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Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship, Part 5 of 5

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Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of "Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship".

Could Leslie's expression of remorse remain "superficial," as was charged in her 2003 parole hearing? She has been saying she's sorry for so long and with such eloquence, it is hard to imagine these suspicions could be founded. "I was raised to be a decent human being," Leslie has pled, "I turned into a monster and I'm very ashamed." "If I had known what the word 'sorry' really meant, I wouldn't have made light of it the way I did [at her first trial]," she has admitted. "There have been times," she sadly remarks, "when I'm eating a meal and feel guilty I'm eating a meal." "I have spent these years going back to a decent human being," she confessed, "I find it very difficult to live with myself a great deal of the time. If you look at my file, there's no violence. No violence. That one night. That one night has just tormented me. I am not a person that corrects problems through violence. I don't confront. And it has been really, really difficult to live with. And I hope that the family understands...I know that you loved them and I know they were wonderful people. They didn't deserve it and you didn't deserve it. Not a bit of it. All I can tell you is that I'm so sorry. I'm sorry."

Through the years the district attorneys have been very effective at keeping Leslie incarcerated. They can be brutal. When one psychiatrist talked of Leslie being "charming", Stephen Kay correctly wise-cracked, "I'm sure Leno and Rosemary La Bianca didn't think she was so charming." But recently, the D.A.'s arguments for not granting Leslie parole seem almost desperate. One of the very few mixed psychiatric reports once stated that Leslie "possesses a degree of verbal acumen that is very convincing. The obvious question is whether this represents real change in reconstructing your personality or someone who is so smooth in their manipulation that they are barely perceptible.... Under the control of evil, she did excel; now under the control of what could be called society's rules and regulations, she has excelled. She has attempted to please authority no matter if it is good or bad." In other words: Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Patrick Sequira, the new D.A. who took over arguing against Leslie's parole after Stephen Kay's retirement even contended at her last hearing that something seemed suspicious about Leslie going back to college behind bars to get her master's degree in philosophy. He described Antioch University, the struggling college that offered these courses, as a "hotbed of radicalization" and then went on to rail against the classes she would be taking, "Theory of Justice," "Problems of Men," "Democracy in Education," "Origins of Intelligence in Children," as if this curriculum was somehow connected to Leslie's future criminality. "Clearly the inmate has a fascination with philosophy just as she had a fascination with the concepts that the Manson Family embraced," he told the Parole Board accusingly. "If there was true educational intent in changing oneself," he went on to lecture a dumbfounded Leslie who kept her head held high, "you'd think it would be beyond studying philosophy."

The Parole Board's advice to Leslie at the end of each denial was sometimes perplexing. "We look forward to seeing you in two years," one parole board member told her, as if her hearings were some sort of positive anniversary. In 2002, one board member encouraged her to "continue with classes" but then admitted that there were no more classes for her to attend. When Leslie was denied that year and told by the board she needed more counseling in prison she replied politely, "I would like to say there is no more therapy available to me. So you just recommended something to me that they don't offer. But I'll do what I can. That's all I can do." At the end of her '07 hearing Leslie was advised that "this being prison, the panel understands that sometimes programs are not as available as we'd all like. Therefore we commend to you that -- independent reading is available to you -- that you can read books that you believe are appropriate for you, speak to your particular situation. Prepare a short report, two or three paragraphs indicating an understanding of what you've read and how it applies to your particular situation." Thirty-six years in prison and she is now sentenced to book reports! A flummoxed Leslie asked politely, "...Do I send you these...these reports on the books?" "Yes" they said, "you do."

"Remember she is only one dose away from doing something like this again," warns a La Bianca relative. While one can understand his frustration, it seems very unlikely that Leslie, after three decades of successful therapy and NA and AA meetings, would have the slightest desire for one more LSD trip. Does Manson have to die before Leslie can ever be paroled? "Suppose Manson told her to kill again?" people who have not followed Leslie's progress sometimes ask. As if. She has had no voluntary contact with Manson for over thirty-five years and if any concerned citizen who asks this question had ever seen Manson on TV recently, they would know better. A repellent old man with an unappealing pot belly and teeth rapidly becoming similar to Edith Massey's, he would have a hard time leading any cult today, believe me. He looks more like a homeless fool who forgot to take his meds. "It's coming down fast!" was a good recruiting line in the '60s but interrupting a 1987 Today Show interview and telling the female host, "I gotta take a shit, will you excuse me?" won't exactly get him many new followers. Manson is "just a creep," Leslie told a Parole Board in 1996.

How right she was. Manson watched on camera his middle-aged despondent co-defendant Patricia Krenwinkel (who thought the first trial was a "play") tell Diane Sawyer, "Every day I wake up and I know that I am a destroyer of the most precious thing there is -- life." His gentlemanly response? "She got old on me," he snorted. What a reward for the hippy girl who stupidly gave up her life for him when she was nineteen years old. A girl convicted of seven murders for the man she believed was God, a woman so defeated now that she doesn't even ask outside her friends or family to write letters of support to the Parole Board because she "doesn't believe a date will be given." What a tribute to the one time flower-child who is described now by Karlene Faith as "a good-hearted woman who suffers the anguished burden of interminable guilt." How kind Manson is to his now horrified ex-follower who told a Parole Board in 1993, "it is very different to live with the fact that I could do something so horrible because that is not who I am, not what I believe in. On a day-to-day basis it is a terribly difficult thing to live with because I feel terrible. But no matter what I do, I can't change it," she sobbed. "I am paying for this as best as I can. There is nothing more I can do outside of being dead," she cried as the board members watched her nervously, "and I know this is what you wish, but I can't take my life. I'm sorry..." she mumbled looking down in complete defeat.

"What happens when the next con man comes along?" is a frequent argument by Stephen Kay against Leslie's release. One would think after all Leslie has been through she would be on guard, but one bad judgment she made in 1981 is still used aggressively against her at every parole hearing. Lonely, and facing a lifetime in prison she began corresponding with Bill Cywin, a fellow convict, and when he was released he began to visit her and she eventually married him in a small prison ceremony and was allowed to have conjugal visits, something that must have seemed like a godsend to a young woman in jail forever. Completely unbeknownst to Leslie, her husband was planning some hair-brained prison break for her and a prison matron's uniform was discovered by the police in his apartment. Leslie immediately cut off all contact with him, divorced him, and never saw or heard from him again. Not one of her prosecutors ever tried to say she was in on this plan in any way and they admitted they knew she was innocent of any knowledge of her husband's attempt. But they never let her forget it. Her "bad judgment," her supposed "continued desire to be with 'bad men'" is constantly brought up at every parole hearing to prove she is unsuitable. "Who hasn't had a bad boyfriend?" I wish her lawyer would ask the board.

Am I, too, a "bad man" in Leslie's life? The one year the Parole Board read my name as a supporter and it was broadcast on TV, I watched for Stephen Kay to somehow bring up my notoriety and use it against Leslie. Will they take this chapter of my book and use certain sentences out of context to hurt her chances? I told Leslie of my fears but she urged me to stay firmly in her corner, pointing out I had taught in prisons, had been successfully making my movies for forty years and could help her find employment if she were ever released. "I have stable relationships," Leslie tried to explain to the board in 1996, "Often relationships are measured in man/woman/marriage/romance. As a forty-six year old woman, I feel my most important and cherished relationships are my friends."

What would Leslie Van Houten do if she did get paroled? She has many offers of employment and housing and a large support group of friends and family could usher her quietly back into society. "She'll never get out," some friends of mine have always said, and in the 1970s Leslie probably agreed. "I try to figure out how do I live out the rest of my life in here and be able to say it wasn't a wasted life," she has wondered in the past; but later, "naturally mourning my own life that has never been," Leslie began daring to hope. "If I am ever paroled I want to be anonymous and live a life as quietly as I can." She said much the same in '78 imagining "a private and humble life." And finally, in the '90s her lawyers began fighting against the perception that she had been sentenced to life without parole, because she was not. "The fact that she should realistically be considered [for parole]" her defense lawyer at the time, Dan Mrotek, argued to the board, "is not due to the fact she has done something exceptional in this institution -- it is due to how your regulations are written. So we do not want just your subjective opinion about what should happen to her. We want justice in terms of the fair application of your regulations." Fifteen positive psychiatric reports have been read into the record over the years and her lawyers could not understand why the Board could not hear their message. "It is my opinion," a doctor in Leslie's jail wrote, "that she [Leslie] has continued this self-improvement, not as a motivation to parole but as a genuine interest in bettering herself. It is my opinion that the inmate would not be dangerous if she was released to the community."

In 1996 Leslie started to fight back, too, by arguing she should be paroled "because there is a system that says I can earn it. I have taken seriously what I have done. I have redesigned my life where I am a conscientious and caring individual. I am now who I would have been if I had not gone into a drug/Manson lifestyle." At her last hearing she could not be more honest. Still "deeply ashamed," Leslie ignored the rule against looking at the victim's families and begged the La Bianca survivors, "I ask that I be shown the mercy I didn't give...and that is not easy in this [parole board] room but I'm going to ask for it. I am who I say I am."

Leslie Van Houten has served more time than any Nazi war criminal who was not sentenced to death at Nuremberg. She has served more time that any of the Nazi defendants who were sentenced to life in prison except for Hitler's deputy, Rudolph Hess, who died in his fortieth year in prison (the exact amount of time Leslie has now served). She's served more time than Lt. William Calley who was originally sentenced to life in prison for the My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. She has served longer than the surviving female member of the Baader Meinhoff Gang, a German terrorist group who murdered thirty-four people for left-wing "politics" and "revolution." This group began with the student protest movement in 1968, the same year Charles Manson was recruiting his hippy army of LSD soldiers. Brigitte Mahnhaupt was convicted of nine political murders and sentenced to five life sentences, but served just twenty-four years. Another member, Irmgard Molle, convicted of a 1972 bomb attack in Heidelberg that killed three American soldiers, was released in 1994 after serving twenty-four years. Courts ruled that "the decision for probation was reached based on the determination that no security risks exist today." And none of these radicals even said they were sorry!

But how sorry is sorry enough? Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and armaments minister, and one of the few Nazi defendants to take responsibility for Nazi war crimes, even though he denied knowing of the Holocaust, struggled with this question. When Gitta Sereny interviewed him for her amazing book Albert Speer; His Battle with Truth, after he had been released after serving all twenty years of his sentence in Spandau prison, she asked the same kind of question about responsibility for the crime that the parole board asks Leslie. While Leslie participated in a much tinier version of a fascist regime, there are definite similarities in the issue of degrees of guilt. Was there something "inherently evil" inside Leslie, as Stephen Kay has charged? Was there a "lack of morality" underneath Speer's initial attraction to "the cause," wondered Ms. Sereny? "If I just answer that question with a 'yes,'" a free Speer honestly responded after decades of reflection, "it would be too simple. For of course now I think it was immoral. But what does that mean? Nothing. How can it help our understanding of these terms which is what you and I are trying to do here, I presume, for me to say, 'Yes, yes mea culpa.' Yes, of course, mea culpa, but the whole point is that I didn't feel this and why didn't I? Was it Hitler, only Hitler, because of whom I didn't understand? Or was it a deficiency in me? Or was it both?"

"How can a man admit more and go on living?" Gitta Sereny asked Speer, probing how deeply he could go inside himself to take in the full weight of his repression of the horror of Hitler's regime. The same incredulous response the prosecutors continue to have over the fact that Leslie knew there had been five killings the night before, yet chose to go along for the next night of mayhem knowing full well what would happen. "You knew all this," Ms. Sereny challenged Speer about Nazi slave labor, "yet you stayed, not only stayed but worked, planned with, and supported. How can you explain? How can you justify? How can you stand living with yourself?" His answers could have been Leslie's. "You cannot understand. You simply cannot understand what it is to live in a dictatorship and you can't understand the game of danger but above all you can't understand the fear on which the whole thing is based." Leslie, too, has struggled to explain to a parole board in 2004 how her life was hijacked onto such a horrific track. "It didn't start out that way. It started off like a commune. And then the more he [Manson] measured how much we believed in him, the violence would become more acute until at the end it was very prevalent." "I wanted to leave," she remembered in sadness and frustration, "and I told him I was going to leave. And he took me to the edge of a cliff and he told me I may as well jump off because if I left I would die. Now, you know when you say something like this years and years and years later, and it seems so small. But at the time I believed him. I believed if I left him, the very same thing that happened to Leno and Rosemary La Bianca would happen to me. And now I carry the responsibility for that. .."

While Speer admits, "The intensity of the crime precludes any attempt at self-justification," he stated wearily something I don't think Leslie feels and, as much as I understand his statement, I don't think she ever will. "I awake with it," Speer says of his guilt, "spend my day with it and dream it. But my reply -- I know it -- has long been routine. I can no longer answer with emotion and people resent this."

One wonders if the Manson Family today were all in one room would there be an evil spectacle of hippy-devil-anarchy like I saw in that courtroom in 1977 or a group of broken, sad, disillusioned ex-con baby boomers? "These children that came at you with knives", as Charlie once called his followers, are now senior citizens begging forgiveness. The other Manson girls are unrecognizable from the early famous newsreel footage that is still played ad nauseam every time a mention of the crime comes up. Susan Atkins, before having a brain tumor and one of her legs amputated in prison (the other is paralyzed), wore a hearing-aid and could have been mistaken for a suburban dental technician. Patricia Krenwinkle looks like an elderly high school history teacher. The men, many bald now for real, have a sadness and embarrassment about them. How humiliating to have been taken for a ride by such an obvious con-man as Charlie. All the repentant Family members cling to the hope they will be forgiven or -- even better -- forgotten. Albert Speer wondered with Rudolph Hess as they served their long sentence in Spandau Prison whether, if released, they would meet "and have a good bottle of wine and perhaps find it in us to laugh about some of the memories of Spandau." Rudolph Hess answered much in the same way as I believe Leslie would. "If we were ever all out, none of us would ever see each other again and most certainly we would not laugh."

There is an amazing press photo that was taken by Peter Phun for The Desert Enterprise, a newspaper in Palm Springs, which shows a beautiful but haunted Leslie Van Houten being walked before the press in 2002 on her way to a hopeful court hearing to overturn the board's rejection of her parole. Leslie is humiliated to still be handcuffed and chained after forty years of non-violence and she is sad that the press is still there to give the Manson brand another jolt of publicity. For security reasons the cops have made her wear her waist-length hair down, not in the dignified bun she usually wears. You can tell Leslie fears it will look "witchy," as Charlie used to order. She is embarrassed by the attention but firmly proud of who she has become. Leslie looks absolutely stunning in her clear-headed maturity. This is the woman I am friends with today.

But one of her prison guards looks over at her in the picture in an almost cartoonish fear -- he still sees her as a dangerous "Manson girl" and one can imagine the excited story he can now tell his wife and kids over dinner that night. Leslie will never be able to overcome this notoriety. But if that same prison guard knew her the way I know her, he wouldn't be afraid anymore. He might even ask her to baby-sit his kids. Her crime was a long, long time ago and she has paid her dues to society. I hope Leslie Van Houten can be given a second chance. The best gift I can give her is a promise that she doesn't ever have to see me again once she is released. "I'm not trying to get away with anything," Leslie has told anyone who would listen. And she's not. She's really not.

Excerpted from the book Role Models by John Waters, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010.