The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult

by Karlene Faith (criminology professor)

Leslie Van Houten was sentenced to death, along with Charles Manson and his other disciples for the infamous murder rampage spanning two nights in August 1969. Leslie, who was present at the Rosemary and Leno LaBianca stabbings, serenely accepted her sentence, wishing only that she had better served Manson in carrying out his apocalyptic vision of “Helter Skelter.” This work presents the first in-depth look at how this “girl-next-door” became one of Manson’s “girls.” It also tells about Karlene Faith’s (a criminology professor), thirty-year friendship with Leslie, whom she met while teaching in prison. Filled with accounts of political injustices, this powerful book moves the reader to rethink the meanings and limits of guilt and punishment.

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Reader Comments:

“Writing a biography of a personal friend must be a very tricky business. Karlene Faith met famous Manson murderess Leslie Van Houten almost thirty years ago, and has proven an effective advocate for her eventual release. The relationship between the teacher and the reformed cult member is touching and very real, but it undermines this book as a chronicle of a criminal’s transformation from delusional disciple to remorseful, decent soul. Rather than focus on Van Houten’s thoughts and feelings during her three decades behind bars, Faith uses the book as an apologia and rationalization for the prisoner’s choices and behavior when a very young woman. The author seems to have only a vague realization of the monstrousness of the crimes committed, and lays the blame squarely on the mastermind, exonerating her subject and casting her as a victim in the same mold as those who lost their lives. Van Houten herself seems to have a clearer view of her own culpability, and it would have been interesting to hear more about this from her own mouth. The book does cast a disturbing light on the inequity and gross politicization of the justice system. Van Houten’s crimes, and her admitted participation in them, should allow for the imposition of a true life term, and so far the system seems intent on doing so. It’s shocking to read, then, that all of the other prisoners on death row with Van Houten when the death penalty was suspended were released from prison within a few years. It seems that when no one is watching, the justice system plays by some very inept and unfair rules. Certainly Van Houten poses no further threat to society, while the prison system routinely ejects predators with murderous histories and no sign of reformation. Though thick with pages full of psychobabble and research into cult psychology, there are enough anecdotes in the book to humanize the subject and make it an interesting read. Van Houten does come across as an obvious candidate for legitimate parole. But Karelene Faith’s blind approach to this polarizing subject may be the last thing Van Houten needs.”

John Van Wagner

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