On the second day I spent with the Manson Bloggers, we found a tongue hanging from a tree. This was in the northwestern fringes of Los Angeles County, the half-wild, half-suburban part of the city that the Manson Family once called home. These days, most of the land is owned by the state and nearby there is a church; on top of a hill, a ten-foot cross looms in right-angled judgment. The Manson Bloggers did not seem to notice the cross, because they had another mission in mind: finding the Manson Tree, a gnarled oak that’s notable because Charles Manson used to perch in its crook and strum the guitar.
We had to scramble over a highway railing to reach the old oak. As we got close, I saw that some previous visitor had thrown a white rope over one of the tree’s branches. Something was dangling from the rope—a sweet potato, I thought. Or some sort of lumpy, orangish doll. The Manson Bloggers knew better. “It’s a cow’s tongue,” Deb said. She was right. Up close, it was unmistakable, a length of moist muscle, obscene and obscurely violent. The tongue was covered with rainbow sprinkles, the kind you’d put on a child’s scoop of vanilla ice cream. One end of the white rope was tied around the tongue’s root, where it had once been attached to the back of the cow’s throat. The other end of the rope was tied around a bottle of fish-oil pills. There was one AA battery inside the fish-oil bottle. On the ground was a crumpled-up shopping bag from H&M.
The Manson Bloggers and I stared for a moment in mute wonder. The tongue, the rope, the sprinkles, the fish-oil bottle, the battery, the H&M bag: it all spoke to some inexplicable ritual, a dark magic that somehow brought together cult murder, fast fashion, and nutritional supplements. I’ll be honest, I was spooked. The bloggers took it all in stride. Maybe their world accommodated more strangeness than mine. Or perhaps they were just used to finding messages of violence in unexpected places.
One year earlier, in the first throes of my renewed interest in the Manson Family, I had taken the Helter Skelter bus tour operated by Dearly Departed, an outfit specializing in Los Angeles death and murder sites. It sells out nearly every weekend, which is surprising given that there’s actually not much to see anymore. Scott Michaels, Dearly Departed’s founder and main guide, set the tone with a custom soundtrack of hits from 1969 (“In the Year 2525,” “Hair”), cozy oldies made newly spooky by our proximity to death. He also included extensive multimedia add-ons, such as cleavage-heavy clips from Sharon Tate’s early films and Jay Sebring’s cameo on the old bang-pow Batman TV show. Going on the tour is a little like taking a road trip through the parking lots and strip malls of central Los Angeles, accompanied by a group of strangers wearing various skull accessories. Many of the sites aren’t visible or no longer exist. The former Tate-Polanski house on Cielo Drive has been demolished; the site of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca’s murders in Los Feliz is mostly hidden by a hedge.
In Los Feliz, Michaels slowed the bus and pointed across the street. That Pinkberry, he told our group—two Australian newlyweds in matching museum of death T-shirts, a mother and daughter both in light goth attire, an ominously normal-looking guy from Boston in a Red Sox shirt, and a man in a leather jacket who wouldn’t stop grinning—once had a pay phone out front. And it was that very pay phone that Rosemary LaBianca’s son used to call his sister the day he found his mother’s and stepfather’s bodies. I took a picture of the Pinkberry. We pulled into a parking lot. “This flower shop used to be a gas station. And that gas station may have been where Tex Watson refueled the yellow 1959 Ford the night he killed Sharon Tate,” Michaels said. The parking lot felt surreal, eerily familiar. I shivered. “Also, it’s the flower shop where Ruth worked in Six Feet Under,” he added. I took another picture.
We drove by the house where, as Michaels told us, the murderers had pulled over and used a garden hose to wash the blood from their hands. “Oh my god,” leather jacket said. “There’s a garden hose in the driveway.” I took a picture of the hose. “The people who live here don’t like us coming by,” Michaels said. “But it’s not like they own the street.” Michaels and Red Sox shirt engaged in some idle shop talk about how difficult it had been to track down and purchase a carving fork exactly like the one that Tex had used to carve WAR into Leno LaBianca’s stomach.
