Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders – A Book Review

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Which Jesus? There’s all kinds of Jesus there’s a black Jesus down in Florida, he’s having a good time, there’s a Mexican Jesus down in Mexico, I mean there’s all kinds of Jesus there’s a Jewish Jesus. I mean Jesus, you know all kinds of Jesus coming back everywhere! And nothing can stop it! It’s a consciousness that lives in your mind!! Ladadadada!”  -Charles Manson-

I wanted to do something a little different here on the site, offer something other than the usual nerd offerings; plus its always good to expand ones horizons and not get stuck doing or watching the same old thing. Another area of interest for me is crime, noir stories and true crime novels. Attorney Vincent Bugliosi wrote the single best crime novel as he details every inch of the bizarre Manson family and the twisted soap opera that followed.

I was offered the chance for some extra credit in my Criminal Justice class and thought a book review of “Helter Skelter” would be an interesting topic considering it’s been a fascination of mine since high school. Manson is constantly lumped in with the rest of the psychos the media has brought to our attention over the last 50 years. Except he was not full-blown insane as usual suspects of Bundy, Gacy, Berkowitz and Ramirez. Sure, Manson was a wack-a-do of the highest order, his derangement stemmed not from a physical trauma or chemical imbalance, but a hatred for society. His terrible upbringing; his teen prostitute mother, his status as ill-legitimate delinquent- all stewed together to make the most infamous Sociopath. Manson provides the study of a man whose life revolved around interpersonal violence in all its manifestations. There was nothing this man wouldn’t do to reach his goals – he would rape, murder, manipulate, and lie – all in the name of his personal ambitions. He was really no different than most of our elected officials of the last 40 years, except Manson was a dirty hippie, ex-con with the knack to convince ugly women to follow him. Whatever Manson lacked in solid judgment and reason, he made up for it with charisma and the ability to communicate exactly what he wanted you to know; an ability most politicians would kill to have.

