Manson: The Meaning

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 28 – If Charles Manson were only an isolated kook, he would not be on everyone’s mind, including the President’s. Clearly, Manson and his so-called family are something special for us that hits close to home. Bizarre, yes, kooky yes — but also totally familiar and deeply troubling. And this is why the Manson trial in Los Angeles has become one of those special trials that brings to a focus the profound issues and emotions on an era. If convicted, Manson will go into the books as an eponymous symbol along with Hiss, the Rosenbergs, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Sacco and Vanzetti, Dryfus.

Just consider the reverberations Manson has set up. If he were an isolated and unrepresentative lunatic, whatever he is accused of doing would have been forgotten in a day or so. But Manson sends a chill of apprehension down the ordinary citizen’s spine, and householders are taking precautions everywhere and not just in Southern California.

I notice that a well-known movie actress has decided that her electric-eye alarm system is not enough, and that the pistol under her pillow is probably too much, and has decided to live in England. And what suburban housewife enters her unlit garage without a twinge of apprehension? No, Manson is not perceived as an aberration. He is a felt possibility.

For the Manson family, though extreme and bizarre, is accurately fell to be the logical conclusion of a tendency. Manson and his family are everyone’s nightmare. Those mind-blown girls, seemingly neutral to all human feeling, terrible in their passivity, drifting through time — no, they are not all that unfamiliar. You can see their sisters in Haight-Ashbury, Greenwich Village, Harvard Square — and for that matter around the fringes of Podunk University or in certain sections of Pleasantville, U.S.A.

The Manson family’s assault was total — first, in its gang-sex, upon the family and upon the moral order fundamental to civilization. Second, in its drug life, upon the human reason. And finally, in the events at the Tate house, of which the Manson “family” is accused, upon the physical survival of citizens these defendants didn’t even know. Yet clearly, all these impulses, brought to a fever pitch in the Manson family, are present in the society at large.

And therefore Manson, because he symbolizes so much, has become political. He himself, by his incredible appearance on the witness stand, has even explicitly made himself political, relating his own violence to, naturally, the Vietnamese War. But sober statesmen too have glimpsed the meaning of Manson. Rene Levesque, the leader of the legal and respectable Parti Quebecois, points out that the terrorists who kidnaped Laporte and Cross, and then killed Laporte, are heavily influenced by the drug culture. And as everyone in Quebec knows, the terrorist groups are rooted in the bohemian ghettos and around the fringes of the universities. Pointedly, Levesque observes that their deeds “look more like Charles Manson than politics.” His distinction was ironic. What he was really saying is that Mansonism — total destructiveness, moral and physical – has in fact entered into politics.

And, centrally, there was that famous slip by President Nixon, who is not normally given to slips, especially legal ones. Standing beside the Attorney General, he informally “convicted” Manson before the trial was over. At some level of perception, I take it, most likely intuitive, Nixon had perceived that Manson is indeed a political symbol, and his “slip” aligned him against Manson. What Mr. Nixon and Mr. Levesque were responding to was the widespread knowledge, genuine knowledge even if not articulated, that between the entire social phenomenon symbolized by Manson and the decent remainder of society warfare has already broken out.

And a final note: Joan Didion, probably one of our very best writers of prose, is to collaborate on an autobiographical work with Linda Kasabian, former member of the Manson family and a prosecution witness in Los Angeles. Miss Didion is not a seeker of scandal nor in need of a buck. The subject of her previous novels and essays has been nihilism as a force in American life.

By JEFFREY HART

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