Charles Manson Didn’t Kill the Sixties — the Sixties Did

Charles Manson in custody in 1970 (CSU Archives/Everett Collection)
The search for ‘ecstatic modes of living’ and the resulting waste of human life

Ten weeks before the Manson-family slaughters at the Sharon Tate and Leno LaBianca households, a leader of the new generation proclaimed, “There are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” A former president of a college Republicans club and a Barry Goldwater supporter, Hillary Rodham (for it was she) added, in her Wellesley commencement speech of May 31, 1969:  “The challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible. . . . We’re not interested in social reconstruction; it’s human reconstruction.”  She extolled the virtue of calling into “question basic assumptions” via “freedom from the burden of an inauthentic reality.”

I quote these words not to implicate Hillary Rodham Clinton in this particular ritual mass murder but to point out that in the summer of 1969, the air was so thick with countercultural crazy that such delusional sentiments had become routine. Cultivating an “ecstatic mode of living” — life-as-orgasm — or dismissing reality as “inauthentic” took hold with a generation. The line between hippie peacenik idealist and violent revolutionary idealist was permeable. The Beatles found this out to their everlasting discomfort when references to their 1968 songs “Helter Skelter” (misspelled) and “Piggies” were scrawled in blood at the scene of Manson’s grisly slayings. Paul McCartney’s “Helter Skelter” was Charles Manson’s code phrase for the apocalyptic chaos of a race war he hoped to ignite. George Harrison’s “Piggies,” the nastiest song the Beatles ever recorded, compared the well-off to greedy farmyard animals and proclaimed, “In their eyes there’s something lacking / what they need’s a damned good whacking.” Leno LaBianca’s corpse, when discovered, had a knife in its throat and a fork in its stomach, a reference to to Harrison’s lines that the piggies were “clutching forks and knives / to eat their bacon.”

Yet the Beatles song that set the tone for the emptiness that presaged the Manson murders had arrived the preceding year, 1967: “She’s Leaving Home.” As the album that contained it, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, defined the sound of the Summer of Love, Charles Manson, fresh out of prison, was visiting a fellow parolee in Berkeley. In San Francisco he saw a street guru attracting a flock of willing believers and knew he’d found his calling. Hanging around Haight-Ashbury, picking up girls on the street, plying them with LSD and the persuasion techniques of Dale Carnegie, he would build a harem of 19. Then he headed south to Los Angeles, where his “family” grew to a commune of about 100, including a few selected men with whom to share the buffet of lost young women who had sex on demand. Manson taught them he was Jesus Christ and that a new world was aborning.

The problem with ideals such as young Rodham’s was that some people took them seriously. What looked to previous and successive generations as lunacy struck them as attractive, even romantic. But if your starting point is the rejection of all past norms, what then? Writes Miriam Horn in her history of Rodham’s classmates, Rebels in White Gloves, “Their break with the past required a good number of these women to give the pendulum a hard swing. . . . A number of the women of ‘69 chose exile or estrangement, taking off like runaways with no forwarding address, moving into communes or marriages so unacceptable as to guarantee broken ties.”

Manson’s legacy is associated in the popular imagination with Satanism and the occult, but it was the hippies’ search for “ecstatic modes of living” on communes free of the supposed toxins of commerce and competition and profit that was the predicate for his crimes. Manson himself wasn’t even present on the night when actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and four others were murdered. The following night, when his crew murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, Manson was present but outside the house during the slayings.

We wouldn’t even know Manson’s name if he hadn’t been able to convince others to carry out his wishes. Young women desperate for “liberation” submitted to his enslavement. At Manson’s Spahn Ranch, women were strictly subjugated, even forbidden from wearing eyeglasses, on the grounds that however their vision was, that was the way they were meant to see the world. All of this bespoke a societal organization far more rigid than the corporate patriarchy the kids of ‘69 thought they were fleeing. And the women loved to submit to him. Photos of his murder-babes — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten — show them smiling beatifically at trial. Krenwinkel was a 19-year-old secretary when, three days after meeting Manson at a party, she ditched her previous life to join his cult.

Far more commonly, the yearning for a communal Manson-style ‘family’ simply undid many an actual family.

Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t invent this longing for utopia and she certainly didn’t embody any kind of a spirit-quest for ecstasy as she scuttled up the greasy poles of politics and corporate law. She went to Yale Law School, hitched her fortunes to the most ambitious schemer she found there, and set about accumulating power. Her utopian rhetoric proved vacuous, meaningless, and hypocritical — to her.

But not to everyone. In any generation there are those who live under the assumption that they have the means to bring about “human reconstruction,” to restart the clock on civilization, but the Flower Children suffered most from these delusions. The Manson family’s exploits were the most notorious item on the generational c.v. Far more commonly, the yearning for a communal Manson-style “family” simply undid many an actual family. Not all, or even many, runaway young women became murderesses. Far more were lost to drugs and prostitution. Others simply wasted their lives, or large portions thereof. Generations to come, reacting to the ghastly legacy of the Sixties, would readjust their goals downward: “Change the world” meant inventing a new gadget, “revolutionary” would be attached to a new means of keeping track of friends’ baby pictures. We are well rid of the follies of the Manson era, but such thinking is bound to return someday. Let his too-long-delayed death be a reminder forever to be vigilant of self-serving gurus and the impossibilities they promote.


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