:: Article

The Worm and the Garden

By Max Dunbar.

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Jeff Guinn, Simon and Schuster, 2013

‘He always thought best in scenes like this. In scenes like this, any man could be Iago.’
– Stephen King, The Stand

The 1960s are not so much history as political palimpsest. To liberals, the period was a necessary flowering of freedom and equality: to conservatives, the beginning of the end of the lost kingdom. For the latter view, a furious Michel Houellebecq wrote in Atomised that ‘Charles Manson was not some monstrous aberration in the hippie movement, but its logical conclusion’ and declared that ‘beatniks, hippies and serial killers were all pure libertarians who advanced the rights of the individual against social norms and against what they believed to be the hypocrisy of morality, sentiment, justice and pity.’

The bulk of Jeff Guinn’s biography of Manson is about the 1960s — inevitably, since Charlie Manson was in prison for around half his life before 1967, and was jailed again a few years later, effectively and rightly for life without the possibility of parole. He was born in 1934, and grew up in the West Virginia township of McMechen, a kind of respectable workingman’s place — Guinn comments in a footnote that ‘McMechen hasn’t changed much: visiting there today feels like time traveling back to the 1950s.’

Manson was a difficult kid and generated the usual juvenile record of petty larceny and antisocial behaviour. Struggling with the dexterity required for a professional thief, he turned his talents to the sex trade. Pimping sounded good — ‘men making their livings off of subservient women seemed like a fine thing to him.’ But again the management skills required of a successful criminal proved beyond him. Transporting two women from California to New Mexico, in violation of the Mann Act, Manson was recalled to prison to serve a ten-year sentence for check kiting.

During that sentence, Manson studied the Bible, the writing of L Ron Hubbard, and the business school of Dale Carnegie, drawing from these disparate sources some basic techniques of control which he aspired to use to set himself up on the outside. He was paroled on March 21, 1967, and what took him to San Francisco on that day is some evil quirk of chance that is never really explained — I don’t think Guinn knows for sure, he says that Manson was trying to look up an old cellmate. Whatever the reasons, everything happened after that. Manson was, as Guinn says, ‘the wrong man in the right place at the right time.’

Sometimes in a city something happens, nothing you can identify with pinpoint precision, just a beautiful scene arises that makes you feel, caught up in it, that the problems of time and money have been completely resolved and that life can be crowded parties, warm evenings on the decks of tumbling rowhouses and the air warm and busy on your face, forever. In Manson Guinn offers a marvellous snapshot of the Haight as it was in the summer of 1967: low rents, plenty of little cafes and second-hand clothes stores, and a thriving drug and music scene made it the place to be for a certain kind of hipster who had survived the postwar conformist chaos of the 1950s. But, Guinn tells it, Haight Ashbury was a victim of its own success. A January ’67 ‘Be-In’ held at Golden Gate Park was the Haight’s peak… and its curse. Twenty thousand tripped and danced on a clear winter day, then stunned city authorities by clearing the park of every last piece of litter before heading into the bars and houseparties of the night.

It was a good day… and a bad idea. Reporters and news crews descended on the Haight and broadcast its alternative vision to the world. Confused young people all over America thought that suddenly here was a place that understood them. Guinn relates that ‘Previously, a few dozen hungry, penniless newcomers found their way to the Haight every week. Now there were more than three hundred a day.’ The city buckled under this flow of domestic migration; good-natured residents offered help, but were overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. The Haight attracted runaways and dropouts from coast to coast, sworn believers in the geographic cure. Homelessness and malnutrition proliferated. Guinn has an unsettling vignette, which illustrates the great and dark sides of the Haight: ‘The music played in clubs or in the Panhandle was almost always punctuated by hacking, phlegm-soaked coughs from the audience.’

Thieves, rapists, drug dealers and other predatory men poured into the Haight: Charlie Manson was one of these men. By now Manson had modified his pimp dream to the fashion of the area, and was able to build up a hardcore of female disciples. He styled himself as a guru of light and love, and targeted the young, shy, strung-out and damaged, who after repeated words of powerful but ultimately meaningless rhetoric (‘The way out of a room is not through the door; just don’t want out, and you’re free’) were ready to sign their liberty, person and possessions over to him. But there was a problem. To hear Guinn tell it, Haight Ashbury in the late 1960s teemed with gurus, prophets, seers and mystics: it was like a scene from Life of Brian. Manson knew that if he should lose sight of his followers at a party, he risked losing them to some other fellow just down from an LSD trip and raving of the Way and the Light. It was his need for control as well as the sake of his self-belief that led to the Tate/La Bianca murders.

Manson didn’t know what to do. If he had his followers in LA he was close to the music industry execs he wanted to impress (Manson had more chances with the big players than any other unknown musician of the time, all of whom dismissed him as a talentless mediocrity) but if he took the ‘Family’ to one of his desert haunts, they would be cut off from money, food and acid. Things came to a head when one of Manson’s associates killed a man named Gary Hinman in a row about drugs. The associate scrawled a Black Panther symbol on the wall of the death house, in an attempt to throw police off the trail.

The Tate and LaBianca murders were pragmatic and ideological. Manson had just been turned down for a record deal. He had his ‘Family’ prepare for hours before the producer came to Manson’s Spahn Ranch, and his dreams had been shattered in front of his disciples. As Guinn writes: ‘The constant danger for gurus is that they must keep producing new wonders for their followers. They can’t let the act get stale or seem to be wrong about something or, worst of all, to fail publicly. Charlie had let the Family see how much he wanted a record deal; he’d made them part of his all-out effort and it came to nothing.’

By now Manson had developed his schema. He told his followers, and probably believed some of it himself, that America would descend into a civil war based on race. The black people would triumph and rule the world, but (as black people were incapable of organisation in Manson’s racist formula) they would make a complete hash of it and chaos would reign. While all this was going on, Manson and the Family would be living in a wonderful underground utopia in Death Valley where time was frozen and you could turn into any creature you liked (some of the young women ‘wanted to become winged elves, and Charlie promised that, when the moment was especially near, they’d begin to feel budding wings growing on their backs.’) When the world above had reached Revelation-level apocalypse, Charlie and his Family, now expanded to thousands of members, would emerge and take over the world. He called this plan ‘Helter Skelter’.

Seven people were murdered because Manson wanted to throw police off the scent. The same Black Panther slogans were left at the Tate/LaBianca scenes, in an effort to a) make the cops go after the Panthers for the Hinman murder as well as the Tate/LaBianca murders and b) provoke the civil war which would lead to Charlie’s ‘Helter Skelter’ plan. These crimes form the crux of the book: Guinn’s dry and humane style becomes very tense and close, and his account of the flawed but ultimately successful police investigation is never less than gripping. Manson was originally sentenced to death, commuted to life after California overturned the death penalty. Family members plea-bargained, changed their identities, found Jesus, disappeared from the scene: others are still serving time, and possibly wondering why they decided to throw their lives away all those years ago.

In his biography Guinn avoids the lurid magazine-series breathlessness of many serial killer scholars. Nor does he reach for the easy prism of savage indictment. ‘Charlie Manson is a product of the 1960s,’ he says, ‘and also of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.’ Manson was a racist and a misogynist, way out of step with the time and more like Mick Philpott than Ken Kesey. For every flower child that succumbed to his nonsense, dozens recoiled. Guinn does not buy Manson’s bridge even for a moment. What’s that line Coleridge had about Iago — ‘The motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity’? Manson never rose even to the level of motive hunting. He was an attention-seeking nullity, the worm in the garden of love, a small-time hustler who made it big — in the worst possible way.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 8th, 2013.