As many times as fiction has tried, none have created a villain as compelling, fascinating, stupid, brilliant, evil and pathetic as Charles Manson. It’s hard to believe Manson has been in prison for over forty years now due to his participation in the Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969. So far removed, yet still chained to current events, Manson has become the go-to boogey man only nightmares are made of, yet a true individual who was destined to burn his world to the ground. An unremarkable man, he become the icon of the failed hippie movement of the 1960’s, a twisted representation of free love that was spawned in Height Ashbury Park in 1967 and culminated with the deaths of nine people, life sentences for the perpetrators and a murder story that created a media frenzy foreshadowing what occurs with alarming regularity today.
Long before OJ Simpson and the media circus began with a “trial of the century,” Prosecuting Attorney Vincent Bugliosi had the daunting task of convincing a jury of twelve that Charles Mills Manson manipulated, twisted and convinced his band of bloodthirsty, naive followers to do anything he ordered them to do- including murder. His first-hand account, “Helter Skelter” is quite simply the finest true crime novel ever written. It spares no expense, highly detailed and gets inside, as much as anyone could, the mind of Manson and his followers, or at least his twisted motivation for his/their reign of terror.
The novel reads very much like a noir book; it establishes a vibrant Los Angeles city; a character itself, full of conflict; dreams, beauty and unheeded evil and establishes a cast of wild characters each with their own unique reveries and motivations. Bugliosi never goes overboard with legal talk and always keeps the prose easy and understandable. He sets the scene and the backstories of all the victims and the murderers are given much detail and insight; he dissects and cracks their psyche; we feel we know them by the time the horror begins with the two nights, of the drug-induced murder spree.
A fascinating story from all angles, the idea that a short little ex-con in his 30’s could rope, manipulate and coerce a band of young men and women in their late teens and early 20’s into doing his bidding could only be claptrap cooked up by Hollywood B movie makers, but it happened. A sordid, disturbing assembling line of characters plays out like a sleazy soap opera full of all the required ingredients; sex, drugs, the Hollywood connection, a roller-coaster narrative, double-cross and murder, set against the backdrop of the “free love and counter-culture movement” of the late 1960’s. Bugliosi does a fantastic job of setting the historical context and keeping things linear and coherent, he captures the tenor of the times. There is a massive amount of characters and players in this bizarre story, but Bugliosi and co-writer Curt Gentry keep it simple despite its wordy 700 pages; we feel we are getting a history, law and criminal lesson all in one.
He keeps the focus on the story’s main villain- Manson- a study in the power of words, charisma and a perverse, evil vision. The best aspect of the novel is how Bugliosi engages Manson; he establishes a rapport and draws him into conversations. He knows this inconspicuous little man is proud of what he’s done and wants to brag in his own way; as does his conspirators, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie Van Houten. There are some truly deranged thoughts and words that emerge, but Manson stays the focus and we quickly realize what a con he’s always pulling. A terrible upbringing, no father, a prostitute mother, with a persecution complex, he always blamed everyone else for who he is, telling the jury “you made me this way.
The novel’s engrossing elements are two-fold; the legal perspective as Bugliosi works diligently and at times, he thinks, futilely, to prosecute the gang on what at first, appears to be flimsy evidence. His talents were not just telling the jury Manson and his bunch were nutjobs, he did that, but allowed them to show off their psychosis through tantrums, yelling profanities, On several occasions, Manson verbally threatened both the judge and prosecutor Bugliosi in court, and at one point attempted to physically attack the judge while his followers were laughing during testimonies of the relatives of the victim’s stories. The criminal perspective as, for the first time, Manson is allowed to give his reasons for the killings. This is truly the work of a bizarre, crazed mind. Although never clinically diagnosed as “insane” he appears to have done it to scare people and to impress his followers and to instill some form of loyalty among his Family making them believe in and with him, they’d not survive what was going to happen. The gospel according to Manson as foretold, by The Beatles, on The White Album Manson was preparing in early January 1969, the Family escaped the desert’s cold and positioned itself to monitor L.A.’s supposed tension by moving to a canary-yellow home in Canoga Park, not far from the Spahn Ranch.   Because this locale would allow the group to remain “submerged beneath the awareness of the outside world”, Manson called it the Yellow Submarine, another Beatles reference.          There, Family members prepared for the impending apocalypse, which, around the campfire, Manson had termed “Helter Skelter”, after the song of that name. By February, Manson’s vision was complete. The Family would create an album whose songs, as subtle as those of the Beatles, would trigger the predicted chaos. Ghastly murders of whites by blacks would be met with retaliation, and a split between racist and non-racist whites would yield whites’ self-annihilation. Blacks’ triumph, as it were, would merely precede their being ruled by the Family, which would ride out the conflict in “the bottomless pit”—a secret city beneath Death Valley. Manson and his clan would hide out and wait for the victor to seek them out, deeming him King Charlie. However since it didn’t begin on its own, the Tate/LaBianca murders would set things in motion. It happened gradually as he begged the prison to let him stay upon his release in 1967, but as he gained power and influence over his minions, he saw the opportunity and jumped on it- always the opportunist.
