Fiona Helmsley - May 2008
GHOUL GIRL GROWS UP
I have my father to thank for my interest in all things Manson. As a
youngster, I was attention starved and impressionable. One morning,
with him across from me at the breakfast table, I took my napkin and
instead of placing it in my lap, I put it on my head. " Look dad, I'm
a napkin head!" I laughed with glee, hoping to win his attention away
from the Sunday paper. " You look like Squeaky Fromme." he grunted
and went back to reading.
Who was she? I could only hope the most beautiful women in all the
universe, who wore glamorous swatches of only the finest linen on her
head in the name of fashion and hair protection. Did I always look
like her, or just with the napkin, I wondered.
"Dad, who's Squeaky Fromme?"
And so it began. The question that would launch a hundred copies of
Helter Skelter, because my mother kept throwing them out. Squeaky, who
was no stranger to the media, had been in and out of the news as of
late, mostly as a punch line, because of a half-hearted attempt to
shoot President Ford. While most of the others in Charles Manson's
group of vagabond hippies and LSD casualties had grown up and moved
on, no longer wanting to be associated with what had gone on in and
around L.A in 1969, Squeaky was one of the last Manson family
stragglers to admit with pride to her involvement with "Charlie's
Family." Before she'd been sentenced to a life term for pulling a gun
on the President, she'd been serving as the Family's defacto
spokesperson. She claimed that the attack on the President was done to
bring attention back to Charlie and his girls in jail and their new
passion, an environmental crusade known as A.T.F. Hence the napkin
resembling hair gear- sort of an eco-fabulous twist on the Aunt
Jemima' kerchief with a secondary purpose - to keep the hair out of
your eyes when you have a gun in your hands.
My mother soon came into the room and my Manson family history lesson
was cut short. But my interest was piqued. I wanted to find out more
about these murderous desert dwelling hippies and their
height-challenged leader. Besides appeasing my curiosity, it would be
great for father daughter relations, I figured, by giving us something
to talk about that interested us both.
My journey into all things Manson soon took me to the library, a none
too impressive small town affair. They didn't even have a copy of
Helter Skelter which had been a monumental bestseller for its author,
Vincent Bugliosi who had prosecuted Manson along with Leslie Van
Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwienkel. Slightly discouraged
but undaunted, I moved my search to the periodical files and found a
treasure trove of original Time magazines covering the whole span of
time from the Tate- LaBianca killings until the convictions and
aftermath. Instead of just making copies and leaving the magazines
intact for future generations, I decided that these original articles
should be mine and ripped them out, placing them into a photo album
that I had already designated my Manson Family scrapbook.
On a family trip to Disneyland I soon found what had been so far
eluding me- a copy of Helter Skelter. Before entering the used book
store, I remember feeling something going off inside- similar to an
internal metal detector -an internal Helter Skelter detector- and I
knew that upon entering the store I would finally find my coveted
book. I asked the women behind the counter to put it into a brown
paper bag, like a forty ounce, so my mother would not see it. She was
slowly catching onto my interest, and didn't approve. I'd recently
completely changed sets of friends, started writing depressing poetry
(it was so cold/ the world/it felt like a thin sheet of ice/strong
enough to hold him under water/but easy enough to break) was smoking
cigarettes and had ditched the Monkees as my favorite band in favor of
the Sex Pistols. My mother wondered what was happening to her daughter
and what was causing it?
I devoured Helter Skelter over that vacation. While my brother and
sister splashed in the pool, I sat under a palm tree and read court
testimony. It served as an outline for new potential interests. I
longed to try LSD and did as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
I went out and bought the Beatles White Album and poured over the
lyrics. I found my grandmother's Bible and familiarized myself with
the Book of Revelations. Manson and his family began to shape my
thoughts on relationships and (just as warped as his definition of the
word) family. As a remedy to my teen angst and growing pains, I longed
to find a group of people to accept me and move out to the desert
with. I already suffered from 60's envy, having heard my family's
stories of peace rallies and love- ins and dreamed of uniting with
other outsiders like my now teenage self and doing it our way, outside
the status quo. It was adolescence lived as an imagined outsider, and
Charles Manson was my cultural pariah of choice. But short of legal
emancipation, I still had to finish high school.
My parents had lived in NYC until my sister was born. They both shared
a strong affinity with the city and wanted to pass it on to us, their
children. Over school breaks, we'd usually take the train and go on
all day excursions. We'd hit the landmarks and then spend the later
part of the afternoons shopping in the village or in Chinatown. It was
on one of these trips that I was introduced to what would later become
a staple of my wardrobe- the "friend of the family" t-shirt. It went
well with my Charlie M. shrinky dink bracelet that I had baked in the
It was during this time period that a strange thing began to happen in
mass marketing, the serial killer as celebrity, able to move product.
Suddenly, it seemed like Charles Manson and his girls were everywhere.
Guns N' Roses was covering Manson's songs. His face was on other
musicians' album covers. A performer had taken his name in combination
with that of Marilyn Monroe. Manson equaled edgy and suddenly
everybody seemed to want in. I reacted the way I would react in the
future whenever one of my favorite indie bands started to get famous-
I backed off. When others wanted in, I wanted out.
Charles Manson had sold out. It was time to move on, but first I had
my senior year English thesis to do. I decided to write to both
Charlie and Leslie Van Houten to see if maybe, just maybe, they'd
start a correspondence with me for English class. I had low
expectations for Charlie. I knew he received hundreds of letters a
week, but Leslie, I thought, she was a maybe. She was the family
member with the highest likelihood of parole, the one, who, when her
case was mentioned, was noted to "have stabbed someone who was already
dead." With so much blood to go around, the splatter was residual and
there was still a high likelihood she would do her time, which was
life. For some misguided reason, I thought she might find the idea of
communicating with a high school senior appealing. Perhaps we would
pass cautionary letters back and forth, bewaring the pitfalls of drugs
and peer influence, not only guaranteeing me an "A" on my paper but
maybe a little bit of recognition for the inherent bravery of the
idea. These would be Geraldo caliber interview subjects communicating
Neither one of them wrote back. I did my paper on the "Psychological
Reasons Why People Follow the Grateful Dead." One of my
bibliographical sources was a book by Courtney Love's crazy father.
After graduating from high school, I moved to NYC. I soon took up a
relationship with Chuck, whose brother had a been seminal punk rock
musician known for his intimate knowledge of his own bodily fluids.
Chuck, a musician himself, sold and collected serial killer artwork
along with reissues of his now dead brother's music. Chuck had
original paintings by John Wayne Gacy, doodles by Charles Manson and
sketches of women done by Henry Lee Lucas. Chuck explained to me that
the " field" of murder memorabilia was pretty small and that most
collectors ended up knowing each other and dealing with each other
over and over again. Letter writing was also a big part of the
collecting, with people willing to spend hundreds of dollars for a
letter authored by their preferred sociopath. When I mentioned to
Chuck that I had written to Charlie in high school he laughed and
told me what a useless enterprise that was for someone of my gender.
Charlie only responded to young boys, thinking of himself as a father
figure and mentor to them.
One day I was visiting with Chuck when he had a phone call. He soon
starting talking prices and from what I could overhear, appeared to be
talking to a third person on a second line. They agreed on a certain
amount of money for a drawing and then Chuck started talking about me.
I heard him say I might be interested in writing a letter and that he
would definitely pass the person's address along. "Yes," I heard him
add cryptically, I "was pretty."
It had been Richard Ramirez and his wife, Darlene, on the phone. Chuck
had been dealing with Darlene for some time, giving her sums of money
in exchange for various "artworks" of Richard's- mostly cheesy skull
and pentagram designs not much better then something you might see on
a high school head banger's notebook. Chuck would then sell these
glorified creepy doodles to other interested parties.
Richard, known as the Night Stalker, was on Death Row, which only
increased the asking price for his work. It had been the same with
John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy before they were executed. A sort of
morbid, "get it while he's still hot" that made all his works limited
editions barring a commuted sentence.
"Richard wants you to write him." Chuck said, upon hanging up the
phone. " If you send him a letter, I know he'll write you back."
What did I know about Richard Ramiriez? Not much, outside of the
"Night Stalker" sobriquet and the heavy metal fixation. I knew he was
on San Quentin's death row, but I hadn't read any books about him. I
did remember seeing Hard Copy news footage after his trial where he
told the camera people he was "going to Disney World" and flashed a
pentagram he'd drawn on his hand. In the news footage I had seen he
seemed borderline retarded, like he was almost playing at being scary-
a paint by number's psychopath. It was as though he'd taken every Ozzy
Osbourne album he'd listened to as marching orders.
"What should I write to him about?" I asked Chuck. " I know nothing about him."
As I'd gotten older, I'd grown out of my Manson fixation and no
longer longed for the desert. An outgrowth of having my feet
completely on terra firma was my waning interest in reprobates.
"I don't know." Chuck responded. "Write about me. If they execute him,
that letters going to be worth a lot." He scribbled out the address,
which included SAN QUENTIN, in the opening line after Richard's inmate
number. This was going to be different from writing to Leslie or even
Charles Manson, there was no project or paper to tell him of.
I turned on the tv as I struggled to get put together the words. Why
was I doing this? For myself? For Chuck? I did feel pressured a bit,
any hesitation Chuck might have had with communicating with these
types was abated by his love of the money it brought him. The title of
a Lifetime movie that Tori Spelling had stared in came into my head-
"Mommy, Can I Sleep with Danger?" I told myself to calm down, this guy
was on death row, locked in a cage, I had nothing to worry about. But
the very words I was using to calm myself down were the very reasons
why I should have been worrying. How come I was so fearless in high
school? At the same time, that Taco Bell commercial with the talking
Chihuahua that was so popular in the late 90's came on. It gave me an
idea. I went over to the roll of film I'd recently developed, which
included some pictures of my Chihuahua, Bridey.
Hey. I'm the girl that's involved with Chuck. Hope all is well.
Here's a picture of my Chihuahua, Bridey! Take care!
I quickly threw in a picture of Bridey, sunbathing on my Brooklyn
rooftop, along with some stamps, which I'd been told was a customary
And time went by. My relationship with Chuck slowly began to flame
out. He was a lot 'harder' than I was, and had a bit of a mean streak
as evidenced when my friend Penelope had called from outside his
apartment clad only in a long coat after a fight with her boyfriend.
He didn't like Penelope and, naked or not, he refused to let her up.
Dames before lames I've always said and never forgot his show of
One night before our final goodbyes, he had asked me to put a movie on
of my choice. He had walls of videos lining his apartment. His video
choices reflected his interests- true crime, porn and music. I noticed
he had a Richard Ramirez A&E American Justice, an investigative true
I took the tape and put it in, an opportunity to get to know my
potential pen pal.
By the first commercial I decided that I didn't want to watch
anymore. It was too much. I was soul sickened and upset. The narration
detailed a mother raped in front of her son, a gun held to the twelve
year old's head to get her to comply. A husband killed in front of his
wife, only the strange hand of luck allowing her to survive herself.
And before I stopped listening, three cases of rape, murder and
mutilation involving women over sixty. Then there was the still
lingering question of what he had done to one woman's eyeballs.
Chuck didn't seem the least bit affected, his reaction as cold and
callous as one must be when there life's bounty is produced by
something that requires a body count. He ate pizza and made phone
I felt terribly naive. Like I deserved to be scolded for being a
silly, stupid girl. Had I really written what could be misconstrued
as a fan letter to this creature? Could my acknowledgment of Ramirez
be some how misconstrued as an affirmation or god forbid, support?
I tried to calm myself with the facts- I'd written him about three
lines and sent him a picture of my Chihuahua. It was as ridiculous as
it sounded. It was going on a little over a month now, and he hadn't
And then he did. Chuck and I were completely done by this time, so I
had no one to show it to when it came. I thought about calling him,
having someone to share the experience with. But what was the
experience? A half brained, cold blooded rapist and murderer sat in
his cell and composed a letter to me. That was the occasion. I ripped
it open haphazardly- guess I can't sell that envelope- I thought,
Chuck's face, a scowl on it, caused by lost money, came into my head.
Nice hearing from you. It takes about three weeks for me to get my
letters. I like your dog, Bridey. Have you seen the Taco Bell
commercial? Do you go into Manhattan a lot? Are you still with Chuck?
Please send me pictures of you, I heard you are very pretty. Thanks
for the stamps.
I read it again and unfolded the "likes and dislikes" form he'd
inserted. It consisted of interview questions appropriate for a teen
magazine- "favorite tv show", "favorite hobby", innocent, till you
flipped it over and then the questions where all about sex.
Richard, you repulsive sicko, I thought.
I became fixated on the closing. 'Your friend, Richard.' I let the
He thinks he's my friend.
Well, Richard, I thought, I'm not a very good friend. Maybe if we'd
gotten to know each other a few years ago, it would have worked out.
We've just gone down two different paths.
I thought of that line in the first Batman. Jack Nicholson's character
said it, "You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?"
Almost. I felt as though I'd asked the devil to dance, but changed my
mind as he reached for my hand.