When Charles Manson coerced his followers into committing one of the most gruesome and infamous crimes of the 20th century, Manson Family member Dianne Lake was just 16 years old, having joined the cult two years earlier, at age 14. She didn't participate in the murders, but she did end up testifying against Manson at his trial. In her new book Member of the Family: My Story of of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties, Dianne recounts her childhood in Minnesota, her early teen years spent living in communes with her parents (who, contrary to rumor, did not "give her away" to Manson), and the events that led her to the Family. Here, she talks about what it was like to testify against Manson, what happened after it was all over, and why she decided to speak out now.
You talk in the prologue about how you started thinking about your past again because of getting a phone call from a detective in 2008, but at what point did you decide you wanted to write a book?
About a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago. I wanted to write this book because my husband died, my kids were old enough, and I wanted to reunite or reconcile who I was at 14 with my adult self and not have it be a secret anymore. People [talk] about...going to their 50th high school reunion and I don’t have a high school reunion that I’m invited to. It was just a bunch of things, but it was time for me to tell my story, to give the glory to God for getting me through this. I’ve really grown through the telling of it and made some good realizations, and it’s good to not have secrets and to not carry them around for so long because of the shame. I feel like in the process of writing this book I’ve been untethered from the shame and I’ve unburdened my soul with this secret. Hopefully it’s a cautionary tale for others.
How difficult was it to revisit some of these memories?
It was very difficult, but my collaborator was really good and gentle and nonjudgmental. We kind of did this spiral—laid a foundation, came around again, [added] a little more detail, a little more detail, a little more detail. And then I also have been working with a therapist partly because of the book but partly because I was grieving the loss of my husband.
You mentioned that your kids are now old enough to know about your history now. Are they going to read the book, or have they read the book?
My daughter’s reading the book and my sons don’t have it yet. I’m not encouraging them to read it, but they are welcome to read it. I don’t want to pressure them into reading it because it may be too much information for them, but I think that they will start reading that and they might just skip over some of the parts.
It seems like there’s been sort of a resurgence of interest in the case the past few years, with all the shows and movies about it. How do you feel about about all those adaptations?
That was more reason for me to write the book now, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there—how I got my nickname [for example]. There’s a lot of information that is just wrong. This was one way to correct it. It’s one way for me to prevent somebody from writing my story based on information that’s already out there.
Have you watched any of those movies or shows?
I have watched some of Aquarius. I’ve really read very few books [about it] and never did. Until I started writing this book I had only read Helter Skelter and The Family. In the process of researching this book I’ve just been amazed at how many books have been written, how many people claim to be members of the Family who I have no idea who they are...it’s unbelievable.
When you watch something like Aquarius, does it bring back memories, or do you just kind of laugh and say that’s not how it was?
Actually Aquarius, whoever was helping them with the dialogue, I thought captured Charlie’s Charlie-isms very well. Somebody had some kind of inside info. That’s all I can say about that show—there’s a lot of weirdness about that show. But that’s the one takeaway I got from watching Aquarius.
What’s the biggest myth you’ve heard about the Manson Family over the years?
That he kidnapped me from the Hog Farm.
Were you worried about retribution when you decided to testify?
A little bit, but not too much because at that point I was living with a sheriff, and I felt protected and I didn’t feel like the people that were left were going to pursue that. They weren’t going to do a retaliation. I was prepared. But I was worried that he would still have a hold on me by looking at me. I was afraid that the memories of my being in love with him would draw me back in, but the spell was broken.
There are so many points in the book when you say things like, “I later found out that he stole X philosophy from X place." When you first found out something like that, that he had stolen these ideas you were really sold on, how did you feel?
Conned. It just was more evidence that he was a con. I [later] became a teacher of special ed students with autism. Kids with autism often have these very significant gifts, and I think one of his gifts—and I’m not saying he had autism—but one of his gifts was that he had an incredible auditory memory. I think that’s why he was able to become so many different people. He learned a lot from what he heard. We always kind of wondered, "How well could he read?" I don’t think that he really could read that well but he made up for it with his auditory memory. He had a gift there.
Since then people have offered alternate theories about Manson’s motive for the murder and implied that helter skelter was mostly invented by the prosecution, but you write in the book that he frequently talked about it. So to your mind, he believed in helter skelter?
I do. I really do. I’m sure he was angry and disappointed and felt disenfranchised. It was just the perfect storm and he already had this mindset...that there was this race war coming and that we were going to go to the desert. And that’s why he wanted to make the record—not because he wanted to be a rock star but because he wanted money that would help fund the stay in the desert.
After the trial, you were still a teenager. When you were finishing high school, did people know who you were?
Yes, it was a tiny town. When I went first [became] a foster child with Jack [Gardiner] and his wife, they’d had other foster children...so I really wasn’t a surprise. I had babysitting jobs, the local teenagers took me out, they knew nothing. I started school in September , the trial started in December/January, and then everybody knew. The babysitting jobs dried up, and [with] the parents of the kids that I had been friends with at school, I was not invited to their homes.
You did eventually reconnect with your parents, who didn't give you away to Manson but also didn't exactly stop you from joining his group. How and when did that happen?
When I turned 18, Jack helped me get into a junior college and I went to Glendale. My mom and family members were living near there and a friend of hers had an extra room so I was able to stay there. So I went to junior college for a year and then I was invited to go to Spokane by a friend, and then we ended up going to Europe together so I was out of the L.A. area for three years. That was really helpful, but in the meantime I had reconnected. I wrote my mom letters—I’ve got a stack of letters, 10 pages long, double-sided, air mail paper—and so far the ones I’ve read, I never mention the Charlie years. I’m very close with my mother now and my father has passed away.
Has your mother read the book?
No, but she will. I think there are going to be parts she agrees with and parts she doesn’t agree with. But it’s my story.