Excerpt from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Claire Vaye Watkins

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  • First Published:
    Aug 2012, 304 pages
    Aug 2013, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Print Excerpt

In September, George reported discovering a tiny bleached skull in the hills above his cabin. “Bottles,” he wrote, “picked clean by coyotes.”

Or here. Begin here: When a group of about ten young people—most of them teenagers, one of them my father—arrived at the ranch in January of 1968, having hitchhiked from San Francisco, George was nearly blind. Surely he smelled them, though, as they approached his porch—sweat, gasoline, the thick semisweet guff of marijuana. The group offered to help George with chores and maintenance in exchange for permission to camp out in the empty facaded set buildings. Though he’d broken down and hired a hand a couple weeks earlier—a nice kid, a bit macho, went by “Shorty,” wanted to be, what else?, an actor—George agreed, perhaps because he wouldn’t have to pay them. Or perhaps because the group’s leader—a man named Charlie—offered to leave a young girl or two with George twenty-four-seven, to cook his meals, tidy the house, keep up with the laundry, and bed him whenever he wanted.

My father didn’t kill anyone. And he’s not a hero. It isn’t that kind of story.

Nearly everyone who spent time at Spahn’s that summer wrote a book after it was over, Bugliosi’s only the most lucrative. We know, from the books of those who noticed, that a baby was born at Spahn’s Ranch, likely April ninth, though accounts vary. In her version, Olivia Hall, who’d been a senior at Pacific Palisades High School and an occasional participant in group sex at the ranch, wrote of the birth: “The mother, splayed out on the wood floor of the jail, struggled in labor for nearly fourteen hours, through the night and into the early morning, then gave up.” In The Manson Murders: One Woman’s Escape, Carla Shapiro, now a mother of four boys, says the struggling girl “let her head roll back onto a sleeping bag and would not push. Then Manson took over.” My father’s book reads, “Charlie held a cigarette lighter under a razor blade until the blade was hot and sliced the girl from vagina to anus. ”The baby girl slipped out, wailing, into Charlie’s arms. My father: “The place was a mess. Blood and clothes everywhere. I don’t know where he found the razor blade.”

Charlie had a rule against couples. The group had nightly orgies at the ranch and before it in Topanga, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Oakland, San Francisco, the list goes on. You know this part, I’m sure. The drugs, the sex. People came and went. Tracing the child’s paternity was impossible, even if the group had been interested in that sort of thing. “There was a birth, I know that,” Tex Watson wrote to me from prison. “Hell, might’ve been mine. But we were all pretty gone, you know?”

Of the mother, the accounts mention only how young she was. No name, no explanation of how she came to the ranch. One calls her “dew-faced.” In his account my father admits to having sex with her on several occasions. He says, “She was a good kid.”

After police raided Spahn’s on August sixteenth, California Child Protective Services placed the baby with foster parents, Al and Vaye Orlando of Orlando’s Furniture Warehouse in Thousand Oaks. Vaye constantly fussed over the baby, worried at her calmness, what she called “a blankness in her face.” During the child’s first five years, Vaye had her examined for autism seven times, never trusting the results. She even hired a special nanny to play games with the child, encourage her cognitive development. Al thought this a waste of money.

Now the baby is a grown woman, forty. She is slender but not slight, and moves like liquid does. She has dark hair and the small brown eyes of a deer mouse. Not the eyes of those teenage girls my father met at Pali, the ones he invited to Spahn’s and introduced to Charlie, the ones, later, with crosses cut into their foreheads, arms linked, singing down hallways, smiling into the camera in archived footage. I’ve looked. These are my father’s brown eyes. Mine.

Excerpted from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. Copyright © 2012 by Claire Vaye Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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