Jeff Guinn’s new book could have been called How to Win Friends and Influence People to Kill for You. No one was more instrumental in honing Charles Manson’s manipulative skills than Dale Carnegie. Impatient and semiliterate, Manson never read Carnegie’s bestseller. But he did take his self-improvement course in jail. What did he learn? Try to make others think that what you want them to do was their idea. In this engrossing biography, Jeff Guinn argues that such mental jujitsu worked for Manson because he was “the wrong man in the right place at the right time,” cleverly exploiting the insecurities of an unsettled generation.
When he was released from prison in 1967, he had spent half his life behind bars. Thin and small, he was frequently raped. But before you blame the system for creating a monster, Guinn provides compelling evidence that Manson was a bad seed, a pathological liar with vicious tendencies (at 7 he went after a cousin with a sickle). His crimes were unexceptional, however: car theft, check forgery, etc. This changed with the advent of the Beatles.
Manson became obsessed with the band, envied its fame and power. Although he could barely carry a tune or play the guitar, he convinced himself that he was a great musician too. But he had no intention of working hard at it — or anything else, for that matter. A moocher extraordinaire, he always relied on others to pay his keep. It therefore made perfect sense for him to descend upon San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district during the so-called Summer of Love. The Mecca of the hippie movement, the Haight attracted wayward youth by the tens of thousands, easy pickings for predators like Manson.
Throughout, Guinn adds the historical context necessary for understanding the secret to Manson’s success. For example, he strips the Summer of Love of romanticism. While it started off as an idyllic sanctuary, the Haight quickly degenerated into an overcrowded, drug-infested ghetto where rape was commonplace.
But the whiff of an agenda is detectable. Guinn seems disapproving of the Sixties. The existence of a thriving counterculture may have allowed Manson to assemble his “family.” How else could a two-bit loser persuade disaffected, middle-class white girls to become his sex slaves by posing as a guru who would free them from the confines of their materialistic, self-absorbed upbringing?
But Guinn overlooks the establishment’s complicity. The nation was split over an unpopular war supported by clean-cut, well-mannered patriots who could be as heartless as Manson to dissenters and foreigners. When Guinn mentions Kent State, he fails to bring up the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, which was the reason for the protest on campus. He calls the unarmed students in Ohio “violent,” but doesn’t have a bad word to say about the Hard Hat Riot in New York City, where a mob of Archie Bunkers assaulted dozens of peaceful demonstrators.
Ironically, even though Manson was linked to the hippies (a word he despised for its pacifist implication), his “philosophy,” if one can call it that, fits snugly into the far right of the ideological spectrum. He was a pro-gun, anti-Semitic white supremacist who burned books and thought women should be utterly subordinate to men. But Guinn writes, “To those appalled by student radicals and war protesters, Charlie and the Family were proof that longhairs were not only disruptive but dangerous.”
Politics aside, Guinn’s account of Manson’s evil is a splendid, comprehensively researched companion to Helter Skelter, the riveting blockbuster by ex-prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (his debt to which Guinn acknowledges). He walks us step-by-step through the events that led to the Tate-LaBianca murders. He also helps to answer the question of how Manson could get his followers to slaughter perfect strangers (he never killed anyone with his own hands; the closest he came was when he shot a drug dealer he had defrauded).
The other story here, of course, is the media’s fascination with him. His trial was the greatest spectacle of its kind in L.A. until O.J. Simpson dropped his bloody glove. Guinn reveals that Manson’s supposedly mad behavior during the proceedings was an act, a way to enhance his celebrity status.
One does not envy Guinn. He faced a daunting challenge: a subject without a single redeeming feature. But he did well. He has given us an American nightmare from which we have not yet fully awoken.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.