Joan Didion famously said that the Tate-La Bianca murderers, as committed by the infamous makeshift family of Charles Manson, was the moment when the ’60s ended. Whether or not you believe that, it’s hard to deny the sheer magnitude of the murders and the impact they had on late 20th century culture. Everyone in Hollywood seems to have a story of meeting Charles Manson (Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys being the most famous example) or have even claimed they were supposed to be at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate the night she was killed. Movies have been made, books have been written, and even Tarantino’s dipping his toes into telling the story.
Charles Manson clearly thrives on his infamy, giving nonsensical interviews that reveal him to be less the greatest evil of our time and more an attention starved racist bully who had the luck to be an unwashed hippie with a guitar at the point of its most potent social capital. The women of the Manson family - often referred to as the girls - have lived very different lives in prison. Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten became model prisoners and spoke frequently of their regrets of ever committing such horrendous acts. None of them have ever been granted parole, and Atkins died in jail in 2009. That may be about to change, as Van Houten, the youngest of the Manson followers and one of the responsible parties in the murder of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca, has been recommended for parole.
This week, a panel recommended Van Houten be paroled after more than 40 years behind bars, saying she has radically changed her life and poses no threat to society. Van Houten was granted a retrial in 1977 and even spent some time on bail - she attended the Oscars with a friend - but was found guilty again and sentenced to life in prison. Now, on her 21st hearing in front of the parole board, she may be granted her freedom.
That’s a big ‘if’. Governor Jerry Brown can veto the decision, and the chances are he probably will. Last year, he denied Van Houten parole, saying that ‘She remains an unacceptable risk to society if released.’ That seems unlikely - she is now 68 and frail from a knee injury - but this case is too high profile to treat as a typical parole hearing. The families of Sharon Tate and the La Biancas have understandably opposed parole for the prisoners at every turn.
One of Van Houten’s most vocal followers has been director John Waters, who even dedicated a chapter to her in his book, Role Models.