Not Susan

authors charles manson helter skelter susan atkins vietnam war wax poetic yvonne andes Apr 26, 2022
by Yvonne Andes

The summer of 1968 was brutal

The heat, the Vietnam war was still raging, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination in April. It seemed death had the country by the throat. And now there were rumblings on the news about something called the Manson Family committing all sorts of robberies and potential murder of Doris Day’s son? I didn’t even know that Doris Day had a son. The feeling of doom permeated my world. It was all too much. I tried shaking off the feeling of foreboding, but it didn’t work. 

I was thirteen years old in the summer of 1965 and felt as though the world was coming to an end.

That summer was a time of turmoil in our country but it seemed to me to be especially intense in the San Joaquin Valley in California where I was born and raised.

The Vietnam War was raging

It was all anyone talked about. Young men dying by the dozens every day. In the evening, the six o’clock news lead story was always the war. Video reels of medevac helicopters swooping into the jungle to carry out wounded or dead soldiers while under heavy enemy fire, occasionally taking a hit with no survivors. The faces of the soldiers were sweaty, filthy, gaunt, and exhausted. Most had cigarettes dangling from the corner of their lips, their eyes hollow from the horrors of the battles they were in twenty-four hours a day. It was hard to believe most of these faces belonged to eighteen-year-old kids. Evening news anchors took their turn broadcasting from the front. Each of them whether it was Walter Cronkite, or Morley Safer dressed in military gear trying to yell over the mortar fire had risked their lives to show the world the horrors of war. And their coverage exposed the brazen cruelty of American soldiers, we were not innocent heroes in this situation. Their reporting also helped shape public opinion about the war. This wasn’t our parent’s WWII.

Honestly, I wondered, what was the point? 

Boys were being drafted as soon as they graduated from high school unless they were college-bound or 4F, meaning they were physically unfit, they were taken to serve Uncle Sam.  Some boys deferred college just to enlist to win the war against  America’s enemy, while others defected to Canada in protest. Funny though how we were fighting someone else’s war. I  wonder how many of these guys realized that when they were trying to stay alive in the dark, humid jungle picking leeches off their bodies, swatting the swarms of mosquitoes seeking their next fix, waiting always waiting for the next ambush or the bullet or bomb destined for them. 

Smoking marijuana was not legal in the States, but Vietnam had no regulations, especially in a war zone, so the young men took advantage of the drug to soothe their jangled nerves,  numb their bodies and minds until if they were lucky, they could return stateside after serving their eighteen months in bloody hell. The people in our small town spoke in whispers when children were near about the drug addicts that would be returning from Vietnam. They believed that these kids fighting in the jungle shouldn’t succumb to using pot just because they were fighting a war. 

Life growing up in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1960s

Folks in the valley always had plenty to gossip about and to judge harshly. I’ve often wondered if the sixties had been a time of bucolic peace and tranquility what they would have talked about, but I’m certain they would have found something.

They were always angry and scared, and that hasn’t changed. The sixties were also the time of the hippie movement and women’s lib. Young people were smoking pot, taking LSD, ecstasy, and anything else they could get, protesting the war, preaching peace and love, wearing bell-bottom pants, platform shoes, dark glasses, miniskirts, and go-go boots. Boys grew their hair long, girls cut their hair short. Young people were flocking to San Francisco in record numbers. All looking for peace, and love. What was wrong with that, I wondered to myself. Saying it aloud would only get me slapped by Mama.

The grownups wondered what had happened to decency. It was more like conformance if anyone had asked me, adherence to the way the adults thought things should be. Nothing seems to have changed in the decades since. 

Even the fashion world wasn’t as it “should be”. Twiggy was the latest fashion sensation from London. A model, unlike the norm that the world was accustomed to, she was young, very thin, almost boy-like, with very short blonde hair, huge eyes with thick ultra-long false eyelashes. I thought she was breathtaking,  but I was constantly told by Mama that I was wrong, stupid, and ridiculous to think so. 

The farmers, my dad included, railed against the “communist”  Caesar Chavez. “He’s ruining everything, we’ll never make any money”. Chavez was fighting for farmworker rights, a minimum wage, and better working conditions, all perfectly reasonable,  but at this point, my parents didn’t even try to pretend they weren’t racist, after all, so was everyone else. They didn’t want  “those people” to be treated better than animals. 

Even the music of that summer irritated the older folks. The  Rolling Stones, “I can’t get no satisfaction” was a particular trigger that pushed every mom to turn off the radio if the song came on. Sonny and Cher’s hit “I got you babe” got on their nerves because the couple was “so ugly”, how can anyone think they have talent? But they were okay with Tom Jones and his ridiculous “What’s New Pussycat” being played ad nauseam. Go figure. I was lucky, my favorite song that summer was  “California Girls” by the Beach Boys. For whatever reason,  Mama was okay with that song, I suppose it’s because the boys seemed like regular guys and they weren’t black or brown. 

It all felt uncomfortable. Everything was changing, I didn’t know what to expect, except turmoil. It surrounded me, threatening to smother the very breath from my body.

My father’s health was a concern in my mind. He had survived colon cancer just two years before, but he hadn’t stopped smoking and seemed to lack the strength and vitality that he had once had. Mama always told me to shut up about my concerns, that it was all in my head. Isn’t that where everything lives? In our heads? I didn’t know, I just knew in my gut life would change for all of us, and not necessarily in a good way. 

New school. New friend.

I had just graduated from the eighth grade and would be entering high school in September and I was terrified. Until now, my education had been at the catholic school in town,  now I’d be attending public school. I had never had a male teacher, never had to change classes, never had a locker, there were too many firsts. I was overwhelmed and frightened. 

Mama and I had gone to orientation where I was issued two combination locks, one for regular use that I would be sharing with a senior, and one for the tiny PE locker. The school counselor had shown me how to use the locks and had given me the combinations on a piece of paper that I guarded with my life. 

The high school was on split sessions that year, meaning freshman and seniors were in class from 12:35 until 5:00 p.m. and sophomores and juniors from 7:30 am until 12:30. Our small high school was simply not large enough to accommodate the huge influx of bureau of reclamation families that had arrived the year before. They were there to work on the San  Luis Reservoir. Just a couple of years before President John F. Kennedy had come to our town to detonate the dynamite signaling the start of the project, which is a story for another day. 

Until a new high school could be built, we would be on this irregular schedule and no one was happy about it. 

The first day of school was the day after Labor Day and it dawned clear and hot. It was strange getting on the school bus so late in the morning. I was used to the bus coming at 6:20 am.  The bus wasn’t coming until 11:30 and I already had sweat soaking my armpits. Thank goodness the dress I was wearing was a dark paisley pattern that I hoped wouldn’t show the sweat stains. Worrying about it made me sweat more.  

The bus pulled up to the front of the school which was a  buzzing hive of activity. Cars, buses, parents, students, and crossing guards all crowded the street and sidewalk in front of the two-story building. Taking a deep breath, I stepped down from the safety of the bus. I looked around to see if there was anyone I knew from my catholic school. Seeing not one familiar face, I simply walked as quickly as I could into the building,  picked up my schedule, and headed for my first class, PE. We assembled in the gym and listened while Miss Berry, my first-ever PE teacher, rambled on about what we would be doing that first semester. While she was speaking, I ventured a shy look around at the other girls. I didn’t know a single soul. 

When Miss Berry finished speaking, she instructed us to check out our lockers and gave us a list of items we would need to buy. Nervous I walked toward the banks of lockers searching for my number. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until I  finally found my locker and let out a huge sigh. The dark-haired girl opening the locker next to mine turned to look at me.  

“Are you okay?” she asked. I simply nodded yes, too shy to speak. “You’re a freshman aren’t you,” the girl stated. 

“Yes,” I whispered.  

“It’s okay, you’ll get used to it.” I suppose she noticed the trembling of my hand as I reached up to put the combination lock on the locker. 

“What’s your name?” she asked. 

“Yvonne,” I whispered. 

She leaned in closer, “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you,” so I bumped up my whisper, and she smiled and said, “Nice to meet you. I’m  Susan.”

I smiled a little and nodded. “Would you like some help  with your locker?” She must have seen how unsure I was about using such a simple thing and took pity on me. 

“Yes, I would love some help,” I replied. She was so kind, she practiced the opening and closing of that locker several times with me before the bell rang signaling four minutes to get to your next class.

“See you tomorrow,” she said as she hurried off. 

Classes were fairly mundane and easy, except for that darn PE. The first couple of months we had swimming which meant we had to walk to the public pool a couple of blocks away and change into our swimsuits which embarrassed me to no end. I  had never undressed in front of strangers.

The older girls would walk around naked checking out the younger girls and picking on the ones that were shy like me. Susan was the only senior that didn’t do that. She was as shy as I was. 

Susan would sometimes walk with me to or from the pool. She talked a bit at the beginning about her dream of leaving the valley as soon as she graduated. She hated living there. I told her how much I hated it as well. I just knew there was a better place to live. I just didn’t know where yet. 

