Initially both my mother and Leslie's were nervous about our friendship. "Does the Manson Family have to have our address?" my mother moaned when I once had a letter sent there. And in 1998, Leslie commented to The Baltimore Sun in a long profile of me that she "found it ironic" that her mother and supporters initially "were concerned" for Leslie, as "if knowing him could somehow hurt my reputation." But over the years our mothers softened and grew used to the idea. Leslie's mother went to see Pecker and my mother needle-pointed me a pillow that says "Leslie". As our parents got older and poor health struck, Leslie and I commiserated on how lucky we were to have parents who had lived long enough so we both could make peace with them over our notorious pasts. "None of this" was her parents' fault, Leslie told a parole board. And when Mrs. Van Houten died in 2005, Leslie wrote her friends a great tribute admitting it was "very hard for me not to be there for her at this terrible time (of her illness) just to fix her hair, read to her, just be near her. As it is, I cherish all the qualities of her that are alive in me. She lived a good life. She was a world-traveler, helped in unionizing the L.A. teachers, she was part of the Mothers Marching Against Vietnam and was very proud of that. Mama liked Hillary Clinton and wrote her support letters. So I share with you, my friends, the life of Jane Louise Edwards Van Houten. A woman who was a good mother who I loved dearly. We worked our way over very hard times and came through with sincere tenderness. She was pleased you were my friend. Take a moment to say, 'Hear, hear,' for a life that was well-lived."
But, yes, I know the La Bianca kids don't have a mother around anymore partly because of my friend Leslie. No matter how patient Leslie or her supporters are, we know this terrible fact will never change. But when, if ever, will there have been enough punishment? Vincent Bugliosi, the original and fairest Manson Family prosecutor and author of Helter Skelter, originally predicted in his book that the "girls" would serve "fifteen to twenty years" and called Leslie "the least committed to Manson", but later told The National Enquirer, "I want Leslie Van Houten to remain in prison for the rest of her life." He once admitted to Larry King after hearing Leslie speak on the show, "I was impressed by her. In defense of her I can say this, she seems to be a model prisoner and everyone seems to say she is very remorseful for the murders." But Stephen Kay, who prosecuted Leslie in her later trials and has argued against her parole many times since, seems even more confused on how much time she should serve. Admitting "I've always said she [Leslie] was the smartest and maybe the most normal of them all," he also commented in The Los Angeles Times, in 1980, that he didn't feel Leslie Van Houten should be locked up forever but it was "too soon to release her now." He would rather "wait until she was at least forty years old." Sixteen years after that, a Court TV reporter asked him, "Will you always fight Leslie Van Houten's parole?" And he answered, "Always is a long time. I'm not saying she will never be suitable for parole, I've not said 'never.'" But when the old National Enquirer comes around he encourages their readers to send in coupons against her release and claims, "Leslie Van Houten should never be let out."
The Parole Board can be equally confusing when it comes to sending signals to Leslie about a possible release. After eighteen parole hearings, some members praised her -- "You've come a long way," "You're closer [than] you might realize" -- while denying her a date always citing "the enormity of the crime," the only thing she can never change. It is painful to watch Leslie sit there year after year, her face lined in sorrow in long Warholian close-ups on Court TV as she listens to the same gruesome details of her crime that they read into the record at every hearing. No matter how much progress she's made, how good the psychiatric reports, she is forced to re-describe or come up with new details of that terrible night or be accused of "not opening up" to her part in the crime and then is punished as the prosecutor takes her honest memory of the insane Manson reasoning and uses it against her in future hearings. As Christie Webb, Leslie's last parole defense attorney, so succinctly put it in 2004, "Deputy D.A. has proved that Leslie Van Houten was a danger in 1971 and, yes, she was. She was when she was with the Manson cult. She tried to explain her relationship to Manson -- how she would die for him, how she would kill for him. She tried to explain that and told that to psychiatrists in 1970 and 1971 when she was still under the influence of cult indoctrination and then it's used it against her 38 years later."
In 2002 a California Supreme Court judge realized that a rejection of [her] parole was made "without any explanation of reason" and ordered the parole board to get back to him in ninety days to show "some evidence" of why Leslie should not be released and what she must do to rehabilitate herself. In November of that same year Judge Bob Krug said of the parole board's finding, "I cannot find any indication where Miss Van Houten has done anything wrong in prison. They can't keep using the crime forever and ever. That turns her sentence into life without parole. If I was Ms. Van Houten I wouldn't have a clue what to do at the next hearing."
