Usually, I give books I read a star rating, based on my enjoyment, my thoughts on structure, writing style, subject matter, among other things. It’s mainly for my own recording, so that when I look back over the year, I can see what I liked and didn’t like at a glance.
I’m not going to give Member of the Family a star rating. For me, a memoir such as this goes beyond judgements about writing style or structure.
“Memories fade, but trauma remembers. It is stored in your body, your senses, your synapses and cells. It would take strength to tell my story, but more importantly, it would take strength to tell myself, and to remember.”
Charles Manson and his crimes are imprinted into American history. Rumours, myths, and conspiracy theories abound about his life.
As the title may suggest, Member of the Family takes us right inside his inner circle, his “Family” as it was called.
Dianne Lake first met Manson when she was fourteen. Her parents had joined the 1960’s counter-culture movement when she was 10, fully ‘dropping out’ of society when she was 13. Living out of a renovated bread truck, moving from commune to commune, campsite to campsite, Dianne was feeling increasingly detached – from the world, from her parents, and from herself. At the moment in her life when she was perhaps most vulnerable, Manson (or “Charlie” as the Family called him) made her feel noticed and valued, and invited her to join him.
“What I needed was a family. And now it seemed I’d found one.”
Reading this, I really got the sense that Lake was sharing parts of this story – her story – for the first time. She is open with the fact that she is recalling this as well as she can, “for no memory is perfect”, and that names have been altered for the protection of others. If it were possible to set aside the dark journey she travelled along with Manson’s ‘Family’, this poignant honesty displayed throughout the memoir makes for an engaging read. I could hardly tear myself away from reading, even as events become more disturbing with time. I hadn’t known much about Charles Manson before reading this, and I’m glad because I approached this without any pre-conceptions.
1960’s counterculture is always presented in ‘peace and love’ vocabulary, and Lake’s memoir exposes how easily the dark undercurrents of Manson’s philosophy were disguised within those over-arching images. He espoused ideas of simple living – the women he took into his family shared clothes from a minimal supply, and they often rummaged in supermarket refuse bins for ‘imperfect’ food that was thrown away. He promoted a sense of ‘oneness’ and love between the women (or girls, as many of them were).
What is evident from Lake’s story, though, is that he used this culture as a means of gaining power and control. Manson’s philosophy fashioned himself as a new ‘Jesus’ figure (‘Man’s Son’), delivering the world from their bonds and into freedom. Lake recalls LSD trips during which he would deliver ‘sermons’ that instilled those around him with this idea. The people Manson chose to join his ‘Family’, as Lake now realises, were carefully selected.
“We’d all been isolated from our families an struggled to find out where we belonged as a result…Each story highlighted Charlie’s ability to make a girl feel as if he only had eyes for her.”
They had to be vulnerable and malleable (and it helped if they had access to money) so that securing their intense dedication to him was as easy as possible. Whenever he asked them to ‘take care’ of men that Charlie needed things from, they saw it as a show of their love for Charlie, rather than his exploitation of them. As his behaviour became more questionable, and then violent, Lake notes that he isolated them further from society to prevent them questioning him, or their own instincts. The extent of his delusion, and the manipulation of others that this entailed, is disturbing to read about. It’s clear how lucky Lake was to escape alive, literally and mentally.
This memoir also offers a fascinating exploration of what family and belonging really means, and how vital these relationships are for a person’s mental equilibrium and sense of self. Dianne’s fraught relationship with her parents, her place in Manson’s ‘Family’, and her current life exemplify this in different ways.
I can’t say that this was an enjoyable read in the usual sense of that term – the events Dianne relates from her life are too dark for that. However, it is poignant, engaging, and a supremely important story to be told. I commend Dianne Lake for her courage to share this story.
* Member of the Family, written by Dianne Lake and Deborah Herman was published 8th March 2018 by HarperElement, an imprint of HarperCollins UK
**I was offered a proof copy in advance of publication in exchange for an honest review