“At 14 I became one of Charles Manson’s girls.
At 17 I helped put him in prison.”
On December 13th 1971, cult leader Charles Manson was convicted of first-degree murder for the July 25th 1969 death of music teacher Gary Hinman and the August 1969 death of Donald Jerome Shea. He was ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment, following the abolishment of the death penalty in California in 1972. Altogether, Manson and his cult “family” committed several murders, gaining notoriety for the murder of actress Sharon Tate and four other people in the home she shared with director Roman Polanski on August 8-9th 1969. Tate was notably pregnant at the time.
The atrocities committed as part of the Manson family “helter-skelter” scheme are renowned and have been the subject of much media coverage, as well as countless documentaries and published works. Dianne Lake’s Member of the Family, however, provides an alternative insight into Charles Manson’s cult, from the perspective of a woman who, through no fault of her own, became embroiled in his scheme, yet ultimately sought psychiatric help and played a pivotal role in sentencing Manson.
As someone reasonably well versed – and, I’ll admit, slightly obsessed – with Charles Manson’s cult, I was initially skeptical about what Lake’s book could offer, almost 50 years after the fact, that all of the other examinations of the cult could not. To my surprise and pleasure, however, Member of the Family is not just another “expose” of those already-documented events. Rather, it is the harrowing tale of a young girl sadly neglected by her parents, desperately in search of a family.
Split into three parts, the first portion of the book deals with Lake’s early life, which was far from simple. Her father suffered severe bouts of depression after serving in the Korean war, leading him down a path of infidelity and drugs. At the age of 9, during a visit to her grandparents’ house, she was forced to bathe with her grandfather under the charade that she was now “old enough to know where babies come from.” For both accounts, she largely blamed herself and, particularly in her home life, was forced to step up to the plate and support her mother in raising her two younger siblings.
It was ultimately drugs that led her parents to the decision that they needn’t care for their daughter anymore, at which point Diane Lake was introduced to Charles Manson, and became part of the family. Their connection is interesting – Lake has remarked retrospectively that, as a vulnerable 14-year-old, she felt like Manson’s “one and only love”. The parallels between both lives are striking; both Manson and Lake were victims of abandonment, and felt deep shame and resentment during their youth, as Manson’s mother was a chronic alcoholic and subsequently served jail time. That is not to sympathise with Manson, merely to highlight the similar experiences that no doubt contributed to the members of the family’s appeal to one another.
In her discussion of the years she spent with Manson, Lake spends much time highlighting his skills of manipulation, which he used both on her and on those who he tasked with committing his crimes. Even during their first meeting, she notes the way that he moved his hands slowly in front of her person until she quickly became aware that she was to follow his every move. Like a puppet does a puppeteer. She did not, however, commit any murders, and it is that aspect of the book that separates it from other first-hand accounts of such acts. Whilst others are still lamenting their crimes and seeking redemption, Lake sought help after escaping Manson’s clutches, and now has the perspective to analyse exactly what happened – undoubtedly an integral part of her recovery process.
When speaking of his arrest, Lake calls Manson’s demise her “second chance,” and the chance to rebuild her life. Since then, Lake was married with a family, but it was not until 2008 that she told her children that she knew Manson, which she says only made the unit stronger. It was likely her husband Todd’s death from skin cancer in 2013 prompted her to write the book, as its conclusion proves quite illuminating. She talks of a time with no secrets, noting that “secrets are dangerous things,” and, as we step into an era rife with talk of sexual misconduct and inequality, Lake’s book not only highlights her experiences with Manson but also serves as an illuminating account of a victim’s neglect and abuse.
Dianne Lake’s Member of the Family is available March 8th 2018 on Harper Element.