There’s a strange moment in About Schmidt when Jack Nicholson, in the title role, first appears with his wife, Helen, played by June Squibb. In the theater in which I saw the film, the audience gasped and tittered at seeing the two together: What on Earth is Jack doing with that old woman? Never mind that the two actors are in fact close in age (she is a few years older) or that Nicholson was appearing as a character rather than as Jackson Nicholson, the famous Lothario who once embarrassed himself by trying to seduce a young French journalist who pointed out to him that he’d tried the same thing on her mother 20 years before. Among actors, rock stars, and other celebrities, the sight of an older man with a much younger woman is expected: There are 40 years between Al Pacino and Lucila Sola, 40 years between Gregg Allman and his (seventh) wife, 46 years between Dick Van Dyke and his wife, 60 years between Hugh Hefner and Crystal Harris.
You might see Rupert Murdoch marrying a woman 38 years his junior and think that it’s all about the money, but you’d be wrong.
Manson and his “family” developed a mythology around themselves and engaged in a great deal of apocalyptic posturing, but their entry into crime was more or less conventional: ripping off and then shooting a drug dealer called Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe, murdering Gary Hinman over money, etc. But at the finale, the Manson family’s crimes were ritual and theater: Sharon Tate, the pregnant actress whose blood was used to write the word “pig” on a door, whimpered “Mother! Mother!” as she was stabbed 16 times. The bride-to-be, if she is a bride-to-be — Manson has previously dismissed marriage talk as “garbage” cynically put forth for publicity — believes that Charles Manson is innocent of the charges upon which he was convicted. Her remarkably tolerant Baptist family will not be attending any wedding, but her father reiterates his love for her and insists that she will not be disowned or abandoned by her family, no matter what she does.
There is something supernatural, whether divine or diabolical, about the charisma of men such as Charles Manson. It cannot be explained rationally. There is nothing obviously impressive about the man: He was a short, barely literate, inept young criminal who spent most of his youth in penal institutions and nonetheless managed to lead a pseudo-religious movement based around himself, to be befriended by actors and rock stars (he wrote the Beach Boys’ “Never Learn Not to Love”), to maintain a harem and conduct orgies that would have made a Led Zeppelin roadie drop his mudshark, and to remain an object of public fascination for all of his days. And do not doubt that many a man on the wrong side of life’s midpoint must view Manson’s recent engagement with a complex kind of envy.
Psychologists call the phenomenon of (overwhelmingly female) sexual attraction to (overwhelmingly male) criminals hybristophilia, and it is comforting to have labels for these sorts of things, so that we can think about the construct we have named rather than think about the thing itself. The thing itself is the fact that human society is built on the same foundations as chimpanzee society, and we sometimes slip back into social troglodytism. “Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring” reads the recent headline in Current Biology, and science writer Tia Ghose goes whistling past the graveyard: “Drawing parallels can be perilous. Humans diverged from chimpanzees at least 7 million years ago, and the human mating system looks very different from chimps’ violent, multi-male, multi-female system.” Violent, multi-male, multi-female sexual habits — you don’t have to go to the zoo to see that. You don’t even have to go to a big, corrupt, Democratic city such as mine: Just turn on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Every day presents a choice: To be more a man, or to be more a chimp. Some days, the chimp wins.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.