By Jeff Guinn

In all fairness, this time you could blame the mother. Kathleen Maddox, Charles Manson’s mother, wasn’t cut out for the job. She was only 16 when she had him, and, as Jeff Guinn — surely somewhat euphemistically — puts it, she was a kid who “liked to dance.” And drink. And fool around. And generally get in trouble. Later she’d try to mend fences, but by then it was much too late. Without delving too deeply into these matters, it’s pretty clear that Charlie came by his low opinion of women honestly. Like a lot of men who feel betrayed by this primary relationship he would spend the rest of his life plotting his revenge.

He certainly kept a low opinion of women throughout his criminal career. Examples of his sexist world view would be funny if they weren’t so cruel. Of course women had to provide for the men in the Family. They were the ones who went dumpster-diving to forage for food, then brought it home and prepared and served it, waiting until the men had eaten before having any themselves. They were also used as sexual favours, passed out by Charlie to men whose friendship he wanted to cultivate. So far, so unsurprising. But then one reads about things like this:

In April, Mary Brunner gave birth to a son. She wanted to give birth in a hospital with trained medical personnel on hand, but Charlie wouldn’t hear of it. Natural childbirth was the only way, and Mary would be helped by the other women in the group. The girls told Charlie they had no idea what to do; he replied that they were women, so they would naturally figure it out. When the child came, it was a breech birth. Mary suffered terribly and there was a great deal of uncertain fumbling, but she and her baby somehow survived.

Or this:

At Spahn Ranch, it was a simple thing to scrounge food from L.A.-area groceries, but these so-called garbage runs were impossible in Death Valley, where there were no grocery stores. One time when the food supply ran particularly low, Charlie told the women to fan out into the desert and bring back edible plants. When they told him they didn’t know anything about desert plants, Charlie said that as women they were supposed to know about such things, so go out and gather something. But they couldn’t, even when he bawled them out for being unwomanly.

Life in Death Valley was experienced very differently along gender lines:

It was a hard way to live, but the men in the Family found more to enjoy in it than the women. The men served as armed lookouts, roosting in the shade and avoiding enervating movement in the unrelenting sun. They got the first and largest servings at meals and could relax afterward. The women had to chop wood for the stoves, cook the meals, eat whatever scraps were left by the men, and care for the children.

In the light of all this, and strictly by the way, I think it’s worth drawing attention to a prison interview Bobby Beausoleil gave in 1981 that Guinn doesn’t mention:

ALB [A. L. Bardach]: Did Manson really care or like women?
BB: Oh, Charlie loved women. He showed them plenty of respect. He treated those women better than most men ever treat their women.

Make of that what you will.

The story of Manson’s family has long had a special fascination. Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter may be the bestselling true crime book of all time, and continues to sell. There are many reasons for this: the horror of the crimes themselves, the fame of some of the victims, the cult angle, and perhaps not least the fact that we have never stopped hating hippies. In any event, nearly fifty years after being sent off to prison, Charlie and his surviving family members still manage to get headlines just by coming up for parole.

The focus of Guinn’s book is mainly on the lead-up to the Family’s 1969 murder spree. Manson’s early life is covered well, though there isn’t much to say. Charlie was a lifelong criminal but never got very good at it. He spent a lot of time in prison and jail. Given his incompetence, the police investigation into the Tate and LaBianca murders stands out as having been exceptionally bad. Including Beausoleil’s murder of Gary Hinman, there were three murder scenes where the killings were all committed by the same gang, and deliberately staged so as to look like they were all committed by the same gang. Nevertheless, the police couldn’t connect the dots. That’s truly amazing. Three months after the LaBianca slayings they had still failed to consider any links between the murders. It was only then that “evidence fell into their laps and, almost despite themselves, they began solving the crimes.”

Manson’s life post-trial, which is to say the last forty-five years, are breezed over in a mere ten pages. Admittedly little interesting happened, as Manson has been in prison the whole time, but surely there was some story to tell. I felt more could have been said, even if only of his media afterlife. But the subtitle tells us this was a book about Charles Manson’s “life and times,” and whatever period or “times” you want to associate Manson with, by the early ‘70s it was over. Also, separated from his Family he was a diminished thing. If he was only, as Guinn argues, “an opportunistic sociopath,” then he had run out of opportunities. He’s still a celebrity and so attracts attention, but there isn’t much more to say.

Review first published online September 11, 2017.

%d bloggers like this: