"Everything was to teach me something." That's what Linda Kasabian told Joan Didion, a confidante during her first few years after being arrested for helping Susan Atkins, Charles "Tex" Watson, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel commit murder at the behest of Charles Manson. Didion, like any number of writers, was fascinated by the idea that something like the Manson Murders could just rip a hole in the fabric of time and space. California's crimes had been kept well-hidden from the rich and comfortable and suddenly Manson's snarling face was all over newspapers, and all because they didn't accept him as one of “them.” He wanted to be a singer so badly and no one would give him a record deal, so he sent his followers out to kill the producer Terry Melcher who refused to sign him. By that logic any one famous enough could be next if some other un-talented hippie got any bright ideas about why he wasn't considered one of the beautiful people. Warren Beatty, who was friends with Manson victim Jay Sebring, was at once shaken because he'd lost a friend to the carnage and disgusted that all it took to completely upend Los Angeles was the murder of an actress (Sharon Tate) and a hair dresser (Sebring). The Manson murders made a community of rich idealists like Didion and Beatty, people who left the doors to their ranch houses and mansions unlocked, who partied relentlessly and thought nothing of hobnobbing with Manson and his followers, realize that life happens to them, too. As Didion writes in her 1979 book The White Album, "some strangers at the door knocked, and invented a reason to come inside: a call, say, to the Triple A, about a car not in evidence. Others just opened the door and walked in." Didion herself once caught an intruder in her house. It had just never occurred to some people that the world might wander in through the front door.
Charles Manson remains the face of the murders even though he didn't do any of the heavy lifting. He provided the drugs and brainwashed the people who wielded the knives. It was his shortcomings, pride, and anger that led him to try to kill Melcher, who'd stamped out Manson's dreams of fame as a singer and who wasn't even home when he sent a caravan of acolytes to kill him. It was Charlie's bright idea to keep the murders up in order to make it look like a fomenting race war instead of a petty revenge killing. Everyone else was branded with his name. Patricia, Susan, and Leslie (or Katie, Sadie and Lulu, as Charlie nicknamed them), Linda Kasabian, and Lynette Fromme ( who was nicknamed Squeaky and later became famous for trying to kill Gerald Ford); they would become Manson Girls. The media stripped them of their agency during the coverage of the trial. They became tentacles of a beast with a scarred face we remember from Xeroxed black-and-white courthouse photos and mugshots. The whys and hows were superfluous to all but a few.
A few years later, once the traumatized and curious alike abandoned the scene of the crime, the Manson girls became Karlene Faith’s problem. Faith was a radical feminist fond of quoting Che Guevara, and she educated and rehabilitated female prisoners in California when she wasn’t raising her children. Even to someone committed to providing aid and comfort to the incarcerated, her 1972 assignment, to spend time with and try to help the Manson killers become fit for intermingling with the general population of the women’s prison, seemed dubious. In her 2001 memoir The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, Faith describes being watched intently by the other social workers as she walked “over there” for the first time. “There” was the special security unit where Krenwinkel, Van Houten, and Atkins were being kept. The warden of the California Institute for Women was Veronica Carlson, who believed that losing years of your life in prison was punishment and that your time in lock-up could be otherwise enriching. The Manson girls had been prepped for a death sentence but then California outlawed the death penalty, so there they sat, in the old Death Row building, keeping Charlie alive though he was miles away in the California State Prison in Corcoran. Carlson assured Faith that the girls were model prisoners, obeying orders, behaving kindly to guards, even singing for whomever was in attendance, and they deserved the same attention as everyone else in CIW. Eventually Faith relented and she soon saw the oddly bewitching gang that her boss wanted nurtured rather than punished. She wrote of her first meeting: “I couldn’t reconcile the media’s images with the women I faced through the bars in the cell.”
It’s not hard to see why Faith would appeal to director Mary Harron, whose new movie Charlie Says is about Faith (played by Merrit Wever) during her initial conversations with Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Atkins (Marianne Rendón) in the security wing of CIW. They’re both Canadians, both raised families, both believed in the power of listening and in giving difficult and troubled women the benefit of the doubt. Harron moved from Ontario to England, dated future prime minister Tony Blair, and then followed the punk scene from the UK to New York, where she worked as a journalist for years. She saw up close precisely what charismatic men could get away with. Her first film, 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol, was about Valerie Solanas, an author and misfit who tried to kill her hero when he refused to recognize her humanity and help her keep her career alive. Harron’s next film was 2001’s Bret Easton Ellis adaptation American Psycho, the ultimate study in toxic pride and entitled masculinity. The see-sawing ideas of the two films would come to define her career: men get away with murder, women get punished. Her next films, biopics of Bettie Page and Anna Nicole Smith, and a young adult fantasy set in a female boarding school, confront the way women are attacked for their sexuality. Charlie Says combines the many threads of Harron’s previous work and shows that she’s honed her aesthetic shorthand: womb-like oranges and reds for moments of inward-looking self-discovery, blues for prison bars reflecting the full moon and the threat of isolation. The movie has to place and keep many thoughts in the viewers’ head at once: the women did something awful, but they were coerced by the most powerful figure in their lives; they were not yet adults but behaved with unbridled savagery; they wanted to escape abusive lives but the ticket to their freedom was sleeping with whomever Charlie (Matt Smith) wanted them to; they were victims and they were criminals.
