The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten
Life Beyond the Cult
Northeastern University Press (24.95)
by Meleah Maynard
Karlene Faith met Leslie Van Houten in 1972, when the warden at the California Institute for Women asked Faith to expand her teaching duties to include the "Manson girls," who were being housed in a separate unit designed for those awaiting execution. Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel had all been sentenced to death three years earlier for their roles in Charles Manson's two-day murder spree "Helter Skelter," in which seven people died. Since then, however, the California Supreme Court had abolished the death penalty, effectively sending the three young women to prison for life. The warden thought they should at least have the opportunity to take classes like the rest of the prison population.
Faith was immediately struck by how intelligent and well spoken the young women seemed. The media had made them out to be brutal killers and here they were doing needlepoint and offering her a cold glass of grape Tang. She was especially taken with Van Houten, who was only 19 when she and several other members of the Manson family broke into the California home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca and stabbed the couple to death. A different group of Manson followers had murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others the night before. The plan was to make it look as if the seven wealthy white people had been murdered by blacks. This, Manson reasoned, would spark the race war that would ultimately free black people from their oppression by whites. Twisted as that logic sounds, Van Houten and the others believed it-they were under Manson's spell. It's been 30 years since that spell was broken. Van Houten is 52 years old. And she is still in prison-a fact Faith finds so unbelievably wrong she has written an entire book telling us why her long-time friend ought to be released to live a normal life. She's reformed, Faith writes. Keeping her in jail any longer is just cruel.
You see, Van Houten didn't actually kill anyone. Charles "Tex" Watson murdered Rosemary LaBianca and then asked a distraught Van Houten to stab the body, presumably so they would all be equally responsible. Van Houten took the knife and, as if in a trance, plunged the blade into the dead woman's lower back and buttocks more than a dozen times. Later she would tell the court that she felt like "a shark with its prey," "a primitive animal, "a wildcat who had just caught a deer."(page 44) It's a horrible scene. But it isn't murder, Faith contends, insisting over and over again that if it weren't for the hype and publicity surrounding this crime, Van Houten would have been a free woman a long time ago.
That's probably true, but unfortunately readers won't care much about what happens to Van Houten because we never really get to know her-it's as if Faith invites us to meet Van Houten and then never lets the woman talk. What's memorable about The Long Prison Journey is Faith's detailed history of the Manson clan and her retelling of how the sweet-talking ex-con managed to ensnare so many trusting young people. With this writing, Faith may well have purged some of her pain and vented her indignation at the system that has kept her friend behind bars for so many years, but she has succeeded less in her stated purpose-to "humanize" the book's subject.