To read about Charles Manson, the fiendish ex-con (and con artist) who in 1969 orchestrated some of the grisliest murders in US history, is to risk despair about the human race.
It’s not just the problem of Manson himself, whom his latest biographer, Jeff Guinn, declares to be nothing more than “an opportunistic sociopath.” For some reason, Guinn waits until the last page of “Manson” to use the term, but he underlines his subject’s obvious sociopathic traits from the book’s first excellent chapters.
Yet more disquieting than Guinn’s portrait of a coolly deranged killer is his depiction of Manson’s mostly female followers, known as the Family. Many of the women who succumbed to Manson were no doubt damaged before meeting him; others were merely young, gullible, and susceptible to flattery. In time, their perceptions and conscience were dulled by repeated drug use and physical and sexual abuse — and still their credulousness and malleability seem staggering.
“Charlie Manson imbued two core beliefs in his followers — that he must be obeyed and that, with the exception of Charlie, the members of the Family were the most special people on earth,” Guinn writes. Subservience and entitlement proved a deadly mix, resulting in nine murders, most notoriously the Tate-LaBianca killings in Los Angeles. The Manson Family’s most famous victim was the actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of the director Roman Polanski. Manson was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to death in 1971, but a change in California law modified his sentence to life imprisonment.
Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry chronicled Manson’s trial in their bestselling 1974 book, “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders.” Since then, numerous other volumes have appeared, including memoirs by former Family members and Manson himself. But Guinn credibly claims to have written the definitive account of Manson’s life.
No great prose stylist, Guinn nevertheless possesses a flair for immersing readers in this slowly unspooling horror story. And as a researcher, he has been dogged. He reports sending “more than forty letters requesting an interview” to Manson, and receiving just one virtually incoherent reply.
Guinn did obtain new information from Manson’s cellmates, Family members, and others who have known Manson. He tracked down and interviewed Manson’s adoptive sister, Nancy, and a cousin, Jo Ann, who provided both charming family photos and chilling details about what a thoroughly nasty child Charlie was. “He never did anything that was good,” Manson’s cousin told the author, recalling, among other incidents, a time he threatened her with a sickle.
Guinn’s account of Manson’s childhood supports the theory that sociopaths are both born and made. Manson’s biological father was a con man who impregnated his mother, Kathleen, and then disappeared; by the time Charlie was born, Kathleen was married to William Manson. An erratic parent at best, Kathleen served time for robbery and often left her son with other relatives.
The youthful Charlie was already violent, antisocial and manipulative. “He made bad situations in which he found himself even worse,” Guinn writes. Manson’s extensive confinement to reform schools and prisons for burglary, auto theft, and armed robbery only deepened his alienation. He was almost certainly sexually abused behind bars, Guinn says. But he also learned the rudiments of Scientology, studied Dale Carnegie’s persuasive techniques, and, from pimps, absorbed the art of controlling women.
Between prison stints, Manson was briefly married, to a waitress named Rosalie Jean Willis, but she apparently tired of waiting for him, and they were divorced. Their son, Charles Manson Jr., committed suicide in 1993. Manson was also married to a prostitute, Leona Rae “Candy” Stevens, with whom he had a second son. She divorced him as well.
Prison disgorged Manson into the California of the late 1960s, a time and place where rule-breaking was rampant. Gurus, drugs and “free love” inspired a variety of communes like the Family, most far more benign. In one respect, Manson resembled many young men of the era: His overwhelming ambition was to be a rock star.
Unlike most, however, Manson was thoroughly convinced the Beatles would one day be praising his genius. Though they ignored his letters, he did strike up a friendship of sorts with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, at whose home he and the Family crashed for a time. Using his sexually compliant women as bait, he courted others in the music business as well, including A-list producer Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son. Like the others, Melcher gave Manson a listen and then a pass.
Manson’s frustration at not having his musical genius recognized was a critical factor, Guinn suggests, in the Family’s violent turn. Manson had already begun stockpiling weapons. When a friend, Bobby Beausoleil, was arrested in a drug-related murder that Manson had ordered, Manson decided to stage copycat murders to help clear him. He told followers that the killings might finally spark what he called Helter Skelter, the racial apocalypse whose name he lifted from a Beatles song.
Despite considerable police bungling, ably documented here, the Tate-LaBianca murders ultimately were solved, as were the murders of drug dealer Gary Hinman and ranch hand Shorty Shea. Linda Kasabian, a Family member and witness, threw off Manson’s influence sufficiently to turn damning state’s evidence against him and his accomplices.
The rest is tabloid history.Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @JuliaMKlein.