Halfway through, we stopped so Michaels could use the bathroom. I bought a coffee from a taco truck and stood near the smokers, half-hoping I’d make a friend. Our group was unselfconsciously chatty, in the way of fan conventions or trade shows. Red Sox was saying that he’d read Helter Skelter twice in preparation for this tour, bringing his grand total to twelve. He was also a fan of Michaels’s celebrity death photos website. His favorite celebrity death photo was of either Chris Farley or Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. I must have accidentally given him a weird look. “I mean, if you died, I would never look at pictures of you,” he assured me.
“Thanks,” I said, feeling unfamous.
As the van drove through Laurel Canyon, it began to rain—nothing dramatic, just the slow, gray spit of a failed Los Angeles day. Michaels passed around a binder stuffed with crime scene photos and autopsy reports. I flipped through it quickly; I’d seen it all before. Instead, stuck in traffic between sites, I stared out the window at nail salons and doughnut shops, places where no one—or at least no one I care about—had been killed.
My relationship with the Manson Family began in high school, when I read prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book Helter Skelter, the best seller that helped establish the contemporary true-crime genre. The book’s cover, with its lurid red font and promise of never-before-seen photos, seemed to hint at violence and weird sex. It was much more alluring than anything else on my parents’ library shelves. I wolfed it down and spent a week in a Manson Girl haze, imagining myself in the thrall of a googly-eyed guru, eager to do his murderous bidding.
Of course Charlie is popular with teens—all that misdirected fury, those pseudo-deep slogans. No sense makes sense. Pain’s not bad; it’s good—it teaches you things. As described by Bugliosi, the Manson Family’s aesthetic was like an adolescent imagining of the hippie era: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, cheesy 1960s Satanism, motorcycles and long hair and trippy murals painted on vans.
This Manson phase was part of a broader crush that I, a late-’90s teen, had on the 1960s. I was unhappy, for reasons I didn’t understand. My big, suburban high school was all clamor and boredom; I spent my evenings talking to my best internet friend, a twentysomething New Yorker I’d never met in real life, and half-heartedly embarking on an eating disorder. My romantic interpretation of my low-level malaise was that I just didn’t belong to my own time. And so I wrote papers on Vietnam draft dodgers and rescued my dad’s old Rolling Stones records from the attic.
In true crush fashion, I idealized and misunderstood my object of affection. In the apocryphal, utopian 1960s of my imagination, young people had power, and weirdness was socially sanctioned. Even better, people felt as though they were a part of something bigger, something that gave their lives urgency and meaning. Then was different from now in some crucial, ineffable way. Now was disappointing. Then was better.
The Manson Girl I most often fantasized about being friends with was Leslie Van Houten, the one with the pretty hair and the high IQ. In high school, everyone wanted to be Leslie’s friend, too—at least at first. She was elected homecoming princess two years in a row. When she was thirteen, her parents split up, and she lost her social footing. She started hanging out with the other kids from divorced families, the bad kids. Drugs—first weed, then LSD and mescaline and DMT and mushrooms—helped. “It took me away from who I was at that moment,” Van Houten said at her 2013 parole hearing. “And what was wrong with who you were?” a prison official asked. “I felt that I was out of place,” Van Houten replied. At seventeen, Van Houten got pregnant; her mother convinced her to get an illegal abortion. The procedure took place in her childhood bedroom.
Van Houten tried out a few different lives before she took up with the Manson Family. She took steps to become a nun, then moved to an ashram for a while. In 1968, she met Charles Manson. She was nineteen years old.
In those early days, Charles Manson was a gentle man, with a vague, cultivated air of mysticism. His followers describe thinking of him as an elf, or an angel. It all fit in with the LSD fairyland they imagined themselves living in. There was lots of barefoot capering and talk of magic. The growing Manson Family worked to rid themselves of their pesky, greedy egos; the goal was to be like a finger on a hand, an instrument designed for a higher purpose.
Over the course of a few months, the Manson Family’s communal fantasyland grew darker. Love and elves gave way to knives and paranoia and stories about the coming race war. Maybe there wasn’t any less LSD, but there was certainly more speed. The night of the Tate murders, Van Houten wasn’t picked to go along. She felt left out, and worried that she wasn’t committed enough to the cause. The next evening, the night of the LaBianca murders, when Manson allowed her to get into the car with the others, she was relieved. Whatever happened, at least she would be a part of it.
An interest in murders and cults and cult murders makes sense in teenagers. Being sixteen feels chaotic and a little insane, even under the best circumstances; the appeal of these stories is not so different from the melodrama of many young-adult novels. Like many teenage fans of the lurid and macabre, I had moved on to more-complex icons of rebellion by the time I graduated from high school. Charles Manson now seemed to me to have as much depth as a T-shirt decal. Murder fandom felt like a relic of a more turbulent time—something that could wash off, like unfortunate eyeliner.
For some people, though, the obsession doesn’t fade with time.
There are a dozen regularly updated Manson Family websites; the most interesting was born as Evil Liz’s Manson Cult, but is now simply called the Manson Family Blog. The site hosts dozens of contemporary photographs of former Manson Family members and associates. Leslie Van Houten and most of the other famous Manson Girls are all still in prison, of course; instead, the Manson Family Blog focuses its energy on more-peripheral members, people who would qualify as celebrities only within this very small subculture. Through various sneaky means, including, allegedly, exploiting lax Facebook privacy controls, the Manson Bloggers track down photographs of these people as they are now.
These photographs would look banal to the uninitiated: a grandmotherly type on a bench, clutching a water bottle; a short woman standing on the beach, flanked by three young men—her sons? These people are infamous not because they’ve killed anyone—they haven’t—but because when they were fourteen or nineteen or twenty-three, they had the bad luck or bad taste to befriend some people who did.
In the intervening four decades, some of these ex–Manson Family members changed their names or became born-again—whatever it took to distance themselves from their turbulent, murder-adjacent youths. Sometimes these people write angry emails to the Manson Bloggers, asking for their photos to be taken down. It’s easy to imagine them looking back at their former selves, shaking their heads, and thinking, That person isn’t me anymore. But the Manson Family Blog is always there to remind them: yes, yes it is.
The Manson Bloggers spend hours hanging out with each other virtually, via emails and chat rooms, blog posts and blog comments. A few years ago, they decided to meet in person for the first time. It went so well that they now take an annual trip to Southern California to visit various Manson sites together.
I had returned from the Manson bus tour unfulfilled, convinced that there was something I still hadn’t figured out. When the Manson Bloggers told me I could tag along on their next trip, I was thrilled. But whenever I told anyone what I was about to do, I got all tongue-tied and embarrassed. It seemed important to clarify that I wasn’t myself fascinated by the Manson Family anymore, of course; instead, I was interested in people who were interested in Charles Manson precisely because I was no longer one of them.
Even though I would be staying with them in the four-bedroom house they’d rented for the occasion, in the weeks leading up to the trip the Manson Bloggers were still cagey about telling me anything about themselves. By the time I landed at LAX, the whole trip was starting to seem like an idea that was great in the abstract but terrible in practice. It was springtime, and the Southern California air felt soft and smelled like car exhaust and flowers. The radio played one ’70s lite-rock hit after another, and I was grateful for the traffic, because it postponed the moment when I’d have to walk into a house full of strangers and try to make small talk about a forty-year-old cult murder.
But that turned out to be a silly thing to worry about, because when I walked in the door I found the Manson Bloggers so intent on each other that my arrival barely registered. They were talking shop with the eagerness of model-train enthusiasts. I grabbed a beer and tried to follow the rapid-fire discussion about unsolved Northern California murders and Roman Polanski’s sexual preferences. It was tricky—like all subcultures, when the Manson Bloggers feel safe, they speak in a kind of in-group argot, full of nicknames, acronyms, and arcane references. There were hardly any mentions of husbands, wives, children, jobs, any of the infrastructure of daily life. Instead, they gossiped about minor Manson Family characters as if they were mutual friends.
