It’s been 44 years since the notorious Tate-LaBianca killings, a two-day crime spree in Los Angeles that stunned the nation and carved the name Charles Manson onto the national consciousness. America has never been short of homicidal whack-jobs, but Manson has always stood apart, not only for the gruesome nature of the murders but also for the creepy, cultish “Family” of acolytes drawn into his orbit to do his bidding.
“The very name Manson has become a metaphor for evil,” said lawyer Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson for his crimes and later co-authored “Helter Skelter,” a seminal book on the subject. “Manson has come to represent the malignant side of humanity. And for whatever reason, there’s a side to human nature that is fascinated by pure, unalloyed evil.”
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.’ ”
By the time the action carries forward to 1964 and the opening notes of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” seep through the walls of Manson’s latest prison cell, Guinn has created a powerful sense of foreboding. “Charlie was intrigued by the music but even more impressed by the adulation the Beatles received,” he writes. “Charlie always yearned for attention; now he decided that fame was what he really wanted. If these four Beatles could have it, why couldn’t he? . . . He didn’t care how implausible that sounded.”
In fact, by now Guinn has laid his groundwork so well that there’s a perverted sense of inevitability as Manson, newly sprung from prison, carries his dreams of musical stardom to Berkeley, Calif., the one place “guaranteed to plunge him straight into the deepest waves of national upheaval.”
At this stage Guinn’s account unavoidably moves to familiar ground as Manson assembles his followers and regales them with his apocalyptic vision of a coming race war, based in part on his tortured reading of the lyrics of the Beatles’ “White Album.” “There was about to be an uprising of the oppressed in the world,” Guinn writes. “Something called Helter Skelter, an event or events still to be determined, would set off the battle.” When the dust settled, Manson promised, he and his followers would emerge to rule the world. Guinn gives a brisk and absorbing account of how Manson’s bizarre rantings propelled his followers to commit the murders, which are all the more horrifying when seen through the lens of Manson’s distorted logic.
While it’s too much to hope that this book will be the last word on the subject, Guinn has managed against all odds to offer a fresh take and a worthy complement to the first-hand immediacy of Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter.” Guinn’s wide-lens approach fleshes out a great deal of background and offers new insight to those who lived through that turbulent era, and provides essential context to those who didn’t. What emerges is a grim but highly compelling portrait of a “lifelong social predator” who was “always the wrong man in the right place at the right time.” By the final pages, readers will understand the feelings of one of Manson’s cousins, who recalled being unsurprised when she learned of the killings: “Once you really got to know Charles,” she explained, “anything awful that he did was no surprise.”
The Life and Times of Charles Manson
By Jeff Guinn
Simon & Schuster. 495 pp. $27.50