Guys, there are a lot of things I recommend you do in this lifetime—go on a road trip, skydive, eat more than 1,500 calories in a single sitting—but reading the 675-page Helter Skelter in a mere four days is not one of them. That shit will fuck with your head.
I first decided to read Helter Skelter years ago, but for whatever reason—I suppose in part due to its intimidating length—never got around to it. (Editor’s note: Nick, I apologize for “borrowing” your copy of the book for six years.) Then I stumbled across this well-timed Gawker post last week, which itself came on the heels of my having read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, and the irony of finishing up a book on the mental state of mass murderers on the 43rd anniversary of one of the most infamous mass murders of all time was too much to overlook: It was Helter Skelter time.
For the unfamiliar, Helter Skelter is the definitive retelling of the events surrounding the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders, a two-night spree in which seven people were killed—18-year-old student Steven Parent, screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, hairstylist Jay Sebring, actress (and Roman Polanski’s then-wife) Sharon Tate (who was eight months pregnant), supermarket executive Leno LaBianca, and his wife Rosemary LaBianca. All seven murders were exceedingly brutal, with some victims being stabbed upwards of 40 times. After a historic trial, a jury found Charles Manson guilty of the crimes, along with several other members of The Family, a cult-like commune founded by Manson. The murders were intended to set off “Helter Skelter,” the name Manson had given to what he perceived as an imminent race war between blacks and whites. Why Helter Skelter? Manson took the title from a Beatles song he felt was intended (by the Beatles) to warn listeners of this impending revolution. Because obvi.
Helter Skelter is written by Vincent Bugliosi (with help from Curt Gentry) who was the prosecuting attorney in the Tate-LaBianca case. Consequently the book is told from a generally matter-of-fact (and surprisingly non-vitriolic) perspective, and includes a wealth of details, some of which were unknown until its 1974 release.
Given our desensitization to violence, I was prepared to be only mildly affected by the contents of Helter Skelter. And while the details of the Tate-LaBianca murders are exceedingly brutal (do a Google image search at your own risk) I was right in thinking that the minutiae of the crimes wouldn’t shock me so much as the minutiae of Charles Manson himself. Here was a fast-talking 30-something ex-convict, barely over five feet tall, who managed to essentially brainwash more than a dozen young people into believing he was the second coming of Christ, and into brutally murdering complete strangers on more than one occasion. The world has a long history of crazy people, including serial killers responsible for dozens of deaths all on their own, but what was it about Charles Manson that made it possible for him to assign murder? Particularly murder motivated by something as completely batshit as Helter Skelter.
Bugliosi, for his part, has the same question, and much of Helter Skelter the book is devoted to exploring it. What was Manson’s background? Where did he get his worldviews? How did he recruit followers? What were their backgrounds? How did they come to worship him? In fact, Helter Skelter is all the more successful for its completely rational approach to a completely irrational situation, and Bugliosi’s capacity for fairness (Manson complimented him on it more than once) not only surprised me, but also kept the book from devolving into the emotional. This is crime writing at its best.
Which isn’t to say that reading about Manson didn’t scare the shit out of me. I could do without the mental picture of someone “creepy-crawling” my apartment (Family members would break into homes and move things around while the residents slept), and without the knowledge that there are people in this world capable of stabbing a pregnant woman. Without question, Helter Skelter is a deeply disturbing book, and Charles Manson is a deeply disturbed person. One is never anything short of ecstatic to know that justice in this case was ultimately served.
And yet. To watch any YouTube clip of Manson speaking is to feel that he still, in some way, has scored his victory over society. As Rich Juzwiak put it in Gawker:
“Our culture puts a premium on extreme human behavior, and to watch Manson go off and sputter his free associative efrannis booj pooch boo jujube is thrilling. Good nonsense is hard to find. He invokes images of ‘staunch’ and ‘upstanding’ parrots and pockets full of ‘everything you can eat.’ He calls Geraldo Rivera ‘Mr. G.’ He explains the swastika on his forehead (which alone makes him understandably impossible to look at for particularly sensitive people) as not a sign of affiliation with the Nazi party, but with his Nazi party: ‘It means I’ve been locked up in here since 1943, that I’m standing behind the judges in Nuremberg.’ A very loud facet of our culture loves things for being terrible – to watch Charles Manson in 2012 is to revel in the concept of so-bad-it’s-good where the bad is actual evil.”
More importantly, Manson is incredibly aware of his own celebrity, a central theme of many of his rants. From Manson:
“Mr. and Mrs. America–you are wrong. I am not the King of the Jews nor am I a hippie cult leader. I am what you have made me and the mad dog devil killer fiend leper is a reflection of your society…Whatever the outcome of this madness that you call a fair trial or Christian justice, you can know this: In my mind’s eye my thoughts light fires in your cities.”
“I can’t dislike you, but I will say this to you: you haven’t got long before you are all going to kill yourselves, because you are all crazy. And you can project it back at me, but I am only what lives inside each and every one of you.”
“You’re creating a legend, you’re creating a beast, you’re creating whatever you are judging yourselves with into the word Manson,”
Manson, in essence, has always had our number. He understands, and revels in, our obsession with fame, violence, and the relationship between the two. And while some part of him surely would have preferred an acquittal back in 1970, there is a persistent feeling throughout Helter Skelter that Manson felt equally comfortable getting caught, that in fact being trotted out as an example of evil was the opportunity he needed to point out the evil we’re so adept at ignoring in ourselves. In fact, perhaps more terrifying than Manson’s crimes are the hundreds of letters he still receives from people who claim to admire them.
Helter Skelter is not a needlessly sensational book, which is a truly impressive feat for something documenting the most sensational crime and subsequent court case of modern times (sorry Casey Anthony.) It’s journalistic at heart, and riveting by virtue of its subject matter more than its writing. But Helter Skelter is also a must-read for anyone even vaguely interested in Manson, or psychopathy, or the psychology of mass murder. It is hard to read, and equally hard to put down.
TITLE: Helter Skelter
AUTHOR: Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
PAGES: 679 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: And the Sea Will Tell, Outrage
SORTA LIKE: In Cold Blood
FIRST LINE: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.”