The Dichotomy of Evil: The Manson Girl Who Got Away


But besides the definite feeling of menace, there was a feeling of being menaced specifically by evil, an almost palpable evil. Of course, we were not the only ones in a state of fear in Southern California that night. And as it happened, that fear was justified. Just after midnight, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were brutally slaughtered in their home at 3301 Waverly Drive in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, near Griffith Park. They too were killed with multiple knife wounds. The police found a fork protruding from Leno's stomach and a knife still piercing his throat. On a wall of the La Biancas' house was written, in their blood, DEATH TO PIGS and RISE and HEALTER SKELTER (so misspelled). This was the news Ruth and I woke up to on Monday, after our LSD trip had wound down and we had caught up on our sleep.



Years later, in the '80s, when I was studying and writing about the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his aggressive cult in central Oregon for Oregon Magazine, I had another, more direct encounter with the existence and palpability of real evil. At his ashram in India, before he came to Oregon, Rajneesh had involved his followers in prostitution throughout Asia, international drug smuggling, and violent-encounter groups in which occurred numerous rapes (in the name of sexual liberation) as well as physical abuse resulting in at least one death. Rajneesh forced his women followers into abortions and sterilizations (he didn't countenance childbearing). In Oregon, Rajneesh followers were eventually implicated in the poisoning of restaurant patrons in The Dalles, the seat of Wasco County, with salmonella, and the attempted poisonings of two Wasco County commissioners, in a plot to gain control of the Wasco County Commission so that the incorporation of the city Rajneeshpuram, which Rajneesh megalomaniacally aspired to build, would be approved. Examining the history and behavior of Rajneesh honed my sense that evil and an evil path in life are, at least in key cases, deliberately and consciously chosen.

Rajneesh mesmerized his followers with a stupefying amalgam of Eastern mystical mumbo jumbo (Rajneesh, like Charles Manson, talked frequently about the need to "lose" or "give up" the ego) and the language and techniques of the then-prevalent humanistic psychology and human potential movements. Nathaniel Brandon, a humanistic psychologist of the era, after reading some of Rajneesh's literature in 1978, noted that Rajneesh "explains and justifies the slaughter of Jews throughout history," and wrote that "almost from the beginning I have had the feeling that this is a man who is deeply, deeply evil—evil on a scale almost outside the limits of the human imagination." Rajneesh adherent Shannon Jo Ryan, whose father, Congressman Leo Ryan, was gunned down at Jonestown, once stated: "I've heard other people say that if [Rajneesh] asked them to kill themselves, they would do it. If [Rajneesh] asked them to kill someone else, they would do it . . . I don't know if my trust in him is that total. I would like it to be." Rajneesh himself said the following: “When you surrender, you have surrendered all possibility of saying no. Whatsoever the situation, you will not say no.”

My sense of evil as a consciously chosen path had originated, however, in my familiarity with the Center for Feeling Therapy, a purported “therapeutic community” that flourished in Los Angeles in the ’70s. Center “therapists,” led by head “therapist” and leader Richard “Riggs” Corriere (who did not countenance childbearing among his followers either), employed a combination of abreactive/regressive psychological techniques, which they had learned from Primal Therapy guru Arthur Janov, and coercive social techniques of group therapy to gain control of their patients’ psyches and lives. (Some three hundred “patients” lived together near the therapists’ “compound” in an area of West Hollywood.) The Center for Feeling Therapy broke up in two days in late 1980 amid revelations about what had been going on behind the scenes there, including sexual and financial exploitation of patients. Afterward, while researching transcripts at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, I discovered that three Center therapists, in 1972, not long after the Center’s founding, had held something called the “Esalen Seminar on Feeling Therapy.” During this “seminar,” one of the therapists, describing the abreactive techniques they used to regress patients back to the helplessness of childhood, said that these techniques “were so powerful” that they could use them to manipulate and control their patients, “if we wanted to.” This therapist added: “Hitler did that, you know.”

One of the revelations during the Center’s breakup was that Richard Corriere had been lecturing his therapy group on the virtues of Adolph Hitler. Among other statements Corriere had made was this: “If Hitler had won World War II, he would have eventually done good for the world, because all human beings, deep down, want to do good.” Rajneesh had also alluded to Hitler (in the book The Mustard Seed, which Brandon referenced), claiming, “Jews are always in search of their Adolph Hitlers, someone who can kill them—then they feel at ease.” And Charles Manson, the evil mind behind what came to be called the “Tate-LaBianca killings,” according to his prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, told his followers that “Hitler had the best answer to everything” and that he was “a tuned-in guy who leveled the karma of the Jews.” The reason for such cult leaders’ fascination with Hitler seems clear enough. In his turn, Charles Manson himself has become something of a symbol and magnet for those drawn to the phenomenological power of evil. He still receives a huge volume of mail from admirers. One neo-Nazi wrote Manson that his discovery of Manson “could only be compared” to his earlier discovery of Adolph Hitler and the National Socialist Party.

When I was a senior in high school, my history teacher assigned us to watch a series of films about Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies. Sitting there in a small darkened room with a few other students, watching images of Hitler flicker on the small screen, not being present in that immense stadium with thousands of chanting people, listening to the magnetic timbre of Hitler’s voice without understanding a word of the language other than Die Juden and Judenfrei, I still found Hitler a preternaturally compelling figure, even at that distance in time. It was spooky, and not a little scary. What if you had actually been there? What if you had actually been German, and understood what he was saying? What if you felt resentment at the treatment of Germany by the Allies after World War I? What if you didn’t know any Jews personally and were suspicious of them? In any case, it might have been hard in the context of those rallies to emotionally resist Hitler’s hysterical entreaties and propaganda, especially juxtaposed with the hysterically passionate responses of the crowds. And that, I think, is what our history teacher sent us to learn about and contemplate. Which brings me to my next, and final, topic.



I choose to call it “The Dichotomy of Evil” (as opposed to “The Banality of Evil”). On the one side of my dichotomy are those, like the subject of the interview below, who manifestly did not ever consciously set out to follow the path of evil, but who were skillfully guided and manipulated in that direction by those on the other side of the dichotomy, those who combine intense charisma with a keen sense of how to find and gain control of followers, with diabolical purpose and intent. Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, Rajneesh, Riggs Corriere, David Koresh, Charles Manson. What is the responsibility of the people on the first side of the dichotomy for the actions they have been manipulated and duped into? What is the responsibility of the German people as a whole for what happened in Germany in the ’30s and during World War II, a question that has been probed and debated endlessly? At the Esalen Institute, I once observed a Gestalt therapy session in which a grown woman was, through a painstaking—and painful—therapeutic process, reduced to a quivering, lost, lonely, sobbing child. The therapist, if he had “wanted to,” if he had possessed malign intent, could probably have taken this woman over completely at that moment and made her agree to almost anything he desired.

“Juanita” (not her actual name) was on a road trip from San Jose, California, to Mexico via Phoenix, Arizona. In Mexico she was going to try to reunite with her fiancé, from whom she was estranged. By her account, she had had a “harrowing afternoon” the day before, because her van had been broken into and her very expensive stereo system, which she had felt the immediate need to replace before the long trip ahead, stolen. Because of that and because of the state of her romantic relationship, she was, as are most people at the point they are inducted into cult organizations, in an emotionally fragile and vulnerable state. South of San Jose, she stopped to pick up a pregnant-looking hitchhiker who turned out to be accompanied by two men. All three were from the Manson Family. The woman was Susan Atkins, later one of the Tate-LaBianca killers. The essence of Juanita’s story is this: she got into the Manson cult by accident, and she got out, nine months later, not long before the murders, by another stroke of fate, in that case probably a stroke of great luck as well. The interview was conducted circa 1984–85. At that time, Juanita was happily married and a successfully practicing professional.


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