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Inside New Memoir of Life in the Manson Family

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Inside New Memoir of Life in the Manson Family

When Dianne Lake joined the Charles Manson’s “Family,” she was just 14 – the youngest recruit. A slight, comely girl with a cherubic face framed by shoulder-length ginger hair, Lake had recently started embracing the hippie attire and lifestyle proliferating in California by 1967, when she first met the clan. She spent two years with them, but since she didn’t participate in the murders – and even testified against Manson et al during their capital trial in 1970 – Lake largely become a footnote to their history. But now, 50 years after she first stepped into Charles Manson’s blacked-out bus, Lake is telling her story.

Part memoir, part compelling true-crime narrative, Lake’s new book, Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside the Cult, and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties, is a painfully relevant account of manipulation, abuse and masculinity so toxic it ended in murder. And though it doesn’t add much new information to the canon, Lake offers a detailed, heartfelt and strangely relatable telling of how a teenage girl fell in love with one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century, and how she ultimately fought her way out.

Lake takes her time setting up her story. The first third of Member of the Family takes place before she even meets Manson, walking readers through her unorthodox upbringing from Minnesota to California. “It’s been really good for me to unburden the secret and the shame and untether myself from that association by accepting it and realizing that I was a victim,” Lake tells Rolling Stone. “It has helped me understand a lot about myself.”

With an eccentric, overbearing artist father and a mother who did everything she could to temper his emotions, Lake spent her formative years moving between temporary homes, which included a large home in a middle-class suburb of Minneapolis, a trailer her father traded that house for, an apartment in the city’s housing projects, a California beach bungalow and a retrofitted bread truck.

“As misguided as this seems today, they believed in what they were doing, giving up their own security to pursue what they hoped would be a better life for us and for the world,” Lake writes.

Consequently, long before Lake joined the Family, she was forced to grow up fast. Her first exposure to sex came at the age of nine, when her grandfather molested her in a bathtub. In addition to a father who appeared to be more interested in dropping out of society than raising a family, Lake also contended with parents who not only took drugs like marijuana and LSD, but also shared them with her when she was as young as 13.

In the summer of 1967, Lake was living with her parents and two younger siblings at a well-known commune called Hog Farm, but was asked to leave because she was “jail bait” – 14 and sexually active. When Lake left Hog Farm to move in with a couple, her parents gave her a note, essentially emancipating her. After the couple introduced her to Manson, that note became the stuff of legend – it would go down in Family lore as a letter handing her directly over to Charles Manson. 

Like many of the other women in the Family, Lake’s recruitment into the group involved being made to feel as though she truly belonged and was wanted, as well as a sexual encounter with Manson, who she describes as being “magnetic.”

“He took his time to explore my body,” Lake writes of their first time together. “He avoided the places that made me purr until I could barely stand it. After a few minutes, he put himself inside me while staring into my eyes. He was tender as he held me up to meet his deep thrusts. When he finished, he sighed; I exhaled and realized I was hooked.” But it was more than sex: Lake makes it clear that she was in love with him, too.

The beginning of her time with Manson and his girls was marked by group acid trips and orgies, sermons and sing-alongs, as well as dumpster dives for food. The Family led a largely transient life, moving between various houses in Topanga Canyon before landing at Spahn Ranch. But alongside the free love and shunning of worldly possessions in favor of a simpler life, there was also sexual and psychological manipulation and abuse.

From the beginning, Manson did little to hide his true colors. He could change his demeanor and entire face at will, immediately morphing between being impish and playful to acting demonic. After years of watching her mother read her father’s temperament and acting accordingly, Lake put those skills to use with Manson. She learned early on to anticipate his needs, taking cues from his erratic behavior.

Lake writes about happier times as well, including life as one of the most famous house guests of the 1960s, when she, Manson and other Family members moved in with Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson in the summer of 1968. She tells Rolling Stone how she “just fell in love with that house and the grounds,” including the sprawling estate, complete with a pool, a swing, and “a really fancy log cabin” – a far cry from a remote, crumbling movie set.

“It was really just a handful of us and Charlie that lived there,” she says, noting that unlike some accounts, the entire Family didn’t move in with Wilson; half went to Mendocino, another hippie enclave in northern. Lake enjoyed the dynamic of living with a smaller group of people; on top of that, she says that Manson was happy there – something important when your quality of life is largely dependent on one person’s mood.

It was also exciting. Bands came through frequently; Lake says Manson and Wilson had what appeared to be a genuine friendship and camaraderie – that is, until Wilson and others in the music industry tried to turn Manson into a marketable rock star.

Used to getting his own way, Manson did not react well to getting feedback and direction on his not-yet-existent music career in the studio. Lake doesn’t know what happened after she left the room, but notes that, according to other accounts, he may have pulled a buck knife on the rest of the Beach Boys. No matter what occurred, that was the beginning of the end for the Manson Family.

But it wasn’t until the following year that things really came to a head. Lake recalls the night when she saw Leslie Van Houton frantically burning items in the fireplace, later piecing together that it occurred on the night that Van Houton, along with other Family members, murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their home. Lake never participated in any of the murders, but says that when the other women told her about their involvement crimes – which left a total of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, dead – she was disturbed by their casual attitude about the crimes. “They were almost gleeful,” she tells Rolling Stone. “It just shows how far gone they had descended into this madness.

In October 1969, Barker Ranch was raided by police and the Family members present – including Lake – were arrested. Because she was 16 years old, Lake was taken to a mental institution instead of remaining in jail with the rest of the girls. Upon her release, a police officer and his family took her in as a foster child, where she was living when it came time to face Manson and the three girls who committed the murders in court.

Attorneys warned her not to testify against Mason in court on account that she potentially could have been charged with perjury after she misrepresented events during her initial statement following the Family’s arrest. In spite of that, Lake decided to testify.

Before her day in court, Lake says her biggest fear was not being charged with perjury, but seeing Manson in person again. Specifically, she notes, “that he’d have a hold on me – maybe from the good memories – or that he’d have this psychological control or input on me.”

In fact, the opposite happened. On the witness stand, when asked if she was still in love with Mason, Lake said, “I guess so,” at which point Manson shouted at her “You loved everybody. Don’t put it all on Mr. Manson.” The entire courtroom erupted in laughter, and in an instant, Lake says she felt as though God had lifted a veil from her eyes.

“Suddenly my eyes were open and I had him for the con that he probably always had been,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Seeing his antics in the courtroom made me realize that that connection was gone.”

Since she testified against Manson in court, Lake has only had contact with one other former member of the Family – Barbara Hoyt, who she visited Barker Ranch with 10 or 15 years ago. Lake visited Barker Ranch again recently during the process of writing the book, as well as going back to Spahn Ranch for the first time since the Family’s arrest, which she says was “really an eye opener.” It was much smaller than she remembered, and she had trouble getting oriented at a place she once tried to make her home.

Though Lake has been able to revisit some of the Family’s former locations, other former members remain behind bars. When asked if she thinks Van Houton should receive parole for the murders of the LaBiancas, Lake says that that’s “between the governor and God,” adding that she’s “not afraid if she gets out.”

Lake says that if she could ask Manson one question today it would be whether he truly believed he was Jesus Christ. “I know he’s not, but did he? Or does he still believe it?” she adds. “But no matter what I would ask him, I doubt very much I’d get an honest answer. He would be playing to the audience.”

Lake hopes that the book helps people be aware the people they encounter. She finds it amazing that her story is becoming public at the same time as so many allegations are made against powerful men in the entertainment industry, following years of women remaining silent because they were ashamed.

“There are men out there who have no qualms about using you for their own purpose,” she says. “It’s a powerful position to be in for them, and it’s so easy for lonely, disenfranchised kids, young adults to be drawn in. Be wary because people take advantage of people.”

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