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.
Charles Manson is a penniless prisoner serving a life sentence at the Corcoran State Prison in California, his death sentence having been automatically commuted thanks to the state supreme court’s suspension of the death penalty. The 80-year-old man, who is reasonably fit for a prisoner of his age but does have a swastika carved into his forehead, has just been issued a marriage license to wed Afton Elaine “Star” Burton, 26, an attractive young woman from Illinois who has been corresponding with Manson since she was 17, and who moved to California at 19 to be nearer to him. Manson is not permitted conjugal visits, but, if the couple is so inclined, the state of California will in its benevolence permit a clergyman or magistrate of their choosing to officiate at a prison wedding, which up to ten guests may attend.
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.
The phenomenon of young women falling in love with death-row inmates, particularly with serial killers, is not new: Women flocked to Ted Bundy’s trial — his trial for raping, torturing, and murdering young women as a prelude to acts of necrophilia — and he received stacks of love letters and marriage proposals. Jeffrey Dahmer and Richard Ramirez got the same treatment, and Anders Behring Breivik might as well be the Beatles during their heyday. An investment banker may have a Ferrari, but the serial killer, the terrorist, and the mass murderer are at the top of the food chain. On the subject of Nazis, P. J. O’Rourke famously joked that “no one has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and sexually ravished by someone dressed as a liberal.” Like all good jokes, that is fundamentally true — even if the truth behind it horrifies the nice people at National Public Radio, who remain “bumfuzzled” that a rich and powerful woman would allow herself to be beaten bloody by a psychopathic meathead, repeatedly.
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.