I was born a mere six months after Manson famously directed members of his “family” to slaughter nine people. I was also born not far from where Manson himself was born, and where he spent much of his formative years in and out of detention centers after his own mother sold him for a pitcher of beer.
Growing up, I knew that there were two people whose names were synonymous with evil – Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. The disparity between the two was never questioned – they were both pure evil after all. Even though Hitler was responsible for the deaths of 17 million people. 17 million. That’s nearly 1.9 million times the number of victims Manson is responsible for, yet somehow that has never stopped reporters, commentators and even Presidents from equating Manson with such radical evil.
Certainly, there are a few base similarities between the two. Neither man is known to have committed acts of murder themselves, but instead commanded others to do their bidding. Both were able to accomplish this because of their almost preternatural ability to manipulate others into manifesting the darkest parts of their psyches into action.
Their followers were hardly innocent, of course, as was made explicitly clear during the Nuremberg Trials when Nazi foot soldiers, the ones who actually did the killing, argued that they were innocent because they were only following orders. They weren’t the agents of genocide, they argued; they were victims as well, forced to do evil at the bidding of a madman. Of course, this defense was and always will be rubbish, and those who employed it in Nuremberg rightly ended up hanging from a rope.
The unspoken reason it is rubbish gets at something we’d rather not acknowledge. There is something about us – all of us – that we turn away from, suppress and hide, content with denying its existence while it lurks in our darkest corners. That something is that we are all capable of such crimes. We are all capable of dehumanizing “the other” and we are all capable of being complicit in killing, actively or inactively. Hitler was able to draw out this instinct in an entire country, and anyone capable of honest self-reflection can understand why.
Even those of us who consider ourselves enlightened and progressive have the word “pig” scrawled in blood across our subconscious. Many of us are guilty of going about our day, mindlessly drinking our Starbucks, consuming the slave labor goods that this economy runs on and voting for a president – you know, the good one we all think walks on water – who murders innocent people at a wedding party with drone strikes halfway across the world. We can justify that murder however we choose, certainly all members of cults do, whether it be the cult of party, country or a verified and agreed upon madman.
Manson is famous for saying, “Look down at me, and you will see a fool; look up at me, and you will see your lord. Look straight at me, and you will see yourself.” He was right, and it is the reason why he was so entirely demonized to the degree that he was.
To really understand why this is true, we have to look at the context in which the Manson Family crimes occurred. In 1969, the United States was knee-deep in the blood and horror of Vietnam, the most pointless and meaningless war in its history to date. That war claimed over 2 million Vietnamese and 58,000 U.S. soldiers’ lives. It was a war awash in atrocity, from napalm to My Lai. The United States were no longer the “good guys,” having now become responsible for some of the most reprehensible evils in the history of warfare.
At the same time, the counter-culture of hippies, yippies and other assorted freaks were waking up from the naïve utopian promise of 1967’s “Summer of Love” to the harsh reality of 1968 when assassinations and riots were more prevalent than love-ins. Sure, Woodstock was on the horizon, but the brown acid was in the mix, and instead of reshaping society, these unwashed masses eventually became that which they hated.
Sold out, bummed out and co-opted to society at large, the hippies were headed right into the arms of the same society that killed them in cold blood at Kent State, that let loose “law and order” union guys with baseball bats to bash their heads in during New York’s “Hard Hat Riot,” and that unleashed a fascist police state upon them in Chicago. Their infantile dreams of peace, love and understanding were over, and the nightmare of reality was here.
Everyone was becoming increasingly guilty to some degree or another, yet seemingly no one was being punished for this madness. Even those involved with such clear crimes as My Lai walked away relatively unscathed. You could kill U.S. citizens involved in peaceful protest and nothing would happen to you. You could lie to the American people about a war that killed millions and you could still win elections, earn presidential libraries and be rewarded with a hand on the heart of every deluded “patriotic” American whenever your legacy was invoked (and still is to this day). No one was responsible for anything, which is really the most American thing ever, as we have yet to have our own Nuremberg Trials.
Even so, a society can only function for so long with so much horror going unclaimed. America needed a reckoning of some sort, even if it wasn’t going to be its much deserved Nuremberg, it still needed a sacrifice to expiate its sins and to that end along came Charles Manson to play the role of the country’s sabbatic goat.
Manson was tailor made for this role. He truly was an undesirable. Rejected by his biological family, he began his road to lifelong institutionalization at only age 12. While incarcerated at the Indiana Boys School, other child inmates allegedly raped him after being egged on by workers at the facility. During that time, he came up with what he called “the insane game” in which he would act completely nuts, screaming and thrashing around to convince those larger than himself to keep their distance because he was “crazy.” This claim by Manson has led some to question whether or not he was truly mentally ill, or whether he played the part as a defense mechanism. It is more likely that it is a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B – column B being that he appears to have suffered from schizophrenia and paranoid delusions. It is telling that upon his release from custody in 1967 he told prison officials that he didn’t want to be released. “Oh, no,” he said, “I can’t go outside there…I knew that I couldn’t adjust to that world, not after all my life had been spent locked up and where my mind was free.”
Mason, either through biological design, or the effects of lifelong rejection by society, or both, had clearly become mentally ill. But it was the “Summer of Love” and a quick move to San Francisco would allow Manson to blend in with the weirdoes and freaks that made Haight-Ashbury so infamous. After all, what’s the difference between a schizophrenic suffering from paranoid delusions and a guy on a bad acid trip? It’s telling that during the very few years of his adult life that Charles Manson was not institutionalized that he chose to hide out among the society’s outcasts and the dispossessed. He had become perfectly “other” in comparison to “normal” society.
It was during this time that Manson formed his “Family,” and during their brief existence their history became the stuff of cult legend. Whether it was their bizarre connections with Hollywood personalities, the Beach Boys or Kenneth Anger, or their espousal of everything from The Process Church of the Final Judgment to Scientology to race war, Manson and his family were part of a counter-culture zeitgeist that was headed for a very bad collision course with society at large.
While the chickens were roosting throughout American society, Manson stepped forward to bring it all home by ordering the Family to commit the undeniably vicious murders of Gary Hinman, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca, Rosemary LaBianca, and, of course, Sharon Tate and her unborn child.
If the dream of the 60s wasn’t dead just yet, it was certainly placed on life support as the nation lost their collective minds over the murders. For implicit in these crimes were the failings and excesses of the counter culture. It was exactly what “straight” society needed to cordon off and shut down, once and for all, the chaos and anarchy of the flower children.
What followed was a circus sideshow. In the most symbolic moment of it all, President Richard Nixon – a man responsible for literally continuing the mass murder of the Vietnam war in order to be elected – had the temerity to use Manson as a lightening rod to bolster his “law and order” presidency by declaring mid-trial that Manson was guilty of murder. In doing so, Nixon almost triggered a mistrial by prejudicing Manson’s right to due process, which would have set Manson free.
What’s even more mindboggling than such Presidential stupidity (something we are all too familiar with these days) is that it is utterly impossible to square one mass murderer (Nixon) damning another mass murderer (Manson), a fact not lost on Manson, who told his defense lawyers at the time, “Here’s a man who is accused of hundreds of thousands of murders, accosting me of being accused of eight murders.” It didn’t matter though, because this is America, and in America shame is not a word we understand. Instead, it became the moment the nation had been waiting for, it became the moment when we as a society would expiate our sins on the head of Charlie M. Manson.
Everyone could hate Manson. The hippies could hate him because he betrayed them, the normies could hate him because he was the stand-in for every dirty hippie they hated and he confirmed their worst fears about the counter-culture. He was wholly and utterly “the other.” He was the aberration that we refused to acknowledge or own, even though he was very much the product of our society. He was evil, we were good; and once he was convicted, the proper Manichean order of American society could be restored.
Yet over the years, Manson became an icon for various subcultures. For some, there was the allure of the serial killer; for others, they believed Manson was some sort of misunderstood genius (he wasn’t); but for most, it was that Manson, in fulfilling his role as the living repository for all that was evil, represented our own dark reflection.
He represented the will to power, the will to kill, the will to destroy society as we know it, but most of all Mason became an icon because he represented what we all know to some degree – that we are all still guilty, and our punishment of him is the punishment we all know that deep down we deserve as a society. He is a reminder of the evil that lies within that we will never outwardly acknowledge. He is an affront to “straight” society, an affront to their white picket façade that pretends humans are good, and any aberration must be denied, compartmentalized, reduced to being called “crazy” and locked away forever, both metaphorically and actually…even as killers and madmen continue to run the world.
In the grand scheme of things, the Tate-LaBianca murders have nothing on the My Lai Massacre or the indiscriminate bombings that took from this world over a million innocent Vietnamese, or the 500,000 who have perished in Iraq, or the countless others who have died because of a drone strikes since. The perpetrators of those atrocities are not imprisoned, nor will they ever be; and more often than not, they are rewarded. Not so with Charlie. Charlie wasn’t of the system; he was the pitch-black reflection that the system did not wish to see of itself.
Charlie Manson was imprisoned for our sins, and now he is gone for good while so many greater and more terrible psychopaths stalk our nation’s corridors of power from Wall Street to the White House. Compared to them, Charlie is a mere children’s story told around campfires to draw attention away from the true monsters that continue to corrupt and distort our psyches and threaten our existence. There is no one more American than Charlie Manson, and no one whose legacy will be more misunderstood.