Charles Manson: Madness and the Snake Who Slithered Away

Charles Manson at the time of his trial. He had carved an "X" in his forehead to indicate he had "X'd" himself out of society. Many of his femaile followers immediately did the same. He later turned the symbol into a swastika.
Charles Manson at the time of his trial. He had carved an "X" in his forehead to indicate he had "X'd" himself out of society. Many of his femaile followers immediately did the same. He later turned the symbol into a swastika. Flickr/DrollGirl
Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties
By Dianne Lake and Deborah Herman
384 pp.
William Morrow

Dianne Lake was just 14 years old when she joined Charles Manson and his cult of slavish followers – just let that sink in for a minute. At 16, members of “The Family” went on their gruesome two-night murder spree, and at 17 she found herself in a courtroom testifying against her former friends, helping to put them behind bars where most of them remain.

With news breaking last Sunday of Manson's death at the age of 83, interest in all things about the former cult leader and his related crimes will be high in the coming weeks. And no, despite lazy journalists, he was neither a "serial killer" or "mass murderer." Manson himself did not actually participate in the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders, only ordering his followers to commit the crime. Though he was later convicted of taking part in two earlier murders.

Book cover by William Morrow
How she ended up there was no surprise, as her father and mother would be up for the Worst Parents Ever award. In their own self-absorbed quests to achieve High Hippiedom, they gave their daughter and encouraged usage of pot at 13, LSD at 14, and would randomly leave her with older men and women of dubious intent to be used as a sex object or nude photography subject.

Or they just might leave her somewhere, assuming she’d find her way home somehow. Home for the family of five was a converted bread truck that would allow them to pick up and go wherever, whenever.

Not that the young girl minded much at the time – she was into it, because it gave her the only value she could get. But when leaving juvenile hall after a hearing with her parents and literally face with choosing the family vs. The Family, she ran straight to the converted school bus and into the arms of Charles Manson and her overjoyed “sisters.” It’s where she felt most at home. She embraced the nickname "Snake" given to her after she recounted an acid-fueled vision of slithering through the grass.

Having read most of the books out there on the subject – including lodestones Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, The Family by Ed Sanders, and various memoirs by former Family members, Lake’s take on life with Manson is the most clearheaded, insightful, and – and this is important – most explanatory of the group.

click to enlarge Lake's 10th grade school photo, 1970,  after leaving the Family when she was living with foster parents. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DIANNE LAKE/WILLIAM MORROW
Lake's 10th grade school photo, 1970, after leaving the Family when she was living with foster parents.
Photo courtesy of Dianne Lake/William Morrow
From firsthand knowledge, she really goes deep into dissecting the appeal of Charles Manson to his ragtag followers, and the techniques he used to maintain control and manipulation over them. He was indeed the Father Figure that most of the runaway and cast off girls (and some boys) wanted. But he was also their Brother, Lover, Leader, and…well…Jesus Christ returned.

Lake’s descriptions of evenings at their Spahn Ranch hideout which might include a musical performance, sermon, ingestion of pot and acid, and group sex – there was always group sex – are recounted in detail, and anecdotes and stories not in any other book are abundant.

And while living accommodations and food scouring wasn’t always pretty, Lake and the Family drew strength and support from each other – though always, always under Manson’s watchful eyes. And if some man he wanted to impress for status or supplies took a shine to a girl? Well, Charlie instructed them to “be nice” to the guy. Or else.

“There is no doubt that Charlie took advantage of me. This small man oozed self-confidence and sex appeal, and as he would demonstrate time and time again in the months and years ahead, he knew exactly what she was doing,” Lake writes. “As I discovered the first day in the magic bus, when he focused his attention on you, he made you believe there was no one else in the world. He also had the uncanny sensibility bestowed upon mystics, yet misused by sociopaths and con men, to know exactly what you needed.”

But Manson’s message of free love and a utopian society and the Family’s place in it grew darker and blatantly racist after his songwriting career never took off. And Beach Boy Dennis Wilson – and enthusiastic but still amazingly sweet-natured devourer of Manson’s music and his women – withdrew patronage. His attempt to take over another religious cult also failed.

click to enlarge Dianne Lake today. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DIANNE LAKE/WILLIAM MORROW
Dianne Lake today.
Photo courtesy of Dianne Lake/William Morrow
That’s when Manson’s nightly sermons turned to preparing The Family for the apocalypse that was just around the corner, the inevitable fall out of the Race War coming. The “Helter Skelter” theory that blacks would win, but only Charlie and his followers could lead them when the dust and blood had settled.

He also became angrier more violent with his girls both physically and sexually – Lake harrowingly accounts a vicious anal rape by Manson in an abandoned gypsy caravan. And when she started hearing stories from Family members who participated in the murder spree, things began to go completely dark.

After a raid on the ranch where the Family were staying on an unrelated charge became to unravel, Lake was separated from the rest of the group when she gave her true age, and her testimony as the last major witness at their trial was crucial. Lake eventually found happiness with a husband and a career in the educational field, but kept her past a secret from most.

Member of the Family
is a riveting read, full of emotion in the telling for sober in its text. The story of Charles Manson’s cult and the Tate-LaBianca murders will never cease to fascinate. With Manson's death, the publication timing of this memoir is eerie. But then again, so has been so much about this story that has gripped everyone from criminologists to Beatles fans for nearly 50 years.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero