NPR

John Waters Argues For Murderer's Release

Director John Waters' directorial credits include Hairspray and Pink Flamingos. (Getty Images)

Forty years ago, in August 1969, Charles Manson and his cult of followers gained national attention when they embarked on a brutal murder spree in California.

Film director John Waters was one of those fascinated with the murders. In 1985, while working on a Rolling Stone article about Manson, Waters contacted Leslie Van Houten, a Manson follower who was serving a life sentence for her participation in the killing of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca. Van Houten, who was 19 at the time of the crime, declined the interview request, but she and the director struck up a friendship.

Waters devotes a chapter to Van Houten in his upcoming book Role Models, about people who have inspired him. He argues that Van Houten, who now takes full responsibility for her part in the murders and has led an exemplary life in prison, deserves to be released on parole.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

It's been 40 years since the gruesome murders committed by the Charles Manson family shocked the nation. On August 9th, 1969, Manson followers stabbed actress Sharon Tate to death, along with four others. Tate, the wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski, was eight and a half months pregnant.

The following night, Manson took three of his followers to another house, chosen at random, where they murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Manson, now 74, and four others are still in prison for the murders. Our guest, filmmaker John Waters, says it's time that one of them, Leslie Van Houten, was released.

Van Houten was not involved in the Tate murders, but was among the group that killed the LaBiancas. Waters has been visiting Van Houten in prison for 24 years, and he says she's a different person from the brainwashed Manson disciple she was at 19 and that she meets the legal requirements for parole.

Waters is writing a book about people who've inspired him, called "Role Models," and his chapter on Leslie Van Houten is on the Web site The Huffington Post.

He's best known for his tasteless films like "Pink Flamingos," "Polyester" and "Hairspray," which was made into a Broadway show and then a new film based on the show. Waters is also of the books "Shock Value" and "Crackpot."

Well, John Waters, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I think in the interest of accuracy and out of respect for the victims of this crime, we really need to acknowledge the seriousness of what happened here. Remind us what this crime was and what Leslie Van Houten's role was.

Mr.�JOHN WATERS (Author, Filmmaker): Well, yes, I completely agree. Usually, when I come on your show, I come on for humor, and there's really nothing funny about this, and there's nothing to parody.

It was a tragedy not only for the obvious victims that were murdered but also, in my mind, for many of the middle-class kids that Manson used and turned into zombies.

Leslie Van Houten met Manson when she was 17. She was looking for a spiritual leader, like all hippie girls were at that time. That was hardly a radical thing. She joined up with his so-called family. They traveled in a school bus, and they were anything but violent.

They were hippies, basically, who sang and took LSD, and eventually - Manson was a released convict, and he had been in jail his whole life. He was much older than the girls, and he became - he was - treated them really like a pimp - they didn't realize that for a long time - and gave them acid and told them what they wanted to hear and isolated them the same way that Jim Jones, the same way every cult leader you've ever heard of does.

It's isolation, it's drugs, it's repeated lack of sleep, it's staying up all night, believing in some group thing that's going to, they're going to survive some apocalyptic thing.

Leslie Van Houten did not go the night of the terrible Sharon Tate murder. She is not convicted of that crime, but she went the second night. She is convicted of the LaBianca murders.

She went - they went out randomly. Charles Manson went in the house, tied up Mr.�LaBianca and Mrs.�LaBianca, came outside and told Tex Watson, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel to go inside. Tex Watson killed Mr.�LaBianca and stabbed Mrs.�LaBianca and then told the girls to, quote, do something, and they stabbed her.

DAVIES: But I just want to be clear about this one thing. I mean, as I understand it, when Leslie Van Houten went into Rosemary LaBianca's bedroom, she and Patricia Krenwinkel actually grabbed her, put a pillowcase around her, and then when she struggled - my understanding is that Leslie then held her while Patricia Krenwinkel tried to stab her, and then eventually, Tex Watson came in and completed the murder.

