• The Manson Family: Through A Glass Darkly

The Manson Family: Through A Glass Darkly

“Gaze not too deeply into the abyss, lest the abyss gaze into you.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

Don’t look back. Sump’n may be gaining on you.
— Satchel Paige

On Monday, March 29, a Los Angeles jury voted the death penalty for Charles Manson and three female disciples — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten — for the Tate-LaBianca massacre of August, 1969. In the nearly two years since, people have kept asking: Why did they do it? How did they get like that? Are there more? (Apparently yes — in Yuba City, for example.) Underneath shivers the normal man’s horror of the kind of murder taught us lately by Starkweather, Whitman, Speck, Oswald, Smith, Sirhan, et al: Death may come anytime, and not necessarily from your proven enemy, but from some mad stranger who springs up and slashes, killing you without saying why.

The Manson trial was shot through with the vague sense of a lesson to be learned, somehow. One juror offered her own startling summation: “I hope this verdict will be a lesson to the young people of this country — that you just can’t go into a person’s house and butcher them up …

“I wouldn’t want to gainsay that, though I have my doubts. Since February I have talked with a variety of behavioral scientists — psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, social historians and lay counselors at hippie clinics — in an effort to extract some meaning from the brutal affair. Several of those I consulted see Manson as embodying the growing existentialism and nihilism of our time.

By and large, behavioral scientists have paid too little attention, I think, to the Manson case, for it is they who might help explain how the “family” got that way. (The danger of ridicule to the profession — underlined by the psychiatric donnybrook of the Sirhan trial — kept them away from the Manson trial in droves, though four belatedly appeared for the defense and one study has begun since the conviction.)

Some of the experts I chatted with saw a connection between the Manson and Calley cases: a society at war inside and outside itself may tend to influence the defectives among us toward a compulsion for violence. It is a debatable analogy, beyond proof or refutation, but an intriguing one.

But a hypothesis is only a stand-in for verifiable facts. And maybe no one can ever know the whole truth about anything anyway. But a really good writer once told me, “Don’t try to illuminate the whole subject for all time. Just part the curtain.”

Fair enough. To pull the curtain over the Manson case is to deny ourselves any possible hint of where the beast may come from next, and so remain afraid of things that go bump in the night, the way we were in August of 1969.

I remember that incredible weekend when the savagely butchered bodies of actress Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Voityck Frykowski and Steven Parent were hauled away from the charnel house. (There would be two more killings to go, and earlier ones yet to be learned of.)

Case-hardened as we may have since grown on the subject, then we were stupefied at the viciousness and lack of meaning in the crime. Our bewilderment kept us transfixed by the Manson family far more than we might have been had the defendants been clearly insane and, therefore, too freakish to be duplicated.

We have kept on wondering how they got that way. The experts I consulted — most asked not to be identified — agreed that the answers sprawl beyond the borders of any one field of scientific expertise, into genetics, environment, family background, sex, booze and drugs, conscious reconditioning, group pressures, the anti-intellectual countercultures so prevalent today, and whatever it is about an establishment society that seems to turn off so many of its young people.

For their part, Manson and his ardent true believers have explained away their crimes, and perhaps their self-doubts, in a flood of circular, pseudomystical gab that covers everything — or nothing.

But at times, however unlikely or suspect the source, some points hit home, if only by accident.

Charlie on child-rearing: These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up.

Leslie on the human condition: We are all murderers; we are all capable of murdering; we are all animals; that is part of us all.

Psychiatrist Joel Hochman, of UCLA’s Neuro-psychiatric Institute, on Leslie’s condition: I think, in fact, that this is not inaccurate from a psychological point of view — that murder is a potential in all human beings. The remorselessness? With a certain class of person, or value system, it’s unusual. With another, not so terribly unusual. The first time I ever encountered such an attitude was in The Stranger by Camus. It was about a man who killed for no reason, to test an existential point.

Attorney Paul Fitzgerald: There is, in mankind, some underlying homicidal urge?

Hochman: No. I think there is, in mankind, rage which can become differentiated into a variety of acts, one of which is murder, another of which is war. We have killed 50 million people in the last 30 years in the world.

Fitzgerald: Is it possible to unprogram somebody, as it were, from some belief that murder is wrong to a belief that murder is right and OK?

