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American Nightmare

by Florence King

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster, 495 pp., $27.50)

Sometimes a book is so good that the reviewer does not know where to begin. It doesn’t happen often, but this is one of those times. I have tried out a dozen different ledes but they all seemed inadequate to the task. I can’t sit here any longer staring at a blank screen or I’ll miss my deadline, so I’ll get right to it: Jeff Guinn, a former investigative reporter with books on Wyatt Earp and Bonnie and Clyde to his credit, has produced not only the best biography of Charles Manson, but the best study of American true crime since Victoria Lincoln’s A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight.

Manson makes a good test case for the notorious American attention span. To people who were adults in 1969, when he ordered his brainwashed female followers to murder rich Hollywood celebrities, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, he was considered the epitome of La-La Land decadence and hippie depravity. Now, with the 21st century upon us, he is vaguely remembered as a cool outlaw in the Robin Hood mold by today’s college students, who can buy T-shirts displaying his picture in their campus gift shops. Both memories lean too heavily on the exotic, because he was actually a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant blue-collar hick.

Born in Cincinnati, across the river from his family’s native Kentucky, he grew up in McMechen, W.Va.: a small town immune to all change emanating from World War II, a seedy, rancorous Brigadoon where men were men, women were women, and blacks were you-know-what. He was the product of a churchgoing grandmother and a dance-going mother who got pregnant at 16 by an alpha-male rake who promptly took off. Somehow she inveigled another, tamer man into marrying her to give the baby a name, but this Manson (nothing is known of him) soon left as well, and Charlie’s mother turned to crime to support herself. She went to prison for robbery and attempted kidnapping, and Charlie went to live with her sister in McMechen.

A poor student, he showed some interest in music and liked to sing, even if it meant going to church. Small for his age, he burst into tears when the other boys beat him up; his uncle, who would tolerate nothing short of rawhide masculinity, called him a sissy and made him wear a girl’s dress to school. He turned into a compulsive liar and stole anything that wasn’t red-hot or nailed down, until he was shipped off to the first of many reform schools. (These included Boys Town, from which he escaped after four days and then stole a car.)

The only thing that got him out of reform schools was his 21st birthday in 1955, because they could not hold an adult. He married a girl named Rosalie and had a son, Charles Jr., supporting them fairly well for a time by stealing cars and unloading them in Florida until he was caught and sent to prison. There he heard about an easier way to make a living: pimping. Using his inborn gift for picking brains, he consulted the pimps among his fellow prisoners and they, flattered, responded volubly: “Look for the ones with Daddy problems,” they advised. Keep them separated from family and friends; make sure they have nobody to turn to but their pimp; alienate them from everything in their past; master them sexually to establish dominance. Above all, “stay away from the complete nuts,” because you will have to spend too much time propping them up: “Look for cracked but not broken. The trick is to make them love you and fear you at the same time.”

Charlie imbibed this totally, just as he did the advice he got from the man he called his “personal guru,” Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. He was not alone in his enthusiasm; Carnegie was such a popular author among convicts that the prison system offered inmates a correspondence course from the Dale Carnegie Institute. “There was always a waiting list of prisoners eager to sign up,” writes Guinn, clearly savoring the irony. “Prison officials believed Dale Carnegie’s positive outlook on life was just what the moody Charlie needed. He was jumped ahead of everyone on the list and enrolled.”

The how-to list that Carnegie provides in How to Win Friends is merely a codified version of the instinctive ways Charlie had manipulated people since childhood: “Begin in a friendly way. . . . Make the other person feel important. . . . Talk about what he wants and show him how to get it. . . . Let him feel that the idea is his.” No con man would argue with any of this. Later on, when police, judges, juries, and the entire country struggled to understand how Charlie got unquestioning obedience to his sanguinary orders, they could have found the answer in Dale Carnegie and the advice of the pimps.

Charlie used the correspondence-course con again before he was freed in 1967. “Prison officials were always glad when inmates embraced a faith that encouraged positive attitudes,” writes Guinn. “Faith helped boost potential for parole.” And so, Charlie embraced one, to the toe-curling delight of naïve prison officials, who proudly noted in his record: “He appears to have developed a certain amount of insight into his problems through his study of Scientology. Manson is making progress for the first time in his life.”

