Sep 17, 2018

How Cults Take Hold in Hollywood: The Myth of Manson and Beyond

Charles Manson
E! Online
September 17, 2018

The thing about cults is... no one who's in a cult is going to admit they're in a cult.

They're being enlightened and empowered, they've been shown the way, a better way to live. The hole that's always been there has been filled. They've finally found their people.

Their people, however, are generally being led by one guy (it's almost always a guy, though women can be master manipulators, too) and his ostensibly empowered minions, some of whom inevitably end up being women—because women are used to make other women comfortable.

All of this would appear recognizably insane to an outsider.

But when you're in it... outsiders just don't understand.

"No 'why.' We never asked why," Sandra Good, a member of Charles Manson's "family," says in a decades-old interview with a filmmaker shown for the first time in Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes, premiering tonight on Fox. Good later spent 10 years in prison for making death threats against corporate executives on radio and TV.

"Whatever we had to do," adds Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, one of Manson's most devoted acolytes, who spent almost 34 years in prison for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford and was paroled in 2009. "We leave our house open, to the soul. Leave our mind open."

"Charlie is love," was the gist of their beliefs, according to Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 book Helter Skelter, the definitive account of the Tate-LaBianca murder trial.

That's the thing. If you're in the cult, you're the one with the open mind, while the poor saps on the outside are busy living their small little lives.

Listening to that sort of talk can't help but bring to mind Smallville star Allison Mack, who so far appears to be standing by NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, a self-help guru who founded a leadership seminar program that's attracted a number of prominent students over the years—but who earlier this year was charged with sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and forced labor conspiracy. Mack has also been charged with those crimes; federal investigators allege that she, empowered by Raniere, recruited women to a group-within-the-group called DOS to be groomed as sex partners for Raniere. According to former members, including actress Sarah Edmondson, the women were branded with a symbol that incorporated Raniere's initials.

NXIVM's practices, even just as a business, had been under scrutiny for two decades. When women started to speak out about what came to be known as DOS last year, NXIVM directed NBC News to a statement declaring that the company "firmly opposes and condemns violence, victimhood, dishonor and abuse."

In response to Raniere's arrest in March, NXIVM said in a statement on its website that they looked forward to Raniere's innocence being proved.

"We strongly believe the justice system will prevail in bringing the truth to light," the company stated. "We are saddened by the reports perpetuated by the media and their apparent disregard for 'innocent until proven guilty,' yet we will continue to honor the same principles on which our company was founded. It is during the times of greatest adversity that integrity, humanity and compassion are hardest, and needed most."

"I think everyone needs a mentor. I don't think any of us really know the answers without a little bit of wisdom," Mack told FineMagazine last year. "If you aren't willing to be humble enough to seek wisdom from other people, I think you're missing a lot of really incredible opportunities to build a certain amount of depth and value in your life that you wouldn't have if you didn't have somebody to help guide you. I chose to have this mentor in my life, and I was talking to him about my struggle, confusion, and not knowing what to do. He said, 'Why don't you take some time and think about? Give yourself some space to figure out who you are now.' So that's what I did."

Mack told the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, before Raniere's arrest, that DOS was "about women coming together and pledging to one another a full-time commitment to become our most powerful and embodied selves by pushing on our greatest fears, by exposing our greatest vulnerabilities, by knowing that we would stand with each other no matter what, by holding our word, by overcoming pain."

Both she and Raniere have pleaded not guilty on all counts. Since their arrests, Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman—who along with sister Sara Bronfman has reportedly given Raniere millions of dollars over the years—has been charged with conspiracy to commit identity theft and racketeering conspiracy. A class-action lawsuit was filed against Sara on Sept. 4, the plaintiffs alleging she purposely misled them about Raniere's credentials and the promise of NXIVM's "Executive Success Program," and that their money ultimately went toward financing a criminal enterprise rather than bettering themselves.

"I think it's a cult," their father, Edgar Bronfman Sr., told Forbes in 2003. The spirits mogul, who died in 2013, said at the time that he hadn't spoken to his daughters in months.

A former NXIVM member sued the company last year, alleging in court documents, "This company is a cult preying on vulnerable men and women who are looking for a credible self help program. Unless forcible confinement, branding, sex with students, and taking people who disagree with the program to court is a bona fide business in New York then I suggest all fees and tuition collected are baseless and fraudulent."

"Nxivm operates largely in secrecy," the criminal complaint against Raniere states. "Nxians were often required to sign non-disclosure agreements and to make promises not to reveal certain things about Nxivm's teachings."

Manson's operation didn't involve NDAs or thousand-dollar seminars. He had his female followers begging in the streets. They scavenged in dumpsters and were in and out of jail for loitering and other petty offenses. One similar through-line is that Manson had sex with the women, and fathered at least one child during the several years the Family was together. And he used his female followers to make other women feel safe and to attract more men into the Family.

David Koresh also had sex with multiple women and underage girls who lived at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas—once they had "the light," they were told—before a fatal encounter with ATF and a disastrous FBI siege resulted in the deaths of more than 80 people, including 22 children. All was revisited this year in the limited series Waco; John Leguizamo is nominated for an Emmy for his role as an ATF agent who goes undercover as a regular-guy neighbor to better monitor their comings and goings.

Mack, who has been living with her parents while awaiting trial, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 1, hasn't made any public comment about NXIVM or DOS since her arrest.

Those who choose to leave the group are portrayed among members as being out to destroy NXIVM, the New York Times reported last October.

Former Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg's new book, Captive: A Mother's Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult, details her efforts over the past year to get her daughter, India Oxenberg, out of Raniere's alleged clutches. Only recently did India start spending time with her family again, after initially disputing anything was wrong and calling whatever she was going through "a character-building experience."

"I never gave up," Catherine told E! News last month. "I must be hard-wired as a mom, I'm not capable of giving up. Even in the hopeless moments I just kept persevering and trusting that it would turn around." She said India would speak about her experience in her own time and, until then, she vowed to protect her daughter's privacy.

During the ordeal, "I educated myself," Catherine explained. "And the experts I reached out to said there's nothing that I did that created some predisposition, that I didn't cause anything, that it wasn't my fault, that anybody can be susceptible." That was news to her, she revealed, that "anybody at certain points in their lives can be vulnerable to being influenced, manipulated and deceived by a group like this."

Mark Vicente, a former NXIVM higher-up who directed a flattering documentary about Raniere's work called Ignite the Heart, told the New York Times that his views started to change once his wife left the program and subsequently became persona non grata among members. He also heard rumors about a secret society.

"No one goes in looking to have their personality stripped away," Vicente said. "You just don't realize what is happening."

Dianne Lake, aka "Snake," who at 16 was a fully committed member of the Manson Family, ended up becoming a key prosecution witness at the Tate-LaBianca murder trial—though after nearly two years of regular LSD use and emotional and physical abuse, she needed some time to get her facts straight. After nine months at a psychiatric hospital, she was finally able to get Manson's voice out of her head. Enough to testify, anyway.

"There was one officer in particular that really treated me with respect and, like, a tenderness," she recalls in Inside the Manson Cult. "It made me feel safe enough to start telling the truth."

Not surprisingly, her former "family" thought she was the one who had been brainwashed.

"She's a very young girl, and by the time the D.A. had gotten through with her, she was speaking their language," Sandra Good explained in the filmmaker's interview. "She's just like a baby, she can be molded any way anyone chooses to mold her."

Despite their dedication, meanwhile, neither Good nor Fromme was called upon to commit murder on the nights of Aug. 9 and Aug. 10, 1969. Those are the nights, respectively, when seven people were brutally killed by Family members Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten.

Atkins died in prison and the rest all remain locked up after being denied parole multiple times. Manson, who was also convicted of first-degree murder for orchestrating the killings, died in prison on Nov. 19, 2017.

While Manson's deranged philosophy—that the Beatles' White Album contained hidden messages about an imminent race war between black and white people and it was Manson's job to trigger the chaos, the "Helter Skelter"—would have been the stuff of legend on its own, the fact that one of the victims was actress Sharon Tateboth terrified the rest of Hollywood in the moment and ensured that the Manson Family would have its own chapter in pop culture history (as well as countless treatments in print, music and onscreen, including Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

Paul McCartney told NME recently that, naturally, what transpired stopped him from performing the song "Helter Skelter" for years. He's been closing sets with it lately, though.

"I thought, I'm not doing it, you know, because it was too close to that event, and immediately it would have seemed like I was, either I didn't care about all the carnage that had gone on or whatever, so I kept away from it for a long time," the former Beatle said. "But then in the end I thought, you know, that'd be good on stage, that'd be a nice one to do, so we brought it out of the bag and tried it and it works. It's a good one to rock with, you know."

Or as he said on Marc Maron's WTF podcast, "For years I wouldn't do that song. I felt like if I did it, it would be a victory for [Manson]. Then I thought, 'Wait a minute, I wrote it!'"

Moreover, Manson was crazy.

"I don't really remember it being impressed on me that we were going to start [the race war]," Lake recalled to E! News. "At one point I was left [at Barker Ranch, near Death Valley] with some other people, and this was the first time that i hadn't really been a part of the inner, original group...I felt abandoned and I had an opportunity to go back, and I did, and Charlie was furious with me."

When Lake returned to Spahn Ranch, where Manson was based when the murders took place, more than ever she got the sense that he was definitely preparing for...something. "It wasn't like the happy, smoking marijuana, listening-to-music kind of thing anymore," she said. "More energy was being put towards a survival mode in the desert." By then she had been with the Family for a little over a year.

Manson, who had been physically abusive to her, was still mad she had left Barker without his permission, so he, of all things, took her back to her parents. They too were hippies who had already exposed her to drugs and commune living by the time she was 13, and then didn't mind when she went to join Manson at 14.

"But I couldn't handle it," Lake said. "I only heard Charlie's voice in my head, and his songs...and at that point I had been with Charlie and his programming for too long, and I just couldn't survive, mentally, in the outside world." She returned after a few days; Manson continued to shuttle her around to different locations until, eventually, "he took me back."

Among the things she told investigators later: Tex Watson had told her that he stabbed Sharon Tate, because Charlie had ordered him to kill. Leslie Van Houten, who had only participated in the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca on Aug. 10, 1969, had told her about stabbing someone who was already dead.

But Manson wasn't just some boogeyman lurking in the shadows. He was a frustrated musician who felt that his songs were the truth and it was only a matter of time before they were spinning on record players everywhere. And because he had the charisma of a cult leader—and it was a less cautious time, with more welcome mats and fewer security guards—he managed to weasel his way into the consciousness (and homes) of wealthy, successful and substance-enjoying types like Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.

In 1968, Wilson—who earlier in the year had hung out with the Beatles and the Maharishi in India—picked up two teenage girls hitchhiking, and brought them back to his Sunset Boulevard home.

"I told them about our involvement with the Maharishi and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie who'd recently come out of jail after 12 years," Wilson told the Record Mirror that year. "He drifted into crime, but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas. We're writing together now. He's dumb, in some ways, but I accept his approach and have learnt from him."

Wilson, who died in 1983, financed a studio session for Manson and introduced him to his bands mates, brothers Brian and Carl Wilson, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston. Neil Young remembered the aspiring artist in his 2013 memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, in which he wrote about meeting Manson at Wilson's house.

"After a while, a guy showed up, picked up my guitar, and started playing a lot of songs on it," Young wrote. "His name was Charlie. He was a friend of the girls and now of Dennis. His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was quite good."

Eerily enough, the Beach Boys song "Never Learn Not to Love," off their 1969 album 20/20, is a reworked Manson song, originally called "Cease to Exist." That didn't go over well with Manson, who had his family start stealing items from Wilson's house, ultimately costing him a reported $100,000.

The original version of "Cease to Exist" can be found on an album Manson recorded between 1967 and 1968 called Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. It was released in 1970, after the murders.

Manson also met talent scout Gregg Jakobson, whose father-in-law at the time was comedy legend Lou Costello, at Wilson's house. According to Helter Skelter, Jakobson introduced Manson to producer Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son, who when he met Manson was living at 10050 Cielo Drive.

At Jakobson's urging, Manson played his music for Melcher, but Melcher passed. Talent manager Rudi Altobelli, the owner of 10050 Cielo Drive, also met Manson at Wilson's house, and he had dismissed his music as "nice" before going about his day. On March 23, 1969, Altobelli later recalled to Bugliosi, Manson showed up at the Cielo Drive property and said he was looking for Melcher, who had moved to Malibu with his then-girlfriend Candice Bergen. Altobelli had been showering in the guest house, because the main house was already being rented by Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate, and it's possible Manson saw her and three other people who would end up dead that August before he was directed to the guest house.

So it turned out to be possible that Manson had Melcher, Altobelli or any of the above in mind when he sent Atkins, Krenwinkel, Watson and Linda Kasabian to go and kill whomever they found at 10050 Cielo Drive on Aug. 9, 1969. (Kasabian was picked to go because she was the only one who had a valid driver's license. She herself didn't commit any violence on either night in question and ended up being the prosecution's key witness at trial.)

Bugliosi—who as a Deputy District Attorney of Los Angeles County won guilty verdicts and death sentences (later converted to life sentences) for everyone charged with the Tate-LaBianca murders—learned that Jakobson had talked to Manson over a hundred times since meeting him, having found him "'intellectually stimulating.'" Jakobson, who had married into Hollywood royalty, didn't officially join the Family, but he made multiple visits to Spahn Ranch.

Charlie would say that "'he had a thousand faces and that he used them all—he told me that he had a mask for everyone,'" Jakobson said. He had masks "'so he could deal with everyone on their own level, from the ranch hand at Spahn, to the girls on the Sunset Strip, to me.'"

Bugliosi asked Jakobson if Manson had ever talked about Scientology or "The Process," aka the Church of the Final Judgment, whose members worshiped Satan and Jesus.

No, Jakobson said, Charlie mainly quoted the Beatles and the Bible.

No one in the Family seemed to mind, Bugliosi wrote, that Manson preached personal freedom and independence but made sure that his followers were dependent on him and he made all the decisions. During Family dinners, he'd sit on a rock and the rest would sit on the ground in a circle around him.

At the same time, "Charlie wanted to be a recording artist," Jakobson said. "Not so much as a means to making money as to get his word out to the public. He needed people to live with him, to make love, to liberate the white race."

Crackpot stuff, but as far as his followers were concerned, Charlie may as well have been Jesus Christ.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Dennis Wilson later told Bugliosi, "because I got off only losing my money."

Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox

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