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How an Ex-Cult Member Wrote a Movie About Being in the Manson Family

Charlie Says tells the story from the perspective of three of the Manson Family — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten — rather than Manson himself

CHARLIE SAYS movie

Charlie Says, has a unique advantage because screenwriter Guinevere Turner drew upon her real-life experiences growing up in a commune.

IFC Films

Looking back on her childhood, Guinevere Turner recalls the usual mixed bag of good times and incidents she would rather forget. But unlike most people, she was born into a tightly knit commune of 100 adults and 60 children.

“So much of my childhood is full of really fond memories — I never thought that there were kids out there who had a better life,” Turner says. “I felt bad for everyone else because we were the chosen people who were going to be taken by UFOs to Venus.”

Turner grew up in the Lyman Family, a lesser-known group that — unlike the more notorious communes or cults — didn’t end with a mass suicide, or a series of murders, or a siege in a compound. In fact, according to Turner, the Family is “still alive and well” today and have never considered themselves a cult — always referring to themselves as a “family.” But that didn’t stop comparisons being made between the Lyman Family, which had originated in Boston, and a different group of young people living together on the west coast: the Manson Family. In fact, a 1971 Rolling Stone article referred to Lyman as the “East Coast Charles Manson.”

While the Lyman Family largely faded into obscurity, the Manson Family is currently ubiquitous as the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders that brought an end to the group approaches. With it comes a deluge of Manson-related media, including several movies. But one of those films, Charlie Says, has a unique advantage because the screenwriter — Turner — was able to draw upon her real-life experiences growing up in a commune to breathe new life into a true crime narrative so well-known that it has become a sort of American folklore.

Charlie Says tells the story from the perspective of three of the Manson Family — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten — rather than Manson himself. But the most memorable aspects of the movie are those that portray the least-memorable times in the Family, shedding light on the everyday moments that didn’t make headlines — when life was simple, and the focus was on community and music. Those parts in particular have Turner’s fingerprints all over them.

Though she seems like an obvious choice to write a Manson Family movie, Turner, who wrote the screenplay for American Psycho, says that the filmmakers initially didn’t know about her background. But, according to the film’s director, Mary Harron — who also directed American Psycho — Turner’s experience in the Lyman Family was invaluable. “She had an intuitive understanding of the dynamics of a cult that no one else could match, really,” she says. “I think she understands that viscerally — how a cult operates.”

For example, Harron says Turner has unique insight into the way cult leaders engage in abusive behavior patterns and are perceived as part father-figure, part religious leader. “She was a child when she was in a cult, but I think she understood how that for young women, [Manson] was like a romantic figure as well, while at the same time being a frightening figure or an intimidating figure,” Harron says. “So it’s such a complex mesh of love and worship and fear and abuse [and] denial of abuse.”

Unlike the women associated with Manson, Turner was born into the Family. Her mother was 19 and pregnant when she joined the group in 1968, and Turner spent the first 11 and a half years of her life moving with the Family between their various properties in Massachusetts, Kansas, New York and California.

Turner is, however, very cautious when using the word “cult” to describe the group, and specifies that she can only speak to her own time living with the group until 1979. It was during this time that she experienced what she considers to be some of the hallmarks of cults, including a charismatic and controlling leader — folk musician and writer Mel Lyman —  as well as devaluing biological families, homeschooling and being taught a different set of beliefs. One of those beliefs was that the world was going to end, but the Lyman Family would be saved when aliens escorted them to their new home on Venus. Like Manson, Lyman saw himself as a messiah; he even titled his first book Autobiography of a World Savior.

In 1966, Lyman and his followers purchased several derelict buildings in the Fort Hill section of Boston, living there as they renovated the structures, including when David Felton visited the Family in 1971 for his Rolling Stone article. What Felton described was part urban commune, part heavily-patrolled (by their own members) coercive sect who had to answer to the “Karma Squad” for any rule infractions. Punishment for breaking one of Lyman’s directives could include solitary confinement in a windowless room known as “the vault” where a person could reflect on their behavior.

Unlike the Manson Family, the Lyman Family’s trouble with the law was relatively minor. In 1966 Boston police arrested several members on obscenity charges after they published four words — fuck, shit, piss and cunt — in their underground newspaper, Avatar. Then in 1973, three Family members robbed a federal bank in what they said was a protest of Richard Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, resulting in one being shot and killed by police. After this, the Lyman Family largely faded from the cultural landscape, with the exception of operating a successful construction company in California, with clients including Dustin Hoffman and Steven Spielberg.

All of these components of the Lyman Family’s early days — the transient and communal living, elements of behavioral control, the philosophizing folk musician leader and promises of salvation via aliens — was normal to someone growing up in that environment, where that was the only way of life they knew. This was something Turner incorporated throughout the Charlie Says screenplay. The most striking parts of the film aren’t the murder scenes or the women rehabilitating in prison: it’s how normal — even pleasant — everyday life in the Manson Family seems.

According to Harron, this was entirely by design, and owed to Turner’s expertise — from having her weigh in on what a communal kitchen might look like, to tweaking dialogue. “We were in agreement on that — that if you didn’t show what was appealing about the Family, then the girls just look stupid or delusional,” Harron says. “I think that’s the thing people have balked at, because people want scary horror movie Manson.”

More than any other character, Charlie Says tells the story of Van Houten — the former homecoming queen-turned-Manson Family member who participated in the murder of Rosemary LaBianca by holding her down, then stabbing her 16 times. Like Manson and the other two women imprisoned for the murders, Van Houten was initially sentenced to death, which was then commuted to life in prison in 1972 when the California Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional.

Given the focus of the film on the women in the Family, Van Houten was a natural choice for the protagonist since her infatuation was as much — if not more — with the other women than Manson himself. “Where Patricia Krenwinkel is so deeply, madly in love with Manson, Leslie was not romantically in love with Manson. She was a spiritual seeker,” Harron says. “The biggest emotional bond with her in the cult was her relationship with Pat, and the bonds between the women were extremely strong, and that was another thing — as much as Manson — keeping them there.”

Turner says that she initially struggled to come up with a fresh angle on this well-trodden territory, and came across Karlene Faith’s book, The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult. Faith — who is also a character in Charlie Says — was a college professor who taught the Manson women while they were in prison, gradually getting to know Van Houten and advocating for her release until her death in 2017. After spending time with Faith and understanding her friendship with Van Houten, Turner felt as though she “could paint her the most truthfully with the most complexity.” Faith’s biggest request was for Turner to ensure that the film didn’t in any way jeopardize their chances of parole.

After almost 50 years in prison, parole may actually be a possibility for Van Houten. Though having a major film out around the same time with a nuanced portrayal of Van Houten may galvanize support around her release, Turner says that this wasn’t her aim when she began work on Charlie Says in 2014. In fact, she and Faith agonized over whether making the film was worth making the victims’ families, as well as Van Houten and Krenwinkel, relive the horrific events of August 1969. “I’m so personally hyper-aware that I’m talking about real people — and real families of real victims —  and you have to hold that heaviness in your heart,” she says.

Though Turner considered reaching out to Debra Tate — Sharon Tate’s sister and victims’ right advocate — once the movie was completed, she decided against it. “I thought about her so much when writing the movie. Of course if I were in her shoes I’d be like ‘Are you kidding me with this shit?’ And so I thought maybe we should talk to her and show her the movie and say ‘This is where we’re coming from,’” Turner explains. “But then I think about how Sharon is represented in the movie, and she’s represented well, but I don’t know that I need Debra Tate to see an image of her sister begging for her life.”

Ultimately, Turner decided that using her voice and personal experience to write a thoughtful, complex screenplay may help people understand what motivated these three young women to commit murder. “I feel like the one thing this movie can do is give a new perspective on their legacy,” she says. “Historically speaking, this is good for them because hopefully it will make people see them in a different light.”

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