Would you kill for your child?

Posted by Saraline , Monday, April 5, 2010 4:36 PM

I read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi last summer. Bugliosi was the prosecutor in the famous Manson trial for the Tate-Labianca murders. After reading the book, I did some googling online and found Susan Atkins' website. The website includes Atkins' account of the murders and her part in them.


In the fall of 1986 I received a letter from a group of young people living in a commune in Colorado. There were about two dozen of them between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, and they wrote to tell me how “cool” they thought my commitment offense was. Apparently they had failed to discover that I had disavowed Charles Manson over 15 years earlier. I wrote them back explaining that nothing that happened back when I was with Charles Manson was “cool.” Not the drug use, not the physical abuse, and certainly not the crimes. I suggested they find more enlightening role models and heroes.

According to Atkins, the Helter Skelter motive was bogus; she claims that it is a myth that Charles Manson invented to hide the real motives behind the murders from his followers. What's even more interesting is Atkins' description of life as a mother in the Manson family:

...by the late summer of 1969, my son was over half a year old and I was becoming very attached to him. This was not allowed by Charles Manson. Mothers were kept away from their own children under the pretense that parents put too much guilt and structure on children and that they should be allowed to grow up free.In truth it was an iron-clad way of ensuring the mother would do whatever Charles Manson told her to do.
In my case, I became so persistent about seeing my son and trying to look after him that I was constantly being sent away from Spahn’s Ranch with the men when they went to take care of business.

Atkins asserts that she did as she was told because she feared for the life of her son. Even during the trial when her son was no longer with the Manson family, she did not feel that he was safe. After all, even though she didn't have any identification, she and other members of the family hadn't had difficulty before when they had retrieved her son from a foster family:

Manson sent me to social services to find out where my son was and then he sent four men to escourt me to the house and ask to see my son. When the couple who were looking after him left the room the men ushered me and my son back into the car, drove me back to Manson, my son was taken out of my hands and returned to where the other children were being kept “for his safety.”

What would other parents do if they were in Atkins' situation? She thought that she was joining a happy hippie commune and instead found herself isolated in the desert with a cult run by a racist, misogynist sociopath. She feared for her son's life because he was kept from her and she did not know if he was okay. Linda Kasabian was in the same situation and ran away, leaving her daughter with the Manson family. What would others do if they were faced with Atkins and Kasabian's dilemma?

I like to think that I would keep a cool head, run to the police at the first opportunity, and lead them back to the ranch to find my child. Still, I feel badly for Susan Atkins. She made a misguided attempt to protect her son and was never allowed to see him again.

While I was on Death Row my son was legally taken from me because no one in my family was willing to raise him. His name and identity have been changed and sealed, so I have no idea where he is or how he is doing. [...] My continuing separation from my son, even after all these years, remains an incredibly poignant and enduring loss.

I feel badly for Sharon Tate too, who pleaded for the life of her baby and was told by Atkins that she had no mercy for her. I also feel badly for the other victims of the Manson family.

Although Susan Atkins didn't show any outward signs of remorse during the trial, she later denounced Manson and said that she was sorry for her participation in the murders. "Sorry is such a pitiful word for what I feel about those people who lost their lives because of me and my willingness to participate," she said. "It is not an adequate word." She displayed good behaviour while in prison. She was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008 and requested a compassionate release from prison. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi did not oppose her release:

Former Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi said it was time for the state to show Atkins mercy. He told The Times last month that it was wrong to say "just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her."

"She's already paid substantially for her crime, close to 40 years behind bars. She has terminal cancer. The mercy she was asking for is so minuscule. She's about to die. It's not like we're going to see her down at Disneyland," said Bugliosi, who wrote the best-selling book "Helter Skelter."

-from the The L.A. Times

Her parole hearing was in September, 2009 and her request for compassionate leave was denied.


Susan Atkins on a gurney at her 2009 parole hearing.

Whether or not I think that Atkins' request should have been granted is irrelevant; she died a few weeks after her parole hearing.

2 Response to "Would you kill for your child?"

skdadl Says:

Susan's story haunts me, as do those of the other Manson "girls." It has been decades since I read Bugliosi, but Susan's linking of what she did to her concern for her son rings slightly false to me. I'm sure that she was young and confused -- they all were -- but I'm not sure she was acting mainly out of concern for her son.

Her later statements sound lucid and moral, and I'm glad to know that. I've never been convinced that putting people away forever, especially people who were that young when they went over the edge, makes any more sense than executing them. Given a chance to rest and think and do some productive work, people can grow up, and Susan may have. I don't think that we have figured out very smart ways of dealing with people like Susan and Patricia and Leslie.

I remember the weekend of those killings, all the killings, which we misinterpreted so badly at first. When I look back, all I can think is that so much was wasted, so many promising lives, and we still don't know how to deal decently with the different kinds of problems that came together to produce that frenzy, much less to rehabilitate those caught up in it.

It was such a waste. I'm glad that Susan found love and peace before she died.

Saraline Says:

I think they were confused too, and I do think that some of the confusion came from fear. What better way to scare somebody than to threaten their children? I can't imagine how frightened Linda Kasabian must have been when she went to pick her daughter up from the foster home and learned that a woman had been there before to claim the little girl.

I think that Susan Atkins did grow up while she was in prison, and I don't think that she was any longer a threat to society, especially at her last parole hearing when most of her body was paralysed and she'd had one of her legs amputated. She apparently did a lot of good work while she was in prison.