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Manson Family Memoir: 10 Things We Learned

In ‘Member of the Family,’ Dianne Lake – who was only 14 when she met Charles Manson – reveals new details of life in the infamous cult

The story of Charles Manson and his Family of followers has straddled history and mythology for the past 50 years, combining a well-documented trial with lore surrounding the group’s life before the Tate-LaBianca murders that effectively ended the idealistic 1960s. 

Now, Dianne Lake – who became the group’s youngest member when she joined at age 14 – has told her story in her new memoir, Member of the Family, shedding new light on some of the key events in the timeline of the notorious cult. 

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Topanga Canyon attracted many hippies in the 1960s – including Charles Manson.

Robert Galbraith/Redux

The Family bounced around Topanga Canyon a lot

It’s no secret that the Family moved around California, between the Spiral Staircase House, Dennis Wilson’s house, Spahn Ranch and finally, Barker Ranch. But in reality, they were far more transient. “Charlie knew people everywhere who were willing to open their homes to us as if we were their relatives,” writes Lake. “And if there wasn’t someone around that Charlie knew, he would use his charm to convince strangers to open their homes to us.”

After moving around for a while, the Family lived in a home called the Spiral Staircase house – which Lake and her family had helped clean up before she even met Manson – then to other houses in Topanga Canyon on Fernwood Street and Summit Trail. Following their eviction from Summit Trail, they moved in with Charlie’s old prison friend Harold True, and then onto Spahn Ranch. The constant moving was also a recruitment tactic, allowing Manson and the Family to pull others into their orbit as they traveled between abandoned houses, hippie communes and ranches in the desert. 

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Lake in 1970, after she'd left the Family.

Lake’s nickname ‘Snake’ was not sexual innuendo

Another piece of Family lore that has stuck with Lake is that she got her nickname Snake because of some motion she did during sex, but as she definitively clears up in the book, that was not the case. Along with some of the other girls, Lake did a cleanse that involved only consuming lemon honey water, and that began to give her a natural high. One especially warm day she rolled onto her stomach in the grass, imaging what it would be like if she were a snake. She told the other girls, Manson overheard, and her nickname was born. 

“Though I got the name because of a lemon honey fast, it’s quite amusing to me how minute details have become the things of legend,” she wrote. “As the many stories and accounts of the Family have evolved, there have been persistent rumors that I got my nickname because of my sexual performance. The thought of that always made me laugh. I wish everything about my time with Charlie could be explained away so simply.”

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Charles Manson's iconic mugshot was taken over a year before the brutal murders.

Ventura County Sheriff’s Department

Charles Manson’s iconic mugshot was taken long before the murders

Possibly the most recognizable photo of the infamous cult leader is a mugshot from April 1968, where his expressive eyes looked downright demonic. “What most people don’t realize is the famous iconic photo of Charlie is the mugshot from that night. I don’t even think he was on any drugs,” writes Lake in her book. “He was more put out that his sleep was interrupted and we were arrested for sleeping in the nude and having the fake IDs.” Several members of the Family were arrested at a campground in Sycamore Canyon, huddled around a bonfire, sleeping in the nude. A year and a half later, Manson would have his mugshot taken again when he was arrested with the rest of the family at Barker Ranch.

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Beach Boy Dennis Wilson housed several Manson Family members.

Globe Photos/REX Shutterstock

Only half the family moved in with Dennis Wilson

An essential part of the Manson Family narrative is when the whole group moved in with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, passing the days with LSD trips and orgies, as well as a rotating door of famous musicians. Except that wasn’t exactly true. “Perhaps so as not to overwhelm our host, Charlie strategically cut down the number of us that moved in,” Lake writes. “He decided we should split up for a while, sending Sadie, Mary, Ella, Patty and the new girl Stephanie Rowe up to Mendocino in the black bus to explore some connections up there.” The Family was later reunited at Spahn Ranch once Manson and the girls wore out their welcome with Wilson.

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The Barker Ranch in Death Valley, where Manson and his followers were arrested in October 1969.

Vernon Merritt III/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A supermarket matchbook ultimately led to the Family’s arrest

Barker Ranch was raided in October 1969 when the police were tipped off that the residents were behind the arson of an earthmoving machine.

“We found out the way we were connected to the crime was by a simple red Ralph’s supermarket matchbook,” she writes. “They found one on the scene and another at Barker Ranch. Something so small was the only real evidence they had against us, and the only reason they could hold us long enough for the truth to come out.”

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Kitty Lutesinger, Sandra Good and Brenda McCann (from left), in January 1971.

George Brich/AP

The Manson girls used bulimia as a form of control

When the Family ended up in jail, the girls were not used to being fed three meals a day. Nancy Pitman and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme were concerned that the women would gain weight and therefore no longer be attractive to Manson.

“We all made a pact that we would throw up our food instead of being forced by our jailers to gain weight,” Lake writes. :Nancy made it a regular habit and showed us all how to stick our fingers down our throats to rid ourselves of food. After a while, it became like a rush and a way to control the situation. I knew I would continue the habit even after I was released.” Lake started eating regularly again during her time in the psychiatric hospital. She had met someone with anorexia and felt guilty that she was throwing up her food on purpose when her fellow patient had no control over this.

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Lynne 'Squeaky' Fromme and Sandra Good, reunited with Good's son Ivan after they were released on bond.

Watford/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The Family took co-parenting very seriously

At one point there were several children living with the Family. They were not all Manson’s biological children – the years of unprotected group sex resulted multiple pregnancies. Additionally, some members, like Linda Kasabian – the lookout during the Tate murders – brought their children with them to Spahn Ranch when they joined. Similar to more traditional communes, the children in the Family were raised collectively by the members. An extreme example of this is when they were incarcerated in October 1969, the girls took turns suckling one of the members, Sandra Good, who had been breastfeeding a her young child before the arrest.

“The baby had been taken away, and in our way of thinking, this was an affront to all of us, just another way for the pigs to keep us down,” Lake writes. “We helped Sandy by taking turns nursing at her breasts. It didn’t seem unnatural to partake of her baby’s food, because we were helping her maintain nourishment for one of our own.” This would be one of Lake’s final acts as a member of the Family.

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Charles Manson on trial in 1970.

Bettman/Getty Images

Manson’s manipulative techniques ultimately led to his downfall

Jack Gardiner, one of the Family’s arresting officers, took Lake in as a foster child once she was released from a psychiatric hospital. She lived with him and his family when she testified against Mason in court. When Gardiner helped Lake prepare for how she should answer questions on the witness stand, a lot of his suggestions sounded familiar.

“Jack explained how much the defense attorneys were going to try to confuse me and trip me up,” she writes. “Kind of like Charlie, I thought to myself. If that was the case I was already well trained. Jack admonished me to be on my best behavior, as Charlie had. Becoming sassy would make it look like I was not telling the truth. He had also told me to listen carefully and answer only what I was asked. He said people tend to talk too much and volunteer information. Listening is your best tool. Where had I heard that before? Again, Charlie’s tutelage would help me in testifying against him.”

Ultimately, Lake used what she learned from Manson to assist in his conviction. Manson, now 82, remains in prison. 

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