So just whatever her state of mind, her actions...

Mr.�WATERS: Her state of mind...

DAVIES: But whatever her state of mind, her actions were those of a fully participating member of this murder party, right?

Mr.�WATERS: Yes, completely, and I have never said otherwise. And she has said, and it's in the chapter of my book, she said every act that happened in that house, I take responsibility for. It was me.

DAVIES: Now, of course, they were all captured and tried together at the first trial. What was she like at the first trial?

Mr.�WATERS: In the first trial, she was the Manson - the three other girls would laugh their way, said sorry is a five-letter word that can't bring anybody back. They were under complete Manson's orders. They carved X's in their forehead. They did every bit of completely insane behavior.

DAVIES: They were unrepentant. And did they have shaved heads?

Mr.�WATERS: I think during the penalty phase. They shaved their head after he did. Whatever he did, they did. And they were sentenced to the death penalty.

Then what happened was Leslie's attorney was found dead in the middle of the trial. I do not believe the Manson family killed him. There is not the slightest bit of evidence ever that there was, but tabloids bring that up all the time. And he had never tried a major case in his life, really. He was pretty much of an amateur. And so she got another lawyer who was pretty good, but she had an appeal for ineffective counsel, and she got a new trial.

She was then away from Manson. She began to break down and realize this terrible thing that had happened. The brainwashing started to come off. She started to realize that what she thought was this insane war - that the Beatles talking to them, they were going to live in the desert, I mean, complete insanity that any other person could never imagine really being true - she started to break down and realize the real terror and the horror of what she had done.

DAVIES: So years pass. I mean, the crimes were in 1969. She got her new - she was granted a new trial in 1976, and it was held the following year. Tell us what she was like then.

Mr.�WATERS: Well, it took some time. I mean, they built them a special death row, the three girls. And I give really, credit to the women that worked in the prison because they sort of finally got Leslie to believe the, well, where is it? It didn't happen. I mean, you know, and they started to, as Leslie told me, her mind started to break down like a machine breaking down.

She would start spouting this gibberish, and then she would realize, wait a minute, that doesn't make sense, and it was the first time she ever realized that she had been scammed, really, that this whole thing she was believing in was completely fictitious.

By the time she had her second trial, she was away from all them. She was by herself. She had a very good lawyer, and it was a hung jury. It was seven for guilty of first-degree murder and five for guilty of manslaughter because of diminished capacity.

She was let out on bail. She had a job. She lived peacefully in Los Angeles. When the neighbors found out who she was, they were protective. They were not horrified. And she went back, and then they added a new charge, because some coins were taken from the LaBianca house, of robbery. And when there is a robbery, you cannot really bring in diminished capacity.

So she was charged. They couldn't use that defense on the third trial, and she was found guilty and sentenced to life, not life without parole.

DAVIES: All right, so she was convicted of murder, conspiracy and robbery. In that trial, did she take the stand and tell her story?

Mr.�WATERS: Oh yes. She took the stand at both, but truthfully for the first time, because in the first trial, she made up all these ridiculous stories. All the girls took the blame so Manson would - he thought he would get off. But no. She told the truth in both the second and the third trial.

DAVIES: And how did she explain what happened?

Mr.�WATERS: Well, you know, she's been trying to explain it to herself and to the world for 40 years. It's a tough thing, but she believed in the beginning that he was some magic man. She fell hook, line and sinker for it. Whatever he did to them, he knew how to do it well.

He was a great con man, he was a pimp, and he basically - he got those girls, he turned them out. They were for him. He got them under his control. He got them - he used the perfect kind of thing, where he gave them more LSD than he took, and it wasn't really that much of a sexual thing.

It wasn't like they all slept with him all the time. It was just this kind of group madness that people - these were young, runaway kids, hippie kids in a radical time in the '60s when everybody was talking about the revolution coming. You know, Abbie Hoffman, the revolution for the hell of it - all that stuff.