"Unreasonable risk to the community" is another reason used to turn down Leslie year after year. "I don't want anyone to wake up and find Leslie Van Houten is the next door neighbor," Stephen Kay argued in 1986, conveniently forgetting that Leslie had had next door neighbors when she lived peacefully on parole between her second and third trial. An even more persuasive argument against this reasoning was the successful parole and release of Steve "Clem" Grogan a.k.a. "Scramblehead", one of the most brainwashed men in the Manson Family. Grogan was convicted (along with two other defendants) in a separate trial for the murder of ranch hand Shorty Shea, because Charlie thought Shea was a snitch. Sentenced to life in prison but released after serving fourteen years (maybe because there was at least a reason for this type of murder that someone could understand), Mr. Grogan commented to the parole board, ""I still haven't gotten over the emotional part... the atrocity I did." Grogan, who was certainly as committed to Manson's lunatic cause as Leslie was at the time of the crimes, has never been heard from by the law since. Away from Manson, he got his life back together, found employment, and now lives lawfully and quietly out of the eyes of the press, crime historians, or Manson groupies. Contrary to what Charlie preached, sometimes sense does make sense.
"Not taking responsibility" is another charge thrown at Leslie each time she comes up for parole. Because she once said she stabbed Mrs. La Bianca after she was already dead, the D.A. always brings up the fact that Leslie doesn't "come clean" to details of her involvement. But Leslie has already stated that "earlier in my incarceration, in my sobriety, in my coming to terms with what I had done, I used to find a lot of relief in thinking she was dead. But really honestly looking at it, it is of no consequence whether she was or not. The action was reprehensible." "Each day I wake up," she told the board, "I know why I'm waking up where I am." "I feel a great responsibility for what I did to the world," she sadly stated at a 1991 hearing, "I carry this crime with me as if I was the only one," she said in 2000. "Each act we did in that house, I take responsibility for," she testified in 2004, adding, "I can't...place the blame on someone else. It was me."
Naturally, the victims' families' words and anger are incredibly strong and hard to argue against. What they say can actually never be wrong. If Leslie had killed my mother, could I forgive her? For many years the La Bianca children did not come to Leslie's parole hearings. "You may have wondered why I haven't attended," wrote Leno's oldest son in 2004, "let me tell you why. When confronted with the nightmare at the time, I decided to put my faith in the legal system. I tended to my wounds privately, knowing that if I let my parents' death define me the rest of my life, then those who killed them would have gotten me, too." But when it looked like Leslie had a real chance at parole in 2000, Stephen Kay encouraged La Bianca's nieces and nephews to attend and their words were devastating. "How many times must we come!?" asked an indignant La Bianca nephew, frustrated at having to appear yet again, given what he thought was Leslie's iron-clad life sentence. Seeing the family testify on TV, I kept thinking how they didn't want to have to be there. How they had to take off work. Drive to the prison. Pay for gas. Buy an outfit they knew they'd be photographed in. How painful an ordeal this intrusion on their attempt to come to terms with their tragedy. "We lost our privacy and suffered untold depression, frustration, anxiety and financial ruin," a La Bianca relative testified, calling the hearing a "sacrilege to Leno's memory that the family has to be confronted with parole hearings of these individuals." A resentful La Bianca niece continued, "I don't personally support execution but I feel life in prison is an adequate punishment for what was done." Sometimes the family's words were so terrible they could have come from a horror movie: "The house was a family sanctuary... one of the murder weapons used was the carving fork that was used for our holiday festivities. I saw, as a youngster, my grandfather Leno and my father use these instruments of joy that were turned into tools of torture and death. We are stained for life." It doesn't matter that Leslie herself never touched this fork; it was her co-defendant Patricia Krenwinkle who plunged it into Mr. La Bianca's neck after "Tex" had already stabbed him to death. But what awful details to keep straight! Who cares who did what? Leslie knew they weren't going trick-or-treating when they went into that house. And she has to pay for everything that happened. Every single gruesome detail.
