FRONTERA, CALIF. -- She looks instantly familiar, not because of who she is -- no one remembers the face, and anyway, it has softened considerably -- but because of what she is. Her type. Suburban mom. Her auburn hair is swept off her face with a white headband. She has a good-natured air of beleaguered patience, like a grade-school bus driver. She has an attenuated, leonine body. She has Carly Simon's mouth. Her smile is huge and warm and captivating.
"Hi, I'm Leslie," she says brightly.
It is not the same face that is on permanent exhibit in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's wax museum in London. Leslie Van Houten no longer snarls. She is no longer bald. And the X she once carved into her forehead has faded nicely.
Before anyone ever swallowed cyanide for Jim Jones or burned in Waco for David Koresh, young people slaughtered strangers for Charles Manson. One of the most chillingly bizarre crimes in American history happened 25 years ago this week.
Manson, a bearded, wild-eyed 35-year-old career criminal and pimp who stood only 5 feet 2, mesmerized a group of largely middle-class youths into thinking he was Christ incarnate. Manipulating them with drugs and the force of his personality, Manson molded them into the killers who would carry out his quest to initiate Armageddon, or, as he called it, Helter Skelter.
Motiveless murder was part of the demented plan, and on Aug. 9, in the edgy summer of 1969, a group of Manson followers broke into the Los Angeles home of filmmaker Roman Polanski where they stabbed, shot and bludgeoned to death Polanski's wife, actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant; Hollywood hair stylist Jay Sebring; coffee heiress Abigail Folger; her lover, Voyteck Frykowski; and a teenager named Steven Parent.
Leslie Van Houten recalls feeling snubbed for being left out of this round of killings. That was rectified the following night, when Manson recruited her for additional bloody business across town. Leno LaBianca, the well-to-do owner of a string of grocery stores, and his wife, Rosemary, were ambushed in their Los Feliz home. The amiable fortyish couple were stabbed a total of 87 times, with a carving fork left in Leno LaBianca's stomach and a knife in his throat. The word "WAR" was carved into his abdomen. The killers also left their mark, as they had the night before, on the walls, scrawling phrases like "Death to Pigs" with the victims' blood.
Then they raided the fridge.
Sometime next year, Van Houten, 45, will seek parole for the 11th time since entering prison in 1971 under a sentence of death, which was later commuted to life. Ten times her parole has been denied. But this time may be different. Gradually over the years, Van Houten has been impressing judges and psychiatrists and parole officials with the apparent depth of her rehabilitation, with the personal growth she has shown since her initial murder trial, when she openly taunted the stricken relatives of her victims. Van Houten seems unmanipulative. She seems filled with remorse. She has resisted efforts to financially exploit her notoriety. Among all the Manson defendants -- Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins and Manson himself -- she is considered the only one who has a chance of being released anytime soon.
In some ways, the impending decision could be seen as a stiff test of the status of crime and punishment in America. Van Houten has already spent three times as long in prison as most convicted murderers. But the criminal justice system is not entirely a matter of numbers. Incarceration is intended to serve four purposes: remove predators from society, deter by example, punish, and rehabilitate. It is these things the parole board will weigh.
The first factor is not in serious contention: Few people familiar with the case think Leslie Van Houten remains a menace to others.
The second factor is very much at issue: Has Van Houten's penalty been disproportionately harsh because of the publicity surrounding her crime? Her lawyer argues that it has.
But it is the final two factors whose collision embodies the center of this case and raises uncomfortable questions.
Does this formula for crime and punishment accommodate the possibility of redemption?
How important is contrition?
How important is compassion?
Are there crimes too heinous to forgive, ever, for any reason?
Leslie Van Houten waits in a dingy prison conference room that is reminiscent of the sort of place in which you close the deal after buying a used car. At the far end of the table that nearly fills the room, an officer from the California Institute for Women sits impassively.
Van Houten is standing when her visitor enters. She is wearing the prison uniform of jeans and a white T-shirt. She moves like a teenager, as though she were still getting used to an unfamiliar body.
"I just wanted you to know before we start that I appreciated your response," she says. A month before, when she had declined an initial request for an interview, The Washington Post responded with a letter saying it understood her reluctance and remained willing to talk to her if she ever changed her mind.
"Some people get pushy. It was very nice of you to just say, 'When you're ready.' "
Van Houten has been in prison as a reviled pseudo-celebrity for more than half her life. She speaks preemptively, anticipating criticism and deflecting it, often when none was intended.
And so, when she speaks of earning her degree in English from Antioch College, she volunteers that it was at no expense to the state, that she would absolutely understand taxpayers' resentment if they were paying for criminals' education. No one had suggested this.