Hochman: I think that we try to do that with every soldier we send out. I think historically the easiest way to program someone into murdering is to convince them they are alien, that they are them and we are us, and that they are different from us.

Dr. L. J. West at NPI has a theory about the “universal stranger.” He theorized that we project upon the stranger all the impulses that we forbid in ourselves, and all the characteristics. It. is easy to be angry toward them. That is what mankind has done traditionally, made the other person into an object, not like us, with flesh and blood.

Fitzgerald: Well, that might be a recognized characteristic on a national or international scale, but it is extremely unusual on an individual basis, isn’t it?

Hochman: I think it happens every time someone murders an individual.

(In past and present wars we have fought “spics,” “krauts,” “wops,” “nips,” and now “gooks,” “chinks” and “slopes.” At home, our “freaks” call our cops “pigs.” To the Manson family, their victims were “piggies.”)

The Manson family was unquestionably more than the sum of its parts, if only because each member, taken separately, is rather an ordinary type of sick person seen often in this so-called age of alienation. The ordinariness of it is the horror of it, and we write of it in cliches.

In the past decade especially, we have got used to the ugly experience of crazed individuals wreaking private vengeance on the world, but a prime fascination of the Manson crime was that it was done as a grisly parody of togetherness. (A deranged leader and his witless maenads, howling out of the desert, when are they coming for me …?)

Charles Manson may be insane — we don’t know — but whatever he is, a similarly wretched mental condition could be inferred about many men with such backgrounds of long imprisonment. Yet it is the girls who are most interesting.

Testimony at the trial indicated that the girls were not legally or even medically insane. Neurotic, you bet; psychotic, no. Up to the time they fell under Manson’s influence, they lived lives that pass more or less as normal in the permissive context of today. And even then, without anyone noticing, they were being warped by forces that hammer just as mercilessly on thousands of other girls — who will commit no crimes. Not all the girls Charlie met agreed to go with him. Why did these?

In court, Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme tells of her unhappy life at home and adds, in a tone of incredulity, “In fact, I was taught I was ugly!” The jurors blink, embarrassed; alas, she is merely plain. After a pause, Squeaky adds quietly, “A dog goes to somebody who loves it and takes care of it.”

Susan Atkins is asked why she devoted herself so fixedly to Charlie, and she asks right back: “Can you imagine what it’s like? – a girl who never had much attention?”

And Katie: “I felt ugly. I always had too much hair on my body. He began to tell me what I wanted to hear. ‘Everything is all right,’ he would tell me …” It just might be that simple.

In court, this infamous Charles Manson stands disappointingly small for a legend, just over five feet. At 36, his face still has an innocent quality. Untouched.

It’s been an adolescent boy’s dream, this trial. His girls have testified over and over again — not just to him, but in court for all the world to read — about his manhood. Charlie is love. Charlie is all man, the first real man I ever met. Oh wow.

The records say he was an abused, rejected child; his mother insists he was spoiled rotten by the women of their family. Both claims are probably true; he wouldn’t be the first child bewildered by grown-ups blowing hot and cold.

One thing for sure: for all that’s said of his way with girls, and for all the girls who say they love it, Charlie hates women. One of his favorite sermons is how women take away manhood, how mothers weaken their sons, wives their husbands. Charlie and his girls. Wow.

Charlie, the coolest and sickest of them all, really pretty humdrum if we could know the whole story, but now, undeniably fascinating in the way — as novelists and movie-makers so well understand — mentally sick people are so often more fascinating than healthier ones.

Susan Atkins, alias Sadie Glutz, mother of Zee Zo ZeZe Zadfrack (named by Manson, fathered by whom?).

Set adrift by an unloving mother who died, a father and stepmother she didn’t like, Susan recalls a self-fulfilling prophecy: “My family kept telling me, ‘You’re going downhill, you’re going downhill, you’re going downhill.’ So I just went downhill.”

Sadie is the one who snitched. Separated from the Manson family for a few days, she faltered and then talked to two cell mates, then in a long interview she later tried to take it all back. (Did her eyes dart about then, I wondered, the way they do now in court?)

With a little girl’s mischievous smile and bright eyes that peek and wink and flick about, Susan is the most expressive and vulnerable of the three girls. Watching her behavior — bold and actressy in court, cute and mincing when making eye-play with someone, a little haunted when no one pays attention — I get the feeling that one day she might start screaming, and simply never stop.

