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27 october 2013

The dust jacket of Jeff Guinn's new book features a black-and-white photo of a grinning young man in a late-1940s suit and tie. You can't quite tell whether he's amiably innocent or homicidally insane, but when you see the title Manson stretch across his chest in crime-scene-tape black and yellow, you get a leading indicator.

The dust-jacket photograph was taken in 1948, when a judge sent the 13-year-old Charles Manson to Boys Town. Father Flanagan, Mickey Rooney, "He Ain't Heavy," Charles Manson: one of these things is not like the others.

Four days after he arrived at Boys Town, he and another student named Blackie Nielson stole a car and drove to Peoria, Illinois … On the way, the boys somehow got their hands on a gun and committed two armed robberies … (40)
What could they have been thinking, Manson in Boys Town. But of course, he wasn't Charles Manson yet.

Charles Manson has been in trouble with the law his whole life, except for one brief period in 1967-68, when he assembled the Family around him in Southern California. It sounds odd, but as long as Manson had the unwavering attention of lots of tractable people, and as-yet-unfrustrated delusions of world fame ahead of him, he seems to have been able to adjust to life. Unfortunately, that's not a stable recipe for anyone to follow. The Manson Family was a sort of commune, though they lived less by concerted labor than by dumpster-diving and wheedling accommodations from gullible property owners. When the food and lodging ran out, it was back to a life of crime.

To cover their crimes, they escalated to random murder in a manner that appalled America. Guinn's descriptions of the Tate/LaBianca killings exude terror, but also great sadness. One of Manson's criminal associates had killed somebody in a drug squabble, and Manson himself thought he had killed another crook (who fetched up merely gravely wounded, much later on). So Manson instructed some of the more homicidal members of the Family to go find some people to kill in similar ways, so that police would connect the various murders and blame them on Black Panthers. The better as well, of course, to touch off the notorious Helter Skelter, Manson's idea for a Beatles-inspired apocalypse (and eventual title of Vincent Bugliosi's bestseller about Manson).

Except, as Guinn relates, the new killings weren't connected by the cops or by anyone else to one another or to the earlier murders. They were hard to solve precisely because of their randomness, though they eventually proved hard to conceal because so many of Manson's disciples were involved. Prosecutors and witnesses lived in fear as the trials developed, thanks to Manson's bizarre mind control over his many acolytes, most of whom continued free and fear-inspiring. But eventually, the whole cult of Manson faded as its focus lived on, irrelevant, incarcerated: as he lives on to this day.

Mere murder, for all its horrors, is something we live with far too much of in America, even mass murder. Simply killing people is unfortunately no longer news. Manson continues to strike a chord because of the Family, particularly the young women who flung themselves into mindless execution of his insane demands. (Guinn tries to argue that if California had executed Manson quickly, he'd be forgotten today, but I wonder: that might have also made him a martyr in some eyes, instead of the loony old man he's become.)

Guinn's Manson is strong narrative and compelling reading. It may editorialize a shade too much for my tastes: the tone of the book seems to lament the "permissiveness" we used to hear Nixon and Agnew complain about. But I don't think permissiveness created Manson. No particular social attitude fosters crazy.

Guinn, Jeff. Manson: The life and times of Charles Manson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.