Monday, November 20, 2017

Childhood fears

I was five years old in the summer of 1969. If you watched the news then, and I did, you would see plenty of amazing things. I didn't understand them all that well, but in the midst of the Apollo 11 triumph and the euphoria of Woodstock, the one guy I remember the best was Charles Manson, who died yesterday at the age of 83.

Manson was the monster under my bed personified. I was convinced that he was coming to Wisconsin to kill me and my family. My parents tried to reassure me that I was almost certainly wrong about my belief, but it stuck with me. It was lurid stuff:
Manson did not commit the murders himself; instead he persuaded his group of followers to carry out the killings. The crimes received frenzied news coverage, because so many lurid and sensational elements coalesced at the time — Hollywood celebrity, cult behavior, group sex, drugs and savage murders that concluded with the killers scrawling words with their victims’ blood.
Manson's lethal followers looked a lot like the young adults I'd see walking the streets of Appleton, Wisconsin. While they never made it to Appleton, they were on our family television at 5:30 every afternoon:
Manson and four of his followers — Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Charles “Tex” Watson — were convicted of murdering actress Sharon Tate, the wife of movie director Roman Polanski, in their Bel-Air home on Aug. 9, 1969, along with four others.

Watson had been a high school football star. Krenwinkel a former Sunday school teacher. Van Houten a homecoming princess from Monrovia. And Atkins once sang in her church choir. Linda Kasabian, a pregnant 20-year-old with a baby daughter, who said she was asked to go along that night because she was the only one with a valid driver’s license, testified against the others in return for immunity from prosecution. Atkins died in 2009 in prison; the others remain incarcerated.
As I left my childhood behind, I didn't fear Manson and his followers, but the wild-eyed image of Manson himself, compared with the dead eyes of his acolytes, is still jarring:

Cold blooded

As is the description of their crimes:
Tate, 26, who was eight months pregnant, pleaded with her killers to spare the life of her unborn baby. Atkins replied, “Woman, I have no mercy for you.” Tate was stabbed 16 times. “PIG” was written in her blood on the front door.
It's difficult to understand evil of this sort. You can lay out all manner of rationales and explanations for what caused Manson to become the monster he was -- the linked obituary from the Los Angeles Times lays out the horrific events of Manson's childhood in detail -- but as always, there's the matter of free will. Manson chose his path, and while he was able to control his acolytes, they chose their paths as well. The childhood fears I had of Charles Manson weren't his responsibility -- Manson didn't ask Walter Cronkite to discuss his case every night, although he surely didn't mind it, either. But it became part of who I am today. And as I chose my own path, I had to put such fears away. They don't arise that often any more, but they will always remain.


8 comments:

R.A. Crankbait said...

I was surprised at the Strib's choice of headline this a.m.: "Hippie Cult Leader Charles Manson Dead at 83". AS if "hippie" was the definitive category. WTF? Was St. Paul's own Sara Jean Olson a would-be cop-killer because she was a "hippie"? Growing up I seldom heard the word hippie without the word "damned" in front of it, but I still think the Strib's choice of words here is sloppy. That in itself is not unusual, but they typically stretch the meaning/use of words for reasons of political correctness or to redirect assumptions that are a little too close to the truth. Why not "60's Cult Leader..." in this instance; it even has fewer letters?

Your observations are accurate; Manson was the bogeyman made flesh, and writ large in our new world of electronic information mass media.

Gino said...

i didnt hear of mason until his case was over for a few years. i was maybe 9, when i stumbled across a paper back book titled 'helter Skelter'... with all the gory photos.

the Night Stalker, otoh... had me a tad worried. I went to bed with weapons within reach, just in case, along with a large bowie under my pillow.

R.A. Crankbait said...

I've been thinking this morning of the reach of our evolving media. The Manson Family killings were dramatic, and in the collective memory even for folks born after they happened, no doubt because of the TV coverage, which generated interest, which generated books and film. The murders were horrific, and seized people's fear/imaginations.

Similarly, the "In Cold Blood" murders of the Clutter family in 1959 shocked the country, in part because of its randomness and it's heartland (Kansas) locale. It was heavily covered in the papers at the time, and immortalized in Capote's book, but TV was still a bit of a novelty and not as pervasive. By the time Manson and the others came to trial we had a more common, electronic cultural experience bringing both the killings and things like the Viet Nam war into our living rooms and dining table conversations.

Today, the Clutter killings are seldom recalled (I read the book when I was 12 or 13, and it really made an impression on me). Movies have also been made about it, but it doesn't seem to occupy the same space in the country's awareness. Another difference: the Manson trials lasted nearly a year; the Hickcock/Perry trial lasted a week. The two men were sentenced to death, with the sentence being carried out about 5 years later. The Tate/LaBianca killers received life in prison.

Gino said...

somebody asked a question today... what if Manson gave his life to Christ seconds before his heart stopped beating? where is he now?

my question, though... how can a man who only stood 5'2" instill such fear in others, and such a loyalty among a few. A talent of personality wasted for evil as opposed to good. An amazing man, if you stop to think about it.

i also found out today, that he sired three kids. I wonder where they are now.

Bike Bubba said...

I'd guess he'd be in Heaven if he had. A life of crime didn't kill the odds for the thief on the cross next to Christ, no?

Gino said...

Bubba: this is where the Catholic belief in Purgatory comes in to play...
as a Christian, I hope he did. As a Catholic... he's got some dues to pay before the Gates open.

Mr. D said...

Today, the Clutter killings are seldom recalled (I read the book when I was 12 or 13, and it really made an impression on me). Movies have also been made about it, but it doesn't seem to occupy the same space in the country's awareness. Another difference: the Manson trials lasted nearly a year; the Hickcock/Perry trial lasted a week. The two men were sentenced to death, with the sentence being carried out about 5 years later. The Tate/LaBianca killers received life in prison.

I read "In Cold Blood" for the first time about a year ago. It made an impression on me, too. Helluva book.

Bubba: this is where the Catholic belief in Purgatory comes in to play...
as a Christian, I hope he did. As a Catholic... he's got some dues to pay before the Gates open.


Yep. The thing is, only God knows the condition of your soul. And I can only hope that God is merciful with me when my day arrives.

Bike Bubba said...

Understood, but keep in mind Christ said the man would be in Paradise. Now I'm no great expert on the Magisterium, but my reading of Dante suggests this is not exactly compatible with at least Dante's view of Purgatory.