“Manson family member Leslie Van Houten denied parole.”
The CNN headline caught my eye Monday because of Ms. Van Houten’s connection to Baltimore “filth” writer and director John Waters, but it also brought to mind one other person famous for a very different reason: Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.
A friend of Mr. Waters’ had recently told me (during an interview for a profile to accompany his induction this week into The Sun’s Business and Civic Hall of Fame) that the filmmaker has long advocated for Ms. Van Houten’s release, arguing that if ever there were an example of rehabilitation, she’s it.
She’s spent the past five decades in prison contemplating her gruesome role, at age 19, in the Charles Manson-led murders in California and getting an education in the humanities (a bachelor’s and master’s degree) and, it seems, humanity. Mr. Waters wrote a lengthy essay about their unexpected friendship in his 2010 book “Role Models.”
When I asked Mr. Waters about her late last month, however, he wouldn’t comment, concerned any undue publicity might ruin Ms. Van Houten’s chances at parole. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown had already denied her board-recommended release twice. Maybe the third recommendation, made in January — and a new governor — was the charm.
But it was not to be. “While I commend Ms. Van Houten for her efforts at rehabilitation and acknowledge her youth at the time of the crimes, I am concerned about her role in these killings and her potential for future violence,” current California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement denying the parole grant. Ms. Van Houten was “an eager participant,” he said, in the murder of Rosemary LaBianca, whom she stabbed multiple times in 1969 and then wiped down the scene of fingerprints before raiding the LaBiancas’ fridge with her fellow Manson “family” members.
I have no idea whether the wise Ms. Chodron, who teaches at a Buddhist monastery in Canada and has been interviewed by Oprah, has any thoughts specific to Ms. Van Houten. I have no special knowledge at all of Ms. Chodron outside her audiobooks, which I listen to when I feel in need of some balance in perspective. A passage I heard the other day at 51:08 in Chapter 1 of “The Pema Chodron Audio Collection” stuck with me:
Beliefs about anything limit our experience and cause us not to be able to perceive what’s in front of our eyes and our nose. Beliefs that we hold to so strongly and so dearly that we’re willing to fight for them blind us and make us deaf.
The young Ms. Van Houten, now 69, represents the extreme in this.
After her parents split, she ran away and came back pregnant. Her mother forced an abortion, and she eventually ran again in search of comfort and belonging — winding up one of a dozen or so true believers in Charles Manson. For his part, the white supremacist, musician-wannabe, messianic death-cult leader believed the voices in his head telling him a race war was coming, so they’d better prepare, and maybe start it first with a killing spree or two.
Ms. Van Houten, who was frequently high on LSD and marijuana while under Manson’s tutelage, was so all-in that she actually felt left out when she learned a delegation had murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others without her the night of Aug. 8th, 1969, and into the early morning hours of Aug. 9th.
And so, when a new venture was planned for the night of the 9th, she willingly went along, though she told the parole board she thought of murder in more abstract terms.
“In my head,” she said, “it was more like ‘make the revolution start.’”
Ms. Van Houten wouldn’t see the LaBiancas — Rosemary’s husband, Leno, was also killed — as they were: a terrified couple randomly chosen for death by hippies gone horribly wrong.
“I wasn't humane enough to know that,” she told the parole board. “I wasn't connected to life enough to know that at that time. And the true meaning of what had happened. And I'm ashamed to say that. That's who I was.”
There are countless examples of this kind of extreme delusional thinking among out country’s mass murderers, but lest you think belief systems are only problems for the radical, take another look at Ms. Chodron’s words.
The beliefs we hold — even those we’re sure are righteous about abortion and religion and the climate and racism and equality and political parties and on and on — and how we act on them are often the products of long, aggressive conversations we’ve held with ourselves and stories we’ve made up about others without their consultation.
Sometimes the stakes are high — say, imagining a future for a fetus that the pregnant woman in front of you could never give. Sometimes not: thinking Mr. Waters a frightening freak, instead of a friendly fellow who drives a non-descript Buick and grocery shops at Eddie’s.
Either way, we’d all do well to get out of our heads more and open our hearts to what’s before us right now.
Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @triciabishop.