It wasn't so far-fetched to believe in these kind of revolutions. So she fell for it hook, line and sinker, and as she said at one point, it was too late. Once the violence happened, they were so far gone, they didn't even know, really.

She said that they were living in the desert, like, building roads to bottomless pits, and they were completely out of their mind, if you want my opinion. But yet, she doesn't let herself off that easy.

She said I let him be a leader. I am responsible for making him this cult figure. I was part of it. So I think part of ever having a real sorrow and real guilt and really being rehabilitated is to admit that you really did do something, and she doesn't just blame it on everybody else.

I actually think that it is more, you know, that it was Manson's fault, but it's too easy to say that.

DAVIES: So after the third trial, she goes back into prison, and she has served nearly 40 years. What has she done with her time behind bars?

Mr.�WATERS: Well, she's gotten every degree, she's gotten. She's gotten every job you could ever have in the prison. You're only allowed to work for two years in one particular job. She's done the AIDS quilt. She's taught many, many women to read. She - for one thing, she has survived in a very violent atmosphere with not one charge, ever, of violence ever.

Before that night, there was never violence in her life, and there has never been violence in her life since that terrible night.

DAVIES: And she has been coming up for parole board hearings and has been rejected every time. Now, you raise the issue in your piece of what is fair, and of course, there is no sentence that she could serve nor fine that she could pay that equals two human lives. But you know, legal systems have to confront this all the time, and there are guidelines for sentencing and parole, which take into account a number of factors - such as, you know, the seriousness of the offense, the need to deter others, the extent to which an inmate has rehabilitated herself.

Mr.�WATERS: Can I say that the last two things, she's done; the first one, she can never change. She can never take away the crime.

DAVIES: Has Leslie - have you or Leslie ever communicated with any of the members of the LaBianca family?

Mr.�WATERS: Well, Leslie is in the parole hearing with them, and she - you know, it's very hard to apologize in there because the rules that they never announce and that you don't know about - is you aren't allowed to look at the relatives. She is not allowed to even look at them when she talks about them.

So she has always wanted to apologize through the prison system, where they set up a meeting, and that has not happened. She has certainly apologized in the parole hearings, but I don't think to the depth that she would like to do, but she would, hopefully, like to do that in private.

DAVIES: You know, we said earlier, and you agreed, that there's no prison sentence anyone could serve which could equal the loss of two lives, but she has served nearly 40 years. How does that compare to, you know, the sentences that other murderers have served?

Mr.�WATERS: Well, let's put it this way. She's been in jail longer than any other woman in California. And when they turned - in her first trial, when they turned over, they made the death penalty illegal, and everybody automatically got life, there was two other women on death row that had done really hideous cases and they served seven to eight years and were released to absolutely no public outcry.

(Break)

DAVIES: How did you get to know Leslie Van Houten?

Mr.�WATERS: Well, I was, in the very beginning, very drawn to the case. I went to the original trial. I had been a journalist for a long time. I wanted to write about it, and I was more interested - I never wanted to interview Manson, but Rolling Stone had asked me to interview him, and I thought, I'm not interested in him. It's just, like, somebody you'd move away from in a bar; she says now, a pathetic, disgusting old man.

But I was interested in a few of the followers who seemed very much like the kids I knew from my neighborhood that went pretty wild, too. So I wrote to her, and she said that she did not want to be in Rolling Stone. She later told me she's never signed an autograph. She finds it incredibly painful. And I'd seen that in the visiting room, when people come over and say could I have your autograph, and it's like, I can see the pain in her face when people ask that.

And there was a group called Friends of Leslie at the time that was all her support group, pretty much a lot of women that had worked in the prison and her family and her family's friends and everything. And she said, you know, I would write to you, but if you're in a hurry to be friends, it's never going to work.

And then I realized well, I'm not going to write about her. And so I wrote her, and then gradually, we did become friends. And I never wrote about it for 20-some years until I wrote this book. And this book is about people that have inspired me for very, very different reasons, from Tennessee Williams to Leslie Van Houten. And because of her patience and because - and I'm always incredibly interested that if you do something really terrible once, can you ever, ever get beyond that? So we gradually did become friends, and I never - I didn't go to visit her as a journalist.

DAVIES: Could you talk a little bit about the first time you met?

Mr.�WATERS: I'm trying to remember. I mean, it's been in the same visiting room for many years now. We went, and I remember the woman that was in the Friends of Leslie that sort of set it up. And she may have had another visitor that day that was a man that is no longer alive, but he was a high-up editor of the L.A. Times that was friends of her family's. And he was there for moral support to her, also.

She was guarded with me. She should have been. But we talked. I don't remember the exact first time, but I do remember we had written for a couple years before I actually went, I believe. So we certainly knew enough about each other at the time. And she wrote me in there that she trusted me and that for once, I made her not feel like a freak, and she needed that. So I never asked her about the crime. I didn't bring that up. That's really bad jail manners. And that took many, many years for her to ever, ever discuss at all with me.

DAVIES: Why did you persist so in this relationship, do you think, I mean, write her so many times before you met and then continued to see her?

Mr.�WATERS: Because I liked her in the mail. I liked her - you know, I have very varied friends that have done a lot of different things. I guess I went in it as a journalist and liked the subject probably too much then, at that time, to have written about it with much insight. And then we became friends, and I stopped thinking about it that way. I didn't keep notes all these years. I did keep every clipping, all the parole hearings and everything. So I had 25, 30 years of research to go through when I wrote this piece, but it wasn't so much about what she did. That wasn't what we talked about.

We talked about what she could do while she was in there. She liked to read books. We talked about books. I sent her books. That's the one thing I did send her. She tried writing. She went to school. She talked about what she was doing in school. She talked about the programs she was involved in. She talked - it was kind of like having a relative that you visit that's in a hospital or something. It seemed more that was our relationship. And she grew to know my friends. She used to ask about people. When Divine died, she wrote me a really very, very lovely letter. She was good. I mean, we advised each other about personal relationships. We just became friends like everybody's friends.

DAVIES: I wonder if you - I imagine that you may have talked to Leslie about whether it would be helpful to her to have somebody like you, who obviously has, you know, a kind of a history of making things that some have considered offensive and outrageous and certainly, you know, kind of countercultural years back. Did you consider about whether you were the right person to be making her public case?

Mr.�WATERS: Very much. And I asked her about it, and I say in the book, are they going to take any sentences or any parts out of context about this, you know, 14,000 words I wrote and use it against her again. And I brought that up to her, and I said before I print this, I want you to know that, you know, that could happen. And she said, well, you know, the only thing I can base my maturity on is friendship, and you have been a friend to me. You could help me get a job when I get out. You taught in prison. You have a successful career. You've made 16 movies. You've written three books. You have art shows. You are an upstanding member of society, whether they like it or not anymore, so yes. She trusted me to do it. She's not read it yet.

DAVIES: You make a confession in this piece that you've written about Leslie Van Houten, that earlier in your filmmaking career, you used the Manson killings in what you described as a jokey, smart-ass way in some films.

Mr.�WATERS: Yes, I did.

DAVIES: How did you do that?

Mr.�WATERS: Well, I'll tell you this. When I made movies like "Multiple Maniacs" and "Pink Flamingos," they were made for a hippie audience to scare hippies. The Manson family did that, only in real life. We did it for humor. They, shockingly, did it for real. I think the big difference was, at the time, there was no such thing as punk rock. It was coming. But you know, when those girls shaved their head and put X's - wasn't it punk rock? They didn't know that. I later asked Leslie: Did you ever feel cool? And she looked at me so blankly and said we were so far gone, we didn't even know what that word meant.

I mean no, they never felt cool. But in a weird way, before punk and everything, I guess I fell for that, for the shock value of them, for the fact of that they were - they scared the world, and in a way, I was trying to do that with humor, which is very, very different. I had the outlet for every unsocial, radical, angry act I could have. I just made a movie about it. I never did it. But at the time, there was Abbie Hoffman saying revolution for the hell of it. Kill your parents. I mean, but it was done - we knew he didn't mean that. It was revolution, it was play revolution.

DAVIES: Right, I mean, but a couple of films you dedicated to Manson, members of the Manson family, right?

Mr.�WATERS: Yeah - well one, "Pink Flamingos," which was basically about the filthiest people alive, and they were.

DAVIES: And I read that you've dedicated the film "Female Trouble" to Tex Watson, who was really one of the, you know...

Mr.�WATERS: Well, yeah, and that was really irresponsible, and I admit that. This chapter is as much of how I've changed, you know, through this. Charles Watson is basically who killed every one of the victims. He was Manson's best piece of work ever. But I'm not here to stick up for any of them but for Leslie. I'm not sure that all of them didn't have the same thing happen to them. They were controlled by a madman.

DAVIES: Why do you think you were so fascinated with the Manson case and a lot of other cases where it seems you do have a real interest in crime?

Mr.�WATERS: Well, I always said if I wasn't a filmmaker, I'd be a lawyer, and this week, I sort of feel like one because I've been sticking up for her. I'm interested in behavior I can't understand and extreme behavior and how people can survive that. I've always been interested in things there's no fair answer, that I don't know the answer. If I knew the answer, I wouldn't be interested in it anymore. Psychological issues have always been fascinating to me.

DAVIES: Do you think you could have ever been brainwashed and misled the way they were?

Mr.�WATERS: No, I don't think I could've because I was our gang's leader, and my people said no to me. I asked Mink Stole to set her hair on fire once. She said: Are you crazy? I asked Cookie Mueller to smash in a television while it was on. She said no. So - and I didn't even think, then, that that was a weird thing to ask. So in our group madness, whatever you call it that was for film, no. Everybody said no to me, and I was the bad influence. I was the leader, and so I was never looking for someone to tell me what to do. All directors tell other people what to do, but I think my group was pretty healthy because we were doing stuff for humor and making movies, but when I went too far, they said no.

DAVIES: So you had a will of your own. You weren't looking for a messiah.

Mr.�WATERS: I was not looking for a messiah, but that doesn't mean that people that are are wrong.

DAVIES: Okay.

Mr. WATERS: I was not, no. We sort of made fun of hippies that did that, if you want to know the truth.

(Break)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with filmmaker John Waters, who's written a chapter in his forthcoming book "Role Models" about Leslie Van Houten, a former member of the Charles Manson family who's served nearly 40 years in prison for the murder of a California couple in 1969. Waters argues that Van Houten has been a model inmate who's taken responsibility for her crime and meets the legal standard for parole. You can read his chapter on The Huffington Post. Waters attended the Mansion trial and has a longstanding interest in people who commit crimes and how they rebuild their lives.

You taught in prison, didn't you?

Mr. WATERS: Yes, I did in the '80s. Yep.

DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us what made you do that.

Mr. WATERS: Well, as I said, if I wasn't a filmmaker I'd be a lawyer. My friend taught in there and he asked me if I'd like to come in and be a guest teacher for the day. So I did. I showed all my movies in there. It was a very special institute called Patuxent. It was run by Norma Gluckstern, a warden that was pretty avant-garde at the time. "60 Minutes" did a thing on it. And it was mostly people that had done only one terrible crime. They didn't have a history and had had a lot of psychology treatment. It wasn't for people that pled insanity but it was for people that maybe should've. I taught filmmaking in there. We had, I made them do improv and play the opposite of themselves. My classes were good and I learned as much as they did, I think, by teaching in there, about the human condition.

I did learn that they looked like any class in any junior college anywhere and their parents probably were very, very conservative about what they thought should happen to criminals before it hit their family. And they were just as shocked. I mean, Leslie Van Houten's mother and dad, they were so horrified about what happened. But they stuck by her and they said that when she was in jail, when they finally got her, they would much rather have her in jail than not know where she was, which it was like before.

So I saw - it's always unfair. It's never going to be fair, but I saw both sides of it. I saw the victims whose families, of course, are torn apart by it and want the worst, and the families who their kids have gone wrong. You know, nobody's parents thinks their kids are going to do these kind of things but it does happen, and then they have to deal with it. And sometimes it can be very touching how they do try their very best to deal with it, when they realize maybe they screwed up the first time. Although Leslie has said at every parole hearing: My parents had nothing to do with this. They didn't do anything wrong that caused any of this. None of this is their fault.

DAVIES: You said that you got to know both sides of the crime, those who commit crimes and the victims. When and how did you get to know victims?

Mr. WATERS: Well, certainly in the courtrooms I went to, and I had different students and everything, and I would see the victims testify. And it's incredibly moving. And to be honest, the ones that are badly spoken are better at it even, because it's - you realize how uncomfortable they are to be there and how terrible this is for them and they're never going to get over it. And yet, what do you do? The other person is alive. I'm an optimist. I believe in life. I believe that some people can change. Believe me, I think there's plenty of people that should never get out of jail: the serial killers, people that have done the same thing over and over, child molesters. I'm not for - I'm talking about Leslie is a special case.

DAVIES: You know, media coverage and films can certainly have an impact on how cases proceed and it's certainly impacted Leslie Van Houten and every other member of - and, you know, and everyone involved in the Manson case. I mean the film "Helter Skelter" was made many years ago. And then in 2003...

Mr. WATERS: There's a couple of them. Yeah.

DAVIES: Right. And in 2003, when CBS was considering remaking it, you called the director, John Gray, right? And told him what?

Mr. WATERS: I did. They did remake it. And I, he took my call. I don't know. He probably thought I was calling to say oh, I don't know. But I said please, you know this is just going to so hurt Leslie Van Houten. It's going to hurt the chances. It's going to hurt the victims, just to do this again. And he listened and I never talked to him again, but her part wasn't that big.

And then I was eating in a restaurant in LA, and I was meeting my agent, and I was early, and the waitress said to me, can I ask you something? Are you in the Friends of Leslie organization? I said well there's not, that's been disbanded. There's no such thing. But I am with a group of people that support her release. And she said, because I played her in the movie. And I said oh God. You know, only in Hollywood. And I said well, you know, I called the director and I probably made your part smaller. And she said you did. It did get cut. And I just want to tell you that I believe you were right to, that I tried to play her and I think she should get out too. And I thought, wow, that was such a strange experience. Only in Los Angeles could something like that happen.

But it's just another, every time they redo it, every time it's just more, it -and nobody thought this would happen. It's become a Halloween costume.

DAVIES: You know, you have this career as a filmmaker and it's sort of, you know, your films are sort of so transgressive and outrageous. I mean, you were kind of - were a cultural outlaw, but over time have really achieved some mainstream success. And I'm wondering, do you think that's why maybe you identify with criminals who have rebuilt their lives and rehabilitated themselves? Is there a parallel?

Mr. WATERS: Yeah, I think it most definitely is. Although I didn't have to rehabilitate everything, because my crimes were done for art.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. WATERS: They were done for humor, which certainly, I'm not saying this was. But at the same time, sure I've always identified with outsiders, people outside the law, outlaws. Yeah. I'm interested in people that have had extreme lives and I'm really fascinated by people that had a bad path that have overcome it. And that to me is very, very important to me.

DAVIES: Well, John Waters, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WATERS: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: John Waters' book "Role Models" will be published next year. His chapter on Leslie Van Houten appeared on The Huffington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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