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One of the few members of the Manson Family to testify against him recalls her time in the cult. November 20, 2017

Member of the Family: My Life Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties, by Dianne Lake (HarperCollins, 384 pp., $27.99)

Fourteen-year-old Dianne Lake didn’t rebel against her parents in the late 1960s as so many of the era’s youth did. She conformed to their wishes—by joining the Manson Family, whose demonic leader, Charles Manson, died Sunday at 83.

Introducing her to marijuana in eighth grade, opening their home to a crowd akin to Penelope’s suitors (one of whom absconded with their daughter for a nude photo session), turning her loose at Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm, where she met a couple who made themselves a trio, and pulling Dianne from school so that the family could live a nomadic existence in a bread truck, Ma and Pa Lake made home a place where the heart wasn’t. When Lake’s dad, tripping on LSD, sawed down the legs on her dining room table because it told him that it wanted to be shorter, some other voice encouraged Dianne to find another family.

She writes in her new book, Member of the Family, that she found the father she had been looking for in Manson, a 34-year-old, guitar-picking ex-convict whose musical lessons came via Ma Barker’s confederate Alvin Karpis—the only FBI Public Enemy #1 taken alive—and whose philosophy came from diverse sources, including Scientology, Dale Carnegie, the Bible, and Adolf Hitler.  Lake’s parents encouraged Manson to look out for her and gave their blessing to her defection from their family to his. “The actual contrast couldn’t have been clearer: My actual family didn’t seem to care one way or the other about what happened to me so long as I wasn’t causing any problems for them,” Lake writes. “My new family, however, clearly felt I was supposed to be with them.”

Manson loved root beer and stressed “good hygiene,” she tells us. Squeaky Fromme, who drew a gun on President Ford in 1976, was “as close to him as any of the girls.” Sandra Good, a mainstay outside the courthouse at Manson’s trial, was a “prima donna” who “came from money, had allergies to this and that, and was always complaining.” Patricia Krenwinkel was “like an older sister” who “always made me feel safe when she was around.” Susan Atkins “not only desired to dominate Charlie’s attention, she longed to be like him and wanted us to view her much as we did him.” None of the girls wore underwear. All ate from supermarket dumpsters.

Dianne’s new family, like her old one, adopted a libertine ethos at the behest of a do-my-own-thing patriarch. The surreal experience included, appropriately enough, setting up camp at an old movie set called Spahn Ranch. It continued by squatting at an absent Angela Lansbury’s home and through a prolonged stay at the rented log manse of Dennis Wilson, drummer of the Beach Boys.

“More than any of his other tricks or manipulations, this time at Dennis’s became the ultimate postulation,” Lake explains, using Manson’s word for turning an ideal into reality. “The comfort, the ease of our stay at Dennis’s house seemed to validate everything about Charlie’s message in a way that felt irrefutable. Whatever counterarguments I’d made in the recesses of my mind collapsed under the weight of this apparent proof. Dennis’s house was perhaps his most convincing argument, a backdrop too perfect to ignore, the convergence of everything in Charlie’s con—the drugs, the sex, the ethos. It all combined to transform Charlie into something godlike, someone who had real and tangible power, who had chosen us as his apostles.”

But the freeloaders, despite offering Wilson free sex—to his credit, the Beach Boy declined an in-the-buff offer from the underage Lake—orgies on demand, cooking, and cleaning, wore out their welcome. The hirsute narcissist, whose music and distinctive singing voice actually sound better than much else recorded during the era, Manson could not heed or even tolerate the advice of producers. He alienated Wilson, as he later alienated Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, whose production credits included work with The Byrds. Lake and other cult girls swam naked in the swimming pool outside the house of Brian Wilson, Dennis’s brother, but inside the house, Manson became enraged by suggestions that he change his lyrics, his looks, and his sound, and the tanned Beach Boys became ashen. Dennis Wilson, perhaps as payback for the trouble that Manson had caused him, lifted one of his songs to use as a B-side for a late-1968 single. Manson saw this as a betrayal, and along with his other crushed dreams, it helped lead to his deterioration from career car thief and passer of bad checks into murderer.  

“Though we all tried to distract ourselves, sinking into the couch and watching a movie, it was hard not to feel that this marked the end of something,” Lake recalls of that surreal day, in which the girls mixed naked with the aghast party guests at the home of one of the biggest stars of the sixties. “After all of Charlie’s enthusiasm for the music, his effort, the recording session, this represented a clear setback. But it was much more than that. It was one of the high points of my time with Charlie, and the highest heights must always be followed a fall.” The fall brought them geographically to the lowest geographical point in North America—exiled from a Southern California swimming-pool Eden to a life in Death Valley—before they brought about the lowest moral point of the 1960s.

“From my vantage point, the music was the message, not Charlie’s key to fame,” Lake notes of pre-Dennis Wilson Manson. But somewhere along the way, Manson came to believe in a future fame rivaling that of the Beatles, and his rejection by the music industry created, perhaps unsurprisingly, a dark vibe that replaced sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll with talk of the apocalypse and weapons training. Manson raped the teenage Lake in the same manner, he explained, that he had been violated in prison. Once Manson’s sixties turned dark, so did everyone else’s. After his group’s involvement in several low-profile murders, Manson ordered killings at homes linked, at least in his mind, to the entertainment establishment that had spurned him. He ordered his mostly female soldiers to inscribe “witchy” signs at the killing scenes. Lake felt left out when the other Manson girls went on the “creepy crawlies” and she did not—but after they described their murderous experiences, Lake felt like leaving. But she stayed, and ultimately, she found herself in a jail cell like all the rest.

Instead of the permissive justice system that allowed the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, Angela Davis, and other politically influenced fanatics during this besotted period to walk away from their crimes, the Family faced judges and juries who refused to let Manson and his acolytes turn the courtroom into a theater for mad demonstration. Lake, for her part, opted to testify against her former master—she admitted on the stand that she still loved him—without the benefit of immunity. She gratefully integrated herself into a foster family after a sojourn in a mental institution. She returned to school; “I never stopped loving school,” she says. Regarding the courtroom, and perhaps the world outside it, Lake writes: “I discovered that rules made sense and I wanted to follow them.”

Dianne Lake’s experiences buttress the era’s “Don’t trust anyone over 30” slogan—just not in any way previously imagined.

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