Outside the Manson Pinkberry

The following day I spent some time with the Manson Bloggers. We had ventured out to the northwestern fringes of Los Angeles County; the area that the Manson Family once claimed as their home.

There, the state owned most of the land, and a church was located close by with a ten-foot cross situated atop a hill. However, the Manson Bloggers had something else in mind; they were looking for the Manson Tree – an ancient oak with a gnarled trunk where Charles Manson was known to sit and play guitar.

We had to climb over a highway barricade to get to the old oak tree. As we got closer, I noticed something strange hanging from one of its branches – a sweet potato-like object or a lumpy, orange doll. Deb told me it was a cow’s tongue.

It was unmistakable when I got a better look, a length of moist muscle, and inappropriate in a way. It was covered in rainbow sprinkles, the same kind you’d put on a child’s ice cream.

The white rope was connected to the tongue at one end and a bottle of fish-oil pills at the other. In the bottle was an AA battery, and on the ground was a crumpled H&M shopping bag.

I and the Manson Bloggers stood, transfixed, in bewilderment. The items before us – the tongue, the rope, the sprinkles, the fish-oil bottle, the battery, the H&M bag – seemed to hint at some obscure ritual, a macabre combination of cult murder, high-end fashion, and dietary supplements.

To say I was spooked would be an understatement. However, the bloggers seemed to accept it as the norm. Maybe the unusual was more part of their everyday lives than mine. Or perhaps they were just more accustomed to discovering sinister messages in the unlikeliest of places.

One year back, I had taken a special trip operated by Dearly Departed, a company that focuses on Los Angeles death and murder sites, known as the Helter Skelter tour. It usually sells out on weekends, although there isn’t a lot to witness.

Scott Michaels, the founder and main guide, created a soundtrack of 1969 hits, such as “In the Year 2525” and “Hair”.

He also added multimedia, for instance clips from Sharon Tate’s earlier films and Jay Sebring’s guest appearance on the old Batman TV show. The tour feels like a road trip through central LA, in the company of strangers wearing skull ornaments. Many of the places can’t be seen or don’t exist anymore. The Tate-Polanski home on Cielo Drive has been destroyed, and the LaBianca’s murder site in Los Feliz is mostly concealed by a hedge.

As Michaels brought the bus to a halt in Los Feliz, he gestured across the street. “That Pinkberry,” he said, “was once home to a pay phone which Rosemary LaBianca’s son used to call his sister the day he found his mother and stepfather dead.”

Our group, which comprised of two Australian newlyweds wearing matching Museum of Death shirts, a mother-daughter duo in light gothic clothing, a man in a Red Sox shirt from Boston, and a man in a leather jacket sporting an unnerving grin, all took out their cameras for a picture. Subsequently, we proceeded to a parking lot, where Michaels informed us that “This flower shop used to be a gas station. It’s the same gas station that Tex Watson may have refuelled his yellow 1959 Ford at the night he killed Sharon Tate.”

The atmosphere in the parking lot was eerie and a bit surreal, prompting me to shiver. As an afterthought, Michaels added, “Oh, this is also the flower shop where Ruth worked in Six Feet Under.” I snapped another picture.

As we drove past the house, Michaels pointed out that this was the location where the perpetrators had washed their hands with a garden hose. “My goodness,” Leather Jacket remarked, noticing the garden hose in the driveway. I quickly snapped a photo of it. Michaels commented that the people living there didn’t appreciate us coming by, but he reminded us that they didn’t own the street either.

The two of them then discussed the difficulty in finding and buying a carving fork, which was similar to the one that Tex had used to etch the initials “WAR” into Leno LaBianca’s abdomen.

We took a break in the middle of our journey so Michaels could use the restroom. I then bought a cup of coffee from a taco truck and stood among the smokers, in the hopes of meeting someone new.

The group was quite talkative, in a manner similar to fan conventions or trade shows. Red Sox said he had read Helter Skelter two times for the tour, making his total twelve. He was also a follower of Michaels’s celebrity death photos website. His favorite celebrity death photo was either of Chris Farley or Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. He noticed my strange reaction and said, “I’m just saying, if it happened to you, I wouldn’t look at photos of you.”

I expressed my gratitude, even though I felt insignificant.

The van traveled through Laurel Canyon and it started to rain. The precipitation was light and typical for a gloomy LA day. Michaels handed out a folder filled with crime scene photos and autopsy reports.

I briefly scanned it, having already seen this material before. Instead, while stuck in traffic, I looked outwardly at the nail salons and doughnut shops. None of these places had been linked to any deaths that I was aware of.

In high school, I was drawn to Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book Helter Skelter, which was popular for its crime-related content, as well as its captivating cover. I was curious to uncover the secrets of the Manson Family, which it promised to reveal. I read it avidly and fantasized about being under the spell of a crazed leader, ready to do whatever he asked – even if it was something criminal.

Charlie’s popularity among teens is evident due to the pseudo-deep slogans and misdirected rage. The thought that pain has a positive purpose–to teach–is a common theme. Bugliosi’s description of the Manson Family’s aesthetic was an adolescent vision of the sixties, including the music of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, along with a fascination for Satanism, motorcycles, long hair, and trippy murals on vans.

I, a teen in the late ’90s, had a strong interest in the 1960s, especially the Manson era. My unhappiness was unexplainable, and I felt out of place in my large, dull high school. In the evenings, I conversed with a twenty-something New Yorker I had never met in person and was starting to engage in an eating disorder. My theory of this feeling of discontent was that I didn’t fit in with my own era. To cope, I wrote essays on Vietnam draft dodgers and retrieved my dad’s Rolling Stones albums from the attic.

The way crushes usually go, my feelings were idealized and misinterpreted. In my view, the 1960s were a utopia where the younger generation had control and being strange was tolerated. Additionally, people felt as though they were part of a grander cause, giving their lives purpose and urgency. There was a certain inimitable distinction between then and now, with then being much better than the present.

Leslie Van Houten was the Manson Girl I often fantasized about being friends with, with her attractive hair and high intelligence.

During high school, Leslie was a popular figure who was voted homecoming princess two years in a row. Sadly, her parents’ divorce caused her to lose her social standing and she began to associate with other teens from broken homes.

Drugs like marijuana, LSD, mescaline, DMT, and mushrooms became a source of escapism for her. At her 2013 parole hearing, Leslie mentioned that taking drugs “took her away from who she was at that moment,” and when asked what was wrong with her, she answered that “she felt out of place.” As a seventeen-year-old, Leslie became pregnant and her mother convinced her to have an illegal abortion in her old bedroom.

Before joining the Manson Family, Van Houten had tried various lifestyles. She initially explored the idea of becoming a nun, and then briefly lived in an ashram. In 1968, at the age of nineteen, she encountered Charles Manson.

At the beginning, people perceived Charles Manson as a kind individual with a mysterious, educated aura. His devotees thought of him as an elf or an angel, and they associated him with the hallucinogenic world they had constructed. They delighted in running around shoeless and discussing sorcery. The burgeoning Manson Family worked to eliminate their selfishness and be like a finger, an instrument made to execute a more elevated objective.

In a period of several months, the cult-like mentality of the Manson Family evolved into something much darker.

Themes of love and whimsy were replaced by knives and fear, as they began to entertain ideas of a race war on the horizon. The use of drugs, such as LSD, may have stayed the same, but the addition of speed was noted. The night of the Tate murders, Van Houten was not present, causing her to feel excluded and questioning her loyalty to the group. The following night, when Manson allowed her to join them for the LaBianca murders, she was relieved as she was finally included in the events.

At sixteen, the chaotic, sometimes crazy experience of growing up is relatable to the attraction of stories involving murders, cults, and cult murders. It is not uncommon for teenagers to be interested in these kinds of tales, in the same way they might be drawn to melodramatic young-adult novels.

By the time I graduated from high school, however, I had outgrown my fascination with these dark topics, and Charles Manson had become as shallow to me as a design on a T-shirt. This fanfare of murder seemed like a reminder of a more tumultuous time, something that could be easily wiped away, like off-brand eyeliner.

Time does not take away the fixation for certain individuals.

Dozens of regularly updated Manson Family websites exist, with Evil Liz’s Manson Cult now being known simply as the Manson Family Blog. This blog contains a vast array of recent photos of the former Manson Family members and their associates.

Although Leslie Van Houten and the other famous Manson Girls are still incarcerated, the blog instead puts its attention on the more marginal figures, who would merely be known within this particular niche. The Manson Bloggers utilize multiple methods, such as, allegedly, taking advantage of Facebook’s careless privacy security, to acquire pictures of these people in the present.

To someone who isn’t familiar with the situation, these photos would appear mundane: a mature-looking woman sitting on a bench and tightly holding a water bottle; a small female standing on the shore, accompanied by three lads–could they be her boys? It’s not because they have ever taken someone’s life–they haven’t–but because when they were fourteen, nineteen, or twenty-three, they had the misfortune or bad judgment to be friends with individuals who did.

Four decades have passed since the Manson Family, yet some of its former members altered their identities or converted to Christianity, desperate to leave their violent past behind. The bloggers of the Manson Family Blog have received angry emails, requesting their pictures be removed. It is easy to understand why they wish to disassociate themselves from their former selves, but the blog is a constant reminder that they are still connected.

The Manson Bloggers devote considerable amounts of time to conversing with one another over digital platforms such as email, chat rooms, blog posts, and blog comments. After a few years, they decided to bring their relationship to the real world and meet face-to-face. The experience was so positive that they now plan a yearly trip to Southern California to explore sites related to Manson.

I had come away from the Manson bus tour feeling unsatisfied, believing there was something I had yet to uncover. When the Manson Bloggers let me join them on their next trip, I was ecstatic. But when I told anyone what I was about to do, I became awkward and timid. It was essential for me to make it clear that my fascination with the Manson Family had ended; rather, I was curious about people who still found Charles Manson intriguing, since that was no longer me.

In the weeks before the journey, I still had little information about the Manson Bloggers despite the fact that I was going to stay with them in the four-bedroom house they had rented for the occasion. When I arrived at LAX, the idea I had looked good on paper but seemed less appealing in practice.

The springtime air in Southern California felt gentle and smelled of car fumes and blooms. On the radio were playing soft-rock hits from the ’70s, and I was thankful for the traffic which delayed the time when I would have to go into a dwelling of unfamiliar individuals and attempt to make conversation about the infamous forty-year-old cult murder.

When I arrived at the Manson Bloggers gathering, they were so engaged with one another that they scarcely noticed me.

They were discussing various topics with the enthusiasm of model-train aficionados. I got myself a beer and attempted to comprehend the lively chat about unsolved murders in Northern California and Roman Polanski’s sexual inclinations.

It was difficult as the Manson Bloggers were conversing in a language exclusive to their group, full of acronyms, pseudo names and obscure references. They were talking about minor Manson Family members as if they were close acquaintances, not saying a word about their families, employment or the everyday occurrences of life.

The following day, we traveled to Chatsworth to meet Stoner. He spends his time at the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park, searching for artifacts. Over the years, Stoner has managed to discover bedsprings, light switch plates, charred wood, a spoon, and a belt buckle. Most of them are approximately forty years old and appear similar to rubbish.

Like most relics, their significance lies in the people who have handled them, the things they were near, and what they may have observed. Stoner believes he has located Spahn Ranch – a cowboy/porn movie site where the Manson Family resided for a short period of time, escorting visitors on horseback rides, getting drugs from bikers, and shooting soft-core porn.

Stoner had a black goatee and sported a FREE LESLIE VAN HOUTeN T-shirt. He told me he had been interested in the Manson Family since his time at Beverly Hills High School in the 1980s, where he drew portraits of Charles Manson in his notebooks rather than the Iron Maiden logo. When he went to prison for the first time, he was sent to Corcoran, the same place Manson has been held for years.

During rec periods, Stoner would often sit in the yard and simply look at the walls of the building in which Manson was held. “People would ask me what I was doing and I wanted to say, ‘Let me just sit here and observe for a moment, alright? He’s right over there and this is as close as I’ll ever get.’ ”

The Manson Bloggers and I were delving around in the sandy soil with our hands. A person discovered a curved ceramic fragment, maybe from a mug. I uncovered a corroded penny, from 1968. Stoner, with his many tattoos and amiable, pleasant face, insisted that I take it.

Stoner is somewhere between homeless and having a home right now. After showing us the dig site, he brought us to where he’s currently staying–his friend’s apartment in Chatsworth.

His artifacts are all placed carefully on flattened cardboard on the small concrete patio. People in the market for items that Charlie once touched know that Stoner is the person to get in touch with. Recently, he sold a penny from Charles’ era for twenty dollars. His most popular item is the nails, to which he simply responds with a shrug and the explanation “symbolism.”

Despite the fact that the Manson Girls have been unable to escape the circumstances of their adolescence, in 1977 Leslie Van Houten received a retrial for the murder of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.

After multiple months of testimony and a 25-day deliberation, the jury ended in a deadlock, with 5 of the members voting for manslaughter and seven for first-degree murder. The prosecutor refused to negotiate and insisted on a third trial. During the gap between the end of the second trial and the beginning of the third, Van Houten was released on a $200,000 bail. She had been in confinement for the previous 8 years, a lot of which was in solitary.

In the time after her release, Van Houten rejoiced in her liberation by joining her mother at the beach and participating in a pizza-and-Scrabble bash held by her lawyer. She was delicate, appreciative and easily startled.

Grocery stores made her nervous. One of the joys of being free, she told a companion, was “ironing, the smell of clean clothes, and walking down a sidewalk.” She worked as a legal secretary and decided against changing her name. She was aware that her period of freedom was something of a trial–she had to demonstrate that she was able to exist in the world without any problems. She succeeded in this for half a year.

At her third trial, Van Houten was convicted of two counts of felony robbery-murder and given seven years to life in prison. When she became eligible for parole in 1980, due to her good behavior in and out of prison, she was cautiously optimistic. However, her parole was denied. According to her, one of the board members insinuated to a reporter that she was like “that girl with eight personalities,” showing that they did not understand how she could be so normal now and had still been involved in the crime a decade ago.

Van Houten’s parole hearings were a continuous sequence of apprehension and disappointment.

The families of the victims, who were required to give accounts of their sorrow at each hearing, found the unvarying narrative of the murders to be both physically and mentally draining. As a result, the LaBianca family was part of a consortium which supported a California law that enabled parole rejections for up to fifteen years.

After each refusal, Van Houten complied with the parole board’s advice precisely: she had more therapy, donated her time, studied more, and participated in additional help groups. Nevertheless, at each hearing she was once again turned down for a set of varying causes: either she was not demonstrating enough remorse or, if she did express it, it was seen as self-aggrandizing. She either did not say sorry or the words she used were not deemed suitable.

The hearings of this case are accessible to the public, and the transcripts can be easily read online.

It is evident that the parole board is attempting to come to terms with a challenging issue: Is Leslie Van Houten the same individual at thirty, forty, fifty, or sixty-five as she was at nineteen? If she is not, it could be seen as an indication of an inner instability, as well as a possible risk of her committing another crime. However, if she is the same person, then this raises the question of if she is capable of taking another life.

Two other members of the Manson Family convicted of murder, Tex Watson and Susan Atkins, discovered a faith in Jesus while behind bars. They attributed their sins to the devil. I can sympathize with why a murderer might be drawn to a new start in life. It provides an opportunity to reinvent one’s identity. Nevertheless, Van Houten has declined to take advantage of such an easy answer.

In 2013, Van Houten’s application for release on parole was declined for the twentieth consecutive time.

At the hearing today, you were unable to articulate why you, a smart individual from a decent family, would commit such terrible acts. You have been unable to explain the transition from Point A to Point B. Despite this, I still cannot understand the reasoning behind your actions.

I had the chance to spend an evening with the Manson Bloggers, who were enjoying some beers while discussing the inexplicable fascination that a murder that did not involve them had become for their lives.

At first, Patty was in it more for the conversation on the eBay message boards than the money. She was an avid reader of true-crime books, too. Then one day, she went online to look something up from a book about Manson and found the blogs. The blogs turned out to be much more interesting to her than selling on eBay.

Deb was adopted as an infant and experienced a sense of being misunderstood in her teenage years. In adulthood, Deb taught herself how to deal with local records, with the aim of tracking down her birth mother. She had expectations of a grand reunion, with mutual acceptance and the mending of a broken world.

However, when she finally located her biological mother, she was a drug-addled prostitute and there was not much to say. This caused Deb much distress for a period, though she is now more stoic about it. The Manson Family Blog provides Deb with an outlet to utilise her detective skills, as she is able to locate almost anyone.

Max Frost is a thirty-something Hollywood stunt-car driver and odd-job man from Los Angeles. He is a typical example of a certain type of person there; someone who lives on the periphery of a thriving system, propped up by road rage, chain smoking and dark comedy. It is easy to tell that his life did not go as he had imagined.

He used to be deeply interested in Manson – especially the local stories and how everything wove together so eerily – but had to take a mental break from it due to his tendency towards obsession. However, a few years ago he started to look at the websites again, and his interest in the topic was resurrected.

At the conclusion of our five-day stay, the Manson Bloggers had converted our rental abode into a comical imitation of the chaotic Spahn Ranch. They would stay up late, conversing and drinking beer, appearing to feel liberated from the boundaries of their regular existences, thus allowing them to flout regulations.

Matt, who is very health-conscious, exclaims that he never eats pizza even as he is consuming a slice.

I have not been able to feel a part of the house yet. The fandom of the Manson Bloggers is excessively draining. They appear to be endlessly confident and lively. So, I decide to claim a headache and head to my bedroom. While lying in bed, I can still hear their content chatter, faintly echoing.

In my later twenties, I encountered a resurgence of my fixation with the Manson Family. I attributed this to a deep sadness that I felt and nicknamed it the “black rock”, even though I was embarrassed by the melodramatic nature of the name. Nevertheless, this resonated with me and I accepted it as true.

I was prepared for the heavy feeling of depression and its strange effects on time, but was not expecting the embarrassment that came with it. There was something immature about the sadness, how it made me self-centered and craving attention. It was not a comforting experience. My reading interests focused exclusively on Charles Manson and I consumed only Cheerios and Dove Bars while listening to Cat Power. My face broke out for the first time in years; it was like a nightmare of getting back in high school and feeling awkward and anxious, knowing that my adult maturity and patience were illusions. It was like I had never left that place.

After dinner the following evening, Max showed me a compilation of his clips from YouTube. He had been part of the Brat Pack at one point. So we sat on the couch and saw Max hit Charlie Sheen in the face, which seemed theatrical yet amusing.

Afterwards, Max was dressed in a leather jacket and driving recklessly, with a look of arrogance. It was an odd feeling, being next to him as he watched himself. If one wanted to suffer from nostalgia, seeing oneself with movie stars from long ago would be an effective approach. Time had created an immense gap between then and now, with a depressing, irreversible march to the future.

Max had an amused expression as he watched himself in another scene. The close-up of his face was gentle and youthful. Even when he grimaced, he was still quite attractive.

The setting was a cafeteria that seemed very much like something from my own nightmares until I realized it was from 90210. Max was flung into a table, causing trays to fly. Just before the food fight broke out, the clip ended. The grown-up Max chuckled at his own anger and all the experiences that had led him to that point.

An old conundrum initially written by Plutarch, though it may be much older, is the story of Theseus and his ship. After slaying the Minotaur, Theseus returned to Athens and the Athenians venerated his ship as a symbol of his victory. For years they kept it in good repair and replaced any damaged boards. Eventually, even after Theseus had passed away, no part of the original ship remained. Despite this, it was still referred to as “the ship of Theseus”. John Locke’s version of the story includes a much simpler example with a beloved sock which is patched up many times until none of the original material is remaining.

This paradox used to be disheartening to me in both its sock and warship forms. I interpreted the moral to be that despite any significant internal or external changes, you are still yourself.

The one thing you can’t escape is your own physical form. Your cells are constantly regenerating, yet they continue to construct you the same way. Looking at it this way can make life seem like a confinement or a prison.

Recently, I’ve been questioning my understanding of life. During the last few years, I’ve noticed that my friends have started having children. I observe something normal yet magical, in which I can recognize my friend’s features in their babies. Having known some of these infants since they were born, I get to watch them grow and still be able to identify their face. Miracle is not an exaggeration when it comes to this concept: something remains the same even while it is changing.

On a hot summer day, the Manson Bloggers and I went on a trek down a steep hill close to Spahn Ranch. We were seeking something, and when we got there, we discovered a decrepit car in the dirt. It is believed that Manson Girl Mary Brunner had convinced a car salesman to let her take it for a spin, then absconded with it. Afterwards, the Family removed the parts and discarded the car off the cliff we were standing on.

It was amazing to witness it happen. And now here it remains, a reminder of her experience, regardless of whether it was purposeful or a misstep. Matt and Stoner reverently touched the chassis with joy. I followed suit. I reflected on the Manson fragments still embedded within me, vestiges of something adolescent and theatrical and unsettling. And how, perhaps, they’re not ruins, but rather relics. Treasures from a distant past.


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