WARNING! You will have the song Helter Skelter stuck in your head starting…now!
During the course of reading this book, I kept trying to imagine how it would feel to be so in thrall to another person that I would go to great lengths, to the point of murder, to please him. What kind of person, I wondered, would kill in devotion to a prophet who preached an apocalyptic race war? Would they have a predisposition to murder? Daddy issues? Broken moral compasses?
Obviously, that type of person exists. The young women (and occasional man) who followed Charles Manson’s instructions to the horrific extreme are testament to that. Were they latent psychopaths in search of a cause? Or impressionable young people with an emptiness that Manson filled with his own desires and compulsions?
Were they very different from you and me?
It’s difficult to imagine being one of those people. In the clips I’ve watched of Manson, he comes off less like a smooth manipulator and more like that raving lunatic on the corner you cross the street to avoid.
I’ve never been that interested in Manson; although his cultural impact has placed him on a pedestal among madmen, he has never seemed more than your garden-variety loony who happened to stand at the right intersection, a time and place where the rhetoric of revolution and war coalesced into a fertile environment for Manson’s brand of violence.
You might cross the street to avoid him, but you wouldn’t look twice at his followers, particularly the women, writing them off as dippy flower children but never intuiting their homicidal capabilities. Most of them came from solid middle-class upbringings, more at home on any liberal college campus or music festival than prison.
Having read The Girls by Emma Cline, I decided to go to the source material for that book. Helter Skelter tells the story from crime to verdict from the perspective of the prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi. Surprisingly, the inherent bias is very mild, and though Bugliosi does enjoy waxing about Manson’s purported influence, he sticks mainly to the facts from the investigative side of the story.
And oh, what an investigation! Law and Order, C.S.I., and their many successors have taught us all to be armchair detectives, so when the cops make crucial mistakes (like a basic failure to secure a crime scene or preserve fingerprints), it’s cringe-worthy. The killers were able to evade capture for as long as they did not due to their expert crime-comitting skills, but the mistakes of the LAPD/LASO. Thank god Bugliosi is there with his crack investigation skills to save the day! (okay, so the guy is a little more biased when relating his god-like mystery-solving skills like he’s the love child of Sherlock Holmes and Atticus Finch)
Manson is still alive and well in prison, ranting like your embarrassing uncle who watches too much Fox news. His apocalyptic race war, which he termed “Helter Skelter” did not materialize. His followers mostly remain in prison as well, likely paying for their crimes for the remainder of their lives. Manson’s legend remains larger than he will ever be, his name a touchstone for evil, and warning against blindly following a prophet, whatever his message.
- Manson is only 5’2″. Such a little guy!
- The song “Helter Skelter” is about a slide.
- Manson thought the Beatles were sending him coded messages via their “White Album.” Man, people will believe anything. Sucks for the Beatles, though.