Saturday, August 9, 2014

Helter Skelter

When I was in high school, I remember reading a dog–eared paperback of Vincent Bugliosi's book about the Manson family murders in the summer of '69, "Helter Skelter."

No telling how many people read that copy before I did, but it was in great shape, no matter how many people had read it. No one had marked on any of the pages, and none of the pages was torn. Only the cover was tattered — "dog–eared," as I said before.

The first page of the book had one sentence in the middle of an otherwise blank page on which people could have written or drawn things — but didn't. Perhaps it was an indication of how respectful people were of the story the book told: "The book you are about to read will scare the hell out of you."

And it did.

I slept with a baseball bat under my bed for weeks. I was convinced that, at some point, someone would come into my room when I was sleeping, and that person would probably have a perfectly legitimate reason for being there, but I would be roused from my slumber by an unfamiliar and unexpected noise and reach under my bed for the bat — and use it without asking any questions.

Fortunately, that didn't happen.

America has had a lot of exposure to cults in the years since the Manson murders terrorized southern California — and, really, the rest of the nation — so the story of that deadly weekend may seem tame to modern readers.

But it was still comparatively rare in 1969 — and it was frightening for average Americans.

And I'll bet Bugliosi's book still packs a powerful punch for unprepared readers. (Here's a tip: Don't watch the TV movie that was based on Bugliosi's book. The book kept me up at night. The movie almost put me to sleep. It's a strong story. It deserves better.)

Charles Manson's group consisted of a bunch of displaced young people. He had been predicting a race war between whites and blacks in America for a long time, but the Beatles' "White Album" provided justification for his predictions — according to his interpretations of songs from the album.

The song "Helter Skelter" was a direct reference to such a war, Manson told his followers. He saw all sorts of symbolism in certain songs — "Blackbird," "Revolution," "Piggies" as well as "Helter Skelter" — but he saw modest messages in all the other songs on the album, too. He had spoken of hidden meanings in individual Beatles songs in the past, but this was the first time that every song on an entire album — and a double album, at that — was cited.

"Every single song on the White Album," former follower Catherine Share said in a 2009 documentary, "[Manson] felt that they were singing about us."

Manson drew parallels between the songs and verses from the Book of Revelation. He always cast himself as the prime beneficiary, the one to whom both races would turn for guidance following "Helter Skelter" — the apocalyptic race war of which he warned his followers.

Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson, explained it all in chilling detail in his book on the case. I know I was an impressionable teenager at the time I read it, but I'm pretty sure it was vivid enough to horrify the most hardened reader.

If there had been a checklist of the things that really scared people in the late '60s and early '70s, it would have included all the things that people saw in the Manson family — young, unkempt people living in a rural commune (hippies in the language of the times) under the direction of an older, manipulative, self–appointed messiah.

In the years to come, Americans became familiar with the tactics used by cult leaders to manipulate their followers. Jim Jones' followers committed suicide for him in 1978. So, too, did the members of Marshall Applewhite's religious cult, Heaven's Gate, in 1997. David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers in the Branch Davidians cult died fiery deaths in the siege in Waco, Texas, in 1993.

But in August 1969, people weren't prepared for what they about to witness.

Forty years ago today, Manson sent out four members of his family with the instruction to "totally destroy everyone" in the house he knew as the home of record producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day's son), but Melcher was no longer the tenant. Neither Manson nor his followers knew the current tenants, director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. Polanski was out of the country 40 years ago tonight, but Tate, who was pregnant, was there, along with three friends.

All four, along with an 18–year–old man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, were killed. Well, truthfully, they were slaughtered. Manson encouraged them to be "as gruesome as you can be," and they were. Most of the victims were carved up, and code words from Beatles lyrics that were intended to incite Manson's race war were written in blood.

The same thing was done the next night when Manson sent half a dozen of his followers into the night. This time he went along "to show them how to do it." The chaos of the previous evening had disappointed him.

They went to the home of a supermarket executive and his wife, where much the same sort of scene unfolded as happened the previous night. Things were done in a more orderly fashion, though — no one had to be chased down and stabbed to death on the lawn this time.

More words were written in blood.

Needless to say, Manson's race war never happened. But Manson and the six who did his bidding were imprisoned and sentenced to death — sentences that were commuted to life when the death penalty was suspended by the Supreme Court in 1972. The death penalty was reinstated in 1976, but the sentences were not changed.

One of Manson's followers, Susan Atkins, who participated in both killing sprees, died in prison nearly five years ago. The rest are still there.

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