Sharon Tate: Unwitting victims’ rights martyr
ROSIE BLANCHARD BEGAN SENDING Mother’s Day cards to Doris Tate in the 1990s, even though the two women had never met. One day in August, Blanchard trekked to the Tate family house for the first time; P.J., Doris’s husband, answered the door. “Hi,” Blanchard said cheerfully. “I’m your daughter, Sharon.”
This was, of course, untrue. P.J. and Doris’s oldest daughter, Sharon, had been stabbed to death by members of the Manson Family two decades earlier, just weeks before she was due to give birth. P.J. Tate slammed the door in Blanchard’s face, but the young woman continued to pester the family for attention. In her mind, this was perfectly justifiable: she was Sharon Tate reincarnated, she told anyone who’d listen, and she just wanted to reconnect with her family.
Years later, after Doris’s death, Blanchard turned her attentions to Sharon’s youngest sister, Patti. Patti tolerated the harassment for years, until she was diagnosed with cancer. As Alisa Statman writes in Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family’s Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice, Patti realized that, should she fail to survive her illness, she “didn’t want [her] kids to pick up the phone and hear, ‘Hi, it’s Aunt Sharon.’” Eventually, Patti mustered the courage to trek to Blanchard’s Burbank apartment to ask her to stop. But when Patti told Blanchard that she didn’t believe in the reincarnation story, the younger woman was unexpectedly understanding. “I’m glad you said it,” Blanchard replied. “Because there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you, but I haven’t had the nerve — I’m Sharon’s baby! I’m your niece! I’ve been alive all this time!”
On August 8, 1969, five followers of Charles Manson — Tex Watson, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian, and Susan Atkins — drove to Sharon Tate’s house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, northwest of Beverly Hills. They were carrying knives (Tex also had a gun) and wearing all black. At the time, Sharon’s husband, Roman Polanski, was filming in Europe; keeping her company in his stead were Sharon’s ex, hairstylist-to-the-stars Jay Sebring; coffee company heiress Abigail Folger; and Holocaust survivor Woytek Frykowski. Just after midnight, Watson, Van Houten, Krenwinkel, Kasabian, and Atkins arrived at the house, cut the phone lines, and scrambled over the fence. The first person they killed was 18-year-old Steven Parent, who’d just been visiting the house’s caretaker, William Garretson. Tate, Sebring, Folger, and Frykowski were next.
Faced with a gruesome crime scene the next day, the Los Angeles police immediately assumed that the teenaged Garretson was the guilty party. After all, Garretson, who lived in a small house at the edge of the Tate–Polanski property, was alive and intact, while everyone else at the house had been stabbed, shot, or bludgeoned to death. (Or all three, in the case of Frykowski.) But forensic evidence quickly exonerated Garretson, who maintained that he’d been asleep the whole time and hadn’t heard a thing.
Or that’s what he said in 1969, at least. These days, Garretson claims that most of his earlier testimony was a fabrication. What actually happened, he now swears, was that the eight-months pregnant Sharon delivered her baby that night, just before she died. Mysterious men in black suits let Garretson hold the baby for a few minutes, before spiriting it away to an undisclosed location. That baby grew up in New York as Rosie Blanchard, unaware until she was 24 years old that she was actually the daughter of one of the most famous murder victims in the world. In the late 1990s, around the same time she began harassing the Tate family, Blanchard got in touch with Garretson. Within six months, they had moved in together and become engaged. For the 31st anniversary of Sharon’s murder (and thus, ostensibly, of Blanchard’s birth), they threw a party: “The room, adorned with photos of the Manson victims, candles, confetti and Sharon Tate memorabilia, could hold 50,” wrote a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch who attended the party, held in a room at the Best Western in Lancaster, Ohio. “But the only guests in attendance were two Ohio University journalism students and me.”
“[Garretson] and I have seen some ups and downs,” Blanchard told the reporter. “But we both survived the same murder, and he was the only one who could empathize with my pain. We never knew, 31 years ago, that we’d meet again.”
Murder ruptures the habits and functions of daily life. It dismantles the castle. It turns the bricks back into sand. “I say a murder is abstract,” a character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1948 play Dirty Hands says. “You pull the trigger and after that you do not understand anything that happens.” He’s talking about people who commit crimes, but murder’s meaning-draining properties apply just as much to those who witness violent acts: they find they can’t sleep, or they sleep all the time. Words start to seem nonsensical. The world is new, and worse.
What, then, of famous murders — ones we didn’t commit or witness, but still live with, in a sense? We stare at a house ringed by crime scene tape during the evening news; if we’re truly devoted, we can follow Court TV’s live coverage of the indictment six months later. But our lives aren’t split into a before and after; in fact, they haven’t changed much at all. Maybe, if we’re Joan Didion, we have a panic attack and start to lock our front door. Meanwhile, the rest of us eat our oatmeal and do the crossword puzzle as always, only with an occasional shiver of dread: something horrible happened somewhere else today. Most of us, at least. But there are many ways to be a victim of a crime, and not all of them look like you might expect.
When Sharon Tate left her family (then stationed on a military base in Italy) to try and make it in Hollywood in 1961, her mother, Doris, lapsed into a pill-induced stupor. She had never been separated from her oldest daughter for an extended period of time, and the emotional strain proved too much. A psychiatrist diagnosed her with “acute separation anxiety disorder,” and Sharon reluctantly returned to Europe.
Sharon Tate in Eye of the Devil (1966)
Eight years later, after Sharon’s murder, Doris once again turned to Valium, according to Restless Souls. While her husband, P.J., spent hours consulting with cops and pursuing suspects on his motorcycle, Doris stayed home, popped some pills, and missed her daughter.
More than a decade after Sharon’s death, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Kay stopped by Doris’s hair salon to ask for her help gathering signatures for a blanket petition against the release of any member of the Manson Family. The task brought her the sense of purpose she’d been missing, and Doris soon became an early and prominent voice of what has come to be known as the victims’ rights movement.
The victims’ rights movement was a conservative offshoot of 1970s-era radical feminism, when activists mobilized on behalf of victims of rape and domestic violence, arguing for restitution, psychological counseling, and a defined role for victims in legal proceedings. By the 1990s, the movement — a coalition of crime victims, prosecutors, prison officials, and conservative politicians — was one of the most powerful lobbying forces in the state of California. In the early days, though, it was just a group of grassroots activists trying to make themselves heard.
Encouraged by Kay, Doris began attending meetings of Parents of Murdered Children, which functioned as both support group and advocacy organization. At POMC meetings, New Age-y therapeutic language (“finding a voice”) dovetailed with a deeply conservative attitude toward criminal justice; campaigning for “rights” was a way for victims to assert agency in the face of tragedy, while also attacking a judicial process that many saw as overly favorable to defendants. The movement brought renewed purpose to Doris’s life. Her daughter’s killers “should have to sit in a four-by-four cell where they can think about what they did for eternity,” Doris told P.J. after a POMC meeting, according to Statman. “And, if you stopped numbing your mind [with beer] you’d see that.”
As she finds her place within the victims’ rights movement, Doris emerges as Restless Souls’s most nuanced and well-drawn character, a woman who bakes cookies, calls everyone “darlin,” and tenaciously argues legal niceties at parole hearings. By 1985, Doris was a board member of Citizens for Truth, Justice for Homicide Victims, the California Justice Committee, and Believe the Children, as well as serving as president of Parents of Murdered Children. The next year, she led the charge to oust the first female Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Rose Bird, who had consistently overturned death penalty verdicts that came before her. To press her cause, Doris appeared on ThePhil Donahue Show. “One thing is certain,” she told Donahue. “[the death penalty] will cut down on recidivism, because the guy that goes to the gas chamber well, my dear, he’s one less we have to worry about.” That November, voters supported Bird’s removal by a 66–33 margin. It was the first time a sitting Chief Justice had ever been ousted, and the first time since 1934 that any State Supreme Court Justice had been removed.
