Readers will notice immediately that the narrator of Claire Van Watkins's opening story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," shares a name with the author. This isn't an accident. The story, which is about a young woman trying to outgrow the legacy of her past, is Watkins's own. "About once a year someone tracks me down," she says. "Occasionally it's one of Charlie's fans wanting to stand next to Paul Watkins's daughter, to rub up against all that's left." The "Charlie" in question is Charles Manson, whose "Family" spent time at the famous Spahn ranch in Nevada which was used as a movie set for many westerns. Paul Watkins, the author's (and narrator's) father, was Charles Manson's right-hand man: "Charlie's number one procurer of young girls.
Paul Watkins joined Manson's Family in 1968, shortly after he had graduated from high school. Although he was indeed part of Manson's inner circle, he became increasingly uneasy when he heard Manson's so-called Helter Skelter prophecy that seemed to foretell violence and intent to commit murder. Although deeply conflicted, he took an opportunity to leave the commune, and later was a key witness for the prosecution after the Manson group did, in fact, commit a series of murders a few months later. Watkins became an anti-cult advocate before his death in 1990.
Claire Vaye Watkins, who started the stories that became Battleborn while she was in an MFA program in Ohio, wrote in a piece for Granta that her desire to write about the American West stems from a longing for her late father: "It is the only thing that satiates my hunger for him." Battleborn is full of real references to actual places throughout Nevada, but perhaps none quite so personal as the story of her father's troubled youth and his legacy.
Pictures from Associated Press. On the left is the author Claire Vaye Watkins. In the right hand picture are the members of Charles Manson's "family": Mark Ross, tall with dark beard; Paul Watkins, front center; and Catherine "Gypsy" Share, holding Sandra Good's son Ivan. The picture was taken in the Los Angeles Hall of Justice on Feb. 24, 1970.
This article was originally published in September 2012, and has been updated for the
August 2013 paperback release.
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