American Girls - Alison Umminger

Preflight

My first Manson girl was Leslie Van Houten, the homecoming princess with the movie-star smile. She was on death row at nineteen for putting a knife into the already-dead body of some poor, random woman for the lamest reason that anyone gives for doing anything: all the other kids were doing it. I found her by accident, reading an article in the waiting room of the lady-parts doctor my mom was going to when she was trying to get pregnant with my brother. I’d been to the same office the year before, when I got my period, because my mom wanted a professional to lecture me about not getting knocked up. I was probably so traumatized that I forgot you couldn’t use cell phones in the lobby—something about the radiation screwing with the pictures of the fetuses. This time, someone had left an old Rolling Stone next to the magazines about babies and pregnancy. Thank God. If the choices were between reading about psychopaths and “How I Fit Back into My Prepregnancy Jeans,” then it really wasn’t much of a choice.

The article was written by John Waters, a director who made a movie called Pink Flamingos. My sister’s then boyfriend had insisted we watch the film the Thanksgiving before, because he had seen it as a boy in Poland and had had some kind of revelation about his life. After that, he just knew that he wanted to go to America. Nasty, filthy America, where you could put a person on trial for being an asshole and supersize transsexuals ate dog shit off of lawns, at least in the movies. Happy Thanksgiving and pass the peas! After seeing Pink Flamingos, I wasn’t exactly shocked to learn that John Waters made friends with a Manson girl. He was out there. She was probably scared of him.

The whole morning had been stressful, because it was the day my mom was going to see if the baby inside of her had a heartbeat. The time before there hadn’t been, and months of torture followed. It’s not that I wasn’t sad for my mom, I was, but she took so long to start getting out of bed again that I practically had to move in with my best friend, Doon, just to get a bowl of cereal in the morning. I never knew someone could get so upset about something the size of a quarter.

The Rolling Stone article was about what a regular person Leslie Van Houten was, if you could get past that whole murder thing. I knew for a fact that Charles Manson was not a regular person. I had watched part of a biography about him once at Doon’s—he had pinwheels for eyes and a swastika carved in his forehead, which pretty much disqualified him from “regular.” He had masterminded the murder of Sharon Tate, a very pretty, very pregnant woman whose face I couldn’t remember, and that made me think of my mother and feel guilty for reading an article like that while she was having her big appointment. Manson did all of his crimes with a pack of women, girls who made it look like they’d found a way to clone crazy and dress it down with stringy hair, empty stares, lots of drugs, and lots of knives. Most people never thought about them as separate people at all. Definitely not as girls who went to homecoming once, or who got dragged to the lady-parts doctor by their moms.

Leslie Van Houten was a Manson girl, and she didn’t help kill the pregnant one. She did, however, put a knife into