BWW Review: MANSON Fills in the Missing Pieces
In fiction or life, I generally turn a cold shoulder to studies in psychopathy. I make a sort of exception for the subject of Charles Manson. Apparently I'm not alone.
Back when his biography, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, was published in 2013, historian Jeff Guinn stated in a C-SPAN talk that, when he began his research, there were already more than one hundred and seventy volumes on Manson and his infamous "Family." Interest in the gruesome subject has apparently never waned.
Guinn's explanation for adding to the pile was simple: In researching possible subjects for his next book, he discovered that an awful lot of what was supposedly "known" about Charles Manson's life, especially the years between his birth and the late-sixties' formation of the Family, was out of Manson's own mouth.
Guinn thought it might be a good idea to stop taking the killer at his word and look up the people who actually knew him when.
The result is a valuable book that makes a strong, necessary addition to Manson lore.
There are reasons why that history is still worth knowing.
The murders committed by Manson and his followers, and the subsequent sensationalized coverage, were a perfect hell-storm of modern America's tripartite obsessions with death, sex and celebrity, the jumping off point for a new style of exhibitionist murder that was just the right stuff to spin the culture off its axis. As long as we're still floating in the space left behind, the murders are likely to remain a source of fascination. So it's good to have the facts nailed down and formed into a flowing narrative that makes some sense of the confluence between Manson's basic sociopathic personality, an upbringing that was no harsher than that of millions of others, and the times he inhabited.
Guinn's book hits these targets squarely. For a chilling glimpse at the environment in which the murders took place, poet/musician Ed Sanders' The Family is likely to remain definitive. Same for prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter, written with Curt Gentry, when it comes to the details of the trial itself. What Guinn does, in prosaic, but admirably fluid, detail, is provide the full back-story, abetted by numerous interviews with members of Manson's actual family and others who knew him as a boy, teenager and frequently incarcerated young man. Remarkably, a number of these people had never been interviewed before. Perhaps previous writers simply didn't want to deal with how mundane Manson's admittedly hardscrabble upbringing had been.
One thing which has long been discernible, both by inference and the voluminous testimony of witnesses to later events, was Manson's obsession with fame. Guinn does a fine job of cataloguing his subject's various influences: Dale Carnegie (rather than the eastern mystics favored by the Love Generation Manson would play for suckers), science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, the Bible (especially the Book of Revelation) and finally, the Beatles. More importantly, he fits each into the narrative of Manson's developing personality as a cult leader without falling into the trap of reaching for "theories" to explain the inexplicable: namely, why millions of others managed to absorb those very particular "influences" without feeling a subsequent need to first gather, then inspire, a murder cult.
In addition to telling both the known and previously unknown aspects of this story well, and keeping the psychotherapy to a minimum, Guinn does a fine job of contextualizing what he reports. He keeps these links to a larger tale brief and to the point, but they are telling nonetheless. Yes, folks, in the late sixties there were politics in the air and Guinn doesn't let us forget:
"We were by now a classic cult, true believers, surrounded by a hostile world that we rejected and that rejected us in turn."
That's Weatherman leader Mark Rudd, who, as Guinn wryrly notes could have been speaking for Manson's Family, who also "celebrated internally with group sex and acid sessions." (And, he might have added, also planned to kill a lot of people, though, in most cases, they were spared life-in-prison fates by a degree of ineptitude even born losers like Tex Watson and Susan Atkins couldn't match.)
Guinn gives us enough of this period flavor so as to leave no doubt that Manson benefitted from the often chaotic atmosphere of the times, emphasizing that, politics aside, someone wishing to lead a sex-and-death cult could have found no ground for recruitment so rich as the scenes gathered around flower power Berkeley and Haight-Asbury in the late sixties, unless maybe it was cynical, celebrity-fueled Los Angeles at the same time.
The ways in which Manson moved back and forth between these scenes, with their markedly different styles of hedonism, skillfully exploiting weaknesses ironically shared by hippie communes and the pampered children of Hollywood, all while obsessing daily on his twin dreams of rock stardom and finally striking out at a world which ahd repeatedly failed to recognize the genius he was sure he possessed, make up the fascinating core of Guinn's account. And, as with Manson's childhood, he tells us all we really need to know in a hundred swift-moving pages or so. He also repeatedly and correctly reminds us that, if Manson and his gang had stuck to killing ordinary people, he would now be long forgotten, as the many equally depraved murderers who have killed for their fifteen minutes of fame without creating the cottage industry of their own twisted dreams repeatedly have been in the long decades since.
With those one hundred and seventy-some books already out there, Jeff Guinn set himself a task here that was simple in conception but hard to pull off.
Find new stuff. Fit it with the old stuff. Tell it straight and true.
He succeeded on all counts.
I"ve now read three books on the Manson family.
I'm glad I read all three. And even more glad that Jeff Guinn has relieved me of the burden of ever again having to take Charles Manson at his word, or of reading another single word about him.