For many people, Charles Manson became the boogie man. The wide-eyed monster under the bed; the creepy guy lurking around every corner. And it's not hard to see why: Manson was one of the most notorious mass-murderers of the 20th century. In California, in his early thirties, he led a cult known as the Manson 'Family'. Made up of mostly disaffected young women and hippies, under his hypnotic hold they transformed from a group of peaceful people into merciless killers. In August 1969, he orchestrated a wave of violence that took the lives of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate.
Not everyone, however, saw him as an evil predator.
'My first impression of Charlie? I thought he was really cute,' explains former Family member Dianne Lake. 'When we first met, he looked into my eyes so deeply, everything felt like a dream.'
Lake was just 14-years-old when she fell under Manson's spell and joined the 'Family' cult. She didn't participate in the horrific murders carried out by the charismatic leader and his followers, but she was the youngest member of the Manson Family. And at 17, she was also a key witness at the trial that resulted in his conviction.
Now, almost 50 years later, Lake has written a memoir detailing her experiences throughout those two years, titled Member of the Family. In it she explains that Manson was 'extremely intelligent' and spotted immediately that she was a vulnerable teenager simply in need of a family. This made her the perfect prey.
LouisvuittonShop spoke to Dianne Lake about her experiences with Manson and the feelings that prompted her to tell her story, so many years later.
'I grew up in the sixties,' she explains. 'My Dad, Clarence, had a desire to shun the establishment and lead a more 'trusting of god' lifestyle. That's what the counterculture was, really. People were 'dropping out' of society, taking LSD, joining communes etc and it seemed like a new way of life. My parents got swept up in that, as I did, and I think they just became a bit selfish.'
In August, 1967, Clarence decided the family were 'dropping out' and lived out of a bread truck. At one point, they stayed in a commune called Hog Farm, but the set-up was problematic for Lake.
'I was underage, and sexually active, so I was unwelcome,' she explains. 'I was jailbait – somebody who could put other people in jail – and people didn't like that.'
Lake befriended a couple, Richard and Allegra, who she lived with for a while. A few weeks later they attended a party, where she met Manson.
'Charlie adored me which, of course, was very flattering,' she explains. 'And straight away the Family welcomed me with open arms. There was something different about this group, and I knew immediately I wanted to be part of it. Ever since my family 'dropped out' I'd been an afterthought and now I belonged in a way that I hadn't anywhere in months. I could never have predicted the horrific chain of events that was about to unfold – even if I had, I doubt it would have changed anything.'
At first, everything was pretty good.
'It was just really special. 'The Girls' – fellow cult members Patty Krenwinkle, Lynette Fromme, Mary Brunner, Susan Atkins and Ella Jo Bailey – were like my sisters. I was happiest when we moved into (Beach Boys co-founder) Dennis Willson's house, around June 1968. The house was beautiful, and the grounds were stunning. We lived off the bare essentials – stealing leftover food from the back of grocery stores – but it was fun.'
In hindsight, however, she realises there were obvious warning signs.
'When somebody wants to start controlling you they lavish you with love and adoration,' she says. 'One of my doctors calls it 'Love Bombing'. It's almost like a drug addiction – that love and adoration is very powerful – and it's how a lot of young women are scooped up by predators. But that's what Charlie did – he made me feel special.'
Much has been written about Manson the 'master' manipulator. As Lake explains, 'Charlie was like a chameleon. He could change who he was in a nano second with a different facial muscle, grin or eye opening. I'd never met anybody who could do that; I haven't since.'
Despite spending more than 40 years in prison for the murders of seven people, Manson didn't actually carry out the killings himself. Instead, he convinced members of his 'Family' to do it. Starting on August 9, 1969, four followers (Tex Watson and three girls) went on a brutal two-night murder spree which resulted in the deaths of actress Sharon Tate (wife of director Roman Polanski), and four people at her house. The next evening, supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, were killed in their home.
When Lake joined the Family, Manson wasn't yet calling himself Jesus Christ. He hadn't begun preaching the White Album [the Beatles' ninth album], or preparing the Family for the upcoming 'race war' he so vehemently believed was coming. The weapons training with knives hadn't started, either. Once it did, however, it didn't take long for his philosophy to totally infiltrate these young, impressionable minds. The killers inflicted 169 stab wounds and seven gunshot wounds on their victims; the word 'pig' was written in victims' blood on the walls.
'Looking back, I don't understand how I could have believed what I believed,' Lake explains. 'But that's the thing about cults: you're brainwashed into accepting the leader's beliefs. You're totally indoctrinated, which makes it very difficult to leave. It makes me very sad that the other girls got manipulated to that extent. Even though I was being controlled, I don't think I could have murdered anyone.'
Two months later, Barker Ranch (where they'd lived on and off) was finally raided and everyone was arrested. By this point, Lake was a mess. Watson and the girls repeatedly discussed gruesome details of the murders they'd committed in her presence, while paranoia was so high that Manson threatened to hang the now 16 year old Lake upside down and skin her alive. 'I had no reason not to believe him,' she says.
After months of questioning, Lake blurted out her real name and age in court (she'd been using a fake ID to avoid arrest). She was technically still underage, so the authorities took her to Patton State Hospital.
'It's embarrassing – or it used to be – for me to admit that I spent eight months in a mental hospital. But I realise now, years later, that I needed that time. I was safe, I was protected. I went to school, I learnt how to play the flute and to crochet. I was being normal, and those things took me a long way after I got out.'
When Manson died in November 2017, Lake felt relieved. 'I had a definite sense that maybe some of this craziness could end.' While there's no doubt in Lake's mind that Manson took advantage of her – the age of consent in California is 18 years old – she does forgive him. Though, she qualifies: 'I will never approve of what he did.'
Lake was lucky in that she escaped the clutches of Manson's megalomanic grip – and survived – but it took her a long time to realise she was a victim.
'I'm so happy these women and girls have recently stepped up and said 'Hey, this person molested me' because it's not okay,' she says. 'But it's hard. Even if you didn't do anything wrong, you don't want to be associated with that. I had a tremendous amount of guilt. Hopefully people will see what happened to me as a cautionary tale. I used think how stupid I was, for joining the cult, but on the other hand, it's like no, I was just lonely, and needed to belong to something. Don't we all want that?'
Member of the Family: Manson, Murder and Me by Dianne Lake and Deborah Herman is out now (Harper Collins); £8.99