This fascination with Manson has been so unrelenting that it’s fair to wonder if there’s anything left to say. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books about the man and his crimes, as well as movies, plays, an opera and even an episode of “South Park.” Manson himself has given any number of interviews from prison, holding court with the likes of Charlie Rose, Tom Snyder and Geraldo Rivera. After so many years, is there any juice left in this lemon?
Jeff Guinn, the author of well-regarded books on Bonnie and Clyde and the shootout at the O.K. Corral, plays it smart in this biography. Guinn is at pains to say that he’s gleaned some fresh material, having tracked down some Manson relatives who had not previously spoken publicly, but he doesn’t rely too heavily on claims of flashy revelations. Instead, he takes a long view, beginning with a measured, in-depth study of Manson’s early years, attempting to answer the question of how this monster came to be.
Guinn effectively argues against the “near-universal belief” that Manson was entirely a product of the social upheavals of the 1960s. “The unsettling 1960s didn’t create Charlie,” he writes, “but they made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower.” Accordingly, he takes a hard look at Manson’s singularly loveless childhood, beginning with his birth in 1934 to a hard-drinking, 15-year-old unwed mother and progressing through the seemingly endless series of reform schools and prisons that he passed through as a juvenile delinquent, a cycle of petty crime and Gulag-style punishment that began at the age of 12.
By slow degrees Guinn traces the manner in which Manson honed the strange, unnerving skills with which he would one day manipulate his weak-willed followers. While in custody, he studied at the feet of hardened criminals and pimps, and burned through belief systems ranging from fundamentalist Christianity to Scientology. At one stage Manson even took up the teachings of the early self-help guru Dale Carnegie, the author of the 1936 bestseller “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Carnegie’s bromides, such as “Let the other fellow feel that the idea is his,” took on sinister shadings in Manson’s hands. “That was Charlie’s big trick,” an acquaintance said. “He’d decide what he wanted [someone] to do and then talk about it so the girl or whoever would think that she thought of it and it was her idea.” Later, Guinn says, when “police, judges, and juries struggled to understand how Charlie Manson was able to convince others to carry out his criminal directives, they could have found the answer there in ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ ”