Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter and Marlin Marynick’s Charles Manson Now: A Double Book Review

I’m certainly not claiming it has been an uplifting experience, but I’ve just finished reading a couple of fascinating books on Charles Manson and the Manson Family and wanted to comment a bit on each.

I read Marynick’s book first, simply because I happened to come across it and wanted to read something different.  It certainly met that qualification!  Marynick’s account of how he came to meet and know Charles Manson is very interesting.  Marynick is a nurse in the mental health profession and, as such, has worked with a number of very disturbed and, in many cases, very violent people.  His experiences no doubt led him to have a real interest in the nation’s most notorious disturbed criminal, Charles Manson.

Marynick struck up a kind of pen-pal relationship with Manson and some of his fellow prisoners which soon became a telephone-pal relationship.  In truth, how on earth Marynick managed to pay for the countless collect phone calls from various prisoners in the California penal system is beyond me.

In his effort finally to meet Manson face-to-face, Marynick traverses the strange world of Manson “followers,” Manson art collectors, and Manson enthusiasts that comprise the Manson subculture in America today.  It is a strange and often troubling ride.  Marynick encounters criminals, ex-criminals, radical environmentalists, collectors, other Manson pen-pals, and Satanists along the way.  Most of them seem to have one common conviction:  that Manson has been unfairly persecuted and is, in fact, innocent of the Tate and Labianca murders (and presumably the other charges as well).  Furthermore, the common consensus seems to be that Manson’s main concern is simply environmental, as summarized by the Manson’s acrostic ATWA: air, water, trees, and animals.

To be fair, Marynick simply passes on the words of those he meets, and he himself even expresses misgivings about the brutal nature of the crimes for which Manson and his Family were found guilty as well as for Manson’s own alleged participation in these crimes.  Even so, I grew increasingly uncomfortable reading this book and could not shake the feeling that Marynick was largely sympathetic to Manson.

Manson, like every human being, deserves the respect of understanding, but understanding does not excuse culpability.  Furthermore, while Manson is in many ways a very complex person, in many other ways he is not.  Which is simply to say this:  Manson is human, a fact that Manson and some of his followers have occasionally forgotten, with disasterous consequences.

When I concluded Marynick’s work, I decided I had best read the definitive work on the man and the tragic events of 1969, so I turned to Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and his exhaustive work,Helter Skelter.  This #1 crime story in American history rightly deserves its fame.  Bugliosi’s work is fair, judicious, convincing, and, again, exhaustive.  The same evidence that Bugliosi brought to the trial with such effectiveness that it led to guilty verdicts and death penalty sentences (the death penalty was abandoned in California shortly after these verdicts dropping the sentences down to life-in-prison instead) for all accused Family members he brings to this work as well.

Helter Skelter is a powerful and often-terrifying exploration of one man’s ability to hijack the minds of his followers.  Even so, the story is also one of personal responsibility and the willingness of human beings to do utterly monstrous things to other human beings.  It is a tale of depravity and jarring brutality that is no less shocking today than it was when the Tate-Labianca murders took place.

Bugliosi obviously wrote from a privileged perspective, but he does so with an air of fairness and objectivity that is very helpful.

If you had to choose one of these two books to read, Bugliosi’s would be the one.  But to get an overall view of the Manson story as well as the current state of the Manson subculture, these two combine to create a fascinating picture of a dark period in American history (and, to some extent, in the American present).

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