Saturday, August 16, 2014

MANSON by Jeff Gunn (non-fic)

The subtitle of this biography is the life and times of Charles Manson.  Some of us remember the summer of love, the Haight, the concerts, the hippies, the riots and Vietnam.  All this was over 4 decades ago. I was living in London at the time, and Helter Skelter was the name of a Beatles song to me, and did not invoke the same fear that gripped Los Angles during the frightening days of the Manson Family's killing spree.

Jeff Gunn has written a very readable book which brings back the upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s.  He was able to unearth new material from the few living witnesses including Manson's sister and cousin.  Many adjectives can be applied to Charles Manson, beginning with worthless.  He is 78 years old now and in some ways still a psychological mystery.  What we do know is that he was a social predator and sociopath who took advantage of the needy, the dependent, the naive, and the drug addled.  He has been in jail most of his life, beginning when he was a young teen in various reform schools, even doing a stint at Boys' Town where he didn't last long.  While imprisoned Manson took an interest in the writings and courses of Dale Carnegie and turned what he learned into a criminal career.

Manson arrived in Haight-Ashbury soon after he was released from one prison stint in 1967.  He looked around, saw and understood the appeal of the street preachers that damaged teens with issues (especially girls) flocked to, and decided he could do it better.  After some initial success and with a small cadre of followers, he debunked to Los Angles, hoping to jump start a singing career.  It is unclear whether Manson was delusional or just gaming people, but he appeared convinced that he would become as famous as the Beatles or Stones by writing and recording his songs.  When that door was finally slammed on him, he found another more dangerous and lethal way to the path of fame.  Soon after arriving in Los Angles, Manson met Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys who enabled him to live the high life while gathering more acolytes.  Wilson introduced him to Terry Melcher, son of Doris Day, who was a record producer.  At that time, Melcher was living with Candice Bergan in the house which later was taken over by Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.

Much took place between the time Manson and his followers arrived in Los Angeles and the killing spree began.  Gunn not only closely follows the movements of the Family, but also includes the unrest that gripped all of America at that time.  He shows how the political and social atmosphere lent itself to the stew of unrest that made it possible for Manson to imagine himself the future savior of the white race in a coming apocalyptic race war.

While Manson is so distasteful a subject, more of interest to me is what made his followers so slavishly obedient to him. What made the girls he attracted and gathered, who looked so much like the girl next door or a future teacher of America, murder so viciously?  Gunn attempts to give us answers, but the mystery remains.  It all seems so long ago.

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