Even I am sometimes still horrified. To me, almost more incomprehensible than the murders is the fact that my friend Leslie, after stabbing Mrs. La Bianca, changed into her clothes before hitching back to the Spahn ranch. "How could you!?" I once asked Leslie, who looked back at me stricken with disgust and humiliation. "I know," she mumbled, "Tex made me change my clothes and I told him I didn't have to." "Did you actually pick out one of her outfits?" I whispered, horrified to imagine fashion decisions in the time of such bloodshed. "No," she gasped as she lowered her eyes in horror that I would even think of such a thing, "I just grabbed the first thing I found!" What a terrible, terrible question to have to answer!
At the parole hearing, a La Bianca niece testified she was outraged to have "never heard from Leslie Van Houten, not by phone, email or letter. She should apologize to me," she added with anger. But Leslie wasn't even aware of these nieces and nephews until they came to parole hearings decades after the crimes. She knew about "two children" but not cousins. Leslie had earlier told a parole member that she had wrestled with writing a letter of apology because she thought "how I would feel if it had been my own mother and father -- not sure I would have wanted the perpetrator to have contacted me." In 1994 Leslie told The Washington Post that she had written dozens of apologies and never mailed them because they would amount to a request for a favor.
When the La Bianca nieces and nephews first appeared at Leslie's hearing, Leslie said, "I am relieved that family members came forward...it's really hard to live with the murders when no one was there. It was incomplete dealing with it." And she had apologized to the unseen La Bianca family many times at earlier parole hearings. "I feel great shame and remorse when I think of the La Bianca children and their family today...when I think back on the night of August 10th, all I think about is the horror these two very innocent human beings were subjected to. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."
Leslie has agreed to meet with the victims' relatives, but only if there is no tape of the meeting to be exploited by the media. "If the family works with the Institute I certainly would welcome a chance to apologize to them in a personal way." In other words, not on Court TV, not on videocassettes bought and sold on line on Manson groupie websites and not for the whole world to see. "A virtuoso performance," a commentator blurted on TV after seeing footage of Leslie baring her soul at a parole hearing. And this is exactly the kind of "entertainment" value she is trying to avoid.
"She cannot repay," a La Bianca nephew told the Board before turning to Leslie and saying, "Therefore accept your punishment and pray for the good Lord's forgiveness in the hereafter." Worse yet, Patty Tate, sister of Sharon, who is not allowed to testify at Leslie's hearing because Leslie is not convicted of the Tate murders but is allowed to be there in "victim support," told the news media outside the hearing her feelings about all the convicted Manson Family members. "I have no animosity," she reasoned, "I want these people to flourish within the confines of these [prison] walls. I want them to be productive and have lives within the confines of these walls right here."
Yet, forgiveness can seem insane, too. Susan Le Barge, the born-again Christian daughter of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca, outraged her family and Sharon Tate's mother by appearing at Charles "Tex" Watson's 1990 parole hearing and testifying that the man who stabbed to death both her mother and father should be released. "I believe twenty-one years of imprisonment and his having to live with the memory of what he did is punishment enough," she told a startled and disbelieving board. "It's my belief Charles could live in society peacefully and should be given a parole date," she concluded as "Tex" Watson sat there seemingly stunned.
Knowing the schism Susan Le Barge's testimony must have caused with the La Bianca family, Leslie never tried to hop on board this almost ludicrously forgiving bandwagon but I'm sure she felt some relief to hear one of the victims' family trying to get past their hatred of her. Leslie must have been encouraged to read the words of the father of murder victim Myra Opshal, who was killed in a bank robbery committed by the Patty Hearst-kidnapping Symbionese Liberation Army. When one of its members, Kathleen Soliah, was about to be released on bail for taking part in this crime, he was angry but expressed hope, according to The Los Angeles Times, "that Soliah can emerge from jail to offer society some productive years. I hope she [Soliah] has learned something from this," he continued, "and can go out and be a good citizen and contribute to the community where she lives. And she'll have some life left to live."
Most likely Leslie would be inspired by the forgiveness the Amish community showed the gunman who insanely shot to death five school girls and severely wounded five more before killing himself in a one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. A year later a local historian gave a speech on the anniversary of this horrible event called "Why the Amish Forgave a Killer." "The Amish community believes forgiveness is about giving up," he said, "giving up your right to revenge. And giving up feelings of resentment, bitterness and hatred, replacing them with compassion toward the offender and treating the offender as a human being."
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.