When she speaks of her relationship with God, she emphasizes that it is private and that she has no patience for sanctimony, for people who flaunt their religion. No one had suggested she was doing that.
When she speaks of learning to open up to people emotionally, she says, "I do tend to give someone a chance to show themselves to me." And then she hurriedly adds, as though this unnerving possibility had been raised:
"I don't see myself as easily led."
A cynic might wonder whether this Leslie Van Houten is a shrewdly packaged product, polished and programmed to be polite, contrite, charming, courteous, affable, sympathetic. All with the single goal of engineering her release.
It is true that the Manson murders were incited by drugs and the slavish devotion of impressionable people to the teachings of a psychopath. But it is also true the Manson murders were unspeakably savage. Is it possible to believe in the complete rehabilitation of someone who stabbed a woman 16 times? Or is there a vile, incurable defect deep inside?
Van Houten is asked about that. She starts her answer in the same tone she has used throughout: not lifeless, but emotionless, as though she is trying to be completely calm, driven only by logic and reason.
"Was there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with me?" A long pause. "Sometimes, it's been easier to live with myself almost wishing that... ."
Because if there wasn't something wrong, she explains, some disability, some disorder, an irreparable malady beyond her control, then the only thing left is to face the fact that she is responsible for doing something horrible.
And then, she says, "You don't forgive yourself."
For the first time in a long, dignified, otherwise unemotional interview, her eyes well with tears.
The Manson Vision
"Les was one of the sweetest, most innocent children," remembers Van Houten's lifelong friend Mary Anne Beckers, who grew up in the 1950s next door to the Van Houten family in the Los Angeles suburb of Monrovia. "She was a child with a lot of joy. I idolized her in many ways."
Leslie was twice elected homecoming princess. "She was the only person I remember in high school who never got into the gossipy scene. She was always so kind," recalls Leslie's pal Linda Grippi. "The worst thing I could say about her is that she was a lousy baritone in the school band."
Soon, you could say much worse. After her parents divorced when she was 15, Van Houten began to drift. She had an abortion she says she did not want, plunged into drugs, broke with her family, tried to become a Kelly Girl temp and when she failed at this, eventually disappeared into the drug-stoked world of Haight-Ashbury. She hooked up with a trio of drifters and lived out of a truck. One of them, Gypsy, kept spinning tales of a fabulous spiritual man she knew. His name was Charlie.
When she finally met him, she remembers being surprised by his advanced age and diminutive size.
"He had been built up so big."
Within a month, the little man was running her life.
The Manson teachings were simple:
The attainment of true love required complete destruction of the self, and he was there to help them purge themselves of their tainted core. They had to become empty, dead shells that could be refilled with his love, his reality. He wanted compliant followers, sheep drained of everything but unwavering devotion to and dependence on him.
"Part of his setup was to make us feel very ashamed, and to not trust our intuition, or conscience. He redefined those. The things that we were taught as children were drilled into us as deliberate manipulations by our parents and society to contain and control and to remove our free spirits. They were our prisons, and he was there to free us.
"And, when the trips were over, instead of sitting with someone and saying, 'You know, what he said last night sounded kind of screwy,' everybody fed into it."
Sexual inhibition was definitely considered an undesirable remnant of the ego, and indiscriminate lovemaking was designed to break it down. After all, they were supposed to be one. Women, Manson said, were intended only to service men, to bear their children. Men were created to be kings -- with Manson the king of kings.
Part of Van Houten's responsibilities on the ranch was entertaining local bikers. "I thought I was trying to bring them into a good thing," she says. It was only later that she came to realize why Manson wanted them around -- they were his security for drug deals -- and how she and some of the other women were being used as payment.
"I was more than easy," she says.
A dangerous change was coming over Manson by the early months of 1969, not incidentally an unsettled time for much of the country as it followed news accounts of race riots and swelling political protests. Van Houten remembers the acid trips becoming more violent, the message more urgent. Once, Manson took her on a terrifying dune buggy ride to the edge of a cliff and ordered her to jump. "You might as well," he told her, "because if you ever leave me you're as good as dead anyway."
It was during this period that he started speaking of the inevitability of a race war, an apocalyptic battle in which blacks long oppressed by whites would rise up and slaughter them. The Beatles, he told the group, were sending him messages of the coming Armageddon through their "White Album," with such titles as "Helter Skelter," "Revolution" and "Piggies." He played it endlessly, deciphering countless references to what was coming. He was also taking clues from the Book of Revelation.
During the battle, the Manson Family would be safely ensconced beneath the desert in the Bottomless Pit, where they would be transformed into deities and come to rule the Earth when the blacks discovered they were incapable of doing it themselves.
It was of course insane. It lacked even the warped internal logic one sometimes finds in the conspiratorial ramblings of paranoid schizophrenics. Manson's followers bought it absolutely.
"I really believed I was going to be three inches high and grow fairy wings," Van Houten says.
So, all was primed. But first had to come Helter Skelter.
Leslie Van Houten discusses the murders in that same emotion-masking tone. Yes, she went into the LaBianca house. Yes, she held Rosemary LaBianca down while Patricia Krenwinkel stabbed her so hard the knife bent against her collarbone. Yes, when Mrs. LaBianca struggled, Tex Watson finished the job with a bayonet. Yes, Tex then told her to stab the body too, because Manson had ordered that everyone get dirty, and, yes, she did it, 16 times. She thinks Mrs. LaBianca was already dead, but she will never be sure.
Yes, she changed into Mrs. LaBianca's clothing.
Ate the LaBiancas' cheese.
Drank their milk.
In the 25 years since the killings, Leslie Van Houten has written more than a dozen letters to the son and daughter of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The LaBiancas have never seen the correspondence. Leslie tore them up, never mailed one. She never intended to mail them. They were exercises in therapy, in the management of guilt.
Why didn't she send them?
Van Houten seems surprised by the question. Because such letters, she says, whatever sentiments they embraced, however humbly they were phrased, however much regret they expressed, would amount to a request for a favor. They would be asking for forgiveness.
"To me, it would be just an absolute intrusion," Van Houten says. "I cannot imagine what they go through. And I think that for me to make an attempt to contact the man and woman who have not had their mother because of me is a really pretentious, insensitive act. I wouldn't."
The first trial was a circus, with the defendants shaving their heads, carving X's in their foreheads, acting wild, disruptive, even threatening. Manson once physically attacked the judge. Van Houten said she had no remorse for anything. "Sorry," she said, was "just a five-letter word."
Van Houten says that her behavior at the trial was one of her greatest regrets. "It was. You know, giggle and laugh, just smartass smart alecks. It was an offense to the basic premise of what makes our country what it is. It's still an amazing system, where you're not just sort of taken out and shot. And we were laughing at that, at everything."
An Interlude of Freedom
Amid the cluster of family pictures in Jayne Malone's Laguna Beach, Calif., home hangs a framed shot of Leslie Van Houten in 1978, her face radiant as she sits behind the wheel of her borrowed MGB convertible. Nearly 10 years after the murders, she was free on bail.
Even people familiar with the case forget this fact: For a few months in 1978 Leslie Van Houten was a free woman. She had been released when her initial conviction was overturned on grounds of ineffective counsel. A first retrial ended in a hung jury, with four jurors wanting to reduce the charge to manslaughter. A second retrial sent her back to prison for life.
In the interim, she impressed herself forever on Jayne Malone.
Jayne met Leslie 20 years ago through her husband, Michael, who was a professor of English literature at Chaffey College. Michael was teaching Shakespeare at the prison. Mrs. Malone first heard Van Houten on a tape her husband had made of his classes and was impressed by the intelligent and cheerful voice she heard.
"I loved her almost from the beginning.
"You know when you meet somebody, whether you're thinking about it or not, you sort of make a judgment. And I was very comfortable with her. ... We're interested in the same things. We love to talk -- and talk and talk -- and I haven't the faintest idea what we talk about. Both of us are interested in crafts, and she's a marvelous needleworker. She does fantastic things.
"Leslie is my daughter and my friend. She's as close to me as my own children. I'm sharing her with her mom and dad, who are friends too."
Van Houten stayed with Linda Grippi, a Los Angeles high school teacher, for a time during her release. It was a period Linda remembers fondly, teaching Leslie how to drive again and taking her along to her ballet classes. "I'll never forget her trying to keep up, spinning and twirling, laughing the entire time."
Grippi remembers the impact Leslie had on some of her students who were flirting with drugs. "I don't know what she said to them, but whatever it was, it straightened them out." Grippi says she remains close with some of her former students, who still ask her about Van Houten.
"I have the utmost respect for her."
Neither Grippi nor Malone found it at all surprising that Van Houten returned to court to face her second retrial, instead of bolting. Van Houten says running was unthinkable.
First, she says, her family was "very financially immersed in my freedom," through loans to make her bond. But she says she had a more important reason.
"Escaping is like still running away. Fearing, not completing. I live for the day that it's said, Leslie, you've paid."
The convicted murderess drove herself back to court.
By the time of her sentencing in 1978, it had become apparent to everyone that Van Houten was a changed, and chastened, individual.
The sentencing judge, Gordon Ringer, seemed distraught as he sent her back to prison for the rest of her life:
"It is melancholy.
