It’s tough to write a book about Charles Manson. Even if you find new material and interview people who haven’t been interviewed before, as Jeff Guinn did in his new book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster, 2013), you are still competing with the book about Charlie and company: Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (Norton, 2001) written by the prosecutor in the case, Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry, first published in 1974. However, Guinn diligently fills in the killer’s childhood and teenage years as well as offering an update on the current status of all the players involved in the case.
Every native of Los Angeles knows the Manson case. When I was in high school, friends used to dare each other to drive up to the house on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, or to Leno and Rosemary LaBianca’s home on Waverly Drive in Los Feliz, or even out to the old Spahn Ranch property in the Santa Susana Pass on the way to Simi Valley north of Los Angeles. These excursions were innocuous jaunts during daylight hours, but they were good for a creepy thrill at night, the later the better. According to Guinn, the LaBianca house now has a different address number, but is relatively unchanged. Cielo Drive was torn down in 1994 after being owned for several years by musician Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (he recorded the band’s The Downward Spiral album there). Reznor sold the place because it “made him jumpy,” and “because he kept returning home to find bouquets of dead roses and lit candles placed reverently at the front gate.” Did he really help matters by naming his recording studio on the property “Le Pig,” a reference to the word written in Sharon Tate’s blood on the door of the house by Susan Atkins during the murder? The Spahn Ranch burned down and the property is now “owned by a church organization,” according to Guinn. I believe he is referring to the Church at Rocky Peak. However, the old movie set portion has been incorporated into the Santa Susana Pass State Historical Park.
Guinn is one of the few authors to tackle Manson in a biography. Most books focus on the crimes, his extended Family of followers, even the cultural impact of the murders. There is a clear reason why biographies have proven difficult to write: Charles Manson is a liar, and the public record of his troubled life is spotty. So it is up to Guinn to separate fact from fiction. Manson is an “opportunistic sociopath,” says the author, “a lifelong social predator.” He consistently demonstrates Manson’s ability to lie and manipulate in nearly every situation, including during his trial for murder.
One of the more interesting parts of the book is the discussion of Manson’s behavior during the trial. In a private area next to the courtroom, Manson and his fellow defendants, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten, as well as their attorneys met to coordinate strategy. In the courtroom, the women acted as Manson’s Greek chorus, chanting, laughing and shouting out or turning their back on the judge in an effort to disrupt the proceedings. When Manson carved an X into his own forehead to symbolize that he had been “X’d” from the world, the women did the same. In the end, their antics had no effect; all four were found guilty and sentenced to death. They avoided the gas chamber when the death penalty was overturned in 1972, reducing their sentences to life in prison. As Manson sought alliances with the Aryan Brotherhood in prison, the X on his forehead became a swastika. Guinn writes that the Brotherhood eventually turned on the diminutive murderer and beat him badly, resulting in Manson’s transfer back to San Quentin. He now resides at Corcoran State Prison in Kings County, California.
Charles “Tex” Watson was finally extradited to California from Texas to stand trial for his role in the Tate-LaBianca murders, and other followers of Manson faced charges in a number of murders and other crimes, the most notorious being Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. Guinn updates the current status of most of Manson’s Family, and it is surprising how many have simply disappeared into American life. Krenwinkel and Van Houten remain incarcerated as do Tex Watson and Manson. Susan Atkins died in 2009 of brain cancer.
Guinn provides a lot of details and tidbits of interest to those intrigued by the case. However, there is nothing earth-shattering here that has not been revealed elsewhere or in the Bugliosi book. In fact, Helter Skelter figures prominently in the notes and bibliography of Guinn’s book. He does manage to fill in some of the gaps in Manson’s life story, and he scores interviews with the killer’s adopted sister and cousin. He is forced many times to speculate when the truth simply cannot be determined. He writes sentences like: “Fueled mostly by Charlie Manson’s statements as an adult, it’s a popular belief that during this time Kathleen [Manson’s mother] was a prostitute.” Or, referring to Charlie’s misbehavior in school, he says “every truant officer in Charleston probably knew his name.” His use of conditional adverbs does not give us absolute facts, but leaves the door open to speculation.
Forty-four years to the day after the events on those hot August nights, Charles Manson and his knife-wielding followers continue to haunt L.A. dreams. “Had the California Supreme Court not overturned the death penalty in 1972,” Guinn writes, “and had Charlie been executed a few years later, he might be mostly forgotten…” As for Manson himself, he no longer attends his parole hearings and has sent word that he intends to remain incarcerated for the remainder of his life. This is no bombshell as revelations go. It is unlikely Charles Manson would ever be paroled. For Los Angeles, this is the most reassuring truth in the whole horrific tale.