Book Review: Member of the Family by Dianne Lake and Deborah Herman

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Dianne Lake, or Snake, as Charles Manson nicknamed her, was the youngest member of the Manson family. Her testimony, along with Linda Kasabian’s, put Manson, Atkins, Watson,Van Houten, and Krenwrinkel in jail. (“Snake” (Sydney Sweeney)  was the girl who kept a lookout on Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) during the Spahn Ranch scene in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.)

Lake’s memoir of her time in the Manson cult, Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties, was first published in October 2017. Manson died a month later.

The book is a riveting first-hand account of what it was like to be an innocent young teen thrown into a world of unhinged adult hippies. Unfortunately, Lake’s own parents started her on the road to Spahn Ranch.

Lake was born in Minnesota to a seemingly normal middle-class family, and had a younger brother and sister. Trouble lurked under the suburban facade. Lake was molested by her grandfather as a pre-teen.

Then the family’s lifestyle changed abruptly when her Dad became a hippie artist. He eventually convinced his wife to turn on and drop out, too, and soon Mom, Dad and the kids were living in a bread truck an on their way to California.

Lake attended the 1967 “Be-In” at Griffith Park with her parents. Her parents initiated her first experiences with pot and LSD. They also talked to her about birth control when she was barely a teen. Her parents met Charles Manson in separate incidents as they traveled in the drug-infused hippie culture of Southern California.

Eventually, Lake became unofficially “emancipated” and ended up living at Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm. He kicked her out because she was underage and having sex. Lake’s hippie-era experiences with men (even before Charlie) make you wonder if free love was just an excuse for creepy guys to sleep with naive young girls

One thing led to another, and soon she met Charlie  at a party when she lived with a married couple. Soon, Charlie’s girls took her under their wing, and she traveled with them in their infamous school bus with blacked-out windows.

In May 1968, the bus rolled into Spahn Ranch. The girls took care of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn, in exchange for free rent. Squeaky (played by Dakota Fanning in OUATIH), was Spahn’s “girlfriend” and kept him occupied while the Family dropped acid, engaged in petty theft, and had orgies.

Among other places, the family hung out next door to Rosemary and Leno LaBianca’s house; that’s one of the reasons family chose the LaBiancas as victims. Harold True, the next door neighbor, was an associate of Manson’s, and later become a witness for prosecution at the trial. In one particularly uncomfortable passage in the book,  Lake recalls how Manson flew into a rage and pulled her hair when she refused to sleep with True. She finally relented to avoid getting hit. Charlie promised to give her “zuzus” (his word for candy) after the encounter.

Manson’s quick slide from hippie cult leader into murder cult leader started when he met Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Dennis picked up two of the Manson girls as they hitchhiked. A few of the girls lived with Wilson for awhile, and Manson became friends with him. Manson even recorded at Brian Wilson’s house. Lake and a few other girls provided background vocals.

Eventually, Wilson became tired of their antics and abandoned the house. Manson’s friendship with Wilson lead to an ill-fated meeting with music producer Terry Melcher. When Melcher gave him the brush-off, Charlie vowed revenge and targeted Melcher’s house at 10050 Cielo Drive. Melcher had already moved out long before August 8, 1969, the night of the Tate murders.

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Dianne Lake at the Manson trial. Photo via Cielodrive.com.

Around this time, the “Helter Skelter” race war idea took hold. The scene at Spahn Ranch veered from hippie LSD fests to survival training and killing lessons. Charlie also found a hiding place underneath the desert where the family could burrow during the supposed race war. The race war was an actual Charlie idea (sorry, conspiracy theorists).  However, in an interview shortly before his death, Manson revealed the idea germinated due to a drug deal gone bad.

Hell broke loose even before the Tate-LaBianca murders when the girls broke into people’s homes, including the LaBiancas, on creepy crawlies. These ransacking missions were intended to train the girls for more violent crimes.

One day, Leslie returned to the ranch and asked Lake to help her burn a purse and a credit card. Lake had no idea the items belonged to Rosemary LaBianca.

Watson drove Lake to a location even deeper in the desert. The police picked her up for vagrancy, and a kind-hearted policeman and his wife took her in for a few days. Unfortunately, her freedom didn’t last long and she found herself back with the Family at a new home, Barker Ranch.

At Barker Ranch, Lake listened in horror as Sadie and Patty proudly confessed to the killings.  Charlie, Bruce M. Davis, Tex, and Clem killed stuntman Shorty Shea. Lake looked for ways to escape and even thought about suicide.

Lake wouldn’t have to escape – a few weeks later, police raided the ranch and took the family into custody. Lake entered a psychiatric program and a doctor labeled her as a schizophrenic.

Audio transcripts of Lake talking to detectives after the family was captured show that she did have some grasp on reality, even after her arrest. She had managed to keep her humanity, unlike the girls in Charlie’s inner circle. After being held for psychiatric evaluation, and testifying against the Family, she started a new life.

Lake reconciled with her parents, got married, had two children, and a career as a special education teacher.

Lake received a phone call from a detective in 2008 about a cadaver dog that had found the scent of a dead body at Barker Ranch. The detective warned her that her name would come up once the media got wind of the results. Her husband knew about her past, but she had kept it a secret from her children. Now that  a new media blitz was imminent, she told her now college-age children.

Her son slept with baseball bat in his bed for a few weeks after she told him about her time with the Family.

Most of the post-Sanders and Bugliosi books written about the Manson followers are quick, sensationalized re-tellings, or self-serving tales of redemption (Atkins, Tex Watson). I haven’t read Squeaky’s book, but after looking at the cover and some of the oddly written Amazon reader reviews, I think I’ll pass on it.

Lake’s book is intelligently written, coherent, and honest. Lake admits, that, for a time, she felt comfortable with Charlie and the girls. They took over the role her missing hippie parents could no longer fulfill – they made her feel loved.

What’s especially disturbing is how matter-of-factly she writes about the sex and drug use she experienced as a young teen. You temporarily forget she’s recalling things that happened when she was 14 through 16. When it does hit you, it’s chilling and stomach-turning.

A Member of the Family gives you a view of the events leading up to one of the most brutal and bizarre crimes of the 20th century, and its immediate aftermath (arrests, trial), but very little about the crimes themselves.

The Tate-LaBianca murders have been covered extensively for half a century in every way possible. A Member of the Family gives readers a look at what life was like for the youngest (and probably most naive) teen member of the cult without putting the primary focus on the murders themselves.

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