clock menu more-arrow no yes

The evolving mythology of the “Manson girls”

The so-called Manson girls are pop culture fixtures. But we’re just starting to understand them.

Charles Manson Followers Laughing
Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel laugh as they enter the courtroom to face sentencing for the Manson family murders.
Getty Images

It was amazing the respect these girls had for Charlie. They just lived and breathed by him.

Once when we were working on the Christ story, he demonstrated the submission thing. He turned to Lynne and said, “Lynne, come here and kiss my feet”; and she got down on her knees and kissed his feet and sat down. And then he said, “Now I will kiss yours,” and he did. There was never any explanation or questioning. They just did it.

Charles Manson’s record producer Gary Stromberg to Rolling Stone, 1970

Fifty years ago this week, the Manson family murders shocked Hollywood, announced the final death of the utopian dreams of the 1960s, and gave birth to the mythology of the Manson girls.

They are nearly always called the Manson girls, all of them, from the teenagers to the grown women. They were followers of Charles Manson who lived with him on his ranch and who, on his orders, committed brutal and bloody murders, and they are central to our cultural fascination with Manson himself.

Charles Manson as a person is honestly not that interesting. He was a mediocre failed musician; he built his cult on recycled Scientologist ideas and an elaborate theory about a race war.

But Manson had the “Manson girls,” and they are what made him fascinating to so many people. Contemporary news coverage of the 1970-’71 Manson trial tended to pant over the Manson girls, although it treated them mostly as anonymous objects: Manson was so powerful, those accounts seem to say, that he had all these beautiful obedient hippie girls falling all over him. The girls were essentially interchangeable, as far as those stories were concerned, and they would do anything Manson asked of them. Can you believe it?

And that narrative has stayed in place for decades. “Submissive, brainwashed, horny little teeners . . . who do exactly what you want before you even know what that is” is how Thomas Pynchon described the Manson girls in his 2009 novel Inherent Vice. “You don’t even have to say a word out loud, they get it all by ESP.”

In our cultural narrative, the Manson girls are the key to Manson’s allure, and they are also his accessories. They are meaningful to the extent that they illustrate Manson’s unnerving charisma, but their position as individual human beings has no place in the Charles Manson mythology.

It’s only within the past few years that as a culture, we’ve begun to turn away from that story and have a conversation about who the so-called “girls” were as human beings, and where they are now. That conversation is part of a larger turn toward reevaluating women’s legacies — but it’s only just beginning to take off.

In 1969, the Manson girls helped build the Charles Manson mythology

Manson Family Murder Suspects
Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel enter the courthouse to be tried for the Manson family murders in 1970.
Bettmann/Contributor

This Manson, I’m not going to say that he’s got hypnotic powers, but he’s got some kind of a strength because he’s able to get this girl from Alabama to come out here, and she could have stayed in Alabama another six months.

Anonymous prosecutor for the LA District Attorney’s Office to Rolling Stone, 1970

The world met the Manson girls during the trial of Charles Manson, when he and three of his followers went to trial in 1970 for the 1969 murder of eight people, including actress Sharon Tate. Tate’s celebrity guaranteed that the media would have been interested in the case no matter what — but what made it a bonanza, with newspapers breathlessly reporting on every detail, was the brutality and apparent randomness of the killings.

Manson had no real connection to the victims: he’d picked them out in part to cover up other crimes and in part because he wanted to spark a race war. The victims were all stabbed numerous times — including Tate, who was pregnant — and investigators found the word “pig” written on the wall in Tate’s blood when they arrived.

Adding to the media’s interest was the knowledge that Manson hadn’t actually committed any of the murders himself. He’d gotten his followers to do it. And a number of his followers were young women.

That’s when the press began to really latch onto the story of the Manson girls.

There were the three women who were tried with Manson: Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel, who the Associated Press reported arrived to the final day of their trial in “prison uniforms with ribbons in their long hair,” famously shaved off that hair after Manson shaved his head partway through the trial, and shocked the nation by laughing as they walked into the courtroom to be sentenced.

The country was thrilled by the contrast between their youth and femininity and the viciousness of their crimes. “The second witness is scheduled to be a soft-spoken, angelic-looking young woman who is accused of being a participant in at least eight brutal and senseless killings,” read one article published as the trial began, under the breathless headline “Hippie Girl to Tell All in Tate Murder.”

There were also the girls who testified against Manson: Linda Kasabian and Dianne Lake. Reporters described Lake as “the petite auburn‐haired witness” and Kasabian as a “petite blonde,” noting that Kasabian “candidly admitted extensive drug taking, stealing money and extramarital relationships with numerous men, including the 35-year-old Manson.”

Finally, there were the girls waiting for Manson outside the courthouse. They served as the kicker to the AP’s account of the trial: “Through it all,” the AP wrote, “a band of loyal Manson clan women maintained a vigil in the street outside the Hall of Justice, waiting for their ‘father’ to be freed from ‘the tower.’” Those women, too, shaved their heads after Manson shaved his.

As the Charles Manson story took shape, the idea that he had some sinister and possibly supernatural influence over all these young women became central to his mythology — especially the idea that life on the Manson ranch was probably just one nonstop orgy. When an anonymous prosecutor for the DA’s office talked to Rolling Stone about the Manson case in 1970, he noted that he knew of a divorced biker who used to stay at the Manson ranch because the girls would take care of his baby for him, and “’cause he used to get free pussy.”

“He used to admit it,” the prosecutor said. “He’d say, this is the greatest thing next to mother’s milk. They’d bring you food, make love to you any time you could.”

“There were about 12 girls,” Manson’s record producer Phil Kaufman explained in the same article. “Every time Charlie saw a girl he liked, he’d tell someone, ‘Get that girl.’ And when they brought her back, Charlie would take her out in the woods and talk to her for an hour or two. And she would never leave.”

The Manson girl mythology had everything pop culture in 1969 could want: the gruesome killing of a movie star, beautiful young girl murderers, the counterculture gone wild, and a titillating hint of a hippie-ish free love ethos. What could possibly make for a better tale?

Over time, it became clear that the Manson girls were victims. They remained a part of the Manson mythology.

Scene From ‘Helter Skelter’
Actors Cathey Paine (L), Nancy Wolfe, and Steve Railsback (as Charles Manson) in the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

I can get along with girls, they give up easier. I can make love to them. Man has this ego thing [Charlie stiffens up] holding on to his prick. I can’t make love to that. Girls break down easier.

Charles Manson to Rolling Stone, 1970

Over time, it gradually became clear that the Manson girls weren’t just cold-blooded killers who were oddly devoted to Manson. They were victims — and that, too, became part of the Manson mythology.

The lead prosecutor on the Manson case, Vincent Bugliosi, turned his account of the Manson family into a book, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, which would become the best-selling true crime ever written and would set the narrative for the Manson story going forward. Bugliosi reported that Manson paid his rent on the ranch where he lived by ordering the Manson girls to have sex with the older man who owned the place, and that the infamous Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to assassinate Gerald Ford in 1975, was so called because she used to squeak every time the man pinched her thigh.

Life on the ranch, in other words, wasn’t a nonstop orgy because the Manson girls particularly wanted it to be. Group sex was frequent because Manson wanted it that way, and he had brainwashed the girls staying with him into doing what they were told.

Bugliosi’s story has since been found to have plenty of holes in it — but his account of the Manson girls as submissive dupes whom Manson could use as sexual bartering chips became the way the country talked about the girls going forward.

“Manson had an old con’s skill … at picking the members of his band,” explained the New Republic in 1975, in a review of Bugliosi’s book. “The girls were young, homeless, fanciful, at war with their parents — the boys were kept in line by being given the girls.” And in this story, Manson’s influence over his followers proved not that Manson was an abusive brainwasher, but that he was something more special and mystical than that. “There was something else in Manson that could turn them [the Manson girls] from borderline psychotics into psychopathic killers of unparalleled cruelty,” the New Republic wrote. “I don’t think there’s any possible doubt that Manson was a demon — not possessed by one, was one.”

