It has been 44 years since Charles Manson manipulated members of his so-called Family into murdering pregnant actress Sharon Tate and eight other people in a delusional attempt to spark “Helter Skelter,” the end-of-the-world race war that Manson had convinced his followers would lead to their rise as saviors of the world.
Crazy stuff like this has a long shelf life. In the almost half-century since, rivers of ink have flowed in the attempt to understand how this diminutive ex-con could have lured normal-seeming middle-class youngsters (mostly girls) into savagery. In fact, so much has been written about Manson and his followers that it’s easy to wonder if there’s anything new to say.
It turns out there is. Jeff Guinn managed to track down and interview Manson’s older cousin, with whom a young Charlie Manson had lived when his mother was in prison, and his younger sister, adopted, to Manson’s great dismay, while he was imprisoned at McNeil Island, Washington. Neither of these women can shed light on the ultimate source of Manson’s dysfunction—he apparently was a sociopath from a very young age—but they do clear up much of the misinformation about his childhood and help Guinn offer a richer understanding of Manson’s early life. Guinn also interviewed former cellmates, Manson Family members, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (who wrote the definitive book on the murder trial), and a host of others. The result is that Guinn’s well-researched biography, Manson, offers many new details about Manson’s life and enhances our understanding of him in several ways.
It turns out that Manson, who hated formal schooling, was a serious student of manipulation. Though functionally illiterate, he worked his way through Dale Carnegie’s books about the arts of persuasion, investigated Scientology not for its dogma but for its methods of captivating followers and sat at the feet of pimps to learn techniques for manipulating women, and through them, men. Guinn also shows Manson to have been a guru worried about losing his followers. His need to bind them to him, Guinn suggests plausibly, was part of his path to murder.
Finally, Guinn does an excellent job of placing Manson in the context of the tumultuous 1960s. In some circles, Manson and his followers are thought to be the logical end-product of those wild times. But Guinn offers a more nuanced view: “Charlie Manson is a product of the 1960s—and also of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s,” he writes. In what is probably the fullest biography of Manson to date, Guinn shows that Manson the murderer is not just a creation of the ’60s but the unfortunate sum of all his parts.