Exploring the Friendship Between John Waters and Former Manson Girl Leslie Van Houten

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Leslie Van Houten has been trying to get out of prison for the last 42 years. As a member of the infamous Manson Family, she was tried and convicted of the 1969 murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca (she was not present at the more famous killings at the home of Sharon Tate the night before). Like her two peers, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins, Van Houten appears to be fully rehabilitated and self-aware about her crimes, exhibiting complete remorse while maintaining her mental instability while living with the Manson Family. The ever-popular obsession with the Manson Family crimes (most recently seen in conspiracy theories about this season of Mad Men) has contributed to the ongoing demonization of the three women, all of whom have been repeatedly denied parole (Van Houten’s 20th request was rejected this morning). Her high-profile case has brought her much attention, and her seemingly stable appearance has attracted the support from many, including, perhaps unsurprisingly, writer-director John Waters.

Waters has admitted his long fascination with the Manson Family, whose antics and transgressions inspired some of the characters in his earliest films. (He even dedicated his seminal trash epic, Pink Flamingos, to the three incarcerated Manson girls.) In his 2010 book Role Models, Waters devotes a chapter to Leslie Van Houten, with whom he became close after interviewing her for Rolling Stone. For nearly three decades, the director and the murderer have been intimate friends, with the former advocating for the latter’s release.

It’s understandable that Waters connected with Van Houten. Van Houten was a poster child for how the horrors of drugs, free love, and communal living could ruin a nice girl from a well-to-do family in the late ‘60s; she’s exactly what the parents of Waters’ generation warned their kids about, and the type of antihero Waters typically puts in his films. In Role Models, Waters admits a fondness and near-obsession with Van Houten, especially given the influence LSD had on her brainwashing. “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,” he writes. “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.”

Waters admits that he and Van Houten were on similar paths at the same time, but they landed at completely different destinations. “Instead of being a ‘good soldier’ for Charlie and participating in the murders of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca, which she certainly believed was the right thing to do at the time, I wish she had been with us in Baltimore on location for Pink Flamingos the day Divine ate dog shit for real (our own cultural Tate/La Bianca),” he laments. “Maybe she would have enjoyed cinematic anti-social glee and movie anarchy just as much as a misguided race-war entitled Helter Skelter designed by a criminal megalomaniac who believed The Beatles were speaking directly to him.”

Leslie Van Houten, now 63 and no different from anyone our parents’ age (except for the fact that she is a convicted murderer), is what happens when a John Waters character comes to her senses. Gone are the sentiments of shaking the system and embracing counter-culture. She’s no longer the homecoming princess turned hippie drop out. Leslie Van Houten wants the normal life she deprived herself when she murdered two people at the age of 20. Considering John Waters’ obsession with the transgressive art of breaking social mores, it’s not surprising to see him throw his support behind a woman who participated in an event that shaped American culture right to its core. Unlike a John Waters film, however, Leslie Van Houten is in no way the hero. She doesn’t go down in flames of glory, and she doesn’t achieve positive recognition for her celebrity status. The art of John Waters imitates life, but not so much the other way around.