The next morning, we drove out to Chatsworth to meet Stoner. Stoner spends his days in the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park, digging for relics. Over the years, Stoner has found bedsprings, light-switch plates, charred wood, a spoon, a belt buckle. Most are about forty years old, and closely resemble trash. Like most relics, they are notable because of who touched them, what they were in proximity to, what they may have witnessed. Stoner believes he’s found Spahn Ranch, the cowboy/porn movie set where the Manson Family lived for a little while, leading tourists on trail rides, buying drugs from bikers, filming soft-core porn.
Stoner has a black goatee and is wearing a FREE LESLIE VAN HOUTeN T-shirt. He told me that he’d been into the Manson Family since he was a misfit among the misfits at Beverly Hills High School in the 1980s, doodling Charles Manson’s face in his notebook instead of the Iron Maiden logo. The first time he went to prison, he was sent to Corcoran, the same place Charles Manson himself has been incarcerated for years. During rec periods, Stoner would sometimes sit in the yard and stare at the tall white walls of the building that houses Charlie. “People’d be like, ‘What are you doing, man?’” he said. “And I’d just wanna say, Just let me sit here and look for a minute, OK? He’s right over there, and this is as close as I’m ever gonna get.”
The Manson Bloggers and I dig around in the sandy dirt with our hands. Someone unearths a curved ceramic shard, perhaps part of a coffee cup. I discover a tarnished penny, dated 1968. Stoner, who has lots of tattoos and a friendly, open face, insists that I keep it.
Stoner is not homeless, exactly, but he’s not particularly homed at the moment. After showing us the dig site, he takes us to his friend’s apartment in Chatsworth, where he’s currently crashing. He keeps his relics on the narrow concrete patio. They are neatly arranged on flattened cardboard—shards of pottery, bent nails, rusty mattress springs. People who are in the market for objects that Charlie may have touched know that Stoner is the person to call. He recently sold a similar Manson-era penny for twenty dollars. The nails are his most popular product. “Symbolism,” he tells us, shrugging.
In a way, the Manson Girls have never been able to live beyond their adolescence. In 1977, Leslie Van Houten was granted a retrial for the murder of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. After months of testimony and twenty-five days of deliberation, the jury declared itself deadlocked: five members voted for manslaughter, which would’ve meant she’d be free on the basis of time served; seven were set on first-degree murder. The prosecutor refused to negotiate a plea and insisted on yet another trial. In the time between the end of the second trial and the beginning of the third, Van Houten was released on a two-hundred-thousand-dollar bail. At that point, she had been locked up for eight years, much of that time in solitary confinement.
In the days after her release, Van Houten celebrated her freedom by going to the beach with her mother and attending a pizza-and-Scrabble party thrown by her lawyer. She was fragile, grateful, easily startled. She found grocery stores overwhelming. Some of the things she enjoyed about being free, she told a friend, were “ironing, the smell of fresh clothes, walks down a sidewalk.” She worked as a legal secretary and didn’t attempt to change her name. She understood that her period of freedom was something of a test—she had to prove that she was able to live in the world uneventfully. For six months, she did exactly that.
Then, in her third trial, Van Houten was convicted of two counts of felony robbery-murder, and sentenced to seven years to life. Her good behavior both in and out of prison made her cautiously hopeful when she first became eligible for parole, in 1980. At that point, she had been in prison longer than many murderers; many of the other women who had been on California’s death row when she and the other Manson Girls were first locked up had since been released. But the parole board declined to release her. “[One of the board] insinuated to a reporter that he saw me as similar to ‘that girl with eight personalities,’” Van Houten wrote to a friend afterward. “They don’t understand how I can be normal now and have been part of the crime ten years ago.”
For Van Houten, parole hearings soon came to feel like a cycle of anticipation and despair. (The victims’ families, called on to testify about their loss at every hearing, also find the repetition of the murder story exhausting and demoralizing; the LaBianca family was part of a group that lobbied for a California law that allows for parole denials of up to fifteen years at a time.) She’d spend the years after a parole denial following the parole board’s recommendations to a T: more therapy, more volunteering, more education, more support groups. But at every hearing, she was denied again, for a shifting set of reasons—she was not remorseful enough, or she was too remorseful and therefore self-aggrandizing. She didn’t apologize enough or in the correct words.
