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To one, he’s the man who saved her life. To another, he’s a vicious abuser who was only focused on his own preservation.
It has been 50 years since some of Charles Manson’s followers savagely murdered actress Sharon Tate and eight others during the summer of 1969—but many of the women who followed the charismatic cult leader now have vastly different views of just who Manson really was.
While some members say they feel “honored” to have met the notorious cult leader—who lived most his life behind bars before dying in prison in 2017—others now believe Manson “destroyed lives” of not only the murder victims and their families but also of many of his followers.
The Master Manipulator
For many, life with Manson began as an idyllic refuge—full of free love, acceptance, drugs, and a greater purpose to care for the natural world.
“He was the most confident person I had ever run into,” former Manson family member Catherine Share told producers of the Oxygen special “Manson: The Women.” “He was fun-loving and laughed, and just was having a good time, and everybody else was having a good time.”
But even during the group’s time living together as a “family” back in the late 1960’s—he’d often portray himself differently to each woman, based on her own needs and desires.
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To Manson follower Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel, he was a loving romantic partner.
“He was going to be her lover and she had visions of raising a family with him,” Nikki Meredith, author of “The Manson Women and Me: Monsters, Morality and Murder” told producers. “It soon became clear that there would be other women, but she accepted that.”
Krenwinkel said herself in 2014 that when the relationship began, she thought it would just be between Manson and herself.
“I can only tell you I have been with something that started only as one woman and one man that turned into the most disastrous, most horrendous, most abominable situations that could possibly come out if it,” she said, according to The New York Times.
To Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten, Manson served as more of a guru or spiritual guide.
“He was like Christ and he had all the answers,” Van Houten said in a 1994 ABC interview.
Manson also found a way to be just what Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme wanted. Fromme told producers of the Oxygen special that when she met Manson she had wanted to find someone who she could talk with about complex topics such as war and race relations—something her own father had never been willing to discuss with her.
“He had what I wanted,” she said of Manson. “He was discussing things with me. He was interacting. He was alive.”
Meredith said Manson “specialized in” being able to make people feel important and understood.
“He had the ability to pay attention, which picked up strengths, but most important, vulnerabilities and he knew how to manipulate that,” she said in the special.
The Manson Family’s Shocking Crimes
The group’s idyllic life on Spahn Ranch—a rundown old movie set for Hollywood Westerns—soon took a dark turn when Manson began to preach to his followers about an impending race war and the atmosphere of free love was replaced with horrific violence.
On August 9, 1969, at Manson’s direction, Krenwinkel, Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan “Sadie” Atkins and Linda Kasabian broke into the home of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and butchered the 26-year-old, along with Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Jay Sebring. Watson shot teenager Steven Parent outside the home before the carnage inside began, according to prosecutor Stephen Kay.
The following day the group’s reign of terror continued when Watson, Krenwinkel and Van Houten brutally slaughtered Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in their Los Angeles home.
The crimes seared the Manson Family into the public’s consciousness—and forever altered the lives of Manson and his followers.
50 Years Later
Now, five decades later, the women who once lived in the group have vastly different perspectives on their time with the cult and its leader.
Manson follower Sandra Good still believes Manson and other members of the “family” changed the course of her life in a positive way.
“I feel they saved my life,” she told producers of the special “Manson: The Women.” “I feel they really saved my health, my brain, my emotional health, my mental health, my physical health. I’m thankful to them all.”
She credits Manson with opening her eyes and teaching her about the “deep connection to the natural world” humans should have and the “dire consequences” that can result from not taking care of the environment.
“Children, animals, humans cannot survive without clean air, clean water, trees and our wildlife,” she said.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme also remembers Manson for his “big brain” and said he was a deep thinker who thought about issues “more widely” than most.
“He’s the smartest person I ever met and to hear him talk, to hear things about him, you’d never know it,” she told producers.
In an interview airing earlier this year as part of the ABC special “Manson Girls” Fromme admitted she still loved the cult leader.
“Charlie was misunderstood,” she said. “Was I in love with Charlie? Yeah, oh yeah, oh, I still am, still am. I don’t think you fall out of love.”
She told ABC she still feels “honored” to have met the ex-con.
“I feel very honored to have met him and I know how that sounds to people who think he is the epitome of evil,” she said.
Fromme, who went on to serve 34 years in prison for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975, has never wavered on her opinion of the cult leader.
“She’s unbowed,” George Stimson, Manson’s friend and author of the book “Goodbye Helter Skelter” told “Manson: The Women” producers. “She hasn’t been affected by 34 years in prison and 50 plus years of negative publicity in order to change her mind because she knows what happened and she saw it.”
But while Fromme and Good remember their former leader fondly—many of the other women in the group have a decidedly different opinion of Mason and view him now as nothing more than an evil manipulator.
Share describes Manson now as a person who “is just pure self-preservation, doesn’t mind who they put under the bus, who gets killed and who gets blamed for killing something” as long as Manson himself survives it.
“It was all about Charlie from the beginning,” she said.
At times Manson would be physically violent with his followers—severely beating a pregnant Share one time because she had forgotten to pass on a telephone message.
“He wasn’t the devil and he wasn’t Jesus Christ,” she said. “He was just a very damaged human being, and we had no idea how damaged he was.”
His catastrophic influence continues to leave a mark on many of those who knew him well.
“He destroyed lives,” Share once said in 2009 according to the Associated Press. “There are people sitting in prison who wouldn’t be there except for him. He took all our lives.”
Dianne “Snake” Lake—who joined the group when she was just 14 years old—told producers of the Oxygen special that she now considers herself to be victim of both sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Manson.
It’s a realization that took years of perspective and distance from the cult leader.
Manson began having sex with her when she was just 14 and beat her on several occasions.
When Manson died in 2017, she said she felt relief.
“I thought it was just a tremendous weight lifted,” she said.
Even those women who were once willing to kill for their enigmatic leader have denounced Manson for decades, also expressing deep remorse for their own role in the crimes.
Krenwinkel believes that countless lives were “shattered” by Manson and the group’s gruesome crimes.
“I gave up every little bit of me to that man that demanded every little bit of me,” she said according to The Times. “I didn’t realize that I gave up the person that I could have been.”
She has fully accepted her role in the murders and said she views her life as “broken beyond repair” but has worked hard to try to make a positive difference in the years since she’s been in prison.
“I guess when I start thinking of myself mostly the word that comes to mind is what a coward I found myself to be when I look at the situation and what I allowed myself and where I allowed myself to go,” she said.
Van Houten also continues to struggle with her decision to kill.
“To tell you the truth, the older I get the harder it is to deal with all of this, to know what I did, how it happened,” she said in 2017 according to Newsweek.
Both women remain behind bars, despite repeated attempts before the parole board.
Atkins died of a brain tumor at the age of 61 in 2009. Although she had once taunted the court at her sentencing saying “You’d best lock your doors,” and “watch your own kids,” according to The Los Angeles Times, Atkins later found Christianity and denounced Manson.
Meredith believes it was ultimately Manson’s powers of manipulation that caused him to have such a significant impact on the lives of so many women he once knew.
“He seduced them on many levels,” she said. “And he was very good at it.”
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