The most intriguing element in the entire Manson saga is how he manipulated the young people to do his bidding. How does a guy in his early 30’s relate to the new generation who was supposed to be suspicious of anyone over 30? Incredible more so that most of the girls that came to live with the family were from good, wealthy, upper-middle class families with nothing to run from- yet they ran straight into the arms of a devil. Some of the girls did have father-issues and Manson was quick to tell them how he could fix that problem. Through constant drug use, (LSD mostly) sex and good ole’ fashion brain washing, Charlie got inside their heads and remade them; removed their social conditioning and installed his rules. Much like a drill Sargent in the army; he stripped them down to build them back up into his own soldiers. Whatever the young people believed in, Manson would tear it down. Whatever they didn’t understand or like, Manson would praise it, love it and keep it. He told them exactly what they wanted to hear and what he wanted them to know.
The worst kind of Sociopath you can imagine coupled with mother issues and a twisted world view. He hated society and felt he was given a raw deal in life and wanted everyone to pay for it. He had already created his own society; had his own rules, values (lack thereof) and morals. He rewrote everything about society he hated; (removing taboos- murder was acceptable) in thy image. By instigating a “race war,” he wanted to replace the current society with his own; one where he was somebody who mattered and people paid attention to him. Every time in the past when someone hurt Manson, he tried but usually failed to strike back, now was the first time he had power behind his threats- for one brief moment in time he was somebody; no longer the dirty ex-con with the bruised ego and demolished self-esteem that people shunned.
To say Manson was/is nuts is easy to gather, but he was never diagnosed as insane, but with a severe Anti-social Personality Disorder, which makes it impossible for him to feel remorse or empathy for his actions. He would like to be remembered for his kooky race war scenario, but Manson was and still is just a taker having never taken any responsibility for his actions despite the overwhelming evidence against him. Which is why he did what he did- anything that came out of his warped brain was fine with him and gave power to his blossoming Messiah complex- makes sense as to why he constantly referred to himself as Jesus Christ- in his many self-aggrandizing speeches he wanted everyone to know and feel sorry for “poor Charlie,” yet he also called himself the Devil as he liked to use fear, power and intimidation to get his ways. Whatever he called himself, his Family believed every word he said. They worshiped him, they were all his disciples.
The real reason for the murders was initially being rebuffed by Beach Boys’, Dennis Wilson who at first tried to connect Charlie up with music producers to get a deal and later pulled away from the family. No one liked what he was selling and Manson was angered. He had been to the Tate residence 10050 Cielo Drive, himself in the early summer of ’69, looking for music producer Terry Melcher, but he had moved. His motive was to instill fear into Melcher because Manson felt he had given his word on a few things and never came through with them. As for the LaBianca killings- Phil Kaufman – who Charlie befriended in Terminal Island prison before being released in 1967 – had connections to the music industry and was trying to help Manson get a break. Kaufman also used to hang out at the home of Harold True, who until September of 1968 lived on Waverly Drive next to the Labianca house. None of Kaufman’s music industry connections panned out for Charlie and Phil suggested that one possible reason why Manson picked the Labianca house was to send him a message.
Here was a little man who had nothing of achievement behind him, floundering in the present and prison for his future, undone by the power of his own hubris. Surprisingly, Charlie has a point, society was the one that made him; we all are, he was thrown in and out of reform school and prison with no real evidence or efforts of rehabilitation. Not a real smart way to handle criminals, to make them worse coming out than when they went in, but then Mason wasn’t the brightest bulb in the lamp and could have reformed on his many chances at freedom, but his ego, and over-powering need to “strike back” was too consuming.
Bugliosi brings it all to a sobering end with a win for the Prosecution- sending Manson and his family to prison for the rest of their natural lives. Reading the novel, even if you weren’t alive at the time the crimes occurred, (I wasn’t born until 1972) you feel a sense of dread as you realize Post-war America died that summer of 1969; all the dreams, ideals and hopes set forth by President Kennedy in 1961 were finally swept away.
These were horrible times in American history, California Dreaming or not, and the simple fact of the matter is that Charles Manson and his family lived a counterculture lifestyle that was hip with middle class and upper-middle class culture during this era. They hung, ever-so-briefly, with the young in-crowd of Hollywood, (Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, music producer Terry Melcher, son of Doris Day) But when the constant use of psychedelic drugs, Manson’s derangement, combined with the unique isolation of Spahn (and later Barker) ranch, began to take hold, Manson and his family entered a deadly alternative world having no touch with reality. The in-crowd slams the door in their face, the hope for rock and roll super stardom disappears, Manson becomes God, and it’s time to strike back at the rich and powerful piggies. It’s such a sad and ugly story.

About the Author: Dan

I live for movies and hate things like Lord of the Rings. That's all you need to know right now.

1 Comment

  1. George Vreeland Hill

    Helter Skelter is by far the best true crime book ever written.
    Vincent Bugliosi wrote a masterpiece.

    George Vreeland Hill

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