John Waters Gets Serious

Usually Droll Director Sets Aside The Sarcasm As He Writes About His Friendship With Manson Family Member Leslie Van Houten

August 09, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

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.

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