Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: MANSON The Life and Times of Charles Manson

New Book on Manson Lacks Bite, but Former Cult Leader Still Intrigues...
by Don Stradley 

Charles Manson has been the subject of enough books to fill the L.A. county morgue.   A couple of titles stand out, like Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s ‘Helter Skelter’, a feverish piece of pulp writing that still gives the most bang for the buck even if it dissolves into a  turgid court procedural.  Everybody read that one, or at least the best parts.  I still remember my mother and one of her friends whispering about those dirty kids in the desert with all of the drugs and the love-makin’.  Ed Sanders’ ‘The Family’ is also highly regarded by Manson buffs.  There was also ‘Manson in his Own Words,’ which came out during the late 1980s, a time that saw not only a boom in true crime books but the introduction of serial killer trading cards.  There was even a ponderous biography of Lynette ‘Squeaky” Fromme that managed to depict her as a sympathetic character.  Yet, since I’ve never been entirely satisfied by a book on Manson – they tend to be overly long and clunky - I’ve always felt there was room for one more.
Jeff Guinn’s recounting of Manson’s life is satisfying on some levels, but like the others I’ve read, it’s a near miss.  Guinn is thorough,  and unlike past biographers of Manson, he’s not compelled to pass judgment on his subject.  Where Guinn falters somewhat is in his dry tone.  When writing a 400 page bio of Manson, a writer ought to rev the engine once in a while.

Manson seemed to come out of the womb causing trouble.  His mother Kathleen was a naïve 15-year-old.  Manson’s biological father was a 23-year-old married millworker who had no intention of taking responsibility for what was obviously a quickie fling with an underage Kentucky girl.  Desperate for money, Kathleen took to a life of crime; her bumbling efforts landed her in prison, and left Charlie to be raised by his ultra-religious grandmother.  By the time Kathleen was released, little Charles was already showing signs of the conniving personality to come.  Soon he was committing crimes of his own.
Manson's antics resulted in a reform school stint at age 12. The aspiring pimp, thief, and check forger would be in and out of various correctional institutions for most of the next 20 years. But he made the best of his time behind bars, studying up on Dale Carnegie's famous book, 'How To Win Friends and Influence People'. Manson also picked up bits of Scientology, developed ways to psyche out the prison guards, and learned how to strum a guitar. By the time he was released from California’s Terminal Island in 1967 at age 32, Manson’s plan was to become a sort of super pimp, and to use his harem to gain power within the music industry. His dream was to become a rock star, and his jailbird mentality saw nothing wrong with pimping his way to stardom.

The surprising thing about Manson was how close he came to living his fantasy. Within months of his release he'd gathered a dozen or so empty-headed young women, turned them into willing whores, and was camped out in the home of Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson. Manson had quickly picked up the vibe of the times and preached enough 'peace and love' jargon to go along with his Scientology/Carnegie rap. Soon, Manson had the ear of various music producers, and was mingling with young recording artists like Neil Young and Frank Zappa. No one paid much attention to this alley rat with his collection of dull-eyed girls, though Wilson took one of Manson’s songs, rewrote it, and put it on the Beach Boys’ 20/20 album. Manson received no credit.  

Manson was diligent, though. He was fascinated by The Beatles, and felt they were speaking to him through their songs. He started convincing his followers, which numbered well over 30 at one point, that a “race war” was coming. Manson told his group that they should follow him into the desert where they’d live in “a bottomless pit” for many years, and then, when the race war was over, Manson would rise up and take over the country, or something like that. He also promised the girls in his gang that they’d turn into winged elves while living under ground. Leslie Van Houten, one of the sadder cases in the Manson story, would later admit that she believed wings were actually sprouting out of her back. 

Guinn, who has written several best sellers about famous American criminals, scours the Manson story for all of its fabled events. When Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil was arrested for the murder of drug dealer Gary Hinman, Manson ordered a series of copycat killings to confuse the L.A. police, enlisting the most brainwashed of his followers to carry out the killing of actress Sharon Tate, famed hair dresser Jay Sebring, and five others over a two night terror spree north of Beverly Hills. Since Beausoleil had left a bloody print at Hinman’s, Manson told his team of killers to do the same: “Leave something witchy.”

And, of course, there was the nine month trial of Manson and several of his followers. The bloody headlines served as a marker for the end of the 1960s, the end of the love generation, and the beginning of a strange new era of mass murders. The genie was out of the bottle, and was apparently too fat to be stuffed back in.

Guinn tells the tale in a straightforward manner, but the task of wrangling the facts and putting them into a proper timeline seems to have drained him of energy. The story comes out flat, poking along to the well-known finish. Perhaps the story has been told so many times that it has been dulled by repetition. Guinn also shies away from interpreting Manson. All we get is the rather glib, artless conclusion that Manson was “the wrong man at the right place at the right time.”

To which Manson might reply, “You’ll never understand me, son. Your mind is too small.” 

Guinn also fails to describe Manson’s followers with any color. Surely, the likes of Squeaky, Tex, Clem, and Sadie Mae Glutz deserved more detail. Van Houten, who deserves her own case study, comes off as almost tragic, since she had a few opportunities to get away but remained under Manson’s spell and is still serving a life sentence for her part in the murders. And I’m still waiting for some writer, any writer, to explain how Manson made the cosmic mental leap from being a small time pimp to preaching about apocalyptic race wars.   

There are moments, though, when Guinn lets it rip and is quite satisfying, particularly when he’s describing the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville where Manson’s mother did her time, a place where female prisoners "spent long days mopping floors frequently puddled with sweat, vomit, urine and blood,” and if they didn’t behave, "a hulking guard tore apart their bare backs with a water soaked leather whip until his arms grew too tired or his victim seemed near death.” Also, Guinn’s depiction of Manson’s childhood is occasionally touching – he was just a profoundly outcast kid who didn’t know how to get along with people. There’s a picture of Charlie at age five that is heartbreaking in its normalcy. Guinn also undoes some of the myths about Manson’s mother being a prostitute. Granted, Kathleen wasn’t very bright, but she wasn’t the low-life that Manson would make her out to be. When we read of her death in the 1970s, we see her as yet another tragic figure in Manson’s web. Still, there aren’t enough of these moments to keep Guinn’s book percolating.  

Stranger still, Guinn sheds very little light on what Manson has come to symbolize since 1969, and barely touches on Manson’s life in recent years. This is a shame, because Manson’s story stretches far beyond his incarceration. It was announced fairly recently (after Guinn’s book was published) that 80-year-old Manson, still serving a life sentence in Corcoran, CA., was engaged to a 26-year-old female admirer. The tale goes on and on. 

I remember being a small boy strolling through some woods with my mother. As we walked, we came upon a little man sitting on a log, playing a flute. He seemed harmless, but my mother quickly turned us around and started for home. “That guy looked like Manson,” she said. She even picked up a big stick, in case a bunch of crazy hippies jumped out at us. Would we have been scared had Manson not existed? Probably not. But Manson and his little family struck fear into the heart of America.

That’s why books are still being written about him nearly 50 years after his brief reign of terror. But the day may be near when the crazy old runt no longer means anything.

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