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The Family

Charles Manson - Charlie Rose Interview - 1980's
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I've developed a recent and not entirely comfortable obsession with the story of Charles Manson and his family. Something - I'm not sure what - prompted me to finally buy Helter Skelter, the story of the Tate/LaBianca murders and the subsequent trial, as written by the chief prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. I realized, I think, that I knew only the outlines of what had happened forty-some years ago, and wanted to know more.

Bugliosi's book is over 600 pages, but compelling and highly disturbing. Over the course of the several days I spent reading it, I found myself having nightmares. I became especially fascinated with the girls in the family; initially, I hated these women I had never met, for their slavish devotion and casual dismissal of the brutal murders they committed. Subsequently, I became fascinated by them, especially after watching Robert Hendrickson's contemporaneous documentary and staring slack-jawed at Sandra Good, absolutely beautiful but obsessively defensive of Manson. Good and Squeaky Fromme remained true believers for decades, and may be still, for all I know.

I was hypnotized by Catherine Share - "Gypsy". She was clearly eloquent and smart, and was several years older than the others. Today, she articulately deconstructs life in the Family, yet at the time, despite her relative age and apparent intelligence, she not only acted as the Family's de facto spokesperson when Manson was in jail, she even engaged in a shoot out with police as part of a bizarre plan to spring him from custody.

I'm not by any means alone in having this unwelcome obsession. Manson receives vastly more mail than anyone else in the US prison system, some of which he chooses to answer, much of which he does not. There are those who remain angered and outraged by the murders, who wish Manson and the Family nothing but harm; there are those, bizarrely, who consider Manson innocent and even revere him and there are those who can't shake their uncomfortable obsession. I've been thinking about this a lot since these people became familiar names and faces - at least in their 1970s incarnations - and I've settled on a few reasons why I think the murders and the murderers continue to captivate:

The Sheer Brutality of the Crimes
These people weren't just shot, or hit over the head, or stabbed once or twice. Voytek Frykowski was stabbed 51 times, shot twice, and struck over the head with a blunt object 13 times. Abigail Folger was stabbed 28 times. Leno LaBianca had "War" carved into his chest. Sharon Tate was eight months pregnant, but was stabbed 16 times. And then the murderers used the victims own blood to smear words and phrases on the walls, the doors, the furniture ...

The Unsolved and Rumored Murders
There's the mystery of how many people the Family did kill. We know about the seven people at the Tate/LaBianca residences, about Gary Hinman and Donald "Shorty" Shea. Did they also kill John Phillip Haught? Ronald Hughes? What about the slew of similar killings that Bugliosi lists?

The Manson Girls
The likes of Tex Watson, Clem, and Bruce Davis are rarely mentioned by those who have not studied the details of the murders. They are not household names in the same way as, say, Squeaky Fromme, Leslie van Houten, or "Sexy Sadie" Atkins. The women - girls, really - shock our prejudices of what a murderer "should" be: They were young, they were mostly middle-class, and - not that this should be in any way relevant, but in terms of perception often is - some of them at least were beautiful. It's jarring; we expect murderers to be somehow different from us, yet apart from their rage and and single-minded devotion, these girls did not appear to be. As Manson would often pointedly say, "These are YOUR children, not mine."

The Motive
Bugliosi advocated the 'Helter Skelter' motive - that Manson wanted to start a race war - and it was on that basis that he secured Manson's conviction. That has been the received wisdom ever since, although it has taken some incoming from the sidelines. Tex Watson has reportedly asserted the Tate killings were a drug deal gone wrong, and of course during the sentencing phase of the trial, the co-defendants asserted the Tate/LaBianca killings were "copycat" murders designed to release Bobby Beausoleil from jail for the murder of Hinman. But the most damning evidence that those other scenarios remain incorrect are Susan Atkins' unsolicited testimonies to her cellmates, long before anyone suspected her or Manson or the rest of the Family in being implicated in Tate/Labianca - to say nothing of the subsequent statements of Linda Kasabian, Paul Watkins, and others. As Bugliosi himself admitted, the motive was too bizarre to believe on face value. And that is why it sticks with us.

Manson Didn't Kill Anyone
Manson's defenders challenge the 'Helter Skelter' theory, and assert that as Manson himself did not kill any of those at the Tate and LaBianca residences, he is in fact innocent, that he had no control over anyone, that they all conducted the killings of their own volition. Sandra Good and Lynette Fromme articulated this latter point forcefully for many years, their case undercut by the way in which they would wear red and blue head scarves at Manson's bidding, or in which Good moved as close as she could to Manson's jail so she could "feel his vibes". That's to say nothing of the repeated comments by Watkins, Kasabian, Catherine Share and others that testified to the total control Manson had over his followers. Manson claimed he didn't have any followers, that he was the follower; he insists he didn't tell Watson and the others what to do, or even want to know what they had done. But Susan Atkins' early statements alone blow that away, and all those involved place Manson at the Labianca residence, walking into the house, tying them up, and then leaving. Manson may have cleverly tried to avoid getting blood on his hands, but he isn't innocent.

They're All Still Out There
Susan Atkins is dead. So too is Paul Watkins. Leslie van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, Bobby Beausoleil, Tex Watson, Bruce Davis, and Charles Manson are in jail. But the rest - Squeaky, Sandy, Gypsy, Clem, Linda, and the others - are all out there somewhere, living ostensibly normal lives, but carrying with them, daily, the images and the sounds and the memories and the secrets of what happened. Do they wake up every day, thinking about those bizarre few months? Have they put them away in some part of the subconscious where they will never escape? Are they haunted, or at ease?

As I dug more into the Manson story, I wanted to find them, thought that maybe my next book should be a search for the Family members who are out there still, an attempt to talk to them, to learn more. And then I thought that perhaps my life is better suited to more positive pursuits, that perhaps it is best if I restrict my association with it all to the book pages and DVDs that now adorn one of my bookshelves, that I move on, so I can sleep easily and nightmare-free once again.
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