- - Wednesday, August 28, 2013

By Jeff Guinn
Simon & Schuster, $27.50, 399 pages

Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s “Helter Skelter” is a great true-crime book and up until now I would have said that it was the definitive book on murderer and cult leader Charles Manson.

Now, having read Jeff Guinn’s “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson,” I realize that there was much more to this odd and horrible man.

Mr. Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Manson trial, penned an excellent account of how, in 1969, Manson and his “family” brutally murdered seven people, including the pregnant actress Sharon Tate, as well as the subsequent investigation and trial. But Mr. Guinn offers a full biography of one of America’s most infamous criminals.

Through extensive interviews with Manson’s surviving relatives, friends, cellmates and members of his family, Mr. Guinn offers us a view of the young Manson, beginning with his West Virginia childhood.

“Little Charlie Manson was a disagreeable child. Beyond his doting grandmother, who still recognized his many faults, few who knew him then or in his ensuing teenage years found much to admire about him beyond his looks,” Mr. Guinn writes. “It was possible to pity the boy — he didn’t have a father and now his unreliable mother was in jail — and Charlie was so small that he was closer in stature to toddlers than to other children just turning five and about to enter school. But even at such a young age he lied about everything and, when he got into trouble for telling fibs or breaking things or any of the other innumerable misdeeds he committed on a daily basis, Charlie always blamed someone else for his actions.”

Mr. Guinn also tells us that as a child, Manson was obsessed with being the center of attention and if he couldn’t get noticed for doing something right, well then, he would get noticed for doing something wrong. Even at 5, Manson was violent and attempted to manipulate people.

This incorrigible child would go on to reform school and then to prison. In prison, the diminutive Manson learned to rant and rave, playing what he called “Crazy Charlie” as a means of self-protection and a way to receive attention. Manson also learned to play the guitar and took Dale Carnegie courses. The self-improvement courses provided Manson with valuable techniques he put to use in manipulating people.

When Manson was released from prison in the 1967, he headed to San Francisco with dreams of being a rock star bigger than the Beatles — and a pimp. He operated in the Haight-Ashbury area, where “hippies,” “flower children” and street people converged. There he took LSD and began to recruit his followers from the deep pool of desperate runaways and confused young people on drugs.

“Charlie always wanted to lead. In the Haight, there was an obvious way to do that, a way that appealed to Charlie’s considerable ego and required exactly the talents that he possessed — imagination, glibness, and an uncanny ability (gleaned in equal parts from pragmatic prison survival and Dale Carnegie classes) to manipulate others by perceiving and then exploiting their ambitions and weaknesses,” Mr. Guinn writes. “Virtually everywhere Charlie looked in the Haight there were street preachers pontificating to one or two or dozen of misfit listeners, desperately seeking someone special to tell them what to do, how to live, what to think. Reinventing himself as a Haight guru and gaining a flock of worshipful followers was irresistible.”

Perhaps only during this era of peace, love and excessive drug use could a sociopath like Manson convince people that he was both Christ reincarnated — and the fifth Beatle. He warns his band of followers, mostly young women, that based on the Book of Revelation and Beatles’ albums, there is a coming apocalyptic race war that he called “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles’ song. But Manson still wants to be a rock star, despite being a mediocre guitar player and songwriter. He moves his family to Los Angeles and befriends Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and other people in the music business by offering them sex with his girls.

Mr. Guinn explains that as Manson’s dreams of being a rock star faded, he imbued his followers with two core beliefs: that he had to be obeyed and that the members of the family were the most special people on Earth. Manson persuaded them that they were destined to rule the world after Helter Skelter. He then directed these drug-crazed followers to commit multiple vicious murders.

Mr. Guinn does a fine job of describing Manson’s childhood and how he grew to become the leader of the Manson family. Mr. Guinn also offers a vivid portrait of the mid-to-late 1960s and how this frenetic decade operated as a backdrop to Manson’s life’s story.

Charles Manson is in prison today and, unbelievably, he still has followers. Hannibal Lecter is a fictional character. Charles Manson is a true monster.

Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime.

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