“I may have implied on several occasions to several different people that I may have been Jesus Christ, but I haven’t decided yet what I am or who I am.”
I read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry last summer, eating chips and spicy homemade salsa in the sweltering heat. I’d never known much about the Manson Murders, but after reading The Girls by Emma Cline, I knew I had to learn more.
The book took me a while to get into. It feels weird criticizing the “#1 true crime best-seller of all time,” but it does start off very slow and impersonal. The writers don’t introduce Vincent Bugliosi — who prosecuted Charles Manson and the Manson family — as a narrator for a very long time. Honestly, that distant, unbiased tone almost lost me; but I’m glad I pushed through. Once Bugliosi starts narrating, shit gets interesting.
The book does an excellent job of detailing the complicated, messy, confusing tale of the Manson Murders. They didn’t portray the murderers as “brainwashed” by Manson, or as fully cold and calculating; but as young adults, lost and confused with their own personal problems, who were vulnerable to a domineering person like Manson.
They were and are culpable for the crimes they committed, no one’s denying that. But I think it’s a common misconception and oversimplification that cult members are “brainwashed.” Across Jonestown, the Manson Family, and Heaven’s Gate, people believe the members behaved like zombies, following their leaders’ orders without thought or question. For me, that ignores the control, manipulation, and abuse that Manson established as normal in his family. It also ignores the fact that others told Manson they wouldn’t murder anyone for him. The “family members” who did commit murder were cognizant human beings who chose to follow Manson wherever he led.
The writers also did well by portraying Manson as a somewhat sad and pathetic, though charismatic, human. Manson committed horrendous crimes and ruined lives. It’s important to recognize though, how his tragic upbringing and early life contributed to this. It seems like he was unwanted by anyone growing up, and had no real consistent family or relationships. That doesn’t excuse his crimes, but it does evoke sadness for the person Manson could have been and the man he became.
Helter Skelter was challenging at times, but it’s absolutely requisite reading for anyone fascinated with true crime.
Do you have any true crime recommendations? Let me know!