Patricia Krenwinkel, alias Katie. Earth mother of the family. Quiet, competent, the Rock of Gibraltar to Susan. Heavy.

We know she was born in her parents’ middle age, that her mother wasn’t well, that an older sister, now dead, was troublesome, that her parents were divorced when she was 18, and that from birth until Charlie, her best friend was her father. (Joe Krenwinkel remembers that time as happy, and says three different times: “She was such a good little guy.”)

But she was overweight and hairy for a girl, and didn’t have dates. She used to come home crying from school; these were the people she’d have to grow up with and live among; she couldn’t be her father’s best buddy all her life…

Today she seems quite at peace. There were bad moments after her arrest in Alabama, where she ran to, but then she was reunited with the family, and Charlie’s philosophy rushed back into her soul, filling all the empty spaces.

A psychiatrist, A. R. Tweed, talked to her for hours, but he never got through to her. He called her Alice in Wonderland and she giggled and agreed. She made his head spin with her magic word castles of homemade mysticism and second-hand religion: Everything is love, there is no pain, no death, only love, and when love is all I am, everything I do is perfect, so don’t be upset, Dr. Tweed.

Dr. Hochman believed she was a schizoid personality — not schizophrenic and insane, merely ill with a schizoid tendency that deepens as she walls herself off from reality.

He may have been right. She moves through the trial with an increasingly awesome serenity. She strikes me as a person who’s moving away. They’ll never get through to her.

Leslie Van Houten, the most All-American of the lot. Normal, happy childhood, two big brothers, parents who adopted two younger Korean children, good grades, being chosen homecoming princess by the football team, a groovy boyfriend, almost everything. Yay-y-y.

Then pot, LSD with her boyfriend, pregnancy at 15, an abortion she couldn’t forgive her mother for. High on LSD one day, seeing her parents as cold, unloving, mother domineering, father giving in. Then divorce, and her curious lack of caring about it, and efforts to find herself — in the Self-Realization Fellowship. Bust. In a Victorville commune. Bust. In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. Bust. Then Charlie. Bingo.

Clear-eyed, articulate, theatrical and just a little bitchy at times, Leslie seems hard enough to make one suspect she is still capable of wanting. Hochman thinks she could be reached, with treatment.

But this she will not get. She hung onto her cool, and society made its judgment. Less of a fantasist than the other girls, she will simply grow harder and bitchier, I suspect, knowing better than they what the coming down of helter skelter really means, but unable to say a word of apology.

Charlie took them all away from their misery, like Peter Pan to Never-Never Land. First was Susan, grubbing around blearily in San Francisco, dancing topless in North Beach and making it with old men for money, strung out on LSD and booze at 18, and genuinely hurt over a broken engagement to a nice young man whose brother convinced her she wasn’t good enough to marry him.

Then Patricia, drudging fatly through the days as an insurance company clerk, experimenting occasionally with drugs introduced to her by her own sister, yearning always for something good to happen, and then, at her sister’s, meeting a houseguest named Charles Manson…

And Leslie, tripping vaguely through California, her father remarried and lost to her, her boyfriend gone religious and lost to her, now with a new beau, and some girls who talked about a dude named Charlie, who sounded real heavy.

Charlie took them all away, dressed them in kicky clothes, gave them clever new names, and off they went — to the woods, to the deserts, to any old town, playing their games together, their magical mystery tours, their creepy-crawling, everybody sharing food, work, sex and play, so that the sharing (like the shared rituals of a child’s gang or a college fraternity or a men’s lodge) became a bond among them, and the more outrageous the initiation, the more tightly were they bound together against the world outside. From isolated children they grew into a family, with Charlie the patriarch carefully dispensing the love and beautiful talk they all wanted to find somewhere.

At this point, they are still not so obviously different from many thousands of others wanting to find love and beautiful talk. The hippie movement is in full flower around 1967, and dropouts, runaways, acidheads and flower children are a common sight from the East Village to the Haight.

Charlie is the most memorable one of his group, and two specialists at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, Dr. David E. Smith and research assistant Alan J. Rose, do a brief study of Manson’s “group marriage commune.”

Their research, finished 15 months before the Tate massacre but not published until after Manson’s arrest, deals chiefly with Manson’s role as sexual omnivore and charismatic Big Daddy, but makes no mention of any predilection toward violence in his group. They describe Manson in 1970 as “probably an ambulatory schizophrenic.”

But few others in the Hashbury scene would have said anything that heavy in 1967 or ’68. Everybody was entitled to do his thing, and it wasn’t very cool to put down somebody else’s trip. You might have thought Charlie was a little more spaced-out than the average, but you wouldn’t have called him crazy — not against a background that embraced nearly everything, from transvestites to speed freaks, that gave protective coloration to such incipient sociopaths as the Manson family.

The decade containing the two Kennedy murders, the King slaying, the Calley case, the Manson family and our first generally unpopular war has given Americans a bitter taste of lessons other nations down through the years have boggled at, each in its turn, ever since Cain slew Abel and helter skelter came down for good.

Maybe they’re wrong, at those super-aware gatherings where they beat their breasts a while and say, “We’re all guilty. We are a violent people,” but really only worry whether they have wetness. Maybe it’s really true, the part of our national anthem that goes: “Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just, and this be our motto, ‘In God is our trust.’ ” Maybe.

Whether our history has been nonviolent, or just recently violent, or covertly violent all along — or all three — is still a moot question, although historians suggest that extremes of good and evil have co-ex-isted in all nations. But the past decade has indisputably been a shocker to anyone who believed his high school American history textbook; this is particularly true of the young, who are less experienced at adjusting to the discrepancy between ideals and realities.

The point is that since the end of the Depression and World War II, the great majority of young Americans — older Americans, too, for that matter — have grown dissatisfied in differing ways and degrees with American life. Not that youth hasn’t rebelled before, but seldom to this extent.

When those crises ended and affluence began to flourish, and still our Utopian dreams were deferred by more wars, more technology, more taxes, then the movements began in earnest on a broad scale. The beatniks fanned out from Greenwich Village. Martin Luther King caught a bus.

He was not alone. John Kennedy offered a New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson proposed a Great Society, Robert Kennedy sought a Newer World and Martin Luther King had A Dream. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to reality, and many now are turning inward with their dreams, scaling them down, perhaps closer to life-size or, at least, to what they feel is possible.

Affluence and technological capability climb steadily, but as social evolution fails to keep pace, at least as many people seem to be intimidated by the potential of the time as are inspired by it. The empty-handed still want a piece of the action and go after it with an anger that has rocked every major American city in the last decade.

Meanwhile, the children of the affluent middle class — the first generation raised wholly within the gelid gaze of television (which Buckminster Fuller calls “the third parent”) and thus perhaps exposed and oversensitized as older generations were not – decide the status quo isn’t worth the grief. Having had it, they can reject it. And they drop out — with a little walking-around money, of course — a pervasive sadness and insecurity fueling their search for alternatives to a society they find unresponsive and undesirable.

Subcultures, countercultures, alternative cultures — in themselves they are nothing new, of course. From long before the Brook Farm experiment to today’s Hell’s Angels, there have always been groups which, with greater and lesser hostility toward the establishment world, sought to escape it. Christ Himself, it appears, belonged to such a group.

Some communal efforts — such as the Shakers — survived quite a long time and made valuable contributions, while others simply ran out of gas, fell to bickering over who slept with whom or whose turn it was to clean the privy, or found themselves ideologically bankrupt when the society they despised stubbornly refused to collapse on their departure.

One such commune of separatist Christians was led by a holy man named Guiteau, whose son Charles grew up to assassinate President Garfield.

Success or failure of early communes was often related to whether the group dropped out of society to fight or punish it, as some revolutionary and counterculture groups today seem to be doing, or whether it simply wanted to do things differently, no hard feelings.

The very term “counterculture” suggests a force whose power derives chiefly, if not solely, from its adversary role. The term also implies that the group is still defining itself, like it or not, on the establishment’s terms; the umbilical cord still ties child to parent.

Historically, deranged individuals were not welcome in communes which often shared a communal neurosis as well, and thus needed no lunatics to worsen their heavy sledding in a hostile world. Isolated psychopaths generally burned themselves out young, their high degree of visibility dealing most of them into prisons or madhouses. The less obvious, more clever of them, according to many sociologists, sometimes channeled their violence into vigilante groups like the Klan, while some even found social acceptance through the institutionalized violence of a war or, on occasion, in police work.

