Why members of the Manson Family stayed

Susan Atkins (left), Patricia Krenwinkel (center) and Leslie Van Houten (right) during the 1970 trial that ended with their convictions of first degree murder

In March 1967, 32-year old Charles Milles Manson left a Southern California federal penitentiary and was paroled. He had served fourteen years of his life (well over half) in youth detention centers, reformatories, jails and prisons on charges of auto theft, mail fraud and pimping. During the 1960s, while serving time, he had two major influences:

  • The music of the Beatles; and
  • Self-help and psychology books he read in the prison library

One of Charlie’s favorite books from that era was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Later, he was introduced to Scientology by his cellmate, Lanier Rayner. Charlie received more than 150 hours of Scientology auditing from Rayner, and from L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings he began to understand that he was ‘an immortal spiritual being’ and not just a half-assed criminal from a shitty background.

Cult leader Charles Manson

This not only elevated his confidence, it validated his sociopathic belief that he was better than other people. But Scientology was not his only religious or spiritual influence:

“In prison there is every kind of belief imaginable. Some are good, some are bogus… If I saw a con who seemed to be on top of everything and in control of himself, I’d pursue his beliefs in an effort to see if I could strengthen myself through him… If I saw sincerity in the guys who were participating in group sessions, I’d find out which way they were headed. Though I wasn’t black, I picked up on what the Black Muslims were practicing. I did the same with the Indians. I found them solid in their beliefs so I watched them and began to appreciate their rituals and traditions. I studied hypnotism and psychiatry. I read whatever books I could find.” — Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press

Charlie left prison in ’67 and headed to San Francisco, right into the heart of the late ’60s counterculture movement and its’ epicenter, Haight/Ashbury.

Charlie would have quickly become acquainted with the street preachers scattered around the city. For every person seeking the truth, there was someone there to offer an answer. Most spiritual leaders of that era were harmless: vagrants with a soupçon of wisdom looking for a warm meal or a toke of hash in return. Others, like Manson, would prove dangerous.

Those first months in San Francisco, Charlie began to crib together the flotsam and jetsam of each of his prison-discovered belief systems and meld them into his own philosophy. That philosophy was largely based on living in the NOW — the present, that is — and disdaining of the traditions and rules imposed by the establishment. When he met a young assistant librarian that spring, 23-year old Mary Brunner (the first Manson Family member), Manson soon adopted her pro-environmental beliefs and folded them into his growing perspectives.

During the rest of 1967, Charlie began to gather a group of young people around him. Some were idealistic young people like Mary (who got pregnant by Manson), looking for answers in an ever-changing world. Some of Charlie’s followers were dropouts and teenage runaways. Some, like Patricia Krenwinkel, were just looking to be loved. Others like Susan Atkins and Lynette Fromme were seeking a dominant father figure. The group began to travel around the southwest together, with Charlie as the only male and leader, and the ultimate authority.

Members of the Manson Family during the 1970 trials. These three women sat on the sidewalk for weeks, in support of their ‘father’, Charles Manson

Readers: it’s important to point out that nobody joins a cult. That is, nobody who joins a cult knows, at the beginning, what is coming and the Manson Family were not exceptions to this rule. Each person forged a meaningful bond with either Charlie or in many cases, the other young men and women around him. If you want to know why there are Family members still loyal to Charlie and one another, this is the reason. They loved these people. They were accepted by these people. They gave everything to each another and they were deeply moved by the loyalty and love they received in return. They came to Charlie and one another after painful childhoods and together, created their first true family. The fact that the Manson Family turned out to be a cult is separate from the reasons why these people gravitated to one another, why they went to the lengths they did and why many still believe, all these years later.

Nobody joins a cult but also, nobody starts one either! The leader does not set out to start a cult. They form a church, an organization, a family. Manson may have had an antisocial disorder, he might have been a psychopath who was thoroughly institutionalized, but he clearly did not leave prison in 1967 with the intention of starting a religious or murderous cult… Charlie had read the Bible many times, during his years of incarceration. Most people in prison read the Bible — it can be a source of strength and provides examples of how people might overcome suffering. Jesus Christ, who was not just the Messiah but also a political enemy of the state, was someone that Manson had admired during his own years in jails and prisons. — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications

By early ’68, Manson and the women were in Los Angeles, putting him in proximity to contacts in the music industry. While he developed his music, he also found that this new, sedentary life of responsibility made him irritable.

That season, Mary Brunner was in her third trimester of pregnancy. What should have been an exciting time in her pregnancy was marred by the inconsistency of their life and Charlie’s anger. The others noted that from time to time, Mary sported a black eye. When pressed, Charlie threatened the other women to shut up about it. Charlie’s behavior was changing in early ’68. None of his followers left but they sensed a moodiness, a difference in him. Up until this time there were very few hints of Manson’s rage. He was charming, witty and warm to virtually everyone. Nobody knew how dangerous things would become or how hard it would be to walk away.

Between the spring of ’68 and the summer of 1969, the Manson Family grew to at least four dozen souls, and they bounced around Southern California. At one point they lived in a luxurious home rented by Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson. Other times they stayed at a meager ranch in Death Valley. On and off, they lived at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, a former Western television and film backdrop. In late ’68 Charlie heard The Beatles’ White Album for the first time and experienced what he believed to be a vision: the apocalypse, in the form of a black/white race war that would soon engulf the world.

