The Manson family's radical misogyny
When a crime achieves a kind of mythic status, it’s because it’s exceptional in one of three ways: victim, perpetrator, or method. The murders committed by Charles Manson’s “Family” cult in 1969 excelled in all three ways. The number of victims would have been sensational alone; the fact that one of them was actress Sharon Tate gave the killings a borrowed celebrity. The extremity of the violence was outstanding and the addition of the Family’s peculiar hippie symbolism to the crime scenes only made them more compelling. And had they been committed, like most violent crimes, by men, this would have been enough; but most of the Family were young women, making them irresistibly atypical killers.
Combined, all this means that fascination with Manson has barely dimmed in the near four decades since these murders. Musicians have dipped their fingers into his bloody legend for band names or songs to cover. (Manson was an aspiring musician, and one theory is that his crimes were committed in pursuit of revenge after he was rejected by the recording industry. His songs are not very good.) Writers have gone back to the story again and again, for true-crime accounts, literary reflections, or ripped-from-the-headlines fictionalised versions. One of the latter has just been published by Emma Cline, titled The Girls. “‘Revisit’ is the word they always used in anniversary articles about the murder. ‘Revisiting the horror of Edgewater Road,’ as if the event existed singularly, a box you could close a lid on,” says her narrator
Of course, no one does talks about Edgewater Road, because the street name – like all the names in Cline’s novel – is a mask, a tightly fitted one that clearly shows the contours of the true-crime story underneath. “Edgewater Road” stands for Cielo Drive, where Tate shared a home with her husband Roman Polanski (who was away at the time of the murders). The home invasion element was central to the mass unease that Cline eloquently evokes: “The crime – so close to home, so vicious – sickened everyone with hysteria. Homes had been reshaped. Turned suddenly unsafe, familiarity flung back in their owners’ faces, as if taunting them – see, this is your living room, your kitchen, and see how little it helps, all that familiarity. See how little it means at the end.”
For Joan Didion, the era of Manson was “a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself”. Her 1979 essay “The White Album” takes its name from the Beatles album from which Manson drew his hodge-podge millennialism; its disorienting smash-cut structure imitates the record’s dizzying gallop from one genre pastiche to another, as Didion catalogues her encounters with key figures of the late 60s’ social unease, including Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, Manson follower Linda Kasabian, and Tate’s husband Polanski. “It will perhaps suggest the mood of those years,” writes Didion, “if I tell you that during them I could not visit my mother-in-law without averting my eyes from a framed verse, a ‘house blessing’ […] This verse had on me the effect of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of ‘ironic’ detail the reporters would seize upon, the morning the bodies were found.”
The only kind of sense that Didion is able to see in the 1960s is of this inadvertent, tragic kind. Attempts at narrative yield nothing; analysis goes nowhere: “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.” Yet Manson was very careful to bestow meaning on the violence committed by him and his followers. They deliberately dressed the Tate and LaBianca crime scenes to be similar, daubing slogans around the violated homes in the blood of their victims. They sought maximum coverage to perpetuate terror, drawing up a hit list of celebrity victims for future killings, and even appearing to take cues from false reports of their own actions: after the Cielo Drive victims were wrongly reported to have been hooded before their execution, Manson ordered that the LaBiancas should have their heads covered with pillow cases.
The motive for all this – established by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who also wrote Helter Skelter, the classic account of the case – was grandiose and evil, but not so impossibly obscure as Didion implies. Manson wanted to frame the Black Panthers for the killings, inciting a backlash from the white population that would lead to an all-out race war that Manson called “Helter Skelter” in his self-serving, Beatles-cribbing theology. He prophesied that the black population would win this but be incapable of organising a civilisation, at which point Manson would emerge from his hiding place in the desert and assume his role as messiah.
The fact that investigators neither linked the crimes nor identified the pretended racial motive was down to a failure of communication: the different investigating teams failed to share information, and the Manson Family used an insular iconography that was unintelligible to anyone outside the cult. His belief in white supremacy, however, was hardly a unique one in 1960s America. And while race was the foundation of his dreams for future power, the control he exercised within his cult was based on another long-established class structure: gender. “Manson’s girls,” writes Bugliosi, “had been taught that having babies and caring for men were their sole purpose in life.” The mysterious charisma he exerted over his followers was nothing more exotic than patriarchy.
On finding a 16-year-old girl unacceptably resistant to him, Manson “punched her in the mouth; kicked her across a room; hit her over the head with a chair leg; and whipped her with an electrical cord. Despite such treatment,” writes Bugliosi, “she stayed.” In order to build the case against Manson, Bugliosi had to piece together an impressively sympathetic picture of what we now call “coercive control”; nevertheless, Bugliosi is in error to say the young women stayed “despite” this treatment. They stayed because of it. And once safely mastered, they could be exploited. In the 1950s, before he set himself up as a messiah, Manson was a pimp; now he used the girls and young women he recruited were used to attract other men to the cult, particularly men who Manson felt could further his plans for and fame.
As extreme and shocking as his brutality was, Manson ran his family along accepted lines of masculinity, with women as possessions to be tortured into compliance or used and discarded. In one of the scenes of “The White Album”, Didion and Eldridge Cleaver discuss the commercial prospects of his book Soul on Ice, written while he was in prison. What she doesn’t mention is that he was imprisoned for rape, or that his rapes were committed with an explicitly political intent: after “practicing on black girls in the ghetto”, he wrote that he “sought out white prey… defying and trampling upon the white man's law… defiling his women.” (Cleaver later repudiated the tactic sexual violence as political insurrection.) By the time Didion wrote “The White Album”, Roman Polanski was both multi-Oscar-nominated, and the convicted rapist of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. According to Bugliosi, the initiation of a 13-year-old Family member consisted on Manson sodomising her while others watched.
The connections are not so difficult to draw after all. Indeed, another woman had already sketched them out in an earlier essay. Feminist Robin Morgan, in her excoriating account of the 1960s “Goodbye to All That” (1970), identified Manson as the ultimate in masculinity: “Manson is only the logical extreme of the normal American male’s fantasy, whether he is Dick Nixon or [peace activist] Mark Rudd: master of a harem, women to do all the shitwork, from raising babies and cooking and hustling to killing people on command.” The radicalism of the 1960s was not so much a rejection of old power structures, but a battle over which men got to sit at the top of them. “Goodbye to the illusion of strength when you run hand in hand with your oppressors; goodbye to the dream that being in the leadership collective will get you anything but gonorrhoea,” writes Morgan, bitterly evocative.
Even during the trial, Manson was adopted as a counterculture icon. Part of Manson’s appeal is that his very extremity makes him appear to exist, as Cline puts it, “singularly, a box you could close a lid on”: he’s both the perfection of white male supremacy, and the ultimate embodiment of it as “other”. While he may supply a frisson of danger, he also represents the absolute security of masculine control. As Cline writes, the kind of domination he practiced cannot be contained within one location, one individual, one point of time: within culture and counterculture, male violence is the rule. The only mystery is that anyone should think there is any mystery in this.