Doris’s dramatic journey of self-actualization through criminal justice activism aside, Restless Souls is ultimately not a very satisfying read. The book’s account of Sharon Tate’s early years is not particularly revealing; like an adorably ditzy rom-com heroine, “[Sharon’s] clumsiness got the best of her,” and “balancing a checkbook was a challenge she didn’t care to master.” Statman’s chapter on the night of the murders rehashes Vincent Bugliosi’s canonical account in Helter Skelter (1974), but with some movie-scenario color thrown in for good measure (“The knife slashes through the open window like a rabid dog’s gnashing”). And then there are sentences like this one: “My gaze turned to a glaring punch.” And this one: “[P.J. and Doris Tate] were as set in their ways as a grape stain to white pants and equally as stubborn. Despite it all, their love was as preserved and age-worn as a pressed rose hidden in a Bible.” Italics are used liberally, and verb tenses jump all over the place. Cops say things like “Go on home folks. There’s nothing to see here,” while bad guys betray themselves with sinister winks.
But let’s be real: no one picks up a book like this for its writing. (If “[y]ou can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” as Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert once claimed, the adage does not hold for true crime historians.) As its breathless title suggests, Restless Souls is a Lifetime movie of a book, and it delivers the drama with requisite zeal. More troubling than the bad writing, though, is the narrative awkwardness that stems from the fact that Statman has chosen to write the book in the alternating first-person voices of Doris, P.J., and Patti Tate — all of whom are now dead. Although Statman certainly had access to plenty of personal documents and knew the Tate family well (more on that in a bit), her habit of inserting thoughts into her characters’ heads reflects a general tendency to overassume and overreach. This is most disconcerting during the murder scenes, in which Statman writes her way into the minds of those about to kill or be killed, as when “Sharon flings her arms defensively, wildly, not knowing what she is hitting, and too terrified to feel the pain as the knife gashes her forearms.”
Inserting herself into the Manson story seems to be something of a compulsion for Statman. Although you wouldn’t know it from Restless Souls, in 1990, the 21-year-old Statman signed a lease on the house at 10050 Cielo Drive. She was in need of a place to live, and the isolated house in Benedict Canyon just happened to be available, she recalled in a 2012 interview. Though she knew of the house’s tragic history — a disclosure about the murders was in her lease — she claims not to have been overly concerned about it. “I can’t begin to explain it, but the moment you drove through the gates there was an overwhelming, peaceful easy feeling that was felt by all those who came to visit me,” Statman has written. “And for me, that feeling out-weighed the past atrocities.” (In the conspiracy-rife world of Manson studies, there are some who believe that Statman’s renting the house wasn’t as coincidental or innocent as she claims. Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister, alleges that Statman rented the house because she was “fascinated” by Sharon’s murder and was already planning to write a book about the case.)
Whatever her initial motivation for moving in, Statman’s rental of the Tate house ensured that she quickly became obsessed with the famously engrossing Manson case. Statman (who currently works an assistant director on Modern Family) agreed to help producer Bill Nelson make a documentary about the case, hoping to get a foothold in Hollywood in the process. In the course of their research, Nelson and Statman paid a visit to retired LAPD detective Earl Deemer. As Nelson and Statman asked about the case, Deemer began pulling photographs out of his personal files, including photographs of murder victims in the last weeks of their lives. Statman assumed, correctly, that the detective had taken the images as souvenirs from the Tate house in the aftermath of the murders. “I was so angry,” Statman recalled. “He’d been sitting on these photos for years. The second they left the room, I pocketed them, with the intention of returning them to whoever I could find.”
After she returned home, Statman contacted Sharon’s youngest sister, Patti, to see about returning the images. At the time, Patti was unhappily married to a professional basketball player and living in Southern California with her three young children. Within a few years, Patti and her husband divorced; Statman and Patti had fallen in love, and soon moved in together as domestic partners. A decade later, when Patti died at 42 of breast cancer, Statman was awarded custody of her children — one of whom, Brie Tate, is credited as a co-author of Restless Souls.
When Charles Manson listened to the Beatles’ White Album in 1969, he heard things: praise for Manson Girl Sexy Sadie (Atkins), the subliminal message “Charlie, Charlie, send us a telegram” buried in the sonic chaos of “Revolution Number 9,” and, most of all, ominous proclamations of an imminent race war to be known as “Helter Skelter.” “Manson had a hypnotic rap about how the modern blacks were arming themselves, how he, Manson, had talked to blacks in prison and he had learned of heavy arms caches here and there,” Ed Sanders wrote in The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (1971). Any day now, Manson preached, blacks would rise up, kill whitey, and assume control of the government — only to fail miserably, in the end, because of their innate inferiority. That’s when Manson’s gang would emerge from their secret hiding place — a mystic chamber located somewhere underneath Death Valley — and assume ultimate control of the country. When they committed the 1969 murders, Family members wrote RISE and HEALTER SKELTER [sic] and POLITICAL PIGGY on the walls in their victims’ blood, in an attempt to pin the crimes on the Black Panthers (and thus usher Helter Skelter along).
