Manson: the Life and Times of Charles Manson, by Jeff Guinn
Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson
When Charles Manson ordered Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian to go to 10050 Cielo Drive on the night of August 8th, 1969, he intended to leave the world reeling in shock. He got his wish, but not quite the way he’d anticipated: instead of kicking off a race war in which the white race would be wiped out, Manson was hailed as the Devil incarnate once the world learned that his followers had eagerly killed for him. What was his hold on them? What was it about this scruffy half-illiterate redneck that inspired otherwise normal young men and women to become murderers?
In this superb new biography, Jeff Guinn tells us that it was nothing more astonishing than a con-artists’ gift of gab, a psychopath’s lack of conscience, and serendipity. Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson traces Charlie’s beginnings in rural McMechen WV to his heyday as a self-made guru in 1960’s Los Angeles in such detail that it’s not at all hard to see the seeds of what would later become “Helter Skelter.”
In Depression-era McMechen, women served men, blacks were persona-non-grata and the Bible was God’s literal word to a sizeable chunk of the population. Incorrigible from an early age, Charlie quickly learned to manipulate the adults around him; relatives shook their heads at his tendency to lie and steal and his criminal propensities only increased as he grew older. He spent his adolescence in and out of reform schools and picked up his first federal charge—transporting a stolen vehicle across state lines—at age 16.
Primarily a thief, Charlie also had a violent nature. At six, he attacked his cousin with a sharp sickle blade. Later he would sexually assault younger, weaker boys while he was incarcerated. When he reached adulthood, he racked up charges for forgery and prostitution. As a pimp, he wasn’t particularly successful but he was fascinated when fellow pimps told him their secrets for keeping girls in line. They advised him to look for girls with emotional problems, girls that were “cracked but not broken” then seduce them, intimidate them, isolate them and make sure they had no one to lean on but Charlie.
Charlie remembered their advice. He also studied Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and used many of Carnegie’s techniques on his followers. Later, he became interested in Scientology because it played into his own belief that he was (or should be) the center of the universe. He became obsessed with rock n’ roll and taught himself to play the guitar. The hysteria surrounding the Beatles’ arrival in America convinced him that music would be his path to greatness and that in time; “Charlie” would be an even bigger name than John, Paul, George, or Ringo.
Manson was released from MacNeil Island prison in Washington in 1962. He headed south to California and in the hippie culture of Haight Ashbury, he found a perfect hunting ground. Hippies believed in peace, love and that all people were essentially good. Charlie parroted these ideas whenever he wanted sex, drugs, or someone to listen to his music. He also noticed that self-styled gurus were a dime a dozen; hundreds of lost young people were wandering around looking for a leader and Charlie loved anything that made him the center of attention. As a guru, he would have his very own captive audience.
Jeff Guinn describes Charlie’s brand of pseudo-philosophy as “a hybrid, cobbled together from Beatles song lyrics, biblical passages, Scientology, and the Dale Carnegie technique of presenting everything dramatically.” The ideas he spouted weren’t new, but Charlie had plenty of charisma, so it wasn’t long before his efforts paid off. His first follower was Mary Brunner, a plain girl from Wisconsin who worked in the UC Berkeley library. Next came Lynette Fromme, later to be known as “Squeaky”, then Patricia Krenwinkel. According to Guinn, there was no reason for the girls not to love Charlie:
Mary, Lynne and Pat rarely went hungry or without a comfortable place to sleep at night. Charlie preached to them about surrenderingtheir egos. He made love to them and told them they were beautiful. He sang them his songs and promised that soon he’d get a record contract and become a star and then they could share the love they felt for each other and all the universal truths that they’d learned with the rest of the world because they were so special.
Eventually, Charlie and the girls moved to Los Angeles, where he acquired even more devotees and became acquainted with rock producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. It was on these men that Manson would pin his hopes for musical stardom. His association with them would have a cataclysmic effect on the events that became Helter Skelter. With each failure to secure a recording contract, Charlie got angrier and more paranoid, his rhetoric became more violent and his behavior more extreme. Terry Melcher knew that Manson’s talent was minimal, but he didn’t mind making reassuring noises while enjoying the sexual favors of the Family women. When Charlie realized that Melcher was never going to give him a contract, he lashed out in a murderous rage, choosing Melcher’s former home as his target.
Guinn’s portrait of Charlie as a failed artist and a ruthless predator is stark and unequivocal. When contrasted with Guinn’s vivid description of life in late-60’s California, the reader comes away wondering how anyone could make the mistake of thinking of Charles Manson as a hippie. Peace and love were the last things he was about.