Over the next several months, Manson’s delusions grew. He told his Family that they would survive the race war (which he called Helter Skelter) and he began courting a group of outlaw bikers, imagining them as his army when the shit hit the fan. Charlie was a sex trafficker, no doubt, and made sure that all of his women (including the underage ones) cozied up to the bikers to ensure their loyalty.

Patricia Krenwinkel was a member of Manson’s cult, later convicted of first degree murder for the killings he ordered

Manson Family member Patricia Krenwinkel recounted Manson’s escalating violence, years later:

“He began to do things like grab me by the hip. I remember when I laughed at him once and he jerked me by the hair and said, ‘You won’t ever laugh at me again.’ And then I started watching him beat Mary… When we were out in the woods… he threw knives over my head, he threw hatchets over my head into a tree… He, at times, gave me to other people to use for sex… The idea was to let you know that he always had that control… Between the drugs and the violence and my inability to make the correct decisions and to take my own life, get some self-respect back and just leave, I didn’t.” — Patricia Krenwinkel, from her 2004 Parole Hearing

Why didn’t these women leave? If not when he first started showing signs of violence, then later when it became more demeaning? Why did Pat stay when Manson first brutally beat her friend Mary, then tormented and humiliated her? In order to answer those questions, you need to understand cult mentality.

There are lessons to be learned with the Manson Family, just as there are lessons that can be learned, and wisdom imparted, from surviving members of other cults, like the People’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and more recently NXIVM. We can rightly ask why people stay in such demeaning, dangerous situations, which is why it is imperative that survivors of cults speak out. Several members of Manson’s Family have written books on their experiences with Charles Manson and that is a good thing. Even those who committed murder on Charlie’s orders have something valuable to teach us today.

But make no mistake, Charlie had a very particular gift at recruiting his followers that were based in the cults, religions and philosophies that he picked up during and just after his years in prison.

“Manson was an expert at selecting young people who were longing for an intense group connection, and he was skilled at reinforcing the bond that kept them together… In fact, it may be that the empathy they felt for each other, particularly for Charlie, made them so dangerous.” — The Manson Women and Me: Monsters, Morality, and Murder by Nikki Meredith ©2018 Citadel Press

Many young people join religious organizations in search of the truth, a sense of community, compassion and meaning. The members of the Manson Family are no different, except that their level of devotion ultimately led to the murder of ten innocent people.

As I researched and began writing my book, The Manson Family: More to the Story, I relied upon eyewitness accounts of Charlie’s increasing control, paranoia and brutality. Over a three-year period of time, a frightening vision emerged that not only showed how dangerous Manson was, but also how vulnerable any of us might be in similar circumstances. My research humanized most of Charlie’s followers, including some who are still serving life sentences for the terrible murders they committed 50+ years ago today.

After Manson shaved his head during the 1970 trial, so too did his female codefendants, as well as the protesters out on the sidewalk.

I already was predisposed to think of them as brainwashed cult followers as opposed to dangerous psychopaths but researching and writing this story made it clearer as to what each person was responsible for and what were the circumstances they were forced or coerced into.

Had Charlie been released from prison at any other time than the late Sixties, it’s possible he may not have achieved the levels of manipulation and notoriety he became infamous for. But it’s also possible that another Manson lurks among us now — someone on the borderline of psychopathy who will seek to dominate others and unleash a bloodbath — even though times are very different now. Dismissing the Family’s actions merely as part and parcel of the ‘weirdness’ of the Sixties is to fail to recognize the triggers that actually lie within us all.

Whether you believe that the killers were sociopaths, or brainwashed, or drug-crazed, the fact is that if we label them monsters and disassociate ourselves from them, we fail to understand how they wound up committing their crimes. We fail to recognize that if they could be pushed to do what they did, so can others.

It isn’t really possible to predict a Manson, but it’s very easy to prevent and predict young, vulnerable people who are susceptible to trafficking and manipulation. Knowing what motivated the Family helps us learn how to prevent these atrocities in the future, and how to protect ourselves.

It’s easy to label the killers as ‘monsters’. It lets us stand above them, to feel safe in our locked homes, secure with our kids, superior in our autonomy. But we are not autonomous — each of us behaves according to the social morés of our times and the influences around us. We can judge those who break the law, but haven’t we all broken laws? You may argue, “Yes, but I’ve never killed anyone,” yet have you ever asked for forgiveness for the wrongs you have done? Have you ever wanted a second chance? And did you deserve redemption?

The Manson Family killers are not monsters, although they committed terrible, despicable acts of violence and are deserving of punishment. Manson? Yeah, he was a monster. He never attempted to atone. He never expressed remorse for those he led astray, or their victims. He told us he never felt guilt for the crimes. Frankly, there was little we learned from Manson the past fifty years, beyond how to identify other monsters. But we do need to understand human beings who do monstrous things, like Charlie’s followers.


My argument is that we must understand what motivates people to join cults, even those who commit terrible acts in the name of misguided causes, so that we all can learn to protect the innocent from dangerous Svengalis, like Jim Jones, Keith Raniere, and Manson. We need to listen with compassion and understanding, to allow people once ostracized by society to share their stories.

Could you listen to a member of the Manson Family today explain why he or she joined this group and believed in Charlie’s doomsday message, and couldn’t find the courage or motivation to leave? Could you find empathy with someone who has had five decades to think about why they did something so terrible, for someone they believed they loved?

Would you listen to them if their message might protect you, or someone you care about?

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

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