"I've made up mind what I'm going to do. The difficulty is explaining the reasons why I'm going to do it to Miss Van Houten, to her counsel, to her family, who obviously love and support her, and also to explain it to those who are not of her family that have written in support of her.
"The two opposing sides talk about two different times. The district attorney talks of 1969, the defense talks of 1978.
"Talking of those two sets of years is talking about two different philosophies of the criminal justice system, one of which emphasizes punishment, deterrents, isolation, the other of which, without regarding the elements I just mentioned, relies upon rehabilitation.
"I have to consider the progress which Miss Van Houten has undoubtedly made with what was, in fact, the barbarous deed that was done and the barbarous means that were used... .
"This case is a special one. It will burn in the public consciousness for a long period of time. ... And that in this case, even though progress has been made, the balance must, in my judgment, be drawn on the side of punishment."
The Prison Record
The rehabilitation of Leslie Van Houten has been chronicled voluminously in prison records for more than 20 years; there is one half-blemish. In 1982, she married a loser named Bill Cywin, an ex-con she met at the prison. She says bluntly that she did it for sex; married prisoners get occasional conjugal visits.
Cywin, she says, had told her he had gone straight. He hadn't. When he was arrested for grand theft auto, he had a female prison guard's uniform in the trunk. She promptly divorced him, and he went to jail.
Was he planning to break her out of prison? If he was, she says, he never told her, and she would never have cooperated: "I told him if he ever got in trouble I would divorce him. And when he did, I did."
An investigation found no evidence to implicate her in any escape plot.
Prison psychiatric reports have chronicled a remarkable transformation:
* Nov. 28, 1980: "It has been said by others before me, but I would still like to repeat in summary that in my clinical opinion, Leslie's personality growth is genuine. I find no contraindications to parole but, rather, many positive attributes and strengths which should serve her well in the future in terms of redeeming herself in the society she has wronged. ... From all my experience with her, I want to say emphatically that there is no 'hidden' Leslie." -- Ruth E. Loveys, PhD, clinical psychologist.
* April 4, 1985: "Leslie is no longer delusional. Beyond that she has done an excellent job of maturing into a well-rounded adult who would never again allow herself to be involved in antisocial behavior. She is not, of course, perfect, and will continue like the rest of humanity to have certain weaknesses and to make her share of mistakes. Her marriage was an example of that, but her quick response to rectify her error is an example of her present strength and character. I see no contraindication to her release on parole other than the public outrage concerning the senselessness of the murders." -- Lloyd H. Cotter, MD, staff psychiatrist.
Nov. 1, 1989: "Ms. Van Houten has truly impressive confirmation of her many outstanding personal qualities in the Central File. There is also much confirmation of her freedom from a significant mental disorder, and her extremely low level of dangerousness is confirmed at this time. It is abundantly clear to this examiner that none of the previous traits and behavior contributing to her instant crime are operating now; in fact, she can only be the subject of much continuing commendation for her inspiration to others with her efforts to improve the conditions around her." -- R.N. Armstrong, MD, MPH, staff psychiatrist
And finally, three voices:
"I really had high hopes for Leslie, more so than any of the others. I mean the others I've always maintained the position that I don't think they should ever be paroled, but I really saw a spark in Leslie, because I've always thought she was the smartest and maybe the most normal of all of them."
This is Stephen Kay, a deputy district attorney and Van Houten's most vocal critic. Involved in her case since the beginning, has attended all the parole hearings and spoken in opposition every time.
For a time, he said, he had hopes for her rehabilitation. But those soured after the aborted jailhouse marriage. He says that illustrates a continuing pattern of poor choices that began in high school.
He continues: "She goes to high school, she gets good grades, she's popular, she's homecoming princess and then what does she do? ... She admitted on cross-examination at the first retrial that she started taking drugs and that her peers were not into drugs.
"Well you've been to high school, I've been to high school, that is not normal. That's not how Miss Popularity, Miss Homecoming Princess acts."
Her attorney, John Markham:
"Once when I was meeting with her, I brought in a box of Good & Plenty candy. As we were talking, I remembered I had them, and offered her some. She almost physically recoiled. They aren't allowed to have food brought in to them. She's almost square. ... Leslie is clearly not dangerous. None of her devoted circle of friends think she is. No one at the prison who observes her daily thinks she's dangerous. All reports have endorsed her as a very good candidate for parole. Given this, she should be paroled."
Leslie Van Houten:
"If I were out tomorrow, I would want a very quiet, private, humble life. And I would hope I could find a job that would offer me a way to take care of myself, in a comfortable way, meaning a car and gas. My idea of comfort is pretty simple. Luxury to me is the kitchen sink's not in the bathroom."