It is difficult to cite the best parts of such a consistently superb book, but one section stands out as an example of a classic literary technique rarely seen in the slush pile of mediocrity that American publishing has become. This is the “overview,” an intensified backdrop of time and place to give the biographical subject more “thereness.” William Manchester did it and Tom Wolfe still does, but the gold standard of overviews has long been the opening chapter on the Whig Ascendancy in Cecil’s Marlborough. Jeff Guinn matches it with his vivid descriptions of the San Francisco area in the late 1960s, when Manson settled there after he was paroled:

As student rebellion exploded in America, Berkeley was Ground Zero. . . . Of all the places he could have chosen for a post-prison destination, Berkeley was the one guaranteed to plunge him straight into the deepest waves of national upheaval. . . . Some of the young people he passed near the campus brandished placards and chanted slogans about America waging war and Charlie must have wondered what war, so isolated had he been. During his reform-school years from 1947 to 1954 he had no inkling of China’s fall to Communism or American troops in Korea. The reformatories offered classes in shop and welding but not current events. He could not have found Vietnam on a map.

Berkeley streets were a sea of protest signs: Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement, anti-war, anti-draft, civil rights, women’s rights, the environment. There were also signs celebrating free love, which wrecked the pimping business Charlie had envisioned. Drug dealing was also out; pot was cheap and easy to find. What else was there for him? “He had no interest in a war overseas, anything that kept down blacks and women was fine with him, and the only free speech he cared about was his own. . . . Their focus was on changing the world, not on doing things for Charlie. He soon realized that Berkeley was not the place he was looking for.”

Pimping and drug dealing were also unnecessary in another part of the Bay Area, but this part was overflowing with people who were even more naïve than the prison officials. Ever since Paul McCartney had visited the hippie enclave in the Haight-Ashbury district and proclaimed it “colorful and fun,” misfit teenage runaways had poured into San Francisco from all over America, their numbers rising to some 300 a day in the “Summer of Love.” Greyhound buses belched them out into “a virtual bazaar of paths to true enlightenment. There were street preachers everywhere. It was possible, within any few Haight-Ashbury blocks, to be exposed to a wide variety of proselytizers: Buddhists, Hindus, fundamentalist Christians, Satanists, socialists, anarchists, pacifists, isolationists, and plenty of poseurs adopting guru guise for the purpose of seducing gullible youngsters seeking someone to tell them what to do and how to think.”

Hippies, unlike the Berkeley radicals, believed in gentleness instead of revolution. They wanted to show the world that human nature was basically good by trusting one another and sharing their possessions until love was universal and evil was no more. “It was ingrained in Charlie to take advantage of everyone that he could. The master manipulator could not have found a more perfect hunting ground. Reinventing himself as a Haight guru and gaining a flock of worshipful followers was irresistible.”

The pimps were right. In the two years leading up to the murders, Charlie followed their advice to the letter and put together a band of sycophantic handmaidens eager to do whatever it took for the privilege of being allowed to serve him. There was no need to separate them from familiar ties because they had already run away from home, several with credit cards that he used until their rejected parents caught on and canceled them.

New recruits or anyone who seemed to be slipping from his grasp had to prove they trusted him by letting him throw knives at them while they were tied to a tree. If they remained serenely motionless, he praised them; if they flinched, he got mad. Soon enough they were all like Sweet Alice of the old ballad “Ben Bolt”: They wept with delight when he gave them a smile and trembled with fear at his frown.

Charlie liked songs, but not this kind. He preferred the ones he wrote that he sang to the girls, accompanying himself on a guitar he bought with somebody’s daddy’s credit card. The incorrigible delinquent who nonetheless had liked church because he could sing there came to see himself as a rock star. The Beatles were hot and he was obsessed by them, convinced that he could win even greater fame if the right people heard him perform. That meant moving to Los Angeles and worming his way into the heart of somebody who could do him some good.

It is at this point that the author, who has already transfixed me with every other aspect of his writing, does so yet again with his treatment of a subject in which I have absolutely no interest whatsoever: the rock-music recording industry. Although my favorite song is “Annie Laurie,” I was soon into flip sides, album texts, musical plagiarism, uncredited composers, the troubles of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, and the stalling tactics of Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, the boy-wonder music producer and the make-or-break king of rock-’n’-roll dreams. Charlie might not have had much of an ear for music, but his perfect pitch for human nature got him past doors to the guys at the top.

Jeff Guinn relates the details of the bloody events of August 1969 while avoiding the post-murder letdown usually found in true-crime books (he even makes parole hearings interesting reading). Most satisfying of all, however, is his refusal to find the slightest extenuating circumstance for his protagonist. He rejects out of hand the “near-universal belief that Charlie is a product of the 1960s,” because he is also a product of the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. “Already a social predator and an opportunistic sociopath” long before the murders, he was instead “a horrific coincidence [because] the ’60s made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower. In every sense, one theme runs through and defines his life. He was the wrong man in the right place at the right time.”

It’s Nature vs. Nurture, and about time, too. No more blaming decades and centuries and regions or anything else big enough to hide in. Nature takes the hit in this flawless book, so don’t miss it.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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