By now I certainly knew that what Leslie had done was anything but "art". Her participation in the La Bianca murders was a very real atrocity that she could never make go away like a bad hairdo or a dose of the hippy-clap. This was no youthful recklessness that today some baby boomer might turn into a nostalgic tattoo. No, this was fucking awful. I used to joke that "we've all had bad nights", well, Leslie really had a horrible one! But of course the La Bianca's night was much, much worse.
I wrote to Leslie to let her know I sympathized about the terrible predicament she must be in now that she realized that the ludicrous truth she once believed in was a complete sham. Leslie was left holding a bag so terrible that few of us could imagine the weight. I hoped in some tiny way to help her carry it by imagining it myself.
Leslie wrote back guardedly. She didn't know my films, of course; she had been on death row when Pink Flamingos had been released and even I know my trash epics were certainly not shown in prison during those years. She admitted my letter did not "put her off" as I had worried, but added she was "not certain of my intentions". "But if you are in a hurry," she warned, our friendship could never happen.
So I took it slowly. I wrote to her of my frustration in trying to get the sequel to Pink Flamingos made and she wrote me back about, what else? Prison. Living in a cell "the size of an average bathroom with another person". Leslie never complained but called jail "a big tragedy. All those broken souls desperately seeking a way to leave themselves." What I soon realized was that Leslie was trying to do the exact opposite -- seeking a way to get back to who she would have been if she had never met Manson. I knew that jail-house manners dictated the prisoner, not the visitor, is allowed to bring up the crime and if mentioned ("Manson is a pathetic, disgusting, worthless, old man") you are allowed maybe one or two follow-up questions. When Leslie finally wrote, "I'd enjoy meeting you", I still hoped to interview her and hopped on a plane.
I have now visited Leslie in the same visiting room in California Institute for Women in Frontera, California, (without freeway traffic problems about an hour's drive east of Hollywood) for the last twenty-four years. The only real change in the cafeteria-style space is the cheesily cheerful, country-style backdrop you can pose in front of with your convict friend, and for five dollars get your Polaroid picture snapped by the in-house prison photographer. The "green screen" of prison happiness has changed three times in my years there -- first a yellow-tinged country scene, then a blue floral motif, and finally a green and blue skyline. When friends look at the pictures of Leslie and me through the years that I have privately displayed on my office bulletin board in my Baltimore house, they often wonder who is the woman with me in front of the misleadingly generic tableaux? "Is that your sister?" many ask. "High school reunion?" others assume. When I trust someone enough to tell the truth they are shocked at "how nice she looks". How "like one of our friends" she appears.
On our first visit, Leslie, who looked then, and still does, very much like actress Hilary Swank, explained that she had no interest in being in Rolling Stone because of what she had done. She was ashamed of it, not proud, and hoped that one day the terrible notoriety would fade. Little did either of us know that this wretched infamy would not only never fade away, it would become stronger through the years as Manson became the great American tabloid boogeyman.
Leslie and I continued to correspond and I was flattered that she grew to trust me. After several more visits she wrote in 1987, "I feel good about you because I do not believe you would harm me. You make me feel good about myself... I need that... not to feel like a freak. I'd like to propose that this year we become closer friends. You inspire me to do something with myself." Leslie inspired me, too. Inspired me to believe that if you wait long enough and work hard enough on your damaged psyche you can eventually come out of it with some kind of self-respect and mental health. I never again asked Leslie to be interviewed until 2007 and by then she knew I wanted to write about her recovery, something she could finally feel good about.
Will there ever be a "fair" answer to how Leslie should pay for these crimes? Can you ever recover from being called "a human mutant" or a "monster" by the government, especially when you know that they were right at one time in your life? How can you feel optimistic about your own rehabilitation when you see yourself reproduced as a bald-headed dummy with an X carved in your head in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum? How do you begin to deal with the pain of the victims' relatives when the world has turned your former image into a Halloween costume?
With patience. God knows, Leslie Van Houten has patience. Patience to not find religious fanaticism that would forgive her instantly and take away her responsibilities for her actions. Patience to know and accept that she can't take back the defiant and deluded things she was programmed to say at her first trial: "Sorry is only a five-letter word. It can't bring back anything." Or her rantings to the jury on hearing all the defendants, including herself, being sentenced to death, "You blind stupid people. Your own children will turn against you". Or the terrible thoughts she admitted to prison psychologists at the time, about how she "felt kind of bad" she didn't get to go the first night (when Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and four other victims were brutally murdered). Or how she was "hoping if we did it again, I would get to go". Or worse. After "Tex" Watson stabbed both Leno and Rosemary La Bianca he told Leslie to "do something" and "feeling like a shark" or "a primitive animal, a wildcat who had just caught a deer" Leslie remembered, she stabbed Mrs. La Bianca sixteen times with a knife in the lower back.
Decades later, when a parole officer had reviewed eleven different favorable psychiatric reports, all concluding that Leslie was suitable for parole and no longer a danger to the community, he listened to her sadly try to explain her addled thought process at the time of the murders and her shame for "the girl I was at nineteen. The best way to show remorse is to be the best person I can be today". He told her sympathetically but unforgivingly, "You've dug yourself quite a hole and it's going to take a little time to get out of it". It sure has.
Can you ever dig your way out of that hole by trying to explain LSD to a parole board whose members have never taken a trip? Could they understand Leslie's plea that at the time of the murders "it was a constant exercise to try and not come down" as she remembered in Connie Turner's excellent, but as yet unpublished Van Houten book, Straight Up? "We spoke to each other in the nonsensical space the drug induces," Leslie struggled to explain. "I became saturated in acid and had no sense of where those who were not part of the psychedelic reality came from. I had no perspective or sense that I was no longer in control of my mind." Could a parole board ever fathom that Leslie actually believed she was an elf "three inches high" who would "grow fairy wings" at the time of Helter Skelter as she remembered to Michael Farquhar in The Washington Post in 1994? Apparently she was not a lone elf. The Family women "would try to find elves hiding up in the trees and sitting quietly, so they might show themselves". Leslie's Dad backs her up, too, remembering in Connie's book how he visited Leslie "in county jail right after they had been picked up. Leslie told me she didn't know if she should cut holes in the back of her blouse to hold her wings or to put little pockets". Great. What does society do with a killer elf who decades later is now all better? Who could understand?
I could. I took a lot of LSD myself when I was young. From 1964 to about 1969, I took acid many, many times and never once had a bad trip. LSD quickly gave me confidence in my lunacy. "Don't tell young people that!" my mother always begs; but it's true. I remember tripping my brains out and dangerously crawling around the roof of the Marlboro Apartments in Baltimore after an LSD party and suddenly realizing I could make these crazy movies I had been dreaming up. My friends and I cemented our relationship with LSD, and became a parody of a movie studio and together our celluloid madness began to strengthen and grow. We had a "family", too.
But as nuts and angry as we were, would we have committed the atrocious crimes of my movies in real life if we hadn't had the outlet of underground filmmaking? Well, who knows? We certainly never met one of the most notorious con-men of the century, Charles Manson. And we were never looking for a spiritual leader the way Leslie was. I guess I was our gang's leader. My parents never blamed the crowd I ran with; they knew I was the bad egg. "We're not your puppets!" David Lochary used to yell at me when I went overboard on directing or thinking up stunts to film like Divine shooting-up liquid eyeliner for real. My "family" knew how to say "no" to me. Why couldn't Leslie do the same in her distorted world?
Could I have gone off the deep end with my cinematic "orders"? I had planned a raid on the Maryland State Board of Censors where the actors from Desperate Living would "home invade" the offices, chain themselves to the furniture, and refuse to leave until the anticipated cuts from our film were restored. Some of the actors (including 300-pound Jean Hill) had actually agreed to this photo-op if I'd pay the bail but luckily I didn't have to test their dedication to movie cult-madness because right before our Censor Board screening, Governor Harry Hughes took office and disbanded the Censor Board on his first days of power. And even though Divine's character in Female Trouble asks his audience, "Who wants to die for art?" and then shoots a fan who yells "Yes!" (played by Vincent Peranio, my long-time friend and production designer), I don't think any of my movie gang would have killed for cinema.
I never told Leslie this, but off camera I had killed somebody, too. Accidentally. Completely accidentally. In 1970 Mink Stole and I were driving up Broadway, a Baltimore thoroughfare that is divided by a safety island. It was Sunday early afternoon, we were not on drugs or liquor, and an elderly man, without looking, stepped off the curb right in front of my car. His body flipped up and landed on the hood with his face pressed towards mine through the driver side's windshield. This image so horrified me that I have used it over and over in my later films (Tab Hunter run over in Polyester, the school teacher killed by Kathleen Turner in her car in Serial Mom, the "Fidget" character's near-death as he falls off the drive-in marquee and lands on his parents' car windshield in Cecil B. Demented). As I pulled over to the side of the road in shock, the man's body slid off the hood of my car to the street leaving indentation marks that reminded me of the "snow angels" you made as a child by lying down in snow drifts and waving your arms. "He's okay," Mink mumbled in hope. "No, he isn't," I said realistically as I heard his death rattle. A crowd gathered around the car and luckily, oh so luckily, a cop approached and said, "I saw it all happen and it wasn't your fault." What a miracle. I had long oily hair and was dressed in my usual thrift-shop-pimp-meets-hillbilly outfit and Mink was still in her "religious whore" period -- wearing all black clothing with tons of rosaries around her neck way before Goth. We looked like complete lunatics. I called my Dad to get our insurance information and he was immediately nervous -- "Is anybody hurt?" he asked. "...Well, yes... the man died," I had to admit. "Oh, my God!" I heard my poor father moan, "Now this!"
But did I feel guilty? Even when I heard the "victim" was the beloved "peanut man" from the nearby Broadway Market? I didn't know him but some of my friends did. I felt no guilt because I knew the accident wasn't my fault but I certainly felt horrified. When my grandmother called later that night she said, "I'm praying for that man's soul". I honestly replied, "Can't you ask God why he picked my car to walk out in front of?"
If any deaths result from a car accident, you have to go to court no matter whose fault it was. As my "manslaughter" trial began my parents sat next to me in support, worried that, because of my hair and my already notorious cinematic reputation, I'd get convicted. It was a great relief to see that the deceased had no survivors or at least they didn't come to trial. The whole hearing was over in three minutes after the cop testified to seeing the unfortunate man just walk into oncoming traffic without looking. This awful experience will never leave me but it hardly qualifies me as a murderer. I can't begin to imagine what Leslie feels today when it was her fault. All I could do was try to warn future jaywalkers of the dangers with dialogue in my movies. Patricia Hearst, playing a school crossing guard, tells Johnny Depp as he exits school in Cry-Baby, "Look right. Look left. Then walk!"
Excerpted from the book Role Models by John Waters, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010. Role Models is a self- portrait told through intimate literary profiles of his favorite personalities; some famous, some unknown, some criminal, some alarmingly middle of the road.