During his many years in prison, Charlie Manson learned an essential survival skill. He could perceive a person’s deepest needs, then mirror back those perceptions. A practiced chameleon, he could be whoever you wanted him to be

CATHERINE SHARE, member of the Family. Sixty-six years old, she is a writer. I first met Charlie Manson in the summer of 1968. He drove up to the house where I was staying with Bobby Beausoleil. Within 24 hours of the meeting he changed persona four times. He was in a beaten-down Chevy. He wore a cowboy hat and had a beard. He wanted us to go swimming with him. Bobby got on his chopper, and I got into the Chevy with the cowboy. Sitting in the front seat with him was a redhead, who turned out to be Squeaky Fromme, and Ruth Ann Moorehouse, called Ouisch. No one spoke—the cowboy’s presence filled the vehicle. We drove to Pacific Palisades and pulled up to the gate of a huge glass-and-log home. It was Dennis Wilson’s house. The cowboy said, “This is your dream, isn’t it, girl?” Then he turned around and looked me in the eyes and said, “Start living it.” He punched in numbers, and we went onto grounds with peacocks and eucalyptus trees and a pool on a cliff where beautiful men and women were swimming, some in suits, some topless. The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” was blaring in the background.

I went into a bathroom to change, and this person walks up to me and he’s no longer a cowboy. He has freshly washed chestnut hair, a tan, and is wearing an open silk kimono and harem pants. He looked like a rock star, and he introduced himself like we’d never met: “Hello, I’m Charlie Manson.” I went to Spahn Ranch that night. On a stage in the western saloon a member of the group was lying on his stomach, crying and thanking Charlie for setting him free. Charlie now wore a cream-colored robe, and his hair was down. He looked like Christ. He was saying, “That’s all right, brother. You can give it all to me. Just let it go and be free.” Charlie’s face was shining. I thought he was the wisest and kindest man I’d ever met.

The next morning I saw the fourth Charlie Manson. The girls were showing me around the ranch. They were sweet. They told me about George Spahn, who was blind. I walked into the room where George was, and it was like a scene out of a movie about the Ozarks. Cowboy music was playing, and Squeaky Fromme was speaking in a twang to George. Then Charlie walked in, and he was a dumb-as-a-stump hired hand. He said to George, “We shoveled everything in the barn for you. Anything else, boss man?” Then Charlie started making hand signals for the girls to cook up breakfast. There were four or five people in the room, and George couldn’t see them. 

That was my first 24 hours with Charlie. I found him captivating. He made me his woman right away. That’s how it happened with all the new girls.