtu.be/nnjEs9O7slo

https://youtu.be/AqEUiiouO3o

https://youtu.be/483Px5Clvfc

Freakin gorgeous

https://youtu.be/REM1KeDoh04