Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 1, 2009

Manson, Fromme and the True Helter Skelter Story

In doing some research — believe it or not for my novel, a domestic tragicomic murder mystery set on Cape Cod in 1959 — I ended up reading an extended history of Charles Manson and “the Family” today. More in a moment on Charlie, the Beatles, and our twisted, twisted times… but first:

Cut to one of those spooky coincidences: three hours ago, I read in The Onion that President Ford’s unsuccessful assassin, Squeaky Fromme, was recently released on parole. Meanwhile the above-linked site, Seize the Night, says that Ms. Fromme had originally been a late-arriving member of the Manson “Family”. Really weird, that her name came up in two entirely unrelated places that I stumbled upon in the same day, mere weeks after her release.

But now back to our program: because of a couple characters in my book, I got curious about the religious, bigoted and/or psychosexual roots of how Manson turned out the way he did, and what makes serial killers tick. But be forewarned: it’s hard reading (clicking the above link, or reading below).  Not for the squeamish, nor for the theologically or psychologically uneducated, in my opinion. Too many dark alleys and assumptions to get lost within.

Those who would place a cookie-cutter diagnosis on Manson’s problems don’t usually get what makes this guy and people like him tick. Not that I do entirely either, but I can at least see how a man with an IQ of 121 and a really awful, abused and abusive history, could enter the Summer of Love hippie scene in ’68 and gain so many followers. Two out of every three California 18-25 year-olds were probably high, horny, and confused out of their minds when the charismatic Manson –the self-proclaimed “God of Fuck”– arrived on the scene. Thus the Family were all ripe for the pickin’ :  disenfranchised, misled and alienated to the point of becoming homicidal.

Not surprisingly, Manson’s life reads like a cautionary history of the grotesque underbelly of American twentieth century life. His life story exposes the wider American problems of violence, poverty, racism, religious extremism, and the ongoing debates about sexual behavior (whether religiously or psychiatrically determined, take your pick).

Charlie was born in the Depression, in 1934, illegimate and unacknowledged son of some bubba from Kentucky and a real loser of a mother. Mom was a prostitute and a drunk, eventually a convicted armed robber, who repeatedly abandoned him. Then he lived for awhile with excessively strict, sadistic, and yet somehow still “religious” relatives as a boy. They also once dressed him as a girl and sent him off to kindergarten, to “toughen him up” — as he was probably sensitive, smart and artistic even at six years old, …before so many genuinely toxic people screwed him up big-time. Charlie got away from the relatives eventually, but Mom still didn’t want him, so he soon was living on the streets and stealing to stay alive. 

Then on the brink of adolescence, he ended up being sodomized by several older boys, while being held in a boys’ reform school. Meanwhile, a guard looked on pruriently and masturbated. It only gets worse from there, ending with all those senseless murders from 1968 on into the early Seventies, when Squeaky Fromme became the new poster-child for religious, anarchist and race-inspired psychosis.

For those who don’t recall or know about Manson and the race issue: besides being lured by the dark undercurrent of racism in certain rural and/or religious communities throughout the Forties and Fifties, Charlie’s early prison experiences brought him directly into contact with Aryan Brotherhood types. Thus he was inclined to seek acceptance or power within that community, and then later inclined to interpret vaguely angry cultural messages –like the general tone in the Beatles’  “Helter Skelter” song — as “prophetic” calls to race war and anarchist actions: a war where he presumed he and other radicalized whites would come out on top. So Manson, who once also claimed to be a Scientologist, is nothing if not a hustler, a survivor, a master manipulator –who still manages to get our attention when his parole hearing comes around and he does something creative, dark and goofy in order to get his face on-camera again.

Things have changed some since the Family’s killing spree in the late Sixties, but not entirely. Maybe we’re not as panicky about assasinations, race wars and riots, communism and the drug culture. But we’re still worried. The Rodney King riots were not so long ago. The World Trade Center bombing and the minor riots at the WTO summit in Seattle are even more recent. Only now we are worried about who’s getting the job we lost, who crossed the border, who’s selling our teens Ecstasy, who’s killing each other over drug turf or religious doctrine, who will stop the Taliban and the heroin traders in Afghanistan, and so on, and so on. The Summer of Love morphs over time into the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror. Not to mention more racist and religious infighting in the U.S. as we elect a black president, and the dwindling middle class feels threatened yet again… by openly gay Episcopal bishops, or idiot stockbrokers who bankrupt the nation, and a government that deregulated the industry and let them.

So how much have we really changed? Are we really any less helter-skelter, any less confused, than we were forty years ago? For example, I also saw yesterday that Rolling Stone ran a cover story just last month on “Why the Beatles Broke Up”.  My first instinct was “Why should we even care anymore?” But then as a longtime Beatles fan, I started wondering: was it really NOT Yoko’s fault? (not that I really think it was…) Was there something or someone, some drug or guru or opportunistic agent who secretly mucked it all up for the Fab Four? Then finally I decided again that it was just a manipulative attempt by Rolling Stone to hook Boomers and Generation X guys like me into caring again, about their old-school magazine and its generally shallow Sixties and Seventies vibe. I ain’t buying it though. Movin’ on…

When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide

What goes around comes around. So I guess Manson still manages to matter. Why? Because unfortunately everyone loves a train wreck: whether it’s the end of a major musical group, the violent end of that hippie innocence (or in the case of Woodstock, just the muddy and stupid beginning of the end), or the end of sanity in a violent, bloody massacre. Deviants, hate crimes, and hedonism are still somehow fascinating: the achilles heels of the now tilting Statue of Liberty.

Most folks seem to need someone to demonize, or at least to act as a scapegoat. When presidents and right (or left) wing hacks or militant Islamists or gays or dope dealers or the pope or Jimmy Swaggart or Jews or blacks or illegal aliens can’t be blamed for our problems– and sacrificed to atone for our deepest fears and sins– then a crazy man with a gun, a hard-on, a Satanic Bible and the sickest of minds will do the trick nicely.


  1. As Ezekiel says, there is nothing new under the sun. We just keep recycling the same paranoias. And while individuals seem to learn, society as a whole doesn’t.

    I guess I’m in a pessimistic mood tonight.

  2. Hi. Are you the Mark Nielson fro NC? I just learned tonight when I was asking around about him and Sandy Moore at a re-union that my pal Mark wrote mystery. I have been trying to find him. You? Linda

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