The Uncomfortable Empathy of ‘Charlie Says’

By Sara Century

The Manson Family crimes are some of the most convoluted, interconnected, sprawling misdeeds of the 20th century. Still, the sheer overwhelming amount of media attention would leave one to feel that there could be nothing further to be said. There have been near-countless documentaries, podcast series, TV shows, biopics, and takes “inspired by the events of” Manson and his Family. Yet, none of them have done what Charlie Says (2018) managed to do.

Written by Geneviere Turner and directed by Mary Harron, the duo that brought us The Notorious Bettie Page and American Psycho, respectively, Charlie Says is based on The Family by Ed Sanders, and perhaps more importantly on The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten by Karlene Faith.

Much of Faith’s work entailed looking honestly at the cruelty and excess of the carceral system from the inside out. She worked with and wrote about, women in prison. She did extensive work with those suffering from battered wife syndrome. Her story intersected with Manson’s when the three imprisoned Manson Girls — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie Van Houten — were given the death penalty. Not long after, California abolished death sentences and thus the Girls were transferred to life in prison. They were placed in complete isolation with only one another, parroting Manson’s teachings back and forth for years. Faith was brought in to work with them when no one else would or could.

Ultimately, Faith considered herself their friend and even lobbied for their release. During her time spent with them in the California Institution for Women, she discovered the outlandish belief system Manson had instilled in them via prolonged drug use, the guise of sisterhood in a staunchly sexist environment, and degrading treatment meant to break down their “egos.” These are all tactics of brainwashing, and their full acceptance of his fantasies left her questioning the judicial system’s desire to forget they’d ever been born.

Charlie Says is an uncomfortable film about intensely upsetting subject matter. It asks us to extend empathy in moments where it is not easy to do so, and it offers no easy conclusion. True, it is about the Manson Girls, but it’s also about battered wives, an unjust carceral system, and the upsetting circumstances that led things to go so terribly wrong at Spahn Ranch.

Fleeing from a troubled home life, Van Houten was drawn in by Manson’s promises of freedom. As his dreams crumbled and he began to take a turn for the worse, his family rose up to try and appease him, which led to an increasingly morbid atmosphere at the Ranch and culminated in the horrific Tate-LaBianca murders. Van Houten was long considered to be the most reformable of the girls due to her lack of direct involvement in the crimes, and it is believed that Rosemary LaBianca was already dead by the time Van Houten struck her ten times in the back with a knife. She did not stop the crimes, but driver Linda Kasabian tried, fled the Ranch days later, and ultimately helped convict them all.

Things that generally go uncommented on, such as the age gap between Manson and almost all of his followers, are at the forefront of Charlie Says. While it isn’t generally lingered on in other media representations, the fact that he was seducing young girls, often from broken homes, by telling them they had a place where they belonged and then slowly, insidiously normalizing a dictatorship under the guise of “free love,” is the missing piece that makes a lot of what happened at Spahn Ranch make horrifying sense.

In many narratives around infamous American cults, whiteness is treated as incidental, while Charlie Says makes it a point to call out the shocking racism of Manson’s ideology and what a huge part the whiteness of his followers played in the overall atrocity. Generally unaddressed, it becomes clear here that white privilege protected the Manson family. In a time when Black activist Bobby Seale was quite literally bound and gagged in a courtroom, Manson gained celebrity and continued to espouse his hateful doctrine of white supremacy with relatively few repercussions. After being told point-blank that no Black person would ever look to Charles Manson for leadership after the crushing racism of life in the late ’60s, Van Houten remembers Manson’s wild, racist claims with newfound horror.

Charlie Says is brilliantly cast, and each and every actor turns out an incredible performance. Matt Smith, well-known for his role as the eleventh Doctor Who, is stunning and effective as Manson, charming at all the right moments so that his misogyny and hate seem reasonable for the young women that idolize him. Merritt Wever plays Karlene Faith, and her tired, empathetic eyes perfectly reflect the underlying sorrow and regret intrinsic to the script. Kayli Carter and Sosie Bacon are brilliant in their seemingly benign portrayals of the free-loving hippies that rapidly become unrepentant murderers. Marianne Rendon’s wide-eyed, agitated take on Susan Atkins is chilling and captivating. Meanwhile, Hannah Murray as Leslie Van Houten runs through the gamut of emotions as her wide-eyed naivete rapidly slides into a rage and then heartbreaking remorse.

Van Houten remains in jail today, and, as a woman in her seventies who has consistently been turned down for parole alongside most of the rest of the imprisoned Family members, she will likely never be released. This is in no small part due to the continued petitions and rallying of Sharon Tate’s sister Debra, who is understandably haunted by the murders to this very day. Besides losing her sister, Debra witnessed firsthand the cruelty of the Manson family during the trials, while also being forced to endure “leftist” publications of the time glorifying their crimes and the cultural martyrization of Manson himself. She also continues to receive death threats to this very day by new worshippers of Manson’s doctrine, which gives her a highly practical reason to want all members of the Family to remain behind bars forever.

Indeed, cases like this are often what tries our collective faith in reform. The idea that the young woman that openly giggled during gut-wrenching victim testimonials in one of the most infamous trials of the (last) century walking among us when Sharon Tate does not…is not exactly a comforting thought.

Yet, few people remain who they were when they were twenty, and the extenuating circumstances around the Manson Girls present a strong case for them as victims of a cult leader who saturated their minds with acid as a control technique and instilled a frightening doctrine as he flew headlong into utter depravity. They are not innocent, but Charlie Says never asserts that they are. By showing us a crucial moment in which Van Houten could have left the Ranch forever, it only further implicates her via the act of empathizing. The film looks at them with the knowledge that you can be a killer and still a victim yourself. In some ways, this applies to Manson as well, but his actions were never remotely repentant, nor did he even begin to take anything resembling responsibility for what he’d done. Faith believed that, over many years, Van Houten did.

Faith’s work put her directly in contact with these women, and over time, she even became their friend. It is an uncomfortable position for her, and it is an uncomfortable position for us. By honoring her long-term work with them but never letting them off the hook for their crimes, Charlie Says will remain the most relevant of the Manson Family films.

About

Sara Century is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. She is a writer of short stories, articles about comics and film, and many, many zines. She is also an artist, comic creator, filmmaker, and podcaster, and she used to be a musician. She’s written for SyFy.com, StarTrek.com, Bustle, Gayly Dreadful, and many more. Visit her website at SaraCentury.com. Find Sara’s webcomic with Tana Thornock and her podcast about comics with SE Fleenor. Follow her on Twitter @SaraCentury.

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