Although this updated narrative positioned the girls less as pure monsters and more as victims who were molded into killers by a demon, it was not particularly interested in the Manson girls as human beings. It was mostly interested in the titillating idea of fanciful young girls who had been brainwashed by a demon into doing absolutely anything. The girls were still important mostly as living props who prove Manson’s power.

There’s a Manson girl counternarrative now. But the old story still has pop culture clout.

Sheron Lawin (L), a member of the Board of Prison
Leslie Van Houten before the Board of Prison Terms Comissioners in 2002. Van Houten’s request for parole was denied.
Damian Dovarganes/AFP/Getty Images

I was feeling disenfranchised with Charlie, and I wanted him to want me, and so he took me inside and I thought we were going to make love but instead he turned me around and he sodomized me. When he was finished, he said, “That’s the way, you know, we do it in prison,” and I didn’t really trust him after that.

Dianne Lake to ABC, 2019

Of the three so-called Manson girls who were convicted of murder and went to prison, two of them — Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel — are still alive and still in prison. The third, Susan Atkins, died of brain cancer in 2009 at age 61. She, like Van Houten and Krenwinkel, was repeatedly denied parole throughout her sentence.

In 1972, Atkins, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel became the center of an experiment from the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project, run by radical feminist criminologist Karlene Faith. As reported by American studies professor Jeffrey Melnick in his book Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family, Faith and her coalition of feminists dedicated themselves to rehabilitating the three women. “They treated the women of the Manson family like active subjects — as people who could liberate themselves,” writes Melnick.

Faith and her cohort created what Melnick describes as “a program to raise the consciousness of the imprisoned women according to feminist principles.” They taught their pupils about the law, gender studies, ethnic studies, and psychology — and also poetry and music and politics.

Atkins, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel responded to the program by apparently becoming model prisoners. They earned advanced degrees and commendations for helping their fellow inmates, and the staff at their prison has given them enthusiastic character statements at parole hearings. Van Houten has been recommended for parole three times since 2016, only to be denied by California’s governor every time. Krenwinkel is now the state of California’s longest-serving prisoner.

The women of the Manson family who didn’t go to prison have spoken out about their treatment at Manson’s hands, and they are beginning to find an audience. Dianne Lake says she first became involved with Manson when she was just 14 years old, and that he sexually assaulted her. “I feel very strongly,” she told ABC earlier this year, “that it’s only by the grace of God that I was protected throughout this, and I was a victim. You know, I was abused, I was neglected, I was abandoned. … I hope that my story will help tell a cautionary tale.”

And as these women continue to insist on their identities as not just “the Manson girls” but as agents and human beings in their own right, popular culture is starting to take notice. 2016 saw the release of the widely buzzed-over novel The Girls by Emma Cline, which took place in a Manson family-like cult but treated its Charles Manson analogue as a trivial distraction from what really mattered; namely, the relationship between two of the teen girls of the cult. Mary Harron’s film Charlie Says, which came out this May, turned its focus to the rehabilitation of Atkins, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel in prison.

But stories like Charlie Says and The Girls are still counternarratives as far as popular culture is concerned. They exist now, but they have to push back against the dominant narrative of the Manson family, the narrative that we see reiterated over and over again in films like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: the story about the sexy murderous hippies called the Manson girls, who were, as Pynchon put it, “submissive, brainwashed, horny little teeners.”

That pushback is part of a larger project that has unfolded over the past 10 years or so, one that took on a special urgency once the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017. We’ve begun to reevaluate the legacy of women we once discarded as hysterical and oversexed and used as the punchline in dirty jokes, the Lorena Bobbitts and Monica Lewinskys of the world. We’ve begun to ask if perhaps these women might have been badly hurt both by the world and by the way we talked about them afterward, and if perhaps their personhood and their stories are worth more thoughtful consideration than they’ve been granted in the past.

But the culture has only just begun to ask these questions. And the lingering, beloved trope of the Manson girls shows that there’s a long way to go before we overwrite the old stories with the new.