As the months wore on, she shared stories of her father’s alcoholism and violent temper. Her father worked for the bureau of reclamation and she hated all of the moving around they had done. I asked about her mom one day in the spring of  1966 and she told me that she had died of cancer two years before. That’s when I told her about my dad’s cancer. It had come back, despite my mother saying I was imagining things, and this time it was terminal, he had six months to live.

Susan said she was sorry, “It stinks,” she said. She was so right.

So, it was just Susan and her brother at home most of the time. Susan was working part-time at school to help support the two of them. Her father was rarely home. At least that was my understanding.

The other senior girls in the class didn’t like Susan, she was not like them. They were mostly blond, hair perfectly coiffed, long,  silky, turned up at the ends just like Shelley Fabares on the  Donna Reed Show. These girls would never cut their hair short like Twiggy. Even their makeup was perfect. Their boyfriends were all on the football or basketball team, they wore the boy’s letterman sweaters even in the extremely hot weather and wore the boy’s high school rings. Susan said the girls were practically engaged and she’d roll her eyes. 

As the school year wore on, there were times when Susan missed school, the mean girls gossiped about why insinuating something sinister. Usually, it was because she was sick, she had confided in me that she had always been sickly, but never said more than that and as shy as I was, I didn’t ask. Other times, she would tell me that she simply ditched school, she didn’t feel like coming in that day. We weren’t exactly friends, we didn’t hang out together, I wasn’t allowed to hang out with anyone, I lived in the country and she lived in town, so it wasn’t even in the realm of possibilities. It was just PE and after all, I was just a freshman, but she was so kind to me. She was one of the nicest girls I had ever met. 

Time to move on

Then a couple of days before she was to graduate in June of 1966, she pulled me aside and said, “Well, kid, I guess this is it. Graduation is in a couple of days and I’ll be leaving right after.” 

“Are you really going to San Francisco?” I asked.

“Yes,” her face lit up as she said it. “I can’t wait to get out of here.” 

“What about your brother and your dad?"

Her face darkened and she said, “After the years of abuse, I don’t care what happens to my dad. My brother will stay with relatives.” 

She didn’t elaborate on the type of abuse; I honestly couldn’t believe that anyone else might be going through the same kind of life as me.  

“Are you going to be able to manage lockers for the next three years without me?” she asked with a grin.  

I smiled back at her and choked back tears, “Yes, I think so. Thank you for helping me. I’ll miss you. Tears filled her eyes, and she gave me a quick hug and was gone. 

My dad died just a few months after that, a long, slow painful death, and my world changed forever. I didn’t think about Susan during that time; I was just trying to get through the days as best I could. 

Helter Skelter and the Manson Family

Many months later I heard that she had made it to San Francisco and that she was having a baby. I was so happy for her. She certainly didn’t have a good life here. It wasn’t until three years later in the summer of 1968 that her name came up again. This time on the six o’clock news. The Manson Family had done something. I stopped to turn the TV up and listened.  Shock, grief, and horror shook me to my soul. The Charles Manson Family had been arrested for brutal murders in southern California.

 Susan Atkins had murdered Sharon Tate. I was stunned when I saw the newsreels of her and the rest of the Manson Family in handcuffs. It was Susan. Somehow, I had hoped it was a coincidence and that it was a different Susan Atkins, but it wasn’t. When had she joined the Manson Family, I wondered? It made no sense. Watching her handcuffed, walking with the other Manson members, she looked hollow, as though all that was left of her was her body; her soul gone. She wasn’t the Susan I remembered. 

When the book Helter Skelter was published, I read it cover to cover in a couple of days, hoping for a clue as to what had happened, still not able to reconcile the Susan who was so kind to me, to this person who could commit such heinous crimes. Okay, so Charles Manson was a Svengali of sorts, but Susan was a smart girl. How could she allow herself to be manipulated and controlled that way? 

What was ironic is that when Susan was sentenced to life in prison, she was sent to the women’s correctional facility in Chowchilla, in the very valley that she hated so much, not far from the town where we went to high school. I wondered if she ever looked out the window and thought about that. She developed cancer and died in 2009. 

I’ll never forget her. What had happened to the sweet, shy girl who had been so kind and patient with me. What happened to her baby? If only; I had no answers, just profound sadness. 

My children were in awe that I had known Susan Atkins in high school. I showed them her picture in my yearbook and they were stunned. “Why did she turn out that way?” they asked.  Honestly, I don’t know. 

I just wish her life had been different.


Yvonne Andes is a writer who has a story of her own that is unfolding one week at a time as she reflects on memories of her past to inspire future generations to stop the cycle of abuse.