Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Those uncomfortable gray areas of life

“I have a really good friend who was convicted of killing two innocent people when she was nineteen years old on a horrible night of 1969 cult madness. Her name is Leslie Van Houten and I think you would like her as much as I do.”

So writes John Waters, director of such cult classics as “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray”, in his new book Role Models (which I read a few days ago). Reading the story of Leslie Van Houten pushed me into the moral gray zone, where the thinking is hard and uncomfortable – as thinking should be every now and then.

I aim to keep outright ugliness out of my blog, so I will not give explicit description of Ms. Van Houten’s participation in the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Although her role was not as vicious as that of the other participants, it is still bad enough. You can look it up yourself if you wish.

Leslie Van Houten is now 61 years old and has spent 41 of those years behind bars, save for a six-month period of freedom between trials in 1978. She has taught fellow inmates how to read, recorded books on tape for the blind, worked in high-responsibility clerical jobs, and earned a master’s degree in philosophy from Anitoch College. She has gotten clean from drugs, completely repudiated Charles Manson, and has apologized for her crimes time and time again.

I would not be afraid if Ms. Van Houten were to be paroled. However, I will not get a chance to not be afraid, at least not for three more years, because today she was denied parole for the nineteenth time. Robert Doyle, the chairman of the California parole board, gave this reason, according to the Huffington Post: “[S]he had failed to gain complete insight into her crime and its motivation.” Whatever that means.

Countless others have served far less time for murders just as cruel, if not more so –such as Steve “Clem” Grogan, another Manson Family member, was paroled after serving 14 years of a life sentence for the murder of ranch hand Shorty Shea. Countless other murderers have been paroled without the mitigating factors of brainwashing or drug influence. I believe, as many others do, that the only reason Ms. Van Houten has yet to be paroled is because this is “Helter Skelter” we’re talking about – tied with the O.J. Simpson murders as the most notorious of the 20th century. It’s a psychic stain as red as the lettering of the title of Vincent Bugolosi’s book .

Now comes the gray part.

Would I even think about parole for Ms. Van Houten if she had done that to someone who I loved?

Would I even think about parole for Ms. Van Houten if she had, for example, drowned five of her children in a bathtub?

Would I even think about parole for Ms. Van Houten if, instead of someone I admire like John Waters vouching for her, Sarah Palin was calling for her release?

If parole is justified here, why not for Ms. Van Houten's co-defendants, Charles "Tex" Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel? Weren't they just as brainwashed? Aren't they just as sorry now? (Charles Manson should never be paroled, will never be paroled, and probably doesn't even want to be paroled.)

It's as gray as a January morning in Seattle.

Apology is nowhere near adequate when it comes to murder, and forgiveness nowhere near possible. (The only people who truly have a right to forgive murder are the victims.)

But what about fairness? Is it possible to mention such a word in this case?

Does Leslie Van Houten deserve parole?

I don't know.

But it's a thought that will keep me up tonight.


  1. Jenny,

    Ah, very compelling questions at the end! These are all good things to think about... For some time now I've been interested in what motivates people to kill... What were their lives like before the murders? And who did they kill? What were the effects of the murders on the families? It's so disturbing.

    Thanks for sharing this fascinating post. I love the way you write.


  2. Dear Ashley,

    Thanks so much for the comment. We may never know exactly why people behave the way they do, but that is exactly why human nature is so interesting (interesting enough to stay awake at night for!)

  3. No problem, Jennie! Thanks for responding and following my blog. I will return for sure.