Manson was born in November 1934, to a teenage mother named Ada Kathleen Maddox. “Manson” comes from the stepfather who obligingly married his mother before he was born, and then bowed out of their lives not long after, leaving only his name behind. The baby’s extended family were comfortable working/middle class, devoutly fundamentalist, and mostly respectable—even his mother, after a disastrous flirtation with booze, crime, and prison, turned her life around.
The usual inclination at this point is to look for childhood traumas and abuse that might explain how a monster became a monster, but I’m not sure we need to look that far. In the description of biographer Jeff Guinn, based on interviews and school records, Manson in childhood comes across as a classic Bad Seed, an infant sociopath with a violent and predatory streak, sly, thieving, and incorrigible. As he grew, habitual lying and theft gave way to petty criminality—boarding schools for troubled youths gave way to reformatories, and then jail by the age of 22.
Manson was not stupid, with a prison-tested IQ of 121, but he had come out of elementary school and the reformatories barely able to read. Prison, in a curious way, broadened his horizons. He took courses. He was tutored in the steel guitar by the 1930s gangster Alvin Karpis. He began writing songs. And he began to gather the disparate strands that would eventually come together in his message for the world—or at least for a couple of dozen flower children in Haight-Ashbury’s Summer of Love.
The foundation was already there, in the apocalyptic fundamentalist Christianity in which he had been raised, notably the trippier portions of the Book of Revelation. In jail, he devoured the Dale Carnegie course on how to influence (manipulate) people. He flirted with Scientology, both the mainstream version and an apocalyptic splinter group calling itself ”The Process Church of The Final Judgment,” or “The Process,” which equated Jesus with Satan, and looked forward to the end of the world in ways that paralleled Manson’s own special end-times scenario. He learned the tricks of pimping, from experts. His prison reports speak of strong antisocial tendencies and a powerful need to draw attention to himself, both being common narcissistic, messianic markers.
Manson was released in the spring of 1967 and moved to San Francisco, where—in the Summer of Love—he began collecting a worshipful circle of young middle-class runaways and dropouts, mostly female, expanding to a harem of as many as eighteen young women plus a few young men. He was not just their leader, but their guru—a charismatic philosopher-musician, an expounder of counterculture wisdom with a dash of the Bible and scientology. Soon, he was their god as well as their guru.
In 1968 the Family moved to Los Angeles, since Manson keenly wanted to develop a career as a musician. He and the Family freeloaded off Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys for a few months, apparently costing Wilson something like $100,000 during their sojourn in his house. When Wilson finally evicted them, the guru moved the Family into the nearby desert to live communally on a series of rundown ranches. In the meantime, he made a few demo tapes of his music with the help of Dennis Wilson and his brother Brian, and even sold a song to the Beach Boys, a version of which later appeared on one of their albums, credited to Dennis.
Accounts of their squalid life in the desert confirm that the Family fits the definition of a cult: the retreat to the wilderness, Manson’s sexual control of multiple females and complete alpha-male dominance over the few males, the willingness of the disciples to buy into Manson’s philosophy, and—even more—their willingness to carry out antisocial acts against outsiders to further his agenda, including shoplifting, drug-dealing, whoring, torture, and eventually murder.
As to the last, the events of August 1969 are well known. Manson sent out Family members, both male and female, with instructions to kill everyone they found at two upscale addresses, which included Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski. Later, they were linked with at least one previous killing, the torture-murder of drug dealer Gary Hinman, whom Manson claimed owed money to the Family over a bad drug deal. Rumours persist that other bodies are still buried out at the ranch, though attempts in early 2008 to find evidence of human remains came to nothing. The relevant question here is not how many were killed, but why Manson sent his people out on these murder missions.
One reason lies in Manson’s personality. Though he denied it later, he was hungry to make it on the music scene, and bitter that success was not forthcoming. The frustration of finding doors closed to him seems to have morphed into general resentment of a world that was not appreciating him enough, plus a music industry that was shutting him out.