Charlie Says is a B-side to Harron’s popular Netflix mini-series Alias Grace (2017), in which a death row interview reveals a complex sociopolitical prison of its own in early American society. Like that series, Charlie Says also transpires as a series of interview sessions on either side of a cell door as Van Houten describes her journey from her arrival at Manson’s commune to the morning she helped kill Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, innocent bystanders chosen at random. The film starts with her staring sickly at the pancakes and oatmeal of her breakfast companions after leaving the scene of the crime, remembering her victims while syrup drips off the food and back onto the plate. Faith will work hard to bring her back to that moment of realization, to make her see that she had done something hideous. Faith knew that progress would be meaningless until she could get even one of the three to reckon with the lies Charlie told them. The film is an extended act of empathy, of listening to the misguided killers and then gently holding up Charlie’s fabrications to see if they looked any more false. It does this while also finding time to humanize one of their victims and frequently staring into Faith’s tired eyes as she tries to make a difference. Charlie Says sees past the brutality of the murders, presented in earnest, to the wounded people who wanted approval badly enough that they killed for it.
Naturally the idea of giving these particular women back their humanity is not popular. Faith's colleagues (Suki Waterhouse, Sol Rodriguez) at the Santa Cruz Women's Prison Project don't love that she's spending her valuable time and effort on three women who were so dependent on a man they so and still adore that they committed needless murder on his behalf. Faith herself questions whether they're worth her time when they continuously slide back into worship and acting out, as when they all shave their heads after receiving word to do so from Charlie in their dreams. Wever plays Faith's frustration with the girls perfectly, her exasperation quite understandable and affecting as they torpedo their own rehabilitation. Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner play a deft game with our sympathies in the home stretch: if we want Faith to lead the murderesses to a breakthrough, does that implicitly mean we hope she will be made whole again, too? Does our own identification and understanding have limits?
Watching the three young women slowly come around to the idea that Charlie's imaginary race war, Helter Skelter, might not happen is more heartbreaking than it perhaps ought to be. The final act of the movie is like a thirty-minute version of the moment in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) when Norman Bates tries to put his victim's car in a swamp and it stalls on its way to the bottom, momentarily putting the viewers heart in their throat. The film is largely from the point of view of Faith and her three charges but there are exceptions in order to match the viciousness of the crimes with the people hurt by them. Charlie's rages at being told his music career will never take off, and the chilling moment he looked Sharon Tate in the eye. Grace Van Dien plays Tate and captures her slightly detached aura magnificently—the wide-eyed uncertainty beneath the diamond-perfect surface. Van Dien’s odd poise and nervous improvisation is suitably haunting, a remarkable and affecting performance in a film full of them. Harron is able to build Tate a complex inner life in just two scenes, when Charlie lays eyes on her while searching for Terry Melcher, and in a television clip the three girls have to watch as part of Karlene's regiment of self-reflection. Hearing Tate talk about her future in an old TV interview shakes Leslie's confidence badly enough that it threatens to push Charlie out of the center of her universe, and if one of them lost her conviction, the others would surely follow, so tight was their bond.
If everything the Manson girls underwent was meant to teach them, as Kasabian told Joan Didion, Harron not unreasonably wonders in Charlie Says if Americans could learn from the Manson girls the way they learned from Faith. Faith had to destroy their conception of the world in order to save them from a delusion, and Harron doesn’t skimp on depicting the hardship of having that kind of influence over someone, the same kind of power Charlie once wielded. She realized she could offer them their sense of self in exchange for a lifetime of guilt, a fraught bargain. Wever’s Faith leaves the film a suitably exhausted and sad figure, uncertain of the road ahead, the three women’s sobs echoing in her head. The world changed the minute those girls entered a house unannounced, and nothing would ever set it right again. Faith, however, did the few things she knew she had the power to do to make people better equipped to handle a world where doors needed to be locked from now on. Charlie Says does what Harron always does best: finds the three dimensions of women called “unstable” by the men around them. There may be no reconciling the women who killed for Charlie, but Faith gave them their agency and Harron has given it to us to judge for ourselves.