Charles Manson, the notorious leader of the “Manson Family” cult, wielded a manipulative combination of charisma and power. On August 9, 1969, a group of his most passionate followers, under orders from Manson, brutally slaughtered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four visitors (Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski and Steven Parent) at her home in Beverly Hills, California. The cult members, acting on Manson’s instructions, claimed four other victims (Gary Allen Hinman, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and Donald Shea), a killing spree that included ritual mutilations and stabbings. A jury convicted Manson and several of his followers of first-degree murder on January 25, 1971.
While Manson’s cult was often described as his “family,” the master manipulator also had biological kin who grappled with his murderous aftermath. A&E True Crime spoke with two Manson experts about Manson’s actions and how they affected his “families”: Ivor Davis, author of Manson Exposed: A Reporter’s 50-Year Journey into Madness and Murder and Deborah Herman, who co-wrote the book Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties with Dianne Lake, the youngest Manson cult member.
After Manson was convicted of murder, and details of his twisted legacy emerged, how did the cult leader’s biological family deal with the aftermath?
Deborah Herman: Dianne and I met his biological grandson Jason Freeman when he was searching for answers. He was being told by many of Manson’s later acolytes that his grandfather wasn’t such a bad guy. They told him that his grandfather was framed and never killed anybody.
It was sad because Manson was truly the puppet master. When push came to shove, he was only out for himself. He was able to be a chameleon for whatever he thought people needed and, in turn, they really believed he loved them. So, even though he was able to mimic feelings of love and dedication, whether those were real is very questionable. I believe Manson had acolytes and people he manipulated, but no true family.
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Ivor Davis: After Manson died, an unseemly squabble over his body, possessions and documents unfolded in California courts. All the supposed offspring of Manson, and a few other odds and sods, claimed his possessions. Finally, a court ruled that Jason Freeman, his grandson, [should have the rights to Manson’s remains]. Freeman donated them to a museum in Las Vegas, but the estate remains in limbo.
Manson’s mother, Kathleen Maddox, passed away a couple years after the conviction. Did she know what was going on?
Herman: I don’t think so. Other Manson family members told me that Kathleen was a horrible mother. That was the perception among the family members. They were very sympathetic to what Manson lacked as a child. He made some of them very aware that he wasn’t loved. It’s common knowledge and supported by research that his mother basically abandoned him for a man. People look at that as the primary wound that may have caused him to become the person he became.
Davis: His mother, Kathleen, managed to stay out of sight. She didn’t attend the trial. The only interview she conducted was with the Los Angeles Times on January 26, 1971, a day after her son’s conviction. In the interview, she mentioned that Manson was not neglected, which may have been a mother’s defense mechanism. She didn’t want to be pictured as a negligent mother, but she ended up doing petty crimes which led to more serious crimes. So, she was in jail while Manson was growing up.
It is believed Manson had at least three sons, but no daughters. What can you tell us about Manson’s biological children, including Jay White (born Charles Manson, Jr.), whom he fathered in 1956 with his first wife Rosalie Jean Willis, Charles Luther Manson, whom he likely fathered in the early 1960s with his second wife Leona Rae ‘Candy’ Stevens, and Michael Brunner, whom he fathered in 1968 with his follower Mary Brunner? And, what about his alleged grandson Jason Freeman?
Herman: From what I know, Charles Manson, Jr. (Jay White), the father of Jason Freeman, committed suicide [in 1993]. Jason was raised by his own mother and is a wonderful man. He’s honest, emotional and very caring but, unfortunately, he’s got this legacy. All he wanted in his search for answers was some dignity for himself and his grandfather.
What’s ironic in all this is that Manson wanted as many children as possible. He wanted to populate the earth with these wonderful and special people. It’s strange that he didn’t impregnate more women. Dianne doesn’t know why she never got pregnant, except that he was also keeping [his followers] starved. Manson would tell them, ‘You don’t need to eat. It’s all an illusion.’ It was hard for them to keep the coffers full, so they mostly survived on candy. As a result, they were undernourished. So, it’s possible that’s why more of the Manson girls did not become pregnant.
Davis: There were several Manson siblings. Charles Manson, Jr. changed his name, but eventually took his own life. He was unable to cope with his heritage. Follower Mary Brunner gave birth to Manson’s son Michael. He ended up being adopted by his grandparents and kept the name Brunner.
[Editor’s Note: Neither expert provided details on Manson’s alleged second son Charles Luther Manson. Little is known about Charles Luther, including his whereabouts. Some reports claim that he changed his name.]
Did any of Charles Manson’s biological family members have anything to do with him? Did Manson keep in contact with or attempt to reach any of them through letters or any other means?
Herman: Whether or not he had contact with his biological family members, at the very least, they were not part of anything that happened. The ‘Manson Family’ [cult] was so insulated and off the radar, they were in their own little world. They only had each other, and Manson had himself. It’s sort of like with domestic violence when you have a situation where a spouse is an abuser. The first thing they do is systematically isolate their victim from everything else they know. That’s really what Manson was doing with his followers. They were completely separated from anyone else.
Davis: Jason never met his grandfather, but he had phone conversations with Manson. In fact, he recorded many of their conversations and used them in various ways. Michael also said he had talked to his father, but never met him in person. The bizarre thing about the “family” was the fact that when Manson was in jail, he was moved around from prison to prison. It started off in San Quentin. The only people who stuck with him were several of his girls—Squeaky Fromme and one or two others—who actually lived in apartments close to the jail so they could visit him.
How have Manson’s followers coped with his legacy and the aftermath of this horrific chapter?
Herman: For Dianne Lake, the process of writing the book was extremely healing. She’s one of my heroes because she allowed me to take her into the depths of her trauma. When I first met her, and we were first starting our interviewing, she was detached and didn’t understand the implications of the things that had happened. By the end, when we had no more questions to discuss, it was as if this cloud had lifted and she was able to look at it in a way where she could see that she was a victim.
Many of the “family” members were holding onto guilt even though they were not there for the actual crimes. It was a form of survivor’s guilt. Dianne didn’t even tell anyone who she was for 47 years. She only told her husband and didn’t tell others or her children until she was outed. Even so, for Dianne, and many of these women who have worked through their trauma, there’s still an element of programming throughout their lives. For any cult survivor, there’s always going to be that little shred of doubt. Deprogramming is a lifelong process, so they’re always going to question their ability to sense reality. Some members have chosen to stay underground. They don’t want to talk about it, and, as a result, will likely never heal.