The Manson Mindset

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Charles Manson has been much on my mind lately. Not that I particularly want him there; it’s just that a confluence of events have put the wannabe-Messiah and his brainwashed gaggle of zombie drones back in the news.

August 9th and 10th marked the 40th anniversary of the Tate-La Bianca murders, the most notorious but by no means the only atrocities to be carried out under Manson’s command. Squeaky Fromme, the would-be assassin of Gerald Ford (and as far as I know the only one of Manson’s hippie harem to remain a true believer) was released from prison on August 14. Leslie Van Houten, a deeply repentant former Manson follower convicted for the La Bianca killings, remains housed in the California Institution for Women; her friend, filmmaker John Waters, recently published an eloquent five-part plea for her release on the Huffington Post.

All this Mansonoid. . .er. . . “nostalgia” sent me back to my copy of Ed Sanders’ The Family — which, alongside prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, is one of the two definitive books on the case. Sanders is something of a counterculture icon, a poet and publisher who spanned the Beat and Hippie subcultures and led the satirical underground rock band the Fugs. Apparently he was able to get up close and personal with Manson and crew by posing as a “Satanic guru-maniac and dope-trapped psychopath,” but oddly enough, he keeps himself out of the story, adopting a third-person “this reporter” stance while describing, with undisguised horror and contempt, the cult’s mind-melting depravity. Even with this weird mix of scrupulous reportage and unabashed subjectivity, The Family remains one of the classic first-hand portraits of an outlaw subculture, alongside Hunter S. Thompson’s biker-gang expose Hell’s Angels and Bill Buford’s report on British soccer hooligans, Among the Thugs.

I have had an interest in the Manson case since my teens. Part of the fascination, no doubt, stems from pure sensationalism; it was and is one of the most bizarre, disturbing cases in the annals of human ghastliness. But a deeper reason — and one that John Waters cites as the source of his own fascination with the case — is that the kids who fell under Manson’s sway seemed like they could have been neighbors or classmates of mine. They were products of aggressively normal, all-American, middle-class suburban communities much like the one I grew up in. Leslie Van Houten was elected Homecoming Princess twice. Charles “Tex” Watson was a Tom Cruise lookalike and high school football hero. Susan Atkins, arguably the spookiest of the bunch, sang in her school glee club and the local church choir. Although they were disaffected runaways by the time Manson got ahold of them, no one would have pegged them as the types to butcher people they never met (including an extremely pregnant starlet), write ugly slogans on the wall in their victims’ blood, and spend the rest of the summer chuckling over how “far out” it all was.

Manson, of course, was not really a hippie. He was a racist, white-trash ex-con from Outer Nowheresville who grew his hair long and developed a smooth line of deep-sounding, quasi-mystical guru-gabble, the better to prey on the searching, idealistic kids who flocked to Haight-Ashbury, the Sunset Strip, and other counterculture meccas.  Watching subsequent jailhouse interviews with Manson, it’s hard to believe that this deranged, incoherent, unhygienic-looking old coot ever had the kind of magnetism that could turn dozens of suburban kids into knife-wielding zombie slaves, but there you have it.  The emperor stands revealed — not just without clothes, but without sense, without charisma, without power.  Now he is even without followers, apart from the ever-loyal Squeaky.

I can’t fully explain the creepazoid psychology of Manson and his minions, but I think I can get at little pieces of it. One piece is the strange adaptability of the human mind; as we saw in Nazi Germany, it takes very little time for a radically abnormal situation to seem normal, especially when powerful authority figures are assuring you it’s normal. (My pet theory is that Hitler and Manson practiced a similar form of mass-manipulation, and that Nazi Germany was simply the world’s largest and most efficient religious cult.) As any mass-murderer will tell you, the first killing is always the hardest; once you’ve crossed that threshold, it’s a piece of cake.

It’s those two human tendencies — our readiness to submit to authority, and our quick adaptability to extreme situations — that convince me I’m doing the right thing by advocating a skeptical world view. Critical thinking is the best defense, not just against penny-ante frauds like astrologers and homeopaths, but against the toxic mindset of the cult leader and the demagogue. When reason flees, the mind becomes a vacuum just waiting to be filled by the Hitlers, the Mansons, the Jim Joneses, and all the other self-aggrandizing charlatans who prey on the vulnerable.

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