John Waters, provocateur of screen, stage, print and gallery, has rarely been as brave as he is in his new essay, "Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship."
This chapter from his forthcoming collection, "Role Models" (due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux next May), depicts the rehabilitation of a member of the Charles Manson cult. It's also a candid rumination on Waters' own extremist sensibility in the 40th anniversary year, not just of Woodstock and Altamont and "John Waters' Mondo Trasho," but also of the Manson family's apocalyptic killing sprees at the homes of Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
The essay ran in five parts on The Huffington Post last week; Waters wanted the piece to come out when the news media would again be covering the awful slaughter that Manson and his cultists visited on Tate and her friends on Aug. 9, 1969, and on the LaBiancas on Aug. 10.
Waters connects the ecstasies and the atrocities of the counterculture in a clear-headed, nonmoralistic manner. It's passionately reasoned and it's sober. Most of the gallows comedy comes from Waters' mother, who wonders whether the Manson family really needs to have the Waters family address; she also wishes that Waters wouldn't confess that LSD helped him become a filmmaker. But the essay maintains its urgent focus. It never ceases to be a plea for Van Houten's parole on the grounds of her remarkable psychological and moral recovery.
"She was one of those notorious 'Manson girls' who shaved their heads, carved X's in their foreheads and laughed, joked and sang their way to the courthouse straight to death row without the slightest trace of remorse forty years ago," Waters writes. "Leslie is hardly a 'Manson girl' today. Sixty years old, she looks back from prison on her involvement in the La Bianca murders (the night after the Tate massacre) in utter horror, shame, and guilt and takes full responsibility for her part in the crimes. I think it's time to parole her."
Over the phone from Provincetown, Mass., where Waters first read about the Manson horror when working behind the counter of the Provincetown Bookshop, he says the piece has been "40 years in the making. In the beginning I wrote about [the Manson crimes] kind of irresponsibly." He riffed about the pleasures of following notorious criminals in his 1981 book "Shock Value." Now he writes that he is "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."
In interviews, he is especially intent on emphasizing his respect for the LaBianca family. "Whatever they say, they're not wrong, it can't be wrong, because it's personal, it's their family. I am talking from the view of society, the law and what is fair. And that's a very different thing. If they ask, 'Where's the parole for my mother?,' I can't answer that question."
Argument for parole
He argues that Van Houten should be given the parole she has earned by every measure of rehabilitation, but she has been denied 18 times. He says she proved she could live quietly outside prison for six months in the late 1970s, between her second trial, which ended with a hung jury, and her third, which ended with a life sentence, not life without parole.
Van Houten was a teenage girl when she fell under Manson's sway. "In August '69, Woodstock happened, Altamont was about to happen, it was almost the peak of the '60s, the most insane possible time. And she was a hippie looking for a leader, looking for spirituality. It wasn't violent when it began," Waters says.
Waters knew he would write seriously about the Manson phenomenon some day, "but it had to be from the right angle, and it took me all this time. I have 20 boxes, I have every parole-hearing tape, more research than maybe anybody. I didn't know what angle to take, but this is the right angle."
Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner had asked Waters to interview Manson in 1985. "I had little curiosity," he writes, "about a man who had reminded me of someone you'd move away from in a bar in Baltimore."
But Leslie Van Houten was different. She "always seemed the one that could have somehow ended up making movies with us instead of running with the killer dune-buggy crowd. She was pretty, out of her mind, rebellious, with fashion-daring, a good haircut, and a taste for LSD - just like the girls in my movies." Wenner said OK, but Van Houten demurred.
Waters now muses, "When she said no, I guess if I was just a journalist I would have ended it. And I didn't. And she said, 'If you want to be friends, if you hurry, it's not going to happen.' And as soon as I realized I wasn't going to write about it, I wasn't in a hurry." Waters never thought it would take him a quarter-century to write about her in a piece that "wasn't an interview, really, [but] was more a story about both of us. She knew I was going to write about her 'recovery,' there isn't any other word for it. She says, 'I've been trying to become the person I would have been if I had never met [Manson], and I think I am now.' "
Van Houten's clarity and moral fearlessness, more than the image he once had of her as "the homecoming princess from suburbia who gave up her title for acid," cemented their friendship. "She's very intelligent," he says. "She takes the most severe criticism and owns up to her guilt and tries to deal with it in the best way she possibly can. 'I'm not trying to get away with anything,' she says, and she's not." Several extraordinary statements in the piece come from Van Houten's excruciatingly hard-won getting of wisdom.
She accepts blame for having "been part of what made [Manson] a leader." She told a biographer, "A follower is as responsible [as a leader] for allowing a leader to treat them foully."
Vincent Bugliosi, whom Waters describes as "the original and fairest Manson family prosecutor" and who wrote about Manson in the book "Helter Skelter," once said he feared that Van Houten would "become hard" in jail.
"And he thought she would only do 20 years," Waters says. "But if she was out, you would never imagine this woman had been in prison for 40 years. I give her great credit, because she didn't get hard. Believe me. I've seen who she lives with [in the California Institution for Women]. Like every prison, it's very, very rough, and it's worse now because it's so overcrowded."
Time spent teaching
Yet Van Houten doesn't get into fights. She has spent her time teaching reading to illiterate prisoners, stitching a piece of the national AIDS quilt, recording books for the blind and clerking for the staff.
A lot of Waters' wisdom came from teaching film in the Patuxent Institution midway between Baltimore and Washington on and off in the 1980s. In his essay "Going to Jail," in his collection "Crackpot," he writes that he was acutely conscious of "the long-term agony felt by victims of violent crime." (He cites the autobiography of Tate's widower, Roman Polanski, as a source.) But he also asks, "Can one imagine the equal horror and guilt the parents of the kids in the Manson Family felt? The unwanted notoriety? The never-ending feeling that it is somehow their fault?" He told his inmate students, "Next time you feel like killing somebody, don't, for God's sake - write about it, draw it, paint it. These films I make are my crimes, only I get paid for doing it instead of doing time."
Waters still asks himself, "Would I have been dangerous if I didn't have the outlet? I don't know; I was pretty crazy when I was young." He also says, "If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd have become a lawyer for criminal defendants. And I think I would have been quite a good one."
In a remarkable passage in his essay, Waters relates the never-before-told story of how, in 1970, he was driving a car down Baltimore's Broadway on a Sunday afternoon, with actress Mink Stole in the passenger seat, when an old man jumped in front of their car. The impact killed the man; the horror of seeing his face pressed against the driver's windshield haunted Waters for decades. "I didn't feel guilty," Waters says, "because it was totally not my fault, and thank god a police officer saw it. Still, I remember how terrible and weird it made me feel."
That self-exposure makes a reader feel as if Waters himself is coming clean. It also helps Waters understand the strength it took for Van Houten to weather the knowledge of her crimes. At a time in her life when she was "saturated with acid," she did invade the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. And when Manson henchman Charles "Tex" Watson, after knifing these two innocents, ordered Van Houten "to do something," she stabbed the dead or dying Mrs. LaBianca 16 times in the lower back.
"Imagine when you wake up from the psychosis and the delusions of a cult and realize, hey, this was very much your fault, you were not trick or treating when you went in there." Waters says Van Houten "is not sure whether [Mrs. LaBianca] was [already] dead or not. But she's given up on that. She says, 'I take responsibility for every action that happened in that house.' " To Waters, her refusal to use the Manson family brainwashing and drug use to explain away her guilt marks her as "the poster girl" of rehabilitation. She was "the baldheaded girl who said all those terrible words that will haunt her all the rest of her life, like 'sorry is a five-letter word that won't bring anything back.' She hears those words today with great shame."
Waters' 'Role Models'
Waters describes the complete book, "Role Models," as "a self-portrait through people, some very unknown, some famous, some infamous, that have inspired me for very different reasons. Leslie oddly has." Among the qualities he admires are her "patience" - Waters says, "You can ask my assistants; I am the least patient person in the world" - and her fortitude. "She did something so notorious, and how do you get past that? Can you rebuild yourself?" What links her to other Waters role models like Tennessee Williams is her ability "to live and handle psychologically extreme lives."
Speaking to Waters, I wondered whether he ever thought of the tragedy that occurred when his former Provincetown neighbor, the late and often great Norman Mailer, lobbied for the parole of Jack Henry Abbott, who had written a prison manuscript Mailer admired, "In the Belly of the Beast." Just six weeks after his release in 1981, Abbott stabbed to death a 22-year-old aspiring actor and playwright in the restaurant of the victim's father-in-law. "Norman felt incredibly bad about what happened," Waters says. "But these are very different cases. Jack Abbott already had a history of violence. Leslie has never in her life - and in jail all this time - has never once been in a fight. She has survived in a very violent world. And she's learned how to live in that society, which is harder to live in than outside.
"And I'm not pushing Leslie out to be a filmmaker, or an actress. Jack Henry Abbot was a writer; Norman was pushing his books, mentoring him. Leslie 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 concedes, "I understand it is always tough, there's always the tiny possibility some thing could go wrong."
But he wants to do what he can to correct what he sees as a sorry twist of character, environment and fate. "I got sent to Cannes; she got sent to prison."