But the variety of experiences available on the contemporary scene afforded those like Manson
and his girls both an atmosphere in which they could move comfortably without attracting much notice, and a rhetoric of anger and alienation with which they could reinforce, even aggravate, the personal problems that had brought them to the brink in the first place.

To further aggravate an already dangerous emotional imbalance, there were the drugs. LSD research has a long road ahead to go before we can identify all its properties for certain. But most experts agree that LSD, depending on the social context in which it is used, can exert a powerful influence on shaping the personality of an individual whose sense of himself and whose hold on reality have been flimsy.

The experts also agree that in such a case as the Manson killings, LSD was a catalyst — not a causal agent. It apparently stripped the thin veneer of civilization off a murderous, unchanneled anger that bubbled just below the surface in each of the family’s members.

Above and beyond drugs, anti-intellectualism is a matter of deep concern to many behavioral scientists who have followed the Manson case. It is not the anti-intellectualism of the stupid, but rather of the skeptical, articulate, well-educated young dissidents who question what all our intellect has done for us.

“Reality is a crutch,” announced a recent bumper sticker, and perhaps that is the core of the neo-romantic anti-intellectualism of today. One psychologist has pointed out, “Intellectualism is reality, and anti-intellectualism is a form of denial — in this case a denial of reality that is painful. These pseudo-philosophical systems, the interest in ESP, astrology, prayer, drugs — these appeal to people who want to take the easy route, who want to deny old guilt, adult responsibility or the pain of facing reality.”

On UCLA’s Dickson Court, between the brick grandeur of Josiah Royce Hall and the Powell Library, a young man is blowing bubbles. Long, tangled hair streams down behind his multicolored shirt, which billows tentlike in the breeze. He dips his plastic bubble wand negligently in a pan of soapy water, waves the wand negligently, talks negligently to a friend, his eyes darting with studied carelessness about the court.

Finally a small crowd gathers to watch, and the young man’s gestures grow suddenly graceful. His friend, disregarded, ambles away. The young man wields the wand slowly now, inflating large, opalescent globes that waver off on the air, undulating, shape-changing, until their filmy beauty bursts against the hard brick fortress of intellect that glowers down on the grassy court.

For more than an hour the young man and his fluctuating audience enact this ritual, observing each little death with small, ironic smiles. They well know the fate that awaits beauty and feeling in collision with the rational, established order.

I am momentarily moved to suggest that they should take their ceremony to a beach or grassy hillside, but I am wrong: that would miss the point entirely. There, they would have no hulking towers to break the bubbles or their hearts against; here, in this citadel of learned responses, they are more keenly attuned to the bittersweet symbolism, and with each pop they are drenched with significance.

It is just real profound.

And harmless, perhaps.

But further down the scale, the split between romance and reality takes on an eerie edge. For instance, in this prose poem:
I went into the bathroom and looked at the mirror and I saw myself.
I’d look away, and then I’d look at myself again.
And I saw myself. l saw my father and his age, and everything that he had ever told me, on my face.
Then I began to grow older, right before my very eyes. I began to get old and wrinkled and my hair began to get gray.
And I looked at my hands, and my hands got age spots on them, and then got arthritis in them.
And I grew old and I died right before my very eyes.
It was quite an experience.
Then I couldn’t get away from the mirror. I would want to go away from the mirror and the reality of what I was seeing.
And I went to bones. My skin fell off. I went to bones.
Then I closed my eyes, and I wasn’t really thinking too much about anything, since I was dead.
And I opened my eyes and it was like I was reborn. It was like I never — there was nothing on me. I was nothing but pureness.

A moving experience, beautifully expressed.

And its author, describing from the witness stand a 1967 trip on LSD, is Susan Atkins.

Similarly moved on a later occasion, she plunged a knife in and out of the beautiful, living, pregnant body of Sharon Tate.


This entry was posted in Archived News. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Manson Family: Through A Glass Darkly

  1. Bill says:

    …smart writer… good read!

  2. Gorodish says:

    Dave Smith was a good writer. He didn’t know at the time that Susan Atkins never really plunged a knife into Sharon Tate….that was done by the man who was not mentioned once in this article-Charles “Tex” Watson. When reading a lot of these older pieces, it is amazing how Tex, who was far and away the worst and most prolific Manson murderer, totally slips under the radar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *