Arts & Culture

2013 review: A dive into the psyche of Charles Manson

Charles Manson mythology and pop culture

Charles Manson was a constant dark presence in pop culture for decades after his arrest in the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders.
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Charles Manson was a constant dark presence in pop culture for decades after his arrest in the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders.

This review of true-crime author and former Star-Telegram writer Jeff Guinn was originally published on Aug. 6, 2013.

On Aug. 9 and 10, in 1969, the decade that was supposed to be all about peace and love came to a violent end in Los Angeles with the murders of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, that would go down as one of the most bizarre and fascinating events in the recorded history of American crime.

A band of young, all-American, hippielike followers of a lifelong convict named Charles Manson committed the brutal slayings on his say-so, and details about the crimes and the subsequent trial captured the nation's attention then and continue to be the source of countless books and TV documentaries as the 44th anniversary of the murders is marked just days from now (August 2013).

In fact, one might think there is absolutely nothing new that could be learned about that two-night crime spree. Surely everyone connected with the events of those two days has been interviewed, and the facts are no longer in dispute.

But that's not true.

The new book "Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson," by former Star-Telegram investigative reporter and books editor Jeff Guinn, goes on sale Tuesday, and no matter whether you have only a cursory knowledge of the Tate-LaBianca murders or you've read every book about Manson ever published, you're going to be surprised at the details you'll learn.

If you're going to read only one book about the gruesome slayings and how they came about, then of course "Helter Skelter" by prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry is the obvious book of choice. But of all the books I've read about the Manson Family and the murders, Guinn's book is a very close second (and of course "Helter Skelter" has no details about what has happened the past four decades).

"Helter Skelter" won an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1975, and it would be no surprise if "Manson" qualifies for the same kind of recognition. Guinn's book "Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde," was an Edgar finalist in 2010.

It's difficult to take a subject that has been done to death (so to speak) like Bonnie and Clyde and find something new to say or new to report. But Guinn did that to perfection in "Go Down Together" and his subsequent crime book, "The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How It Changed the American West."

Guinn, who first achieved acclaim as an author with a series of books about Santa Claus, is now proving himself to be one of the pre-eminent true crime writers in the country. He made his living as an investigative reporter at the Star-Telegram in the '80s and early '90s, so it's no surprise that Manson is meticulously reported and heavy with detail. But Guinn's way with language and the descriptive way he connects all the pieces together to give you a real understanding of the scene in 1969 are what make the 400 pages seem like a much shorter read.

Even though you know how the story turns out, you're surprised on almost every page.

Guinn was able to pull that off because he found two members of Manson's family - not his cult family but his real family - who had never talked to an author before. Manson's sister, Nancy, and his first cousin, Jo Ann, were able to fill in a lot of details about his early life that help explain the person whom he became.

Most stories about Manson's early childhood - which Manson himself touted in prison interviews with reporters and in appearances before the parole board - paint his upbringing as particularly troubled. And it certainly was, just not quite as troubled as he claimed, according to Guinn. Manson routinely lied and exaggerated to make his life story even more cruel than it was.

He was not born out of wedlock, as Bugliosi has said in TV interviews, nor is there any evidence that his mother was a working prostitute. But she did get pregnant at 15, and when the father didn't want any part of the baby, she somehow talked William Manson into marrying her before Charlie was born. Although Kathleeen Manson didn't make her living selling sex, she was a party girl who liked a good time and drinking and dancing, which her Nazarene mother strongly objected to.

When Charlie was 5, his mother and two friends cooked up a plan on the spur of the moment to rob a man looking to party with them. What was nicknamed the "ketchup bottle holdup" in the local paper (so-called because a ketchup bottle was used to knock the victim out) led to a five-year prison sentence for his mother and a life of bouncing from one living situation to the next and eventually to reform schools and prison for Manson.

He first went to live with his Uncle Bill, Aunt Glenna and 8-year-old cousin Jo Ann. It didn't go well. According to Guinn, Manson was "a disagreeable child ... lied about everything ... and always blamed somebody else for his actions." It was a strategy he would perfect later in life.

While his mother was enduring prison, little "Chuckie," as his new family called him, was being terrified by his first grade teacher, Mrs. Varner, who long after her retirement remained legendary for "how awful she was to her students."

But that brought no sympathy from Uncle Bill, who sent Manson back to school in a dress after he came home crying one day after class. During the nearly three years he lived with the family, he developed a keen interest in three things: guns, knives and music. All would factor into the murders for which he would later become famous.

At 12, he went to the first of six reform schools, got out at 19 and was married the following year and became a father. By 21 he was serving his first prison sentence, for car theft, and his education as a con man began in earnest.

Manson, who, Guinn wrote, "yearned to be somebody's boss," learned how to recruit girls "who were cracked, but not broken. The trick was to make them love you and fear you at the same time." The women Manson would later recruit for his "family" fit that description perfectly.

But Guinn discovered it was a real class that Manson attended while in prison that gave him the biggest payoff when he was paroled. The inmates studied the book "How To Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.

For the first time in his life, Manson was an outstanding pupil, Guinn wrote. And he used what he learned to persuade Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Pat Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian to go to the house where Sharon Tate was living and kill her, star hairsylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and Wojciech (prounounced "Voytek") Frykowski, a friend of Tate's husband, director Roman Polanski, who was out of the country. The next night, Watson, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten killed supermarket owner Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home.

The reason they did it, they said, was because Manson said he wanted to start a race war - which he dubbed "Helter Skelter" after the song by the Beatles. He believed that eventually his "family" would rule once blacks had annihilated all the whites and realized they weren't capable of running the world. He told his followers to "do something witchy" at the crime scenes and write things in their victims' blood to make it look like the murders were done by angry black militants.

Guinn uncovered one crucial fact about the Tate murders that I've never seen before in any Manson book. Although Manson wasn't there when the murders were committed at Tate's house the first night, he went by himself to the crime scene later that night/early morning and rearranged things to make it even more bizarre than his followers left it when they finished the job.

Guinn postulated that part of the reason the murders were committed was because Manson was feeling pressure as the family's leader to produce bigger and bigger miracles all the time to match up with his self-proclaimed boast that he was really Jesus Christ. Another factor in the crimes can be traced to Manson's discontent that the big music career he dreamed of never materialized. He mainly blamed record producer Terry Melcher, actress Doris Day's son, for that.

Melcher had at one time lived in the mansion Tate was renting. After Manson saw that Melcher wasn't going to help him become famous, he sought revenge. Since he already knew the house, that seemed like a good place to start. The murders the next night also weren't random; they were also committed at a house in a neighborhood with which Manson was already familiar.

The subsequent trial captured the nation's fascination, even getting President Nixon involved when he proclaimed Manson guilty before it was over. All the defendants were sentenced to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty just months later, which likely guaranteed the Manson saga would live on for decades while they served out their sentences.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a follower who didn't participate in the murders but was later sentenced to life in prison for the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford, was paroled from a Fort Worth institution in 2009.

Guinn's last line of the book sums up the whole saga pretty well: "There was nothing mystical or heroic about Charlie - he was an opportunistic sociopath ... he was always the wrong man in the right place at the wrong time."

Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7704

Twitter: @jimelvis

About the book

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson ***** 5 of 5

by Jeff Guinn

Simon & Schuster, $27.50

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