Going Down the Rabbit Hole with the Manson Family

And discovering something about myself in the process

Members of the Manson Family in 1970 at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, California

For more than a year, I have been writing here at Medium about the Manson Family — the late 1960s cult responsible for some of the most gruesome murders in American history, including the slaying of pregnant actress Sharon Tate.

My articles have been inspired by the 2019 true crime book I published, The Manson Family: More to the Story as well as the inquiries I receive via social media about the Family, the crimes, and the victims. As a researcher, my natural inclination when asked a question I don’t know the answer to, is to start chasing those answers.

A mugshot of Charles Manson from August 1969 — just a week after the Tate/LaBianca murders. Police were investigating the Family on auto theft charges and had no idea they were suspects in several slayings in the Los Angeles area. Charlie and the Family were released a couple days after their arrest.

Here’s the first uncomfortable truth: Writing about the Manson Family has become my primary source of income. During COVID, my research business dried up and left me scrambling for other sources of earnings. I did not plan for that true crime book about Charles Manson and his cult followers to become the heart and soul of my business, but like many other entrepreneurs, I found myself resorting to drastic measures this past year. Some of my choices were based on interest from readers and social media followers. Some of my choices were based on my own interests — like the book I published about Manson’s natal chart. I am hopeful that other avenues in my business will open up for me and I won’t have to rely upon true crime writing as much, but until then, this is how I’m surviving. I know many other business owners who are doing things they, too, never imagined just a year ago to survive.

Here’s the second uncomfortable truth: It takes a lot of energy out of me, to research and write about the Family. Yes, I am interested in this bit of history — particularly the sociological aspect. What can we learn from victims of cults and even those who perpetrate crimes on behalf of dangerous cults? I find myself often presented with one small question and then chasing answers down infinite rabbit holes. It fuels a part of my brain, this research, but it’s also emotionally exhausting. There are times I just want to let the whole thing go but again, right now, this is all I have to earn a steady income and I do believe there is value in presenting what I believe is the truth, to the public.

Here is the third uncomfortable truth: I may have begun this research project in order to educate the public about the real story of the Family and why they killed nine people and what we can understand about human nature through their experiences, but I sometimes forget that the former members of the Manson Family aren’t just ‘subjects’ — they’re flesh and blood human beings.

The three convicted female killers in the Manson Family: Murderers, Victims, Humans. From left: Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins, Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel and Leslie ‘Lulu’ Van Houten. Susan Atkins died in prison in 2009. Pat Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten remain in prison as of March 2021.

That was brought home to me just yesterday when I received an email. The sender explained that their mother was a former member of the Family and they were uncomfortable with something I had shared at my blog.

The sender was very respectful and kind in the way they reached out to me — they weren’t accusatory or shaming — and they were totally right. In exploring one aspect of the life of the former Manson Family cult, I had shared information that actually wound up being discovered by the people I was writing about.

Now, there’s an argument to be made about revealing the truth; warts and all. There’s a case to be made about presenting information that might illuminate and educate the public, allowing us to better protect ourselves from dangerous sociopaths like Charles Manson was.

But there’s also the fact that my greatest hope is not that I’ll reveal the ‘truth’ to the public, but that the former members of the Family — particularly those who have never spoken out (like the mother of the individual who contacted me this week) will do so. These survivors have stories to tell. Some of them were victimized, some of them victimized others, some experienced both. But we have so much to learn from those who were in cults and managed to move on with their lives. The very last thing I want to do is further alienate those people by writing in any way that causes pain or shame or the inclination to retreat further. And so I unpublished the information in question, and several other articles in the same vein.

The Manson Family women dumpster-diving for food in 1970

Can I be a conduit for the survivors of the Manson Family, to open a dialogue about what drew them to the cult, how it changed them, and what the consequences have been all these years later? Yes — perhaps. But not if my own message is that of revelation. Or if I permit myself an anonymity in my writing that I don’t extend to others.

The last uncomfortable truth I discovered is that while researching and chasing leads and building ancestry trees for my subjects and going down that Manson Family rabbit hole feeds a certain part of my brain — I’m more interested now in listening.

What can you teach me?

How has your experience affected you and those you love?

What do you want the world to know about what you endured?

If we want survivors of cults — even ones who resorted to violence like certain members of the Manson Family — to tell us their stories, we have to not only stop using language like “they’re cut from a different cloth than the rest of us” (prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi) which alienates them and prevents them from speaking up. But we also have to be willing to listen without judgement or an agenda.

I’m ready to shut up and listen. I’m sorry if I chased that rabbit so deeply and so devotedly that I failed to remember that former members of the Manson Family and their children and their grandchildren, have access to the internet, too.

Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series. https://www.mansonfamily.net/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store