In a sense, Manson’s schizophrenic premonition was not so far off. Helter Skelter never happened, but something else did. By the 1980s, the people most likely to be the victims of violent crime were young black men from low-income neighborhoods, while the leadership of the victims’ rights movement was dominated by white women. This is not to discount the good work accomplished by these groups: the grieving mothers who formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) made drunk driving into a national issue, and the various victim advocacy groups helped instate restitution policies that have changed people’s lives. But its rhetorical positioning has meant that the victims’ rights movement has managed to inure itself from criticism — it’s difficult to campaign against a group called Parents of Murdered Children — while at the same time calling attention to certain kinds of victimhood and consistently eliding others. In Restless Souls, the growth of the victims’ rights movement is presented as a straightforward story of tenacious, motherly good winning out against insidious, inhuman evil (which occasionally colludes with bleeding-heart liberal judges). But a deeper examination of the role of the movement reveals a story that’s more complicated and more unnerving than the one that Statman wants to tell.
“‘Victims’ suggests a nonprovoking individual hit with the violence of ‘street crime’ by a stranger,” Indiana law professor Lynne N. Henderson, an early and outspoken critic of the movement, wrote in a 1985 paper called “The Wrongs of Victim’s Rights.” “‘Victims’ are not prostitutes beaten senseless by pimps or ‘johns,’ drug addicts mugged and robbed of their fixes, gang members killed during a feud, or misdemeanants raped by cell mates.” As Henderson points out, the victims’ rights movement relied heavily on the symbolism of blameless, female victimhood. The “victim” in question was, more often than not, a grieving mother like Doris Tate.
The movement’s emphasis on punishment and retribution also set the criteria for which victims’ voices counted, and which responses were considered legitimate. In 1990, Rosemary LaBianca’s daughter Suzan LaBerge attended Tex Watson’s parole hearing to argue that the convicted killer deserved to be released; she and Watson had been corresponding, and she believed that his conversion to Christianity was sincere. (Ironically, LaBerge was allowed to testify in the first place because of a 1982 law that Doris Tate helped pass, which allowed those most closely affected by a crime to make a Victim Impact Statement at parole hearings.) “You know, Suzan, that you dishonored your mother today,” Doris hissed at her in the parking lot afterward, according to Statman. “Every mother within the sound of my voice would cringe if their kid went into a parole hearing to beg for their killer’s release. You make me so sick I can’t even stand to look at you, you dumb shit.”
If the victims’ rights movement had limited its appeal to actual victims of violent crime, it would never have grown to be as large or as powerful as it did. The movement’s genius — the thing that made it enough of a political force that we now have a federal Office for Victims of Crime, and most states now have constitutional amendments enshrining victims’ rights — was creating a strategic alliance between those who had been the victims of violent crime and people who had not been victimized but still lived in a state of heightened anxiety. The sex and drugs and activism of the 1960s felt like social chaos to a large segment of the population (closely related to, if not totally coextensive with, Nixon’s famous “silent majority”). Who knew whose daughter might be murdered by the next sex-crazed hippie cult? In a 1968 Gallup poll, 81 percent of Americans agreed that “law and order has broken down in this country,” with the most commonly identified culprits being “Negroes who start riots” and “Communists.” The victims’ rights movement appealed to non-victims who nonetheless felt threatened by a polarized society and rising crime rates. The movement was, in a way, an attempt to turn back the clock on the social and judicial reforms of the 1950s and ’60s — and a remarkably successful one at that.
There is a tricky logic at work here. While victims of past crimes might want vengeance, financial restitution, counseling, or even (in rare cases) more lenient sentencing, victims of future crimes simply want to avoid becoming victims. “Past victims may be said to represent individual and private interests, while future victims represent the public’s fear of crime and its interest in crime control,” Henderson writes. “Proponents of the crime control model [of criminal justice] confuse the images of past and future victims by exploiting the public’s emotional identification with the anguish of past victims simultaneously with its fear of crime and victimization.”
And so the grieving mothers of the victims’ rights movement told their heart-wrenching stories, and the movement lobbied for increasingly conservative, tough-on-crime policies: mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines; 15-year parole denials; three- (or even two-) strike laws for repeat offenders. After learning that Tex Watson had fathered a couple of children while in prison, Doris Tate made it her personal crusade to eliminate conjugal visits for those sentenced to life in prison.
While the prominent narratives of the victims’ rights movement told of serial murderers or sex crimes against children, most of the people who got caught up in these “tough-on-crime” policies were nonviolent drug offenders, the vast majority of them black. The effects of these policies have been devastating. As the legal scholar Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow (2010), there are currently more black men under correctional control in the United States than were enslaved in 1850. In 2009, California prisons — once some of the most well run and progressive in the nation — were so underfunded and overcrowded that the Supreme Court mandated that 30,000 prisoners be released over the next few years.
Meanwhile, the victims’ rights movement continues to see itself as keeping politicians honest by pressing them to be ever-harsher on crime: “Nana [Doris Tate] and the multitude of other victims’ advocates became the guardian angels of the state as they worked tirelessly to keep the violent offenders behind bars,” Brie Tate, Patti’s daughter, claims in Restless Souls’s final chapter. “They did their job right, but California didn’t, as the state continually neglected to build more prisons to house its offenders.” An odd claim, considering that since 1980, higher education spending in California has decreased by 13 percent, while investment in prisons has grown 436 percent; the state now spends far more money on prisons than it does on colleges and universities. Meanwhile, violent crime rates held relatively steady between 1973 and 1993, and dropped precipitously over the past two decades. But, as Alexander writes, “by locking millions of people out of the mainstream legal economy, by making it difficult or impossible for people to find housing or feed themselves, and by destroying familial bonds by warehousing millions for minor crimes, we make crime more — not less — likely in the most vulnerable communities.” Charles Manson’s acid-fueled dream of an annihilating race war has come to pass, after a fashion. It’s just been a longer, slower fight, more like a war of attrition, than anyone ever imagined it would be.
Even on death row, a murderer projects a certain omnipotence. It’s not so surprising, then, that some adolescents (boys and girls both) fetishize serial killers. Teenagers have been wearing Charles Manson T-shirts for 40 years now. Maybe if I’d been more goth, it would’ve gone that way for me, too. But I was mostly a good girl, I thought, and in my daydreams about murder, I was always the one being killed.
I know I wasn’t the only one to fall for the victim instead of the killer. In a way, both Alisa Statman and Rosie Blanchard have inserted themselves into tragedy. As a rhetorical position, victimhood can be paradoxically powerful. The victim is both blameless and immune from criticism; she can claim access to specialized knowledge of what crime and criminals are “really” like, and demand deference from those less experienced. The victim may be wounded — she may be dead! — but she retains the charisma that comes from righteous anger. She knows things. She has been initiated.
This is, of course, an oversimplification. I am sitting here telling you what victimhood is, when the difficulty is that it can look like many different things. The early years of the victims’ rights movement were about encouraging a diversity of victims’ voices in courtrooms, parole hearings, support groups, and in the media. Instead, we now have a movement that purports to speak on behalf of victims everywhere, and even on behalf of anyone who might someday become a victim. This is an attempt to tidy up the aftereffects of violent crime by sifting the world into victims and criminals, good and evil, the sinned-against and the irredeemable. Such a cynical reduction is more than just a rhetorical problem, as The New Jim Crow makes appallingly clear.
But who am I to judge? I, too, am a murder groupie of sorts. Right now I’m looking at a small plastic bag with a shard of gray stone pinned to the bulletin board over my desk. SHARON’S STONE, it says, in someone’s idea of a tasteful font. “This stone was removed from the original fireplace in 10050 Cielo Drive,” the caption reads, “where Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Voyteck [sic] Frykowski, Jay Sebring and Steven Parent were murdered late in the evening of August 8, 1969. The House was destroyed in 1993.” It’s a macabre relic, and I don’t know why I have it around, except for the occasional dark compulsion to get close to the place that frightens me the most — that place where the victim and the voyeur and the criminal all collapse into one, when I don’t know which one I want to be anymore.More Los Angeles Review of Books
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