Read from May 24th to June 14th 2017
Monsters among and within us
I feel like I have always known about the tragic fate of Sharon Tate, even though I was too young (only three) at the time of the events to really remember them, and I only learnt about her tragic fate some ten years later when, while browsing a “Cinema” magazine, a saw a photo of her with the legend that it was taken a month or so before her death. There wasn’t other information and when I asked my mother she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) give me many details, neither, other than she was the famous Roman Polanski’s wife and that she was killed in her house while pregnant. I was too young to know where to look for, and there was no computer then to facilitate such research, so the circumstances of her death remained always somehow blurry in my mind, but her story moved me so much (mainly because of her pregnancy) that I have never forgotten her name.
However, it was only after reading Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter-Skelter, that I realized that, tragic as it was, Sharon Tate’s death was not only a criminal case to be investigated and solved by the police, but also an event with social and historical implications. In an interview taken by Tom Watson for Newsweek in 2009 (40 years after the event), Vincent Bugliosi shared his conviction that the Manson murders changed the world:
“I can tell you that in L.A., it was a time of relative innocence. I've heard many people say that prior to these murders, there were areas of the city where folks literally did not lock their doors at night. That ended with the Tate-LaBianca murders.” Actually, the same idea appears in his Afterword, in which he recalls that many have seen in these gory events “the end of innocence” of the hippies era, the end of power-flower (love, peace and sharing).
This is one of the greatest merits of this extraordinary book lies: the fact that it offers multiple readings, each one of them startling because each one of them is true in its last disturbing detail: a crime story, a law and order story, a cultural mutilation story, a sociopath story and a mass manipulation story. All told by the Deputy District Attorney Vincent T. Bugliosi, aged thirty-five when he was named the prosecutor of the case.
The crime story begins with a house located at 10050 Cielo Drive, lent by Roman Polanski who was about to return from Europe, to his wife, Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, who lived there with two of her friends, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski.
In the morning of August 9th 1969, the police, alerted by the housekeeper, entered the said property and found five bodies, three outside (a male body in a car, shot four times, who would be identified as a friend of the caretaker, another male on the lawn – Voytek – whose head and face were horribly battered and whose torso and limbs were stabbed dozens of times and a female body – Abigail – beyond the male, also stabbed many times) and two inside (Sharon and Jay Sebring, a visitor). On the front door there was a message written in blood: PIG.
If the frenzy madness of the murder scene is graved forever in the memory of the reader, even more chilling will be the following pages, containing the confession of one of the killers, Susan Denise Atkins, aka Sadie Mae Glutz, a very young woman, who, arrested for another crime, will boast about the murder in front of a cellmate, Virginia:
“Sharon was the last to die.” On saying this, Susan laughed.
Susan said that she had held Sharon’s arms behind her, and that Sharon looked at her and was crying and begging, “Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me. I don’t want to die. I want to live. I want to have my baby. I want to have my baby.”
Susan said she looked Sharon straight in the eye and said, “Look, bitch, I don’t care about you. I don’t care if you’re going to have a baby. You had better be ready. You’re going to die, and I don’t feel anything about it.”
Then Susan said, “In a few minutes I killed her and she was dead.”
After killing Sharon, Susan noticed there was blood on her hand. She tasted it. “Wow, what a trip!” she told Virginia. “I thought ‘To taste death, and yet give life.’” Had she ever tasted blood? she asked Virginia. “It’s warm and sticky and nice.”
Who knows about the intricacies of the juridical system (everywhere, not only in America) has already guessed that this confession that rings so gruesomely true could not be used in court, and that the main problem of the prosecution would not be identifying the killer, which is important, of course, but never enough, since the killer has to be connected with the murder “by strong, admissible evidence, then proving his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, be it before a judge or a jury.”
And it is in collecting the evidence that the young prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi will encounter his first difficulties, and the portraits of the police, the defense attorneys and the judges show the many gaps in a system that fools the law-abiding citizen that it works for him at its best. Detectives who ignore the elementary rules of collecting and preserving evidence and are more interested in scoring points with other departments than solving the case, attorneys who sell confidential information, judges who are biased or partial, all contributes to a disquieting image of a system in which there would be room for a lot of improvements.
Despite all this, the district attorney’s main concern was to establish a motive, because that “motiveless crime” imagined by fiction writers in reality does not exist:
“It may be unconventional; it may be apparent only to the killer or killers; it may even be largely unconscious — but every crime is committed for a reason. The problem, especially in this case, was finding it.”
And the motive he found was so bizarre that it took him almost two years to build the proof that would convince the jury it was real. He found soon enough that the mastermind behind the crimes committed by Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houteis and Tex Watson was a man of his age, Charles Manson, who had spent almost half his life in prison (actually when it was last released, in 1967, he had begged the authorities to let him remain there because he didn’t feel he could adjust outside but his request was denied) and who created a group of outcasts known as “Manson family”. Interviewing many witnesses, the prosecutor would find that Manson had such a hypnotic influence over his “family”, that he could made them do anything for him including murder. As for the motive, it could be found in his “philosophy” based, as incredible as it seems, on Beatles and the Bible. He had convinced his followers that he was Jesus Christ whose second arrival had been announced by the Beatles’ White Album (especially five songs: “Blackbird,” “Piggies,” “Revolution 1,” “Revolution 9,” and “Helter-Skelter”), which spoke the Apocalypse words through the “breastplates of fire…” (the electric guitars) of “the four angels” whose name (locust – Beatles) and appearance (men with long hair), had been mentioned in the Book of Revelation: “And he opened the bottomless pit… And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth; and unto them was given power…” “Their faces were as the faces of men,” yet “they had hair as the hair of women.” And the prophecy they announced was that the black man would rise against the white man in a helter-skelter that would kill everybody except a few (the Manson family), who would hide in the desert until the black man, the sole master of the world, realizes he doesn’t know what to do with his power and he would give it to them. The murders were intended to ignite this war, by leaving the impression they were committed by a black gang.
The prosecutor was able to convince the jury that all these bizarre fact were true, and after nine days of deliberations, the verdict was pronounced, finding Charles Manson, and his instruments guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and of murder in the first degree:
“It had been the longest murder trial in American history, lasting nine and a half months; the most expensive, costing approximately $1 million; and the most highly publicized; while the jury had been sequestered 225 days, longer than any jury before it. The trial transcript alone ran to 209 volumes, 31,716 pages, approximately eight million words, a mini-library.”
In an epilogue as interesting as the book itself, the author, after mentioning the three main influences in Manson’s thinking (the Scientology, The Process or the Church of the Final Judgment and Hitler), enumerates some the techniques he employed to control the minds of his followers: capitalizing on their needs, using drugs, repetitions, isolation, sex, fear and religion, giving the feeling of belonging and love, and teaching them that life was nothing but a game, a “magical mystery tour”:
“All of these factors contributed to Manson’s control over others. But when you add them all up, do they equal murder without remorse? Maybe, but I tend to think that there is something more, some missing link that enabled him to so rape and bastardize the minds of his followers that they would go against the most ingrained of all commandments, Thou shalt not kill, and willingly, even eagerly, murder at his command.
(…) I believe Charles Manson is unique. He is certainly one of the most fascinating criminals in American history, and it appears unlikely that there will ever be another mass murderer quite like him.”
The author’s belief in Charles Manson’s uniqueness passed the test of time. In his Afterword written in 1994, Bugliosi gives some examples of the fascination Manson’s personality continued to exert on people all over the world: twenty-five years later, there were still anniversaries of the murders, Manson continued to receive an incredible amount of letters from young people wanting to be part of his Family, several plays and an opera about him had been performed, Guns N’ Roses played a Manson composition, “Look at Your Game, Girl,” and included it in one of their albums, a font named Manson was created by avant-garde typographers in California (they would rename it Mason after criticism), and last but not least, “the television adaptation of this book about the case was, when it aired in 1976, the most watched television movie in the history of the medium and, like no other film of a murder case ever, has continued to be shown, year after year without fail, in the United States and many other countries of the world”
Why? Maybe because people are in habit of falling for dictatorial cult figures until they cannot turn back. Maybe because people have an appetite for the bizarre. Or maybe because they only seem to glorify life while all along they long for it to be destroyed. And maybe, just maybe because they recognize in Manson not simply a monster among them, but the monster inside them all.
And the greatest value of Bugliosi’s book, as Robert Kirsch points out in his excellent review published in 1974 and republished by Los Angeles times forty years later, is to assure us that this monster is being kept in check by the system, as imperfect as it is:
“The central point that Bugliosi makes — whether or not one agrees with his specific criticisms or questions Bugliosi’s own motivations — is that fear can becloud judgment. But the overriding obligation of society is to see that the victims did not die in vain. To blinker our view of this bestiality, to gloss over it with vague implications that somehow society itself is to blame, is to abandon the imperative of clear and rational thinking at a time when it is most sorely needed.”