IT IS THAT TIME of year when our thoughts turn back — if they have ever turned away — to Charles Manson and his Family. Charles Manson and members of his Family were tried and convicted in 1970–1971 for crimes connected to seven murders committed in early August 1969. From the time Manson and his followers were arrested up until today, the Family has also regularly been prosecuted for killing the counterculture, the “free” love movement, hitchhiking, the freak scene, and the 1960s as a whole. Along with the doomed concert sponsored by the Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway in California just a few days after a decisive break in solving the case, Manson quickly became a punch line about, and an epitaph, for the 1960s. Manson’s conviction for his role as mastermind of the Tate-LaBianca murders was delivered in early 1971; over the next five years prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi continued to prosecute him — in public appearances, documentary films, and most significantly by far, in the book (1974) and televised (1976) versions of Helter Skelter. If these two immensely appealing texts frightened a generation of young people, including me (quick experiment: do a Google search of “helter,” “skelter,” and “bejesus”), Bugliosi’s work also promoted a “true” crime narrative that brought the horrifying threat of Manson and his Family to light only to show how utterly that threat had been contained — mostly by the good work of an energetic prosecutor.
In an earlier book of mine, on American cultural life after 9/11, I recounted a great line Joe Biden used when he was running for president in 2007. Mocking former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s own campaign for the White House, Biden claimed that every sentence Giuliani uttered consisted of “a noun, a verb, and ‘9/11.’” It’s a sick burn, and I shamelessly repurpose it here because I am most interested in figuring out the meaning of the many sentences that have been articulated over the past 50 years that consist of a noun, a verb, and “Charles Manson.” The uncanny thing about repetition — with its alternating currents of pleasure and fear — is that it does not necessarily lead to anything like greater insight. This is why, for all of the gallons of ink and miles of film and so on that we have devoted to the Manson Family, it still made sense, not that long ago, for Bill James to write that the “cultural impact of the Manson murders is enormously under-appreciated.”
But even James cannot get out from under the rhetoric of end-of-the-’60s inevitability: “A culture based on categorical trust and unconditional acceptance was a balloon waiting to burst and Charles Manson was the needle.” So wait, the hippies were a balloon? An overfilled balloon? Because? They were too nice? Writer, director, and actor Buck Henry says that the Tate-LaBianca murders were “the defining event of our time” — not Nixon’s 1968 election; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the escalating war in Vietnam; or the multiple race riots of the second half of the 1960s, but these seven killings. Van Dyke Parks, an associate of the Beach Boys and sui generis musician in his own right, argued that Manson “took a crap in the mess kit” of the 1960s and in doing so “scattered what had been a unified social field.” Shitting in our food, popping our balloons, changing our whole damn world — what can’t Charlie Manson do?! With only a smidgen of perturbed hyperbole, Peter Vronsky has summed up this whole tendency by suggesting that Manson and the Family are “the shadow in every baby boomer’s sweet memory of another time long past. Manson represents in our collective consciousness how the sixties came to die.”
Of course “the sixties” did not die. The decade ended, as decades do — that is, if you believe in time as linear and coherent. What Manson did was offer an opportunity for plenty of people, situated all over the social spectrum, to wipe their brows, exhale a sigh of relief, and retreat into their privileged positions of (relative) individual power. Few have written more trenchantly about the abandonment and suppression of this era’s modes of cultural resistance than Jonathan Crary, who fiercely defends the anti-consumerism and collectivization that marked the ’60s. Crary mourns the loss (or renunciation) of the insight that “happiness could be unrelated to ownership, to acquiring products or to individual status.” In an analysis that is not about the Manson Family in any direct way, Crary offers a remarkably useful framework for understanding the threat they posed (and the decades-long effort to characterize the Family as only the dark culmination of evil forces that had shot through the entire culture). As Crary puts it, “new forms of association” such as communes “introduced at least a limited permeability of social class and a range of affronts to the sanctity of private property.” The Manson murders did not “end” the ’60s but rather helped build an arena for what Crary calls the “counter-revolution” — a terrible backlash that has been constituted, at least in part, by the “elimination or the financialization of social arrangements that had previously supported many kinds of cooperative activity.” There was a wide range of women who came to be known as the Manson “girls”: some were exploited and abused minors, while others seem to have exercised a fair amount of power in the Family context. The “girls” were vulnerable runaways, pragmatic sister-wives, and terrifying tricksters. In an era when the basic terms of what counted as a family were being rearticulated, the women of the Family were offering complex evidence about how these social negotiations might play out in real time.
Novelist Tony O’Neill has gotten at the mythologies surround the Family quite efficiently in Sick City (2010), in which he has a character ruminate that “over the years the whole fucking incident got so mythologized that it’s almost like it never happened in concrete reality. Like it was always some fucking awful movie about the death of the sixties.” For the most part it has been nearly impossible to avoid superficial summaries — such as the one offered up by television journalist Diane Sawyer in 1994 — that these murders embodied a “savagery that brought an end to the decade of love.” The “decade of love,” apparently, had been able to live through the fire hoses turned on Civil Rights marchers, a handful of heartbreaking assassinations, and a desperately brutal war in Southeast Asia. But it could not make it past some writing in blood on a couple of walls in Southern California.
This brand of journalistic handwringing traces back to Vincent Bugliosi. In the last couple of months of 1969, Bugliosi started dropping hints about the putative motives for the murders — the now-familiar (and still fantastical) race-war/Helter Skelter angle. Bugliosi’s linkage of the murders to Manson’s obsessive, delusional Beatles fandom helped turn the end-of-the-1960s hot take into something like conventional wisdom. It is worth remembering that for quite some time after the murders, before Bugliosi unveiled his Helter Skelter scenario (in a quest for world domination, Manson hoped to spark a race war that would somehow result in the African-American victors begging him to lead the new society), the dominant explanation of Manson’s motivation in sending his followers out to kill was that he was exacting revenge on music producer Terry Melcher for dashing his dreams of world-domination-through-record-contract.
The mid-1970s publication of Bugliosi's book on the case, and the television miniseries based on it helped turn the prosecutor’s fantasy into a catechism: with help from Joan Didion and many others, Bugliosi established the murders as a repudiation of the cultural experimentation of the 1960s. This is not to say that Bugliosi, Didion, and their disciples have gone unchallenged. Among others, Family associate Bobby Beausoleil, who, in his many decades in prison has provided some of the most incisive commentary on the Family, the crimes, and the cultural fallout, has challenged the approach taken by the writer and so many others. (“I guess, because I know the truth, to me that explanation seems ridiculously simplified. How can anybody not see through that? Murder by Beatles records — this is what happens if you listen to Beatles’ records and take LSD!? What could be a more blatant attempt to discredit the youth movement of the ’60s than that?”)
But sensible testimony offered by Beausoleil and others cannot even begin to stem the Manson tide. As Curt Rowlett has correctly noted, the arrest, public discussion surrounding, and trial of Charles Manson and members of his Family, helped energize the creation of a consequential new cultural figure, the “crazed hippie” — joining the parallel development of the “crazed returning veteran.” (The most significant appearance of the “crazed hippie” in the immediate wake of Manson’s imprisonment came with the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, accused of having murdered his wife and two children in early 1970. MacDonald claimed that his family was killed by hippies chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.”)
While Vincent Bugliosi, Ed Sanders, and so many others have pushed us to think of the Manson collective as a sort of marginal eruption — a social disease — it is important to put them back in their proper place near the center of the cultural life of Los Angeles in the last few years of the 1960s. Manson and his followers operated in an interesting space in this new Los Angeles. They were not rock stars or film actors (though Bobby Beausoleil had already enjoyed some success as a musician, and he and Catherine Share had both appeared in a softcore porn film — shot, coincidentally, at Spahn Ranch). Nor were they simply — or only — the kind of devoted fans often referred to as groupies, although Family member Cathy “Cappy” Gillies may have been just that, with Buffalo Springfield. Manson donned the mantle of the “freak,” an identity related to but distinct from “hippie,” as he made his way into the hearts, minds, and homes of some of the most powerful players in Los Angeles.
Those players included Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, major figures in the music world of Los Angeles who may have enjoyed the frisson of danger or wildness provided by Manson and the Family, but who had no compunction about expelling them when the time came. Terry Melcher claimed that he did not particularly take note of social differences separating various populations in Los Angeles — this became especially clear during Family member Tex Watson’s trial, when defense lawyer Maxwell Keith asked Melcher to try to describe what impression Watson made on him when they first met, in 1968: “Do you remember anything about his physical appearance? Did he look like a hippie or did he look straight?” To this direct question Melcher acknowledged that if he “had to choose between his having appeared as a hippie or as a straight, as you put it, I would say a hippie.” Melcher went on to confirm that Watson’s hair was long — about as long as Melcher’s, and that he wore blue jeans (“I presume so. That’s what most young people wear.”). Keith goes on to ascertain that Watson was certainly not wearing a business suit, but that Melcher “wouldn’t classify him as a hippie,” just because “he didn’t wear a coat and tie.” To this Melcher tried to open a little rhetorical space by arguing, “I don’t classify anybody as a hippie, sir.” This line of questioning trailed off before Melcher could say whether he considered himself a straight or a hippie, with the music producer attempting, once more, to claim, “I don’t know how to classify.”
But Terry Melcher knew how to classify: he knew that he was not a hippie himself. Ed Sanders correctly notes that Manson had focused on the children of famous people in Los Angeles (Terry Melcher's mother was Doris Day) “in order to scarf up free credit cards, money, hospitality, fame-grope, connections and most important, acceptance and adulation.” Sanders also noted that these “children or relatives of entertainment personalities […] often form close associations with one another.” These children — the son of Doris Day, the daughters of Dean Martin, Edgar Bergen, Angela Lansbury, and Lou Costello, and so on — may have done some drugs and consorted with some figures from the margins, but they ultimately were able to close the curtain when they chose. The Family, as Manson himself so eloquently put it at his trial, was populated by “people you did not want, people that were alongside the road, that their parents did not want.” Terry Melcher and Dennis Wilson are the powerful couple at the center of this experiment in social interaction — the Daisy and Tom Buchanan of The Great Manson: “They were careless people […] they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness […] and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Thomas Pynchon captures the moment of ultimate rejection efficiently in his Manson-drenched novel Inherent Vice, in which his character Doc Sportello says that what he has been “noticing since Charlie Manson got popped is a lot less eye contact from the straight world. You folks all used to be like a crowd at the zoo — ‘Oh, look, the male one is carrying the baby and the female one is paying for the groceries,’ sorta thing, but now it’s like, ‘Pretend they’re not even there, ‘cause maybe they’ll mass murder our ass.’” It is remarkable to observe how fully and quickly this loose collective of “freaks” was ejected and erased. It did not take long for an informal conspiracy of denial to take hold, as many of the young power brokers guiding the direction of the entertainment industries worked to expel the traces of Manson from their midst. These people — from major film actors to a wide range of L.A. musicians — have been upfront about their backlash against young freaks: no more picking up hitchhikers, no more open doors in the canyon, no more crash pads.
While Manson and the Family gained notoriety in connections with the killings of August, 1969, it was creepy crawling, more than murder, that was their emblematic crime. What the Family meant by creepy crawling was at once simple and profoundly upsetting. Leaving their communal home at Spahn Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, the Family would light out for private homes. Once inside, the Family members would not harm the sleeping family members. Instead, they would rearrange some of the furniture. That’s all.
The creepy crawl offers us a remarkably useful frame for understanding the robust afterlife of the Manson Family. It is difficult to convey an accurate sense of how amazingly present Charles Manson and the Family have been in the cultural life of the United States from 1969 forward. Manson has been a regular reference point in our discussions of mass murder, the dark arts, California, rock and roll, evil, and sex, just to name a few obvious areas. Signs of Manson and his followers are far-flung and include writing on the wall in blood, unconventional family arrangements, sexy/weird female hippies, and charismatic men with beards and “Southern” accents. Manson never got his musical voice recorded in a commercially viable way and worried about not getting his voice heard during his trial. But his major post-conviction interviews (with Tom Snyder, Geraldo Rivera, Diane Sawyer) have formed an important archive — as stand-alone cultural artifacts and as a deep reservoir of hip-hop samples. For every Killer Mike, using Manson sound bites as basis of serious and sustained political commentary, there are literally hundreds of rappers who dip into this material as easily available intensifiers in crime narratives.
I have been living with the Family since I first discovered Helter Skelter on my parents’ bookshelf in the mid-1970s and watched the 1976 miniseries. (Helter Skelter was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and I know I am not the only child to read Bugliosi and Piers Paul Read’s Alive at far too young an age.) In recent years, I have made my way through piles of pulp and literary novels, watched a scary number of 1970s splatter films, tracked down every hip-hop Manson shout-out I can find (and listened to one hip-hop collective called the Manson Family and one group known as Heltah Skeltah), immersed myself in the vast literature that developed in the early 1970s about runaway youth and communes, figured out the relationship of the Pixies’ 1989 song “Wave of Mutilation” to Manson and the Beach Boys, read dozens of true-crime accounts of the Family, collected all Manson-related rumors I could find, and spent hours puzzling over a sculpture made by John Waters featuring baby Manson and baby Michael Jackson playing together.
Increasingly it became clear to me that the actual Manson has become an unimportant shadow of our “cultural” Manson. This is how cultural history often works: the presence of the real cannot help but enter into a dialogue — often a very thrilling, productive, and colorful dialogue — with the claims of the fictional. The obsessive interest American artists and audiences have demonstrated for Manson and his girls is not a simple matter of “attraction,” nor can it easily be dismissed as rubbernecking repulsion. What makes it fascinating, to me as a cultural historian, is its capacity. If I might flirt with a cliché for a moment, it might be said that the Manson Family is not a historical destination, but a vehicle. Engaging with the Family, we find ourselves riding in dune buggies to all sorts of interesting places, from meaningful countercultural margins to the absolute dead center of Americans’ efforts to define themselves in a time of great chaos.
Jeff Melnick directs the graduate program in American Studies at UMass Boston. His Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family was published in July 2018 (Arcade).