• Leslie Van Houten: ‘In Touch’ With the Guilt She’ll Always Feel

Leslie Van Houten: ‘In Touch’ With the Guilt She’ll Always Feel

Dec. 14 – Leslie Van Houten, 31, and looking like a schoolgirl in jeans, plaid shirt, red V-necked sweater, short brown curls and bangs, reached for her pack of cigarettes, lit up and grinned: “I keep telling myself, ‘When this is over, I’ll quit.’”

“This” has been going on for quite some time now and Van Houten, even at her most optimistic, knows only too well it is far from over.

For most of the past 11 years she has been an inmate at California Institute for Women (CIW) at Frontera serving a life sentence for the murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca on the night of Aug. 10, 1969, and for conspiring in the murders of Abigail Folger, Voityck Frykowski, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate on the night before, Aug. 9.

During that time she has:
— Gone through one trial with co-defendants Charles Manson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenvrinkel in 1970-71, where she was sentenced to death.

— Had that sentence commuted to life imprisonment in 1972 when the state Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty.

— Had her conviction reversed in 1976 when the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial for her because her case had not been separated from her co-defendants’ when her attorney, Ronald Hughes, disappeared late in the proceedings.

— Gone through a second trial in 1977 that resulted in a hung jury.

— Been released on bail before and during her third trial that resulted in her conviction.

— Returned to CIW and appeared before the Community Release Board for parole hearings in 1979 when she was told to keep up the good work, and in 1980 when she was turned down.

She has also gone through some changes. She works as a clerk in the education building. She studies literature, creative writing, developmental psychology and is within sight of a BA degree from Antioch West. She is deeply involved in writing — for her degree, for herself. She spends occasional weekends with her mother in the prison’s family living unit and enjoys frequent visits from the people on her list which is so long, she said, “it’s almost an embarrassment”

She talked enthusiastically about these activities and interests, remaining pleasant and relaxed in spite of the stiff artificiality dictated by the confines of a three-hour interview held in a small conference room. She was not warm, but amiable and seemingly open, as she ranged from her present interests to her thoughts about her life as a Manson family member, guilt, responsibility, notoriety, religion, her future. She spoke readily, usually with a low-keyed animation, sometimes anticipating questions, offering anecdotes and opinions. She did not wait to be drawn out.

Her behavior, in short, bears little resemblance to that of the young Manson family member who testified stonily during the sentencing phase of the first trial.

“Sorry is only a five-letter word,” she said then. “How do I feel? I feel like it happened?’ And of the effects of LSD on her: “It has changed my way of thinking. I just don’t think anymore, that is how it has changed it. When I leave here I go in a car and I go to a jail, and I sit in a jail and I come back here and I am in the courtroom. I don’t think about it.”

By now, she has thought about it. As the combined influence of Manson and drugs wore off, she thought about it, she said. And over the course of preparing for her two trials, going over and over the same material with lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists. And most recently as a self-imposed discipline. She has been writing about it, she said as part of her study of developmental psychology.

“Developmental reconstruction,” she said of this writing project. “You take a time in your life — obviously mine was from the time I first started dropping out. By writing it down I was able to focus on a major area — how I was looking at myself, how it all happened. It’s been important to me.”

Having said that, she leaned closer across the table, her eyes demanding attention, and said, “My main concern above and beyond getting out of here is to be honest with myself about what happened. Because let’s face it, if I don’t work that out, what’s freedom really? It’s in your heart and mind.”

As was often the case when she spoke, the intensity of her seeming candor seemed studied. At the same time, she sounded as if she believed what she was saying.

Although she talked about the horror of what she did — “not only were the lives taken, a family unit was destroyed, not to mention my own family” — she emphasized, as she has in court, that she did not actually take a life, that she freaked out and was able to stab Rosemary LaBianca only after she was dead, and only at the insistence of Manson family member Tex Watson. (Watson, tried later and separately because of extradition difficulties was convicted of all seven Tate-LaBianca murders).

“I was not wholly responsible,” she said. “I’m not passing the buck. I was not a leader at the ranch. I was picked that night.

“My responsibility, I think, was in allowing another person to have that control over me. It’s a classic mistake people make when looking for someone who has the answer…I surrendered to someone else and what they believed…That was my initial crime…and then (it got to the point) where I would find myself so involved in that particular belief system that I was incapable of saying just no.”

Beyond understanding how she, a bright middle-class, girl who had been elected to class office and was once a homecoming princess at Monrovia High School had dropped so far out that she wound up a follower of Charlie Manson and a murderer, she has also used her writing project to come to some understanding and acceptance, she said, of who she is now.

“I found I was meeting people,” she said, “with a real feeling of inferiority.” Not any more. She has gotten over being ashamed of the name Leslie Van Houten, of feeling guilty for so much as eating a meal, of thinking she would do everyone a favor and stop breathing.

She tends towards the intellectual in her interests and concerns and when she speaks of herself she seems to have intellectualized much of her history. And objectified it. At least that is what she presents. Considering her history, that kind of delivery can be disconcerting.

“I’m in touch with the guilt I’ll always feel,” she said, “but I don’t want to overcompensate. I want to maintain my sense of self-worth. My guilt is internal now. I don’t want to externalize it. It’s personal. It’s taken me years and years to be able to say confidently, ‘I have been able to deal with it in a healthy manner.'”

She considers herself rehabilitated. Completely. She wants out. Specifically she wants the Community Release Board to set a parole date for her when she appears before it early next year.

“I feel real good about myself,” she said. “I just wish others would. I feel like I’ve really put myself through the wringer. No one else has had to do what I’ve done. I’ve done a really fine job of knowing why I’m here. I would never say I haven’t deserved exactly what I’ve gotten…You have to pay. You have to have a certain amount of punishment. I don’t want to ‘get over’ on the system. It’s just that I feel I have paid. I’m 31. I’m at the age of the great working market of people and I’m stuck in here.”

But making the best of it.

She had been led to believe, she said, that last year’s parole hearing would result in a firm release date for her. When that did not happen she said she suffered a terrible disappointment, became deeply depressed and is determined never to let it happen again.

Now she is full of contingency plans, and no longer marks time on a cycle dictated by parole hearings.

Instead, she is preparing her “portfolio” for her degree from Antioch, shopping around for the best way to pursue a graduate degree within the prison. Literature classes, writing workshops, women’s liberation meetings — she takes advantage of whatever is available to her in confinement.

She has finished her “developmental reconstruction” many of them church affiliated, trying to change public opinion so that any favorable action of the board would be met with approval, or at least, tolerance.

Three members of the Friends of Leslie met with the press last September and talked about trying to “demythologize Leslie.” They were Dwight Blackstock, a United Presbyterian minister who had grown up with Leslie and subsequently worked as a prison chaplain; Susan Talbot, a fabric designer who met her when she was out on bail; and Jerry Gumbleton, a psychologist with the L.A. Unified School District who stressed that he was doing this as an individual.

They want to convince others of her rehabilitation, of her worth, and they want to demythologize her. By that, Gumbleton explained, they are referring to the fact that Leslie and the Manson family “became the epitome of the nation’s fears of violence, the younger generation, the counterculture, drugs, sex and the dangers of walking the streets at night.”

There is no underestimating the horror imposed on Americans by the Manson family. It’s hard to shake, and in trying to do so, the Friends of Leslie, in their enthusiasm, earnestness and sympathy for her, sometimes paint her larger than life.

“Talking with her is not cocktail chatter. You go away exhausted;” “She’s basically a very spiritual person, although she does not express herself in traditional ways;” “It’s an irony to pay $20,000 a year to deprive ourselves of her contribution;” “One reason I think Leslie is a special person is when I see the shell most women have to put up — Leslie is open, touchable, she cares, she’s capable of loving;” “Her involvement (in the murders) while regrettable was minimal. When she realized what was happening she ran screaming. She is not a crazed killer. Her involvement was something she couldn’t prevent or deal with.”

Those are some of the comments the three made about her in the course of an interview. That kind of talk, no matter how well intended, is not always helpful, which is why some of Van Houten’s other friends are concerned about the group. There is the danger that in demythologizing the real person, they will create another, unbelievable myth.

Asked about that recently. Jerry Gumbleton resisted some of the language — it was not how he would word it — but he acknowledged, “In some ways Leslie is larger than life. In some respects she is because of what she’s accomplished. To interact with her — and to realize who she is and was — she’s a little bigger than life because she’s in a situation you just can’t believe… People come up to us and tell us, ‘Leslie is lucky to have you,’ but we feel lucky to be able to interact with her.”

Van Houten, who for years told people to hold off, not to do anything for her, accepts the help of this group with humility, she said, and appeared resigned to the possibility some of their efforts might backfire.

“It’s amazing to some that I’ve made it through,” she said. “They’ve made me more than I am. It happens in here, too, with some of the others. It’s hard to respond to that. I can’t be angry. I think what (the Friends of Leslie) are doing is beautifuL They’re just people, not pros. They let others know what they feel about me. It’s humbling.”

Some of her older friends just want the whole thing to go away, she said, and there is no way that is going to happen.

She is more concerned with these — and her prosecutor Stephen Kay would near the head of her list — who are her detractors. She became sarcastic frequently, or resorted to heavy innuendo about careers and politics when discussing those who do not believe in her rehabilitation, or who hold her to her past, refusing to deal with who she is now.

“Wait! Let me guess?” she interrupted, about to hear of the accusations one psychiatrist had leveled at her, dismissing the person as someone who “wanted to make a buck off me. Usually, it’s that I’m a charmer, manipulative…Right?”


“I’m a nice person,” she said of being accused of charm. “People like me. I was voted class officer, all that. In fact, look at the reality of the staff here. They like me. You’d think they would see if I was this Jekyll and Hyde I’m said to be … It’s almost as if I was out on bail and was good just so I could come back in here, get released, and go back out and be bad.”

She has watched Abbie Hoffman come out of the underground, and Jerry Rubin head for Wall Street and she compares.

“People will say, `Well that was the ’60s.’ Granted, those men were not convicted of murder or horrifying an entire culture, but people call those changes growing up,’ but with me, ‘that’s a snow job over there.’”

What irritates her about Stephen Kay’s attacks on her, she said, is that he is not against the idea of paroling her, but wants her to remain in prison until she is 40.

Kay confirmed that later. She is the only Manson family member he said he would ever consider eligible for parole and agreed she is not the same person she was in 1969. Nevertheless, he is not convinced she is fully rehabilitated, and said some prison staff seriously question that, too — those who see her on a daily basis, he said, not the psychologists. She is so used to dealing with psychologists, he said, “she can wrap them around her finger.”

As for waiting until she’s 40, he said, ”I think she’s been dangerous when young and with that maturity she will not tend to congregate (with dangerous people, bad influences) and will use a little more rationality. A young Leslie Van Houten scares me. A middle-aged Leslie Van Houten I could see out…”

However rehabilitated she is now, for the sake of punishment for a crime of such extreme brutality and callousness he is convinced she should remain in prison.

Van Houten herself would like to be paroled in January, thinks she deserves it, but has her own educated guess that she will be in a total of 15 years, 13 if she’s lucky. She bases that on the average for first-degree murder, with no prior record, and in a case where she did not actually take a life. That would give her another two to four years at CIW.

Phil Guthrie of the Department of Corrections public information office in Sacramento confirmed that her averages were correct for “typical” murders.

Despite her objections to the Manson family sensationalism being dragged into the parole hearings, it is doubtful that Van Houten will ever be seen as typical. As far as her rehabilitation is concerned, which is the primary question to her, the parole board, Kay said, can deny or grant parole based on the facts of the crime alone. They are not bound to consider rehabilitation, he said.

When she gets out, if she gets out, she will work as a legal secretary, she said, and already has received eight job offers. She will continue to write, but knows that will probably have little to do with supporting herself.

She will change her name, since she doesn’t want it on credit cards and does not want to deal with it every time she pulls into a gas station. But anyone who knows her, even casually, she said, will be told who she is. She will not have the “X” she carved on her forehead in imitation of Manson during the first trial removed. It is faint now, and she will rely on “Vitamin E and bangs,” she laughed, to conceal it.

She will be in no hurry to marry, although she did not discount the possibility, as she did that of having children. She has not become a lesbian as has been alleged from time to time, she said when asked. She has had at least one affair in prison, however, and said, “People can judge it and say its awful — you need it for the warmth.” She does not think she would want to be a lesbian outside of prison, she said, adding, “I’d hate to think after all these years I’d cut off half the human race.”

If there comes a time when her own troubles are far enough behind her that she can spend time helping other people, she said she would like to go to veterans hospitals and talk with some of the men who are having a hard time dealing with their Vietnam experiences.

“I know the importance of letting it out,” she said of her experiences and her guilt. “Sometimes when I think what I’ve gone through in dealing with that night — I have a history of being an extremely nonviolent person — I’ve learned to accept that it is my personal shame. It’s not that I’ve worked myself out of it I’ve just incorporated it.”

The good frame of mind that she is in about herself, and her belief that she is ready to come out and be a productive member of society, her belief that she deserves that now, all seem to depend to some extent on the fact she did not actually take a life. She makes much of that, and remarked once during the interview that “Pat and Susan have a lot more to live with than I do.” She separates herself from the other Mansons with it.

Charles Manson himself, however, did not actually take those seven lives either. Where does that leave him?

“He thought it up, though,” she said without hesitation. “Maybe that’s not fair of me, but if he hadn’t have come up with the idea. I know I wouldn’t have.”


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3 Responses to Leslie Van Houten: ‘In Touch’ With the Guilt She’ll Always Feel

  1. Wolf's Stare says:


  2. Fred Bloggs says:

    Well, it was 43 years ago.

  3. CybeleMoon says:

    how cavalier.

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