These hearings are on public record, and you can go online and read through the transcripts. It seems to me that although the parole board gives recommendations about what it thinks Van Houten should do to prepare herself for life in the outside world, what it’s really struggling with is something deeper. A puzzle of self, an ontological knot: is Leslie Van Houten the same person at thirty (or forty or fifty or sixty-five) as she was at nineteen? If she’s not, that seems to indicate a fundamental instability of some kind, a dangerously wobbly sense of identity. But if she is, then isn’t she capable of killing again?
Tex Watson and Susan Atkins, two of the other Manson Family members convicted of murder, found Jesus in prison. They blame the devil for their sins. I can understand the appeal a murderer might find in being reborn. It’s a neat solution, one that offers the possibility of a fresh self. A do-over. For whatever reason, Van Houten has refused the clarity of such a solution.
In 2013, Van Houten’s parole was denied for the twentieth time:
You have failed today to explain at this hearing as to why it is specifically—why it is and what it is about you that would cause you—you’re a smart person. You were a smart teenager. You came from a good family. Why would you commit such horrific atrocities?… And the reasons for that, I still do not understand. You have failed to make the connection of how you went from Point A to Point B.
On one of my evenings with the Manson Bloggers, they sat around drinking beers and trying to explain how a murder that had nothing to do with them ended up being the defining interest of their lives.
Patty started out selling odds and ends on eBay. She wasn’t really in it for the money; it was the social scene on the message boards where you could chat with other sellers that drew her in. At the same time, she was gobbling up true-crime books. One day she went online to look up a detail from a book about Manson and found the blogs. They were much more fun than eBay, basically.
Deb was adopted as a baby, felt misunderstood as a teenager. As an adult, she taught herself how to navigate the bureaucracy of municipal records so she could track down her birth mother. She had these fantasies of a glorious reunion, maternal acceptance and understanding, the broken world made whole again, etc. Her birth mother turned out to be a drug-addicted prostitute; she and Deb didn’t have much to say to each other. The whole thing dropped Deb into a depression for a while, though she shrugs it off now. The Manson Family Blog allows Deb to put her crack research skills to use; she can pretty much find anyone.
Max Frost is a stunt-car driver–Hollywood odd-job man in his early thirties, a native Los Angeleno with nervous fingers that don’t look right without a cigarette. He is a representative of a particular LA type: a guy subsisting on the margins of a rich system, fueled by road rage, chain smoking, and black humor. You look at him and think: Things didn’t go the way he thought they might. Max got really into Manson years ago, drawn in by the Southern California specificity of the conspiracies, the drama circling around places he had been, and also the way everything knit together so neatly, the glorious improbability of all that coincidence. He got a little too far in, maybe; the Manson universe started to take up too much space in his brain, which tends toward obsessiveness anyway. He had to quit. For a little while, he had a mental moratorium on all things Manson. But then a few years ago, he started peeking at the websites. It didn’t take long before the interest rose up in him again. Or maybe it had been dormant in there all along.
By the end of our five days together, the Manson Bloggers have turned our shared rental house into something of a middle-aged parody of the wild Spahn Ranch compound. The Manson Bloggers stay up late, talking and drinking beer. They seem to feel freed from the constraints of their daily lives, and thus empowered to break rules:
“I never eat pizza!” the very healthy Matt says, eating pizza.
I haven’t yet been able to enter into the spirit of the house. The Manson Bloggers’ fandom is exhausting to be around. It is confident and seemingly inexhaustible. I plead a headache and retreat to my assigned room. Lying in bed, I can hear the happy, muffled sound of their chatter.
It’s not actually accurate to say that my interest in Manson Family obsessives is purely anthropological. The truth is that my Manson feelings came back in my late twenties, when I thought I was old enough to know better. What happened was, I got sad. So sad that I woke up one morning and my depression had given itself a name: the black rock. I found this name maudlin and embarrassing, even as it also felt true.
