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[773] Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders – Vincent Bugliosi


“I believe Charles Manson is unique. He is certainly one of the most fascinating criminals in American history, and it appears unlikely that there will ever be another mass murderer quite like him. But it does not take a prophet to see at least some of the potentials of his madness in the world today. When people unquestioningly turn over their minds to authoritarian figures to do with as they please—” (Epilogue, p.630)

Helter Skelter is the full account of the Manson murders that captured headlines across America in summer 1969, written by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who then served as Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles. The book itself was first published shortly after the trial, which last 22 months with the jury being in sequestration for the whole duration of the trial. So the book lends an immediacy, and sheds remarkable insights into the motive of these atrocious, bizarre murders, as well as Bugliosi’s insider knowledge. It covers the murders, the evidence being gathered, the interviews, the rumors, the defendants, the preparation of the trail, the full trial, and an epilogue reflecting on how Manson gains control over his followers who turned over their minds unquestioningly to do what he told them.

The record discloses over and over again that all of these girls at the ranch believed Manson as God, really believed it. The record discloses that the girls obeyed his commands without any conscious questioning at all. (Murder in the Wind, p. 528)

In short, a band of hippies, later known as the Manson Family in San Fernando Valley, broke into a Los ANgeles house and murdered five people, including the nine month-pregnant actress Sharon Tate (wife of director Roman Polanski) and her friends, including coffee heiress Abigail Folger. It was one of the grisliest, bloodiest and apparently senseless crimes of the century. Atrocities repeated and befell the LaBiancas in Los Feliz, who were picked at random from among the affluent, on the night after the Tate murders. All victims were stabbed multiple times. A thin trail of circumstances eventually tied the Tate-LaBianca murders to Charles Manson, a killer who cleverly masqueraded behind the common image of a hippie. As Bugliosi would have shown, there was a further motive, almost too absurd to even conceive of, to the murders other than Manson’s grudge against the people who denied him a record contract. The real motive is perhaps as bizarre, or even more bizarre, than the murders themselves.

Though…drugs were one of several methods Manson used to obtain control over his followers, they had no part in these crimes, for a very simple reason: on these two nights of savage slaughter, Charles Manson wanted his assassins in complete control of their faculties.” (The Investigation–Phase Two, p.251)

Helter Skelter is as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony to Vincent Bugliosi’s brillance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. He even took up a substantial amount of investigative responsibilities that should have been LAPD’s. During the trials, which were often cluttered with nonsensical motions and objections from defense attorney Irving Kanarek, the issue was not so much how Manson committed the murders but proving that he did it. The case was unique and highly challenging; evidence linking Manson to the murders was scarce and argument anemic at the beginning. Bit by bit, with attentiveness to minute details and repetitive interviews, Bugliosi built his case by reconstructing the sick philosophy of Manson that inculcated his followers. To Bugliosi’s credit, he showed how a Mephistophelean guru had the unique power to persuade others to murder for him, most of them young girls who, disconnected from their families and loath to the world, went out and murdered total strangers at his command, with relish and gusto, and with no evident signs of guilt or remorse. They were not insane, Bugliosi showed, but was in full mental faculties and were aware that society disapproved of their acts. The most unbelievable part of the trial is the evidence that Helter Skelter was the principal reason for the savage murders. Manson’s motive was to ignite some black-white Armageddon, with the motivating nexus between the lyrics of a Beatles song. He envisioned the blacks would destroy all the whites, and the Manson Family would be the only whites to escape the revolution unscathed. He removed all the convictions of his followers and made them do what he asked them.

This book is a feat of judicial triumph, of mind-blowing conspiracy, and of courtroom intrigues. It’s frightening to think of the detrimental and fatal consequences of mind control.

685 pp. W.W. Norton. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Helter Skelter, Charles Manson, and San Francisco

Helter Skelter is one book that I pore over and for which I want to call in sick.

Charlie Manson, the master mind behind the Sharon Tate murders and scores of others, had his root in San Francisco. Following a 10-year term in jail, he found his way to San Francisco. A prison acquaintance found him a room across the bay in Berkeley, where he would wander Telegraph Avenue or sit on the steps of the Sather Gate entrance to UC Berkeley, playing his guitar. He charmed this librarian, Mary Brunner, who ended eventually left her job and joined Manson’s wandering caravan.

Over time he discovered the Haight in the city. He learned that in San Francisco there was free food, music, dope, and love, just for the taking. He slept in the park and lived on the streets, playing music and attracting a crowd. The self-styled guru attracted followers aplenty like a religion. Somewhere along the line, Manson developed a control over his followers so all-encompassing that he could ask them to violate the ultimate taboo—say “kill” and they would do it. He exerted a hypnotic spell on his followers.

Haight has known for its hippie haven. But Haight has an eerie past. The house on 636 Cole Street was once the home to Charles Manson and his budding “Family” that was responsible for murder of 21 people in Los Angeles area. The reason Manson’s presence in the Haight during the Summer of Love resonates with the historically inclined, though, is that he was in many ways essential to it, and his presence in the Haight became representative of the trajectory of Free Love movement from edenic idealism into hard drugs, violence, and sex.