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How Sharon Tate's Murder Began a Victims' Rights Movement

Rachel Monroe's Savage Appetites explores the role of women in true crime, from detective to perpetrator and all the fans in between.

Black and white silhouette of woman standing in a doorway
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  • Photo Credit: Farida Davletshina / Unsplash

If you’ve spent any time in the true crime world at all, it quickly becomes clear that much of the modern fascination is driven primarily by women. From true crime conventions to podcasts, women’s voices and interests shape the world of murder.

In Savage Appetites, Rachel Monroe, herself a true crime fiend, explores the many roles women have in crime—not just as fans and consumers, but as detectives, victims, “defenders”, and as perpetrators. We’re thrilled to be including this fascinating look into the fears, empathy, and search for meaning that exemplifies the true crime community as one of the books in the August/September Creepy Crate.

Below, you'll meet Doris Tate, mother of Sharon Tate. The Manson murders were not only a key moment in American history, with their intersection of race, Hollywood, and a sociopathic cult leader, but were also a major factor in the growth of the victims' rights movements. Doris leaned on the notoriety of her daughter's murder to attempt to bring broader change to the methods of justice.

Join us on a trip to the dawning of the 1980s, then subscribe to Creepy Crate for your chance to receive a copy of Savage Appetites.

Read on for an excerpt of Savage Appetites.

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Savage Appetites

By Rachel Monroe

Doris Tate, a folksy, charming grandmother who baked cookies for people she liked and cursed out the ones she didn’t, was a perfect figurehead for the nascent victims’ rights movement. Her daughter was famous and beautiful, the victim of one of the most high-profile crimes of the century. Doris knew how to turn up her Texas accent, to sprinkle her conversation with down-home sayings: “Sometimes you just have to turn shit into ice cream.” She called politicians “darlin’,” and they found it difficult to say no to her. “Doris just steamrolled into a room,” a fellow victims’ rights activist told me. “There was no one else. You did what she told you to do.” In the 1980s, as the victims’ rights movement gained momentum, she became the first member of a victim’s family to speak at a parole hearing in California; she was also the first person in the state to make a victim-impact statement: “What about my family?” she asked Tex Watson at his 1984 parole hearing. “When will [Sharon] come up for parole? When will I come up for parole? Can you tell me that?” 

As society turned its attention to victims, victimhood became an increasingly contested space, with right and wrong ways to inhabit the role. In 1990, Suzan LaBerge used her victim-impact statement to argue for leniency on behalf of Watson, who had killed her mother, Rosemary LaBianca, the night after the murders at Cielo Drive. Watson had spent twenty years in prison, and LaBerge, a devout Christian, believed that he was sincerely repentant and deserved another chance. The whole thing made Doris Tate furious. Victim-impact statements were not supposed to be used to advocate for criminals, particularly not serial murderers such as Watson, she believed. Doris confronted LaBerge in the parking lot following the parole board hearing: You know, your mother is probably rolling in her grave because of what you did today, she told the younger woman. Then Doris went on TV to make sure everyone else understood. “If Suzan LaBerge were here in this room, what would you say?” an interviewer asked. “You dumb shit,” Doris snapped. “That’s what I’d probably say to her.” 

Related: Death Becomes Her: How Frances Glessner Lee Pioneered Modern Forensics with Her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths

Now that she had a cause, Doris was inexhaustible. She appeared on talk shows and radio shows and lobbied politicians. By 1985, she was a board member of Citizens for Truth, Justice for Homicide Victims, the California Justice Committee, and Believe the Children. She founded the Coalition for Victims’ Equal Rights and volunteered with the Victim Offender Reconciliation Group. She developed a strong distaste for Rose Bird, the first female chief justice of the California Supreme Court, who consistently overturned death penalty verdicts. In 1986, Doris went on The Phil Donahue Show to lobby against Bird. “One thing is certain,” Doris told Donahue, working her drawl. “[The death penalty] will cut down on recidivism because the guy that goes to the gas chamber, well, my dear, he’s one less we have to worry about.” That November, voters overwhelmingly elected to oust Bird; it was the first time a sitting chief justice had ever been removed in California. Over the next several years, California’s Supreme Court upheld death sentences at one of the highest rates in the country. 

Though Doris’s activism gave her life new meaning, it also caused trouble at home. When she appeared on Geraldo, she offered up the family’s address in Palos Verdes, encouraging grieving parents to write to her. She freely gave out their phone number, too, and victims called at all hours, interrupting family dinners and birthday parties. “Everyone in the world could call that house, and they did,” Robin Olson, a friend of Patti Tate’s, told me. The more engaged and active that Doris Tate became, the more disengaged her husband grew. When TV crews lugged their equipment into the house for yet another interview with Doris, P.J. would disappear upstairs, shutting the bedroom door firmly behind him. He didn’t participate in Parents of Murdered Children meetings. “I love my dad,” Debra told me, then heaved a sigh. “To a man like my father, a military man with a stiff backbone who’s been trained by the military regime to not have feelings—he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. He’d kind of make fun of it.” His drinking intensified, and he was fine, or fine-ish, when he stuck to beer, but he grew volatile when he drank hard liquor. (Debra also told me that P.J. was physically abusive to both Sharon and Doris, which adds another dimension to Doris’s activism on behalf of victimized women, and P.J.’s dismissal of it.) 

Doris Tate
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  • Doris Tate in her interview with Bill Nelson. 

    Photo Credit: HelterSkelterForum / YouTube

Around this time Doris met Bill Nelson, the radio host and self-appointed Manson researcher who would later befriend Lisa Statman. Like Doris, Nelson was deeply disturbed at the idea of Tex Watson—a man he called “more dangerous than Manson”—getting out of prison, and he and Doris made common cause in preventing this from happening. When Doris Tate went to Stockholm as the US representative for the International Victims’ Rights Conference in 1990, she brought Nelson along with her. Doris’s daughters found Nelson off-putting, but their mother tolerated him. Sure, he could be bombastic and arrogant, a smooth-voiced bully in the Rush Limbaugh mold, but he was also usefully tenacious. To build a case against Watson getting parole, Nelson tracked down Watson’s high school classmates in Texas and probed the finances of his prison ministry, sniffing for fraud. 

Related: 50 Years Later: The Manson Family and the Gruesome Murder of Sharon Tate

Nelson was particularly incensed that Watson had fathered four children in prison through conjugal visits, and that their mother received public assistance. Every time Watson’s wife and kids moved, Nelson found out their new address. He lurked outside the prison with his telephoto lens and took photographs of the children on their way to visit their father. He sent endless letters to public officials: “If this is the year of family values and welfare reform, how can we let this go?” he demanded of the California attorney general. “That is unspeakable!” he wrote the governor. “It is financial!” (Nelson had no such problem with Manson Family member Susan Atkins, aka Sexy Sadie, with whom he exchanged friendly letters. Nelson visited Atkins in prison a few times and declared her to be “a very attractive mature forty-three-year-old women [sic] and still quite sexy.”) 

In 1990, Doris Tate agreed to an on-camera interview with Bill Nelson. They sat facing each other in a formal living room, surrounded by brocaded furniture and gilt-edged frames. In the video of the interview that Nelson later released on VHS, Doris is poised in neutral tones, her hair upswept; Nelson has traded his typical polo shirt for a suit and tie. It’s impossible to watch this interview without becoming transfixed by Nelson’s face as he talks to Doris about her dead daughter. His eyes are bright and eager; a persistent, inappropriate grin twitches the corners of his mouth. He looks—there’s no other word for it—excited

The family gravestone for the Tate family, including Sharon and Doris.
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  • Photo Credit: IllaZilla / Wikimedia Commons

 During the interview, Nelson corrects Doris about a minor fact related to the case. He has always had a pedant’s fixation on details, been careful to get the proper nouns right—that Tex Watson drove a white-and-yellow 1959 Ford that night, that the firearm he had with him was a nine-shot .22-caliber Hi Standard Ned Buntline revolver. Doris reminds him that she hasn’t read any of the books about Sharon’s murder. Nelson smiles and says that he’s read nineteen or twenty. He likes that she hasn’t read them, he tells her. That way he can get her fresh reaction to things. “Let me read you something you’ve not read,” he says. 

“I haven’t read any of it,” Doris says again. 

Related: 15 Riveting True Crime Books Written by Women

Nelson peers down his nose at a sheaf of papers and begins, “ ‘As Sharon pleaded for her life, sitting on the couch, Susan [Atkins] says, “It felt so good the first time I stabbed her. When she screamed at me, it did something to me, sent a rush through me. I stabbed her again. I just kept stabbing her until she stopped screaming. It was just like going into nothing.”’ ” He goes on and on; the recitation feels interminable. Doris sits quietly, her back straight; she must have realized that she wasn’t there as an interviewee, but as a player in some perverse psychodrama concocted by Nelson. He goes on and on, talking about Sharon’s innocence, talking about how it was violated. He describes Susan Atkins saying that seeing Sharon’s blood spurting out felt like a sexual release. He finally looks up at Doris. “That’s your daughter,” he says unnecessarily. 

Doris does what she can to steer the conversation back to policy issues. She talks about parole, about conjugal visits. But Nelson isn’t finished: “Sharon was so delicate. She had sixteen stab wounds ... Are you aware that they intended to dismember the bodies? Did you know that?”

It’s remarkable how stoic Doris remains during this onslaught, as Nelson obsessively circles back to those last twenty minutes Sharon was alive, as if her death were the central fact of her life, the thing that makes her worth thinking about. Or perhaps Doris’s composure is not remarkable at all; the worst has already happened, and the whole tawdry aftermath—including this man’s lingering fascination with her daughter’s body and what was done to it—is just the long shadow cast by the original crime. Talking about stabbing is not as bad as stabbing. Even so, this conversation feels like a violation. 

Related: The Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America

The word victim is rooted in the Latin victima, which means “sacrificial animal.” This feels apt, but in an awful way. Because she’s dead, the victim can become whatever people need her to be. Because she’s dead, we can say anything we want about her, and she can’t talk back. For some people, she is more valuable this way: holy, symbolic, silent. 

Not long after this interview, Doris Tate severed her relationship with Bill Nelson. One of his many antagonists had let Doris know that Nelson had once been charged with felony counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child; the two girls in question had been twelve years old. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge, spent two years on probation, and registered as a sex offender. 

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Feature photo: Farida Davletshina / Unsplash