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Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry

December 31, 2013


There is a scene in which Assistant District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi looks across the courtroom and sees Charles Manson staring at him, as if he’s looking into Bugliosi’s mind. It gives Bugliosi the chills. And when he looks down at his wristwatch, he realizes that it has stopped. My mother, when I mentioned that I was reading this book, recalled that scene from when she read it 38 years ago. It’s that kind of creepy. It just sticks with you.

It sounds cliché to call a crime story “gripping,” but that’s the word that kept coming to mind with this book. Published in 1974, it’s Bugliosi’s best-selling account of what came to be known as the “Manson murders”—the investigation and ensuing court case. It is as unsettling as the best crime fiction, and Manson is every bit as much a specter as Hannibal Lecter.

The book covers different aspects of the Manson case: Charles Manson’s upbringing and background, his cult of followers who lived together at Spahn Ranch in the canyons north of Los Angeles, the murder of nine people in the summer of 1969 (including the shocking killing of actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant at the time) and ensuing investigations, the trials and Manson’s bizarre belief in “Helter Skelter”—his theory of an impending racially-motivated apocalypse.

Manson’s appearance at the end of the 1960s was perhaps the most shocking symbol of how off-the-rails society had gone. He was a struggling musician just chasing the great American Dream at the end of a decade of disillusionment. But he was the American Dream gone very askew. Although Bugliosi’s investigation proved otherwise, the Tate murders at first seemed like a completely random, brutal massacre. That’s a frightening notion. But more shocking, Manson wasn’t even present at the murders. These were his followers merely doing his bidding. It wasn’t Manson’s psychosis that played to people’s greatest fears—it was that he could infect others with his madness.

Bugliosi does a great job of laying out how he prosecuted the case against Manson. For better or worse, he established the character of the prosecutor as celebrity. By the end, I actually really liked his character, arrogance and all.

He also lays out a credible theory that demystifies Manson’s supposed mind control. Manson was a gregarious wanderer, into drugs and free love. He came into contact with literally thousands of people as he struggled to get his music career off the ground. Some of those people wouldn’t give him the time of day. But others, a select few, were the lone, searching, free-spirited wounded bird types—people looking for something to believe in. Manson was happy to provide. He hooked a few pretty women first; the men naturally followed. But according to Bugliosi, Manson didn’t have special powers—he just found the right followers.

Still, like with Jim Jones, the notion that a man could have such a hypnotic personality and seductive ideas that he could build a murderous cult around him is terrifying. It’s why Hitler remains our global version of evil incarnate. And it’s why Charles Manson, a diminutive long-haired wanderer born to a broken home in Cincinnati in 1934, is still our American boogieman.

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