Manson Girl Leslie Van Houten and John Waters: An Unlikely Friendship

Waters has written extensively about his relationship with Van Houten, who was 19 at the time of the Manson murders, and has campaigned for her release

john waters leslie van houten

Leslie Van Houten, the youngest member of Charles Manson’s cult, has been granted parole and could be released from prison if she is allowed to do so by California Gov. Jerry Brown. One of the people hoping for that release is famed transgressive filmmaker John Waters, who formed an unlikely friendship with Van Houten more than 30 years ago.

In 2009, Waters wrote a five-part essay series titled “Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship,” in which he discussed at length how he met and bonded with the former death row inmate and why he believes she should be set free.

“She looks back from prison on her involvement in the La Bianca murders (the night after the Tate massacre) in utter horror, shame, and guilt and takes full responsibility for her part in the crimes,” Waters wrote. “I think it’s time to parole her.”

Waters wrote about how he had been fascinated with the Manson murders and subsequent trial for years. He even dedicated his most famous film, “Pink Flamingoes,” to the women in the Manson family, though he says he’s come to regret how he referred to the murders in a “jokey, smart-ass way…without the slightest feeling for the victims’ families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case.”

Then, in 1985, Rolling Stone asked Waters to interview Manson in prison. But Waters was more interested in Van Houten, believing that had she not encountered Manson, she could have “ended up making movies with us instead of running with the killer dune-buggy crowd.” Van Houten was at first very guarded when responding to Waters, but eventually she warmed up to him and invited him to visit her in prison.

Waters wrote that he’s visited Van Houten in jail every year since, and laments that her reputation has only worsened as the Manson murders have become ingrained in pop culture as one of the most macabre true stories of the 20th century. Waters said that he wonders if Van Houten will ever be able to fully recover despite her remorse.

“Can you ever recover from being called ‘a human mutant” or a “monster’ by the government, especially when you know that they were right at one time in your life?” Waters asks. “How do you begin to deal with the pain of the victims’ relatives when the world has turned your former image into a Halloween costume? With patience. God knows, Leslie Van Houten has patience.”

Over the next five months, California state officials will review the parole grant. If the decision stands, it will be sent to Gov. Brown for approval. Brown denied Van Houten parole in the in 2016, citing the “shocking nature of the crimes” Van Houten committed.

Representatives for Waters did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.