“You can convince anybody of anything if you just push it at them all of the time. They may not believe it 100 percent, but they will still draw opinions from it, especially if they have no other information to draw their opinions from.”
W.W. Norton & Company | 1974
Opening Brainwashing: The lowest of low hanging fruit.
Main Cult Leader: The folk singer with the swastika tattoo seems on the up-and-up.
True Crimey-ness: Pop culture murder.
Everyone and their mother knows the story of Charles Manson. Or at least the bullet points, because the bullet points are fucking insane. Crazy “hippie” cult leader who brainwashed otherwise normal young people into brutally murdering pregnant actress Sharon Tate and her house guests in the Hollywood Hills in 1969.
Everyone knows the blurb. Everyone knows the images of Manson at his craziest moments. Everyone has seen, at some point, that image of three happy girls singing on their way to their murder trial with swastikas on their foreheads. Everyone knows that Sharon Tate was pregnant because it’s those kinds of headline specifics that make your stomach turn or your jaw drop.
The famous imagines and soundbites are so robust and insane and sensational, and seared into pop culture by our own doing, that it led me to believe that I knew basically everything there was to know about this case. Or that I had enough of an understanding that reading this book was going to be just to say that I’d read it. It’s kind of a must for true crime fans, in my sometimes abrasive opinion.
But I was wrong.
There is so much information to be gleaned from this book by the prosecutor who convicted Manson, Vincent Bugliosi. Helter Skelter is a broad picture of Manson’s crimes, his early life and his followers that I found it utterly fascinating, even if the narrator of the audiobook sounded like he stepped right out of Fast Talking, High Trousers.
The book is told from the perspective of preparing for trial. Looking at the evidence and deciding how to use it in order to prove that Manson was guilty of murder even though he never actually physically killed anyone.
There is a lot of in-depth information about evidence and timelines, more than I ever knew before about the case. The parts of the book that focus exclusively on the night of the Tate-LaBianca murders, as they are known, is pretty graphic in an almost sterile/medical kind of way. They’re the facts. It’s presented plainly. This is what happened, every bloody moment, and if you’re squeamish it might make you uncomfortable.
I found myself the most uncomfortable when talking about the racial motivations for much of Manson’s thinking. Things he believed were spoken to him in some subliminal way through the Beatles “white” album. Obviously, there’s a difference between what was acceptable to say between then and now, but it’s also important to hear exactly what a guy like Manson was thinking and how bluntly disgusting it was. Certainly, I’m not suggesting any kind of censorship or watering down of the language, but I definitely found talking about “blackies” jarring.
There is even a bit of history on Charles Manson and just what kind of life he had leading up to becoming one of the most famous cult leaders ever. For instance, I wasn’t aware that by the time he was 31 and forming his “Family” in California, he’d already spent 17 years of his life, collectively, in prisons. I didn’t realize that at one point he was married and had a baby.
There are parts of his life that make him seem as if he was a regular person. Almost.
*deep breath* Okay, I’m okay. But he has a face made for creeping.
Manson “Family” members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten were all convicted of murder, and Manson of orchestrating those murders, by the time Mr. Bugliosi was finished at trial. All were given the death penalty, but in 1972, People v Anderson struck down capital punishment in California as the state’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. All death sentences in the state were converted to life without parole, including Manson and his family. Ironically, only months later, voters in California voted yes on Proposition 17 and the death penalty was reinstated as state law.
Personally, I’m not a supporter of the death penalty because there are just way too many instances of innocent people being on death row or actually having been executed by the state. Those innocent lives outweigh every guilty one to me. Though I do think if we could put in some kind of measurement that said if there’s a confession and undeniable evidence like DNA, then the death penalty should be on the table. But the bar has to be so so so high for that.
Some people are just a waste of oxygen.
And in this case, Manson was 100% wasting oxygen by being alive.
This book is very outdated and so much has happened in between when it was written and now. There is a 20th Century afterword by the author where he pulls back on some of his criticism in the book and seems to have opinions that are mellowed out by time.
The only thing that I found to be negative about this book is Bugliosi’s attitude. Obviously, he was the prosecutor, and he had more weight on his shoulders than most of us will ever understand, but a lot of what he had to say about this crime and the subsequent trial was that everyone around him was wrong in some way, or had messed up, except for him. He has something negative to say about the LAPD, his own DAs office and even the judge.
I understand being a cocky attorney, but just the law of averages tell me that Bugliosi couldn’t have been the only person on this case that was right or doing the right thing. A little more humility would have brought a better balance to this true crime story. I don’t like taking the deaths of other people as an opportunity to toot your own boob.
Charles Manson died on November 19, 2017, at the age of 83. It was front-page news. Every time one of his followers applies for parole, it’s front page news. People lose their fucking minds about it. Leslie Van Houten was recommended for release (for the third time) on January 31 of this year. And I, personally, think it should be granted, all things considered.
If Manson hadn’t been elevated to such a pop culture figure; if his crimes hadn’t been so sensationalized, no one would care about Leslie Van Houten, who has served 40 years in prison for a crime she committed at 19, after being abused and brainwashed by a fucking psycho (she wasn’t involved in the Tate murders.) She’s 70 years old now. What’s she gonna do? Seriously.
But whatever, that’s just one asshole’s opinion. I mean me. Me. I’m the asshole.
Anyway, after reading this, I do have to wonder what makes these crimes by Manson still so worthy of ink and paper and resources and attention, considering the kinds of evil that happen in the world today. Why do people still lose their collective minds over a parole hearing? Why did I, at 30-something years old, (I wasn’t even alive when this happen,) know so much about this before opening this book?
That’s either a testament to Manson’s craziness. Or the craziness of the news cycle and pop culture machine that we let ourselves get sucked up into. Maybe a combination of both.
At the end of the day, for me, I’m fascinated by cults. I am fascinated by the personal agency people give up to leadership figures. How such a large portion of the population can so easily be turned into sheep who disregard critical thinking and personal responsibility. Religions, in my heathen opinion, have this kind of effect over people. And certainly, we are witnessing it in the U.S. when it comes to Trump and his supporters. *cough and Hitler cough*
Crimes committed because “someone told me to” are endlessly fascinating to me from a psychological aspect. And Manson is still one of the reigning kings of Cult Leaders, even after all these years.
Prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi held a unique insider’s position in one of the most baffling and horrifying cases of the twentieth century: the cold-blooded Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. What motivated Manson in his seemingly mindless selection of victims, and what was his hold over the young women who obeyed his orders? Here is the gripping story of this famous and haunting crime.