Cover of Watson's Will You Die for Me?
(Fleming H. Revell Company, 1978)
It’s forty years this past weekend that the most famous murders in American history went down on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles. The Manson Family has been plumbed and probed inside out and upside down—there’s Joan Didion’s The White Album, Jerzy Kosinski’s Blind Date (Kosinski narrowly missed becoming a sixth victim at the Tate-Polanski residence), and more recently Zachary Lazar’s Bobby Beausoleil–driven Sway. These books compliment Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s best-selling classic of true crime. You’ve no doubt read these, but here are a few other titles that any Manson syllabus should contain.
Both Susan Atkins and Tex Watson got jailhouse religion and wrote it all down. Tex’s autobiographical road to Damascus is probably the better and—more important—the least involved in self-delusion, though Susan (“Sexy Sadie”) is the yin to his yang: Both went from soldiers in Charlie’s army to Jesus freaks, and though Atkins all but claims to have wanted nothing to do with the killings, her descriptions of the bitchy infighting among Charlie’s Girls makes this odd out-of-print trip down memory lane worth digging up.
For a thoroughly dry but no less fizzy and ultimately convincing account of one of the Mansonians’ thwarted attempts to atone, Faith’s mercy plea on behalf of Leslie Van Houten is a good counterpoint to Tex and Susan’s more libidinal fare. The irony is that Atkins—gravely ill with brain cancer—is likely to get out of jail sooner than Van Houten; she’s up for parole next month. (John Waters’s forthcoming book, Role Models, excerpted this month at the Huffington Post, contains a fascinating portrait of his friend Van Houten and makes a compelling case for her release.)
The first and still the best—the Fugs front man and poet went undercover for a quick journalistic exposť and emerged with the most complete picture of the creepy glamour, acid inspiration, and apocalyptic strangeness that percolated out in the desert. It still holds up today. Sanders’s writing here is an unmasticated amalgam of Beat syncopation and gumshoe lyricism—part Gregory Corso, part Joe Friday. An unlikely line to carry the Manson beat, but somehow also pitch-perfect for the haywire circuitry of orgasm, LSD, hippiedom, and murder that the Family embodied. Let’s call it a teachable moment.
In the late ’80s, a passel of shoestring presses popped up, almost out of nowhere, giving in-the-know miscreants and discontents their own imagined community. When RE/Search was publishing full throttle, the more paranoid Amok Press turned out this cheaply produced magnum opus—in its day the vade mecum of Manson ephemera, most of it utter nonsense but pre–World Wide Web a trove of otherwise-inaccessible info. With its uninflected and difficult-to-place introduction to the stars and bit players and its republication of Manson’s own writings and “artwork,” it’s tempting to call it Manson for Dummies. A dubiously echt-’80s publication that reached icky cult status.
Weird, but she’s free. Or just about. The least repentant of Charlie’s Girls, the redheaded ringleader of the media circus around the Manson murder trials, and an errant would-be assassin of Gerald Ford, Squeaky served her sentence and gets out of jail this week. If you’ve ever wondered who the “real Squeaky” was—and who hasn’t?—Bravin’s bio of the formative years in the life of the ultimate Manson groupie, published a decade after her short-lived escape from a West Virginia prison, is the place to begin.
Remember your guard dog? I’m afraid that he’s gone: Young captures the whole bloody-fountain, ten-million-dune-buggies-comin’-down-the-mountains hippie-Armageddon zeitgeist as well as if not better than any more literary excursions.
Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum.