Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

There have been many mass murderers/serial killers whose names have been forgotten by history but for some reason Charles Manson's name continues to bring immediate memories to those who hear it. Perhaps this has to do with the combination of the tawdry Manson Family cult intersecting with the L.A. glitz. Also, upon looking back it seems a pre-Altamont signifier that not everything in hippie era was about peace and love. Certainly prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 bestseller Helter Skelter kept the story alive, as does the fact that Manson is still with us (and periodically colorfully pops up in the news).

Jeff Guinn's Manson takes a comprehensive look at the formative years of Charles Manson as well as the years following the establishment of "the family" (which surprisingly only existed for about two years). I don't think that anyone reading this will be shocked that Manson had a less than perfect childhood. However, despite his father abandoning him and his mother being sent to prison his psychopathic future was not necessarily guaranteed, as he had a loving and religious grandmother willing to raise him. Manson did seem to be a bit of a bad seed from an early age and certainly being passed from school to juvenile prison to school seems to have encouraged the worst in him. He was sent to prison twice before he moved to San Francisco at age 32 and prison seems to have suited him. He actually requested to remain in prison before being released for the second time. One of the most interesting facts revealed in this book is Manson's interest in (and mastery of) Dale Carnegie's teachings, which he later used to manipulated his followers. The other skill he picked up in college was guitar, which also helped lead his future direction.

Eventually freed from prison (despite his protestations) Manson moved to Haight-Ashbury where he found enough people (mostly women at the beginning) willing to follow a smooth talking, magnetic, guitar strumming guru to L.A., the epicenter of the music business. The next year and a half were then spent speaking to his followers about a forthcoming apocalypse while trying to sign a music contract. Eventually when rejected by his music connections he decided to take out his misery on Sharon Tate et al. while unsuccessfully trying to pin the blame on the Black Panthers and start a race war.

As you can imagine, much of the book is spent summing up the investigation of the Sharon Tate and the LaBianca murders, which serves as a nice distillation of the enormous (but very readable) Helter Skelter. My one quibble with this book is that the post-murder years are breezed over. I realize that Manson has been in prison these years but it seems like there might be a little more about him that could be fleshed out. Perhaps if he had allowed himself to be interviewed by the author this might have been the case. I was absolutely riveted to the book despite being pretty familiar with the case from reading Helter Skelter. Though it perhaps has more of a biographical angle than most true crime books, lovers of the genre should jump on this one, as it is an excellent addition.

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