History Stories

'We were there to serve Charlie,' recounts former Manson Family member Dianne Lake; he even asked her to bite off an umbilical cord when another girl gave birth.

What was it like to be barely a teenager amid the soon-to-be notorious Manson family, living as part of the cult leader’s harem?

1967 was the Summer of Love, but in sunny southern California something sinister was brewing. There, in the desert foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains, cult leader Charles Manson was establishing a polygamous commune where he proselytized that he was the second coming of Christ, that the Beatles were his prophets and that a violent race war was imminent.

Two years later, in the summer of 1969, the group’s collective psychosis reached its macabre peak, with Family members slaying seven people over the course of two nights, including Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate, who was married to director Roman Polanski and weeks away from giving birth.

But during that Summer of Love, 14-year-old Dianne Lake wasn’t looking to spill blood. Lake just wanted an invitation—any invitation—to the party.

“Communes were on the rise,” Lake told HISTORY in an interview. “People were smoking pot on the street. There was all this free love. And I’m lost. Because the counterculture did not have a place for a sexually active 14-year-old. I was jailbait.”

Spahn Ranch

Overview of Spahn Ranch in Los Angeles, California, late 1969. The ranch was home to convicted murderer Charles Manson and his followers from mid-1968 until their arrest in October 1969. (Credit: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

With her parents wrapped up in their own countercultural experience—one which led them to encourage their daughter to drop out of school—Lake was introduced to Manson, and quickly became the 33-year-old’s lover and acolyte, a two-year journey she describes in detail in her memoir Member of the Family.

“He had a growing group of women,” says Lake. “We might have had a desire to have Charlie to ourselves—I know I did. But that was secondary… We were there to serve Charlie, and we formed a sisterhood.”

At Manson’s commune on Spahn Ranch—an old movie-set ranch near Los Angeles that had fallen into disrepair—Lake recalls that 10 to 15 Manson family members settled into the routines of commune living: rummaging through dumpsters for food; caring for horses, and occasionally renting them out for rides; and late afternoons with Manson, singing songs.

The group would also regularly use drugs and participate in orgies, which Lake says were “very methodically done. LSD was given out like a sacrament. We took turns taking each other’s clothes off, in a circle… He orchestrated all of it. He even arranged the partners.”

According to Lake, Manson planned the “love-ins” to minimize infighting between the predominantly female members of his cult. And while Lake says she felt deeply connected to the collective as a whole, she acknowledges that not all her “sisterly” relationships were equal.

Lynette Fromme and Ruth Ann Morehouse

Lynette Fromme and Ruth Ann Morehouse being led back to jail after being arraigned for conspiring to poison a prosecution witness with LSD in the Manson trials. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

“I was closest to Lynette [Fromme],” she says. “She was this very animated, funny redhead, and I was a redhead too. And there’s just something about redheads: We have a thread of similarity in our quirkiness, in our sense of humor… We just really laughed a lot.”

(Years later, Fromme would be sentenced to life in prison for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford.)

Other women in the family gave Lake a harder time, most notably Susan “Sadie” Atkins.  Atkins, who was five years older than Lake, would tousle her hair, “like I was her kid sister.”

“I never felt like I could measure up to her,” Lake says now. “She was just smarter than the average bear, and she certainly knew more about men and feminine wiles and all that. I was just a kid trying to be a woman, and she beat me every time.”

That relationship softened, Lake says, when she was tasked with delivering Atkins’s child in October 1968, in a bedroom of a house on the ranch.

“Charlie asked me to cut the umbilical cord with my teeth,” Lake says. From then on, she adds, the relationship was easier.

Susan Atkins

Susan Atkins leaving the grand jury room after testifying against Charles Manson, December 1969. (Credit: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Atkins was convicted in connection with eight Manson family killings, dying in prison in 2009.

Lake says she wasn’t involved with the escalating criminality, in large part because of an incident wherein she temporarily abandoned the ranch against Manson’s orders during one of his extended absences. After that, she says, she was “no longer in the inner circle.”

Still, she stayed, even believing Manson’s messianic visions and his talk of race war, despite having grown up in a diverse Minneapolis community.

“My first boyfriend, Michael, was a black boy,” she says, a relationship from age 11 that she says largely consisted of sitting on swingsets and listening for the Beatles on a white transistor radio.  On the day her family packed up for California, she and Michael chased each other around their housing project, wanting to kiss but with neither brave enough to initiate. Less than five years later, Lake was with Manson, hearing about how “they were going to rise up over whitey… and I did start to fear black people.”

After the murders, the Family members were rounded up by law enforcement; when, after two months in jail, Lake told investigators her age, she was transferred to a psychiatric hospital, where she decided to testify against Manson and the Family.

Now 65, and retired from a career in special education, Lake feels “very blessed to have made it through… I’ve moved on, and I’ve had a really wonderful life.”

But Lake says that the recent resurfacing of her adolescent story has shocked her neighbors in the small Californian community, where she’s lived an unassuming life for the last 35 years.

“They are dropping their jaws,” says Lake. “They’re like, ’What? You were who?’”

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