Charles Manson: America’s Greatest Living Reality Star
No American madman has a legend as nuanced as Manson's. That has everything to do with Vincent Bugliosi's definitive chronicle of the Manson Family, their murders and their trial. To read 1974's Helter Skelter is to obsess over Helter Skelter is to cultivate a lifelong interest in Manson and his once-petulant, now-repentant acolytes.
That book taught us that he was a bad guy, who despite (allegedly? probably?) suggesting to his cult that they perform murders so infamous and shocking that they prematurely ended the '60s 43 years ago today, didn't make a single stab or cut August 9, 1969 or the following night in what are generally referred to as the Tate-LaBianca murders.
I can only imagine how shocking those crimes were at the time, how they tore down other iconography in an acid nightmare that irrevocably damaged the image of the peace-loving hippie. I know that despising Manson wholesale is a reasonable reaction. Three years ago, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders, Los Angeles magazine ran an oral history that described Manson as "an enduring symbol of unfathomable evil." That is the truth.
But for someone to whom the '60s never existed in the first place, someone who entered a world that was already obsessed with serial killers and other mortal boogie men, someone who saw Charles Manson frequently on television during his childhood in the '80s and thought, "What the fuck?" even though he was too young to say "fuck" out loud without getting punished with cocktail sauce on his tongue, I know that it's possible to regard Manson differently. I came to know much later than I could have, even – I didn't read Helter Skelter until a few summers ago. It's a relic of its time, so I was horrified as much as I was supposed to be. I would read it late at night in my living room, certain that someone was going to break through my apartment's back window, which was right off of the fire escape. That only added to the effect.
As much as I admire the terrifying ingenuity in the Manson-birthed concept of creepy crawling (when the Manson Family would break into homes to rearrange furniture or watch people sleeping), it wasn't until post-Skelter research that I approached an appreciation of what Manson has to offer. Or a portion of it, at any rate. I blame modernity. Reality TV and general cultural narcissism have conditioned us to appreciate characters (especially villains) and, man, is that guy a character. Man, is he a villain. But not only that, he's a performance artist, a very contemporary celebrity whose true art is giving interviews. In this respect, among his very few peers are Madonna and Amy Sedaris, whose Jerri Blank character often resembles Manson in mannerism and affect.
Several clips of him doing absolutely crazy things with words and his face from the '80s (many of them included in the montage above) have racked up millions of hits on YouTube – if video had the viral capacity then that it does now, his profile, his cult, his legend would have undoubtedly been so much higher. We would barely need to question his appeal.
Our culture puts a premium on extreme human behavior, and to watch Manson go off and sputter his free associative efrannis booj pooch boo jujube is thrilling. Good nonsense is hard to find. He invokes images of "staunch" and "upstanding" parrots and pockets full of "everything you can eat." He calls Geraldo Rivera "Mr. G." He explains the swastika on his forehead (which alone makes him understandably impossible to look at for particularly sensitive people) as not a sign of affiliation with the Nazi party, but with his Nazi party: "It means I've been locked up in here since 1943, that I'm standing behind the judges in Nuremberg." A very loud facet of our culture loves things for being terrible – to watch Charles Manson in 2012 is to revel in the concept of so-bad-it's-good where the bad is actual evil.
In 1987, when Penny Daniels asked Manson about what draws people to him, he leaped from his seat, performed a display that was part mime show, part interpretive dance and boasted, "I'm brand new. Everything I do is always brand new." Indeed, this unpredictability is key to his appeal.
Manson lied and told contradictory stories. Much of his clan did the same throughout the years to the point where it's best for all of our heads to just take Helter Skelter as gospel – it's bound to be closer to the truth than any other involved party's narrative. (In that sense the Manson Family was like the first reality TV ensemble cast – a bunch of liars telling lies to create this fog of a story.) "There was no such thing as the Manson family. It was a musical group called Family Jams!" Manson claimed at one point during the '80s. "I've done nothing but play the guitar," he said at another to disavow any wrongdoing. He also said, "I was born 1,000."
Nonsense wasn't the only thing that came out of his mouth. The roller-coaster effect comes from him often starting paragraphs in a semi-reasonable manner so that you can at least see why his mind is going to where it is, only to meltdown mid-thesis. However, he was really onto something when he commented on his celebrity, which the series of interviews in the '80s maintained and enlivened. "You're creating a legend, you're creating a beast, you're creating whatever you are judging yourselves with into the word Mason," he said. While that media coverage was understandable given the cultural weight of his crimes and his captivating persona, it served to repeatedly feed this beast, to put on a platform someone ravenous for attention. Of all the crazy things Manson said, "I'm not an entertainer, I don't entertain," really might have been the craziest.
It's liberating to laugh at a monster, to understand that every man has a capacity to be more than and contradictory to the thing that defines him. The taboo of Manson, too, boosts his appeal – appreciating him is like the intoxicating spiral of laughing in church. Perhaps it would be better to ignore him entirely, to move on with our culture and do our best to pretend like his heinous crimes never happened. But they did, and while it may provide no comfort for those to whom it matters the most – the families directly affected by his murders who still attend his and the remaining incarcerated Manson girls' parole hearings – it is somewhat therapeutic for those of us on the outside to experience that different face of Manson. His ability to entertain is his small part of good that he's contributed to the world. It is his silver lining, the sole thing that keeps his entire existence from being in vain. The world would have been a better place without Manson, but since he had to exist, his roles as the nutjob to end all nutjobs can be read as something like compensation. It's not an even trade in the slightest, but a little bit of cultural rehabilitation is better than none at all.