Charles Manson's youngest cult member: 'The worst part was keeping this a secret'

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STOCKBRIDGE — Dianne Lake hid from the truth for 47 years.

Long ago, she had only told her husband and pastor that, starting at age 14, she had been one of "Charlie's girls" and the youngest member of Charles Manson's cult.

"And then I buried it," Lake said in an interview at The Red Lion Inn last week with co-author Deborah Herman, a Stockbridge-based literary agent and writer.

"I did not want to be associated with it," Lake said. "It was a big revelation to just admit to myself that, yeah, I really was a member of the Manson family, and I loved Charlie."

But years later, Lake, known in the Manson family as "Snake," would receive a divine nudge, she said. It was "an epiphany" that would have her writing her memories in longhand "in my PJs." And it led her to Herman, who, during law school, was obsessed with the Manson case down to its granular detail.

Lake and Herman, now best friends, talked about how they came together in 2016 to write "Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties."

Lake joined the California commune having landed under the spell of Manson, the charismatic leader who at one point envisioned himself as "the next Christ."

The cult quickly descended into madness and chaos after Manson led cult members on a path to murdering seven people in 1969, including actress Sharon Tate.

Lake, now 66 and still living in California, did not participate in the murders, but at age 16 was the key witness who helped put Manson and the others in prison. Manson, whose death sentence was commuted to life, died in 2017 at age 83.

Lake said she had lost much of her own spirit to the cult. After some time in jail, and at Patton State Hospital for protection and healing, she slowly would regain it and find her way back into herself. She eventually would expand her education, marry, have children and work as a special education teacher. And she later would try to understand what had happened to the child who found herself with a 33-year-old lover, a man who became the malevolent 1960s icon — the dark side of the hippie movement.

Pressed by fear of being outed, Lake eventually told her children of those days in Manson's commune, and of hiding out in Death Valley. But it took years, and the loss of her husband to cancer in 2012, to muster the courage to excavate the memories of Manson and earlier recollections of her parents' counterculture life that made her susceptible.

True crime and spirituality

Rewind to Herman's law school days at Ohio State University, where her passion for the true crime genre led her to also study literary journalism.

"I really wanted to be Truman Capote, only taller, and with a lower voice," said Herman, 60. "Ohio State was the target of many cults, and I was obsessed and fascinated with the Manson case."

And this would continue. Jeff Herman, her husband and partner at their Stockbridge literary agency, asked her, "Why are you obsessed with this darkness?"

A week later, the couple received a "cold-call email" submission from Lake, who said she had never told her story. Looking back, Lake said she was looking for an agent "that believed in a higher power."

Jeff Herman held the email up.

"I will never doubt you," he told his wife.

"I thought, 'This is what you've been waiting for,'" Deborah Herman said. "I knew it had the makings of a great book."

The grace would not stop there. Manson died about three weeks before the book's release. And both women say the spiritual world has had a hand in this "healing journey."

They both also say that evil forces overwhelmed Manson, whose early sexual abuse and abandonment rendered him the perfect vessel to make him sexually predatory, and coursing with sociopathic and narcissistic extremism.

"Charlie knew what you were afraid of, and could paint a scenario that would use all those insights to his advantage," she writes in "Member of the Family."

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The short version of how Lake fell prey: Her parents decided to drop out of straight society. Her father traded the house for a trailer. Then the car broke down and the family of five wound up in a trailer park. Eventually Lake's parents would disappear emotionally into commune life in places like Hog Farm and Oracle in California in a retrofitted bread truck. They had given Lake freedom to explore. She was sexually active, yet at Hog Farm, she was considered dangerous "jailbait."

But that wasn't a problem on the Manson family's "magic bus," where all of Manson's other girls also embraced her.

"Charlie and the girls also made it okay for me to want to have sex," she writes in the book. "It seems so simple, yet it freed me from the confusion and shame I'd been experiencing since I was nine."

Manson gave Lake her first taste of love and belonging. And Lake said Manson was a "sweet lover and very gentle." She was made to feel like Manson's one and only special girl.

"... he made you believe there was no one else in the world. He also had the uncanny sensibility bestowed upon mystics, yet misused by sociopaths and con men, to know exactly what you needed."

Asked if she looks back on all this simply as sexual abuse, Lake says yes.

"I was not old enough to make those kinds of decisions," she said, adding that this '60s cultural revolution was "a pedophile's dream."

'Break from The Borg'

Her blue eyes shining under auburn bangs, Lake beams as she pulls up photos of herself and her second husband at their wedding last summer in a German castle.

She is now able to hang on to the reality of her life and still recount the trauma of her youth, in which she was at the center of a drama that upended the narrative of the freewheeling '60s.

"The gun stores were running out of guns," Lake said of Hollywood after the murders. "It sent the whole hippie movement underground."

As Lake helped prosecutors, she started to find herself again. Even by simply stating her name in the courtroom.

"I am Dianne Lake. I'm 16, and I want my mommy."

"She cried," Herman said. "But she had gotten her identity back."

That, and simply creating, also helped: At Patton State Hospital, she would learn to crochet and play the flute. Herman said every one of these things, including religion, helped Lake.

"It's the break from The Borg," Herman said, referencing the single-hive mind in the "Star Trek" series. "In a cult, you become a widget."

Herman said the book isn't a "Manson book."

"It's about triumph over trauma," she said. "It's an Everywoman's story."

The book was a best-seller on Amazon when it first was released. It is now in paperback, after two hardcover printings.

It's also a cautionary tale about what leads to indoctrination, to perversion and the harm in staying silent, say Lake and Herman.

"Every single person has a secret, and every single person has shame and an inability to forgive," Herman said. Lake agrees.

"The worst part was keeping this a secret."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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