I was prepared for much of how depression felt—its smothering quality, the strange stuff it does to time—but this embarrassment took me by surprise. There was something unbearably adolescent about my unhappiness, the way it made me self-absorbed and attention-seeking. It felt so… unsubtle. When I could read again (for a while, even that part of me was defective), all I was interested in was Charles Manson. It wasn’t comfort food, because it wasn’t comfortable. Discomfort food, then, maybe—stories that embodied the kind of darkness I was holding close to my heart. My diet devolved until I was eating only Cheerios and Dove Bars; I listened to nothing but Cat Power. My face began to break out for the first time in years. It was like one of those terrible dreams where you find yourself back in high school, awkward and anxious and fully consumed with your own awkwardness and anxiety, all your grown-up perspective and wise patience having evaporated like the mirage they always were. Of course you’re back there. You’ve always been there. The real delusion was when you thought you had left any of it behind.
The next night after dinner, Max showed me his clip reel on YouTube. Back in the day, Max was a peripheral member of the Brat Pack. The two of us sat on the couch and watched young Max punch Charlie Sheen in the face. It looked fake, but fun. In the next clip, Max wore a leather jacket and drove too fast. He did a lot of sneering. It was a strange feeling, sitting there next to him, watching him watch himself. If you were in the mood to torture yourself with regret, watching your young self interacting with movie stars would be a good way to do it. That vast distance from there to here. The tragic, inevitable one-way procession of time.
But Max was smiling as he watched himself. Another clip: a close-up of his face, which was smooth and tender, a young man’s face. He looked lovely even when he sneered. This time, he was in a cafeteria that looked so platonically high-school that I thought I recognized it from my own anxiety dreams, until I realized it was from 90210. Young Max got flung into a cafeteria table. Trays went flying. The clip cut off right before the inevitable food fight began. Grown-up Max watched himself and laughed. Bemused by his youth and anger. By all the things that had brought him here.
There’s an old thought experiment that was first recorded by Plutarch, though it may well date from before that. After killing the Minotaur, Theseus sailed from Crete back to Athens, where the Athenians preserved his ship as a memorial to his triumph. For years—centuries, even—they diligently cared for the ship, making necessary repairs and replacing rotten boards. Eventually, long after Theseus’s death, not even a single wooden board from the original ship remained. Everyone still called it “the ship of Theseus,” even though it no longer had physical parts that had ever been touched by Theseus. John Locke tells a more humble version of the same puzzle involving a favorite sock that gets patched up over and over again until none of the original material remains.
This paradox used to depress me in both its sock and warship forms. Here’s what I thought the moral was: despite the most dramatic internal (or even external) renovations, you are always stuck being you. Because of course the one thing you can’t escape is your own shape. Your cells die and regenerate throughout your lifetime. Can’t they come up with anything imaginative or new to create? But no, they keep on making you. Thinking about it like that is a good way to make life sound like a trap, or a prison cell.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if I have it all wrong. In these past couple of years, my friends have started having babies, and this completely normal but also miraculous thing keeps happening where I can see my friend’s face in her baby. And now that I’ve known some babies since birth, I get to watch them grow up and see how they have the same face the whole time. Miracledoesn’t feel like an overblown word for that: for the fact that something stays the same even as it is transformed.
On the day the Manson Bloggers and I found the cow tongue covered in sprinkles, I followed Matt and Stoner down a steep hillside near Spahn Ranch. They had something they wanted to show me. It turned out to be less a walk than a scramble, made more arduous by the full afternoon heat of summer. Desert plants scratched at my ankles. Finally, the ground leveled out and we saw what we had come to see: a rusty car squatting in the sunbaked dirt. As local legend has it, Manson Girl Mary Brunner went to test-drive a new Volkswagen, somehow convinced the poor salesman to step out of the car, and then drove off without him. The Manson Family stripped the car for its parts and then pushed it off the cliff above us.
It must’ve been fantastic to watch it fall. And now it lives here, this remnant of her adventure, or mistake, or whatever you want to call it. Matt and Stoner touched the chassis with a kind of joyful reverence. After a moment, I did, too. I thought about the Manson shards still lodged in me, leftover bits of something adolescent and melodramatic and disturbing. And how they are maybe not a ruin but a relic. Something precious from a long time ago.