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lynn crosbie: pop rocks

"I think it's time to parole her," John Waters writes in "Leslie," a chapter in his new memoir, Role Models, that was originally serialized in The Huffington Post.

He is referring to his "really good friend," the soft-spoken, grey-haired Leslie Van Houten - once the most striking of the Manson Family's barbarous girl gang - who made her 19th parole application last week and was once again denied.

Tigers, suggested Debra Tate, the sister of the Family's most famous victim, actress Sharon Tate, must remain in cages: They are dangerous when at large.

Van Houten, 61, came to her hearing armed with 60 letters of support and on a crest of good luck, more or less. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a lesser figure but one still rumoured to support Manson, was released last year, as was Susan Atkins, the most vicious of the killers. Atkins, however, was released by her death from terminal cancer, after a final, desperate plea for parole was denied.

Van Houten must feel just like Susan Lucci, the pretty, integral star of All My Children, who was nominated 18 times before winning an Emmy. Or does she imagine herself to be more like Lucci's quixotic soap-opera character Erica Kane? Like a woman who, through the randomness of time and TV-script plotting and audience response, has developed a mercurial-yet-kind heart?

Front and centre in Van Houten's audience: filmmaker, writer and professional name-dropper John Waters.

Waters goes so far as to express blind outrage over Canadian filmmaker Reg Harkema's twisted biopic, Leslie, My Name Is Evil - never mind that Waters himself, as a young man, breezily collected friendships with Manson Family members as camp-noir bagatelles and dedicated several of his films to Family members. Now, though, he insists that serial-killer chic is the farthest thing from his mind, and these friendships have become genuine ones.

Waters is still revered by college kids for his early film scripts, with their ghoulish dedications to the Manson killers, for their shock value alone (the name of another Waters memoir). And such artistic travesties as his Female Trouble (1974) and Dangerous Living (1977) are truly vivid and fearless analyses of the French novelist Jean Genet's highly poetic, philosophical fusion of art and crime (best illuminated in 1946's The Miracle of the Rose).

But Waters's career, his shtick that is, predicated on fake barf, stunt casting and a naive, democratic world view partially obscured by outlandish narratives, started to erode around the time of 1981's Polyester, and these days, how many of you can remember seeing a new Waters film in a theatre?

I gave up at Pecker in 1998: In spite of its important loathing of self-reflexivity and irony in art, the film falls flat, as if directed by a comatose Frank Capra.

Yet somebody up there likes him, because in 2002, his 1988 film Hairspray was turned into a hot musical and was then remade as a hugely successful film musical in 2007. Now, he is simply rolling in money and free to chirp about his lightweight obsessions with American low culture, Johnny Mathis and other role models, including, of course, Van Houten.

One had previously felt intrigued watching this self-styled phenomenon mature and critique some of his seminal work, his gay-punk agitprop, essentially, and careless affection for homicidal maniacs.

But Waters's chapter "Leslie" is not an act of atonement. It is merely a cynical, specious argument that Van Houten has reformed and should be released.

The rhetoric is simple. Waters is also a former enfant terrible and killer. (He recounts an accidental vehicular homicide here as if recalling a distasteful film-set craft-service table.) Yet he has an outlet for his rage: art.

Manson is described as "a repellent old man with an unappealing pot belly" (if we are going to read these criminals through the lens of fashion, what are we to make of Van Houten's mop of steel-wool hair, or the swastika she once carved in her forehead?) and is idiotically posited as having "brainwashed" the sweet California girl (or girls) in the manner of Jim Jones and other cult leaders.

Yet "brainwashing" has been widely discredited and is counterintuitive. Think of yourself, stuffed to the gills with LSD and beguiled by a charismatic lover. Would you have what it takes, as Van Houten did, to drive a knife 16 times into the helpless body of a weeping, innocent woman?

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky places equal emphases on the "crime" Raskolnikov commits and its "punishment." The murderer in this novel confesses, and his heart starts to lighten as he approaches Siberia: It does not accelerate at the thought of leaving the bleak prison.

Van Houten now dreams of "a private and humble life," outside of California's Frontera Prison. Why can't she have that very life inside bars, where true remorse begins; by reflecting on someone whose life was first brutally terminated, then made horribly public.

At one of her parole hearings, it was noted that Van Houten still continued to form disquieting personal relationships.

Waters, now the very essence of British serial killer Myra Hindley's misguided aristocratic defender, Lord Longford, is a case in point. Dismissing anyone's fear of his really good friend as absurd and "cartoonish," he dismisses too the death throes of one woman, and obscures them with the suspect pieties of another.

Van Houten, of course, when she was still defiant, also once said: "The more I stabbed, the more fun it was."

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