The Polanski home was chosen because it had previously been rented to Terry Melcher and his girlfriend, Candice Bergen. Melcher, the musician son of Doris Day, was also a record producer with the Beach Boys, and Manson had auditioned for him; but Melcher, like Brian Wilson, was creeped out by Manson, and cut all ties. Manson clearly bore a grudge for this, and was later to claim that he knew Melcher had moved, and was sending him a message with the killings at his old address. Similarly the LaBianca home, where the second murder mission took place, was next door to another music contact who was shutting Manson out. Manson’s personal vengeance was part of the agenda—but only part of it.
The Family was a textbook example of an apocalyptic cult on a miniature scale. Manson taught that the world was about to erupt into a devastating race war, during which the blacks would exterminate the whites—though in some versions it was the other way around. Manson and his Family would ride out the storm in a deep cave in Death Valley, the “bottomless pit” of Revelation, where the walls glowed and milk and honey flowed; and when the slaughter was over, they would emerge and take over the running of the world from the incompetent blacks. Thus Charlie would come into his own as the reincarnation of Jesus, and the new global messiah.
This scenario came partly from the Book of Revelation, coloured by Scientology and the Process, but there was more. Manson had found the critical revelation, the new scripture, the true message from the universe, in the lyrics of the Beatles’ White Album, which he saw as a direct communication from the prophets—aka the Beatles—to himself, as the reincarnation of both Jesus and Satan. With this in mind, he cunningly deciphered the Beatles lyrics in the light of the Book of Revelation, and lo! the end of the world was nigh.
According to Manson, the end-times events would kick off with Helter Skelter, the name Manson gave to the coming race war, written in paint at the ranch and in the victims’ blood at the two crime scenes. But why order the murders? Because Manson was in a hurry for Helter Skelter to start. Part of his urgency to become a rock star was his belief that his first album, rocketing to the top of the charts, would be a chief catalyst for the race war. Thus, when people like Melcher failed to bring out that album and make him a star, they were not just frustrating his personal narcissistic ambition—for which they should die—but they were also wickedly delaying the apocalypse and falsifying his prophecy—for which they should die. And since it seemed his recording career was on hold, he had to find another way of jump-starting Armageddon, hence the false-flag murders of rich white victims.
Within a few months of the murders, the Family’s careless trail of petty crimes and loose talk led investigators to the desert ranches where the Family was still searching for the entrance to the “bottomless pit.” Some of them were arrested, and the investigators found a hefty stash of weapons, plus (it is said) a Scientology e-meter.
Few of the Family members lost faith when their messiah was arrested. Instead, they reacted in typical cultish fashion by increasing their devotion. Those charged along with Manson were unrepentant and defiant. Those released without being charged fascinated the world with their antics in and out of the courthouse, disrupting the proceedings, shaving their heads when Charlie did, and refusing to testify against him. Several of those directly involved in the murders are still in prison; and in 1975, Family member Lynette Fromme went to prison for life by making an attempt on President Ford in defence of the redwoods, though she made no serious attempt to fire her gun. Manson, throughout his decades in prison, remained as messianically articulate, self-justifying, charismatic and scary as ever.
Moreover, he had fans. The net is full of sites hailing him as a hero of the counterculture; he put out a digital album in 2005 with the not inappropriate title One Mind. Through willing fans, he had a personal website and a non-profit organization called ATWA (Air Trees Water Animals). I predict that somewhere in the lunatic fringe of the internet, someone will soon be claiming that Charlie will rise again.
I think the evidence is strong that Manson was simply born bad—that is, born without a conscience or the capacity for empathy. I think, too, that a good many of us are born to be fooled—that is, born with a vulnerability to conscienceless charismatic con artists like Manson, panting to be manipulated. And I also think that Manson’s creepy little cult, led by a psychopath and staffed by willing slaves, is a pretty good microcosm of many much larger movements, both secular and religious.