“Charlie Says” and the Santa Cruz Prison Project

Joan Didion, Again

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.” This ubiquitous Joan Didion quotation, from her essay “The White Album” (1979), appears in approximately one gazillion accounts of the Manson Family murders, and now it serves as the opening title card to the 2019 film Charlie Says. The film is a serious feminist project and a shock, on many levels—not least because one of its major sources is feminist criminologist Karlene Faith’s book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten (2001). The book, and now film, asks important questions about the 1960s and 1970s and attempts to find new ways to talk about the “Manson women”—Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins—who took part in the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969. The film centers on consciousness raising as a significant force in the prison rehabilitation project of the 1970s and suggests on more than one occasion that reading books by feminists was a central tool for each of the Manson women to regain a more authentic sense of self—a sense that had been attacked and degraded by years of living with cult leader Charles Manson.

Van Houten, Krenwinkel, and Atkins were members of the Manson Family, a commune or a cult, depending on who is writing, and, ultimately, a criminal enterprise. No serious observers question whether the Family was responsible for the seven murders that took place over the two nights in August. Questions of motive and responsibility still bedevil us, though: some recent scholarship and activist work has promoted the idea that the role played by the women of the Family in these crimes must be understood in the context of the emotional abuse and physical violence they experienced at Spahn Ranch, the Family home.

Early on in their incarceration, Karlene Faith and her comrades (mostly graduate students) who formed the Santa Cruz Prison Project proposed a narrative organized around the idea that these young women were victims as well as villains. Faith and the rest of the participants in the Santa Cruz Prison Project took seriously the proposition that prison rehabilitation and feminist praxis could be brought into meaningful synergy. Invited into the prison by Virginia Carlson, the warden of the Special Security Unit where the Manson women were incarcerated, Faith and her cohort proceeded to teach a feminist curriculum. The convicted killers never argued with the premise that they had followed Manson’s orders to enact the murders over two nights. But Faith operated from the principle that the women had not been acting as free agents. The Manson women lived in a commune with Charles Manson after escaping families of origin that were, for the most part, abusive and/or neglectful; they were then additionally injured by Manson’s relentless patriarchal program of family building. Manson, himself a product of years of incarceration and by all accounts a master of manipulation, used a variety of techniques (equal parts Scientology, Dale Carnegie, and direct physical control) to break down the agency of these women. Karlene Faith and her cohort believed that the Manson women could be rehabilitated, but first needed to come to an understanding of themselves as abused victims of Charles Manson.

Cover of Creepy Crawling. (©Arcade Publishing)

Faith spent years directly engaged with Krenwinkel, Atkins, and especially Van Houten. I corresponded with Faith in 2014, when I was diving into the research for my book on the cultural legacies of the Manson Family (due out in paperback form as Charles Manson’s Creepy Crawl in July). At that point she made it clear that she had no interest in selling her work; she explained that she was regularly contacted by “people (usually men, often lawyers) who want to make contact with [Leslie Van Houten], or who want my/her help with a planned film, theatre piece etc.” “I reply briefly,” her email continued, “and turn down all requests.” But she said yes to screenwriter Guinevere Turner some time after they met in 2015. Director Mary Harron and Turner came to the project with queer and feminist bona fides that may have appealed to the radical feminist (and lesbian) criminologist Faith.

Faith and the Santa Cruz Prison Project

Turner and Harron trot out the too-familiar Didion quotation to frame a film that completely repudiates the writer’s passive-aggressive attempt to shut the door on the thrilling, liberatory potential of so many 1960s-era cultural and political innovations. This is a movie, after all, that is centrally concerned with the power of feminist consciousness raising! The movie captures a fascinating reality about crime and its aftermath. As Rachel Monroe contends:

[Our] lives aren’t split into a before and after; in fact, they haven’t changed much at all. Maybe, if we’re Joan Didion, we have a panic attack and start to lock our front door. Meanwhile, the rest of us eat our oatmeal and do the crossword puzzle as always, only with an occasional shiver of dread: something horrible happened somewhere else today. Most of us, at least. But there are many ways to be a victim of a crime, and not all of them look like you might expect.

This idea emerges in Charlie Says as a feminist analysis of the Manson Family as a site of terrible domestic violence and trauma. It is the structuring principle of this revisionist film. Charlie Says is forthright in its depiction of the horrors of the two nights of murder, but it also insists that viewers take seriously the proposition that the perpetrators might be rehabilitiated.

When Karlene Faith begins her teaching work with Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel, one of the first things she does is pull out the bible of the women’s health movement, Our Bodies, Ourselves (the first commercial edition was in 1973) to share with them. As the movie unfolds, she also shares the crucial collection of feminist writing Sisterhood is Powerful (1970) and Del Martin’s Battered Wives (1976). To bring Faith’s (and her own) point home, Harron regularly stitches in flashback scenes, which serve to remind viewers that Manson engaged in a long campaign of control of the women of his commune. From individual acts of violence, including beatings and rapes, to the establishment of more diffuse and pervasive structures of male privilege (men always ate first at the communal dinner table), Charlie Says shows Manson to be a terrifying, bad father—albeit one with long hair and a leather-fringe coat.

Charlie Says, Women Do

Charlie Says makes the case that the tragic murders of August taught many lessons, including the central one seized upon by Karlene Faith and her colleagues working with imprisoned women in California—that countercultural and New Left Women were struggling under patriarchal control in ways that often got hidden under layers of social experimentation. Our archive of revisionist feminist historical work in this arena has been growing for some years; I know that I could not have done my own research without the pioneering work done by Alice Echols (in her 2000 biography of Janis Joplin and elsewhere), Gretchen Santangelo (Daughters of Aquarius, 2009), and Lisa Rhodes (Electric Ladyland, 2005), just for instance.

Screen shot from the official trailer for Charlie Says. (©IFC Films)

The makers of Charlie Says attempt to build on the radical feminist optimism anchoring the work of Karlene Faith and her comrades in the Santa Cruz Prison Project. It does not seem likely that their central premise—essentially that the Manson women were something like the “battered wives” Del Martin wrote about in the 1970s—will get much traction in today’s political arena: California governor Gavin Newsom recently overturned the recommendation of his state’s parole board that Leslie Van Houten be released from prison after serving nearly 50 years. Newsom was, no doubt, influenced by victims’ rights advocates, who insist that only the horror of Van Houten’s crimes should be considered. The victims’ rights movement—which has some roots in feminist theory and practice of the 1970s—has come to work as a right-wing lobbying juggernaut, supporting a range of cruel juridical and carceral policies. When it comes to the incarcerated women of the Manson Family, the activists arrayed under the victims’ rights banner argue that there is no evidence we need to admit to the record outside of the horrific crimes: in essence, they agree with Joan Didion that the 1960s ended with the Tate-LaBianca murders in August, 1969.

But the feminists who made Charlie Says, by focusing on the work of the feminists who developed the Santa Cruz Prison Project, remind us that decades are fictions—they don’t really end. The terrible crimes committed by the Manson Family allowed plenty of privileged people (including Joan Didion) to exhale a sigh of relief, retreat into spaces of relative power, and observe passively as the cruel forces of reaction began deploying the example of the Manson Family as proof that all of the experiments of the counterculture needed to be obliterated. But Charlie Says reminds us that some committed activists explored pathways that could lead to rehabilitation instead of repression.

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