Reading the obituaries for Charlie, I can’t help but be amused at how they all present a fairly consistent message of the charismatic, cult leader who managed to bend people to his will with his hypnotic eyes. Strange then, that he never managed to get the record deal he craved. Surely he could have just used all that charisma to charm the record producers.
A little over twenty years ago, I wrote a play called “The Charles Manson Variety Hour”. To sum up the play’s message in twenty-five words or less: Manson wasn’t some superhuman figure with great powers; he was a small-time criminal who was more streetwise than the people he was hanging out with. Reactions to the play were strange. While most people who saw the play made positive comments – I used to listen anonymously as they left the theatre – a number of people were shocked that anyone could create something that they saw as sympathetic to Manson. I found this confusing because I didn’t think that the play was all that sympathetic. Yes, it suggested that he was just one of a group of people responsible for some horrific murders, but to me all the play was did was portray Manson as somebody in much the same position as Turnbull today. Very little of what the Liberals are doing is the result of Malcolm’s charismatic leadership but, on the other hand, you do feel like he has to share the blame for not stopping it.
One reviewer spent the entire review discussing whether the play’s point of view was justified and making comparisons to being an apologist for Hitler. The only reference he made to the actual performance was to note that the actor playing Manson did an adequate job. The free theatre listings of a major newspaper refused to list performances because the title was distasteful. Why “The Charles Manson Variety Hour” was more distasteful than “Manson Followers Commit Bloody Murders” I don’t know.
My perspective on Manson came as a result of two things. A mock trial I did when studying Drama and reading Manson’s autobiography before I read the Bugliosi version of events. The mock trial stuck with me, because I was the one prosecuting Manson. I hadn’t done much research and the person pretending to be Manson made me look silly. When the class voted, one of the said, “We’re voting guilty because we know he did it, but we certainly don’t think you proved it.” The idea that people would condemn someone because they knew he was guilty even though on the basis of the mock trial he should have been freed struck me as interesting. So, a few years later I picked up “Manson: In His Own Words” in a bookshop and decided to read it.
Naturally, in reading Charlie’s descriptions of what happened I was a little cynical. Of course he was going to try to paint himself in the best possible light. Of course he was going to rationalise and minimise his role in events. But even allowing for this, there were some bits that made sense. Manson spent most of his childhood in foster care and reformatories. He’d spent a large part of his life in jail. When you have a man who’d spent most of their life in and out of institutions teaming up with a number of young middle class hippies, you can probably guess who had the rat cunning. If there was a problem, like not having the money to pay for the drugs, Manson was the one who knew how to deal with it. After all, Manson would have known that dealers don’t really want to break your legs, they’d rather get their money.
There were a number of things that Manson talks about that weren’t in dispute. He and his “family” knew a number of Hollywood celebrities. Famous people did visit their ranch where there was lot of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. It was the sixties after all. Manson had written songs and was trying to have an album released. And, as he put it, he’d have rather been known as a music star than as a cult leader. And, there’s no dispute that Manson wasn’t present for any of the murders.
Manson, however, disputes the idea that the murders were his idea. According to Manson, the boyfriend of one of the girls, Bobby Beausoleil, had been arrested for killing someone a few weeks earlier. He’d painted Beatles lyrics on the wall in the victim’s blood. The idea was to do a series of copycat murders so that the police would think that it was a serial killer and that they’d got the wrong man. Sounds completely reasonable to a brain addled with too much LSD and marijuana. Manson claims that he wanted no part in it, but only offered to help because he was scared they’d muck it up and he’d end up back in prison. Now you can be as cynical as you like about this because, as Manson himself pointed out, this makes no difference really because either way he’d just as guilty under the law because he was clearly an accessory and would receive the same punishment. As for the idea that they went to Terry Melcher’s house because he was the record producer who’d refused to give them a deal, Manson said that wasn’t why. He knew that Melcher was out of town, but they’d been to the house and they knew their way around. Better to pick that one, than risk the girls getting lost in some stranger’s mansion.
As for the race war rhetoric, according to Manson, he only started talking about that after he thought he’d killed a member of the Black Panthers. It’s a complicated story, but he shot a heavy-set Afro-American in a struggle for a gun. He cleared out of the apartment, but the next day there were news reports of about the body of a heavy-set Black Panther being dumped outside a hospital. Concerned about possible retribution, he began talking about race wars and warning people about black people coming round. When it was decided to commit the copycat murders, Manson also thought that it might help keep the Black Panthers of his tail, if everybody thought it was the beginning of a race war. (When Manson was eventually taken in, he saw the guy he thought was a dead Black Panther walking down the corridor.)
Like I said, I was in a cynical frame of mind, so when I read Vincent Bugliosi’s book, “Helter Skelter” a short time after, I approached it with the same level of scepticism. Bugliosi was the District Attorney in the case and, according to his version of events, it was only due to his genius and perspicacity that Manson was caught at all. The police were incompetent and had failed to realise that if American kids from nice middle-class families had committed horrific acts, then it must have something to do with the convicted felon who was living at their ranch. At one point, Bugliosi tells us the police had been investigating for weeks and they still didn’t have any evidence linking Manson to the crime. Of course, forgetting what we all know now, it does seem like Vincent had already made up his mind because a lack of evidence could be because the person wasn’t guilty. Thanks to the intrepid DA, he managed to convince one of the girls to testify against Manson. In return, she got immunity from prosecution. But it’s ok. According to Bugliosi, this wasn’t one of the girls who actually killed anybody. She only stabbed the body after they were already dead. And she didn’t like doing it. It was lucky she came forward because he’d offered the same deal to someone who’d actually killed someone. Fortunately, they changed their mind, so he didn’t have to let an actual killer walk free in order to get Manson. He was then able to offer the deal to the nice one who checked the pulse before she stabbed them. Yep, totally plausible.
There were quite a few other holes in “Helter Skelter”. Like Bugliosi dismissing the copycat story on the grounds that they hadn’t mentioned it before. They only brought it up during the sentencing. Of course, given that they were pleading not guilty, it does sort of harm your defence when you say we didn’t do it and, by the way, our motivation for doing it was to try to get our mate released.
It was much easier for America to believe that kids from nice families could be led astray by the devil in human form, Mason, than to accept the idea that lurking underneath the middle class exteriors were potential psychopaths and vicious killers. It couldn’t be that some Americans were so selfish they’d rather see others die than let a friend of theirs go to jail. No, no it must be because of Charlie.
Like I said before, the play wasn’t an attempt to whitewash Manson or to suggest that he was the sort of man you’d like your daughter to marry. But I find the media’s concept of Manson is just a little bit too neat. He was a hussler who took what he could get, and lived on his wits. While I’ve no doubt that he had some influence over the younger people who shared the ranch, there are a number of things to question about the media’s portrayal of Manson the cult leader. It’s all just a little too easy to say, “The Devil made me do it!”