Helter Skelter

I attended The Forum my freshman year of college. The Forum used to be called EST, short for Erhard Seminars Training – other people called it a cult. My father attended a number of sessions back in the 1970’s when he was younger, and he once told me it turned his life around. I went for two weekends – I think it was two weekends – in the Fall. I was having a tough time adjusting, and my dad thought it might help, so I went.

I would not call what went on those weekends brainwashing, but it was interesting. My first encounter with Eastern mysticism coupled with Western marketing techniques. Did it change my life? No, not really. There was no brainwashing involved (a few of my friends will tell you otherwise!), but if I took a bunch of LSD and had mind-blowing sex, who knows?

Anyway, that’s my fun personal anecdote of the week. This is my second read of Helter Skelter, which I enjoyed very much – every true crime fan should read this – but I don’t have much to say about the book. Partly that’s because I don’t find Charlie Manson all that interesting – he’s been mythologized, which is a shame. He picked up a few techniques from pimping and Scientology – as a folk-song expert says about his music, somewhere along the line Manson has picked up a pretty good…beat– to start up his own cult, dedicated to Charlie Manson.

Why would he have his followers commit such horrific crimes? Here’s a few reasons, just off the top of my head. Because he thought it was funny. Because he was a control freak and wanted to see how far he could push his followers. Because he was evil. Because he really was trying to set off a race war. Or maybe he was just pissed off at the world and figured he could get away with it. Who cares? Fuck him.

Here’s an update on the current status of the surviving members of the Manson family: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-lists/manson-family-where-are-they-now-100696/ “These children that came at you with knives”, as Charlie once called his followers, are now senior citizens begging forgiveness. That’s a quote from filmmaker John Water’s essay about his friendship with former Manson girl Leslie Van Houten (which can be found in his book of essays, Role Models). Huffington Post excerpted the essay. The first part is here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-waters/leslie-van-houten-a-frien_b_246953.html Here’s the index to the rest of the essay (which comes in five parts): https://www.huffingtonpost.com/topic/leslie-van-houten

I like the Waters essay because it talks about issues such as evil and forgiveness and personal responsibility, and because Mr. Waters is very blunt about his obsession with the Manson family. Ms. Van Houten was just denied parole by the current governor of California and will probably die in jail. ‘Clem’ Grogan – the man who exposed himself to schoolkids and helped kill and chop up ranch-hand Donald ‘Shorty’ Shea – was released from prison in 1985.

Please note that I am not saying these people (I’m not talking about Charlie Manson, who should never have been released and who died in prison) should be forgiven (if they killed a member of my family, I wouldn’t forgive them) or paroled, although I think at this point (2018) the danger to society argument is mostly bullshit. Just be honest and say that the crux of the argument against parole is that they haven’t been punished enough, and that’s a good enough argument for most people right there.

Interestingly, since the crux of Mr. Bugliosi’s argument is that the Family members on trial were brainwashed by evil mastermind Manson, the man ultimately responsible for the murders, it’s clear that none of Manson’s co-defendants had very good legal representation. Bugliosi’s argument should have been made by the defense lawyers of all the Family members not named Charlie Manson. According to Bugliosi, Manson directed their legal defense, and they willingly chose to go down with the ship.

Is this relevant? In our current legal system, it sure is: if Mr. Syed, the subject of the podcast SERIAL, had decent legal representation at his original trial he probably would have been out of jail years ago. Why do you think the producers of SERIAL chose him as the subject of their first season? Because of his soulful eyes? If you look at Mr. Syed’s case a certain way, it doesn’t matter if he was guilty or not. He was victimized by the legal system.

Disclaimer #2: I am not saying that I believe this argument. The reason I’m stating it here is that people should be aware that Helter Skelter is very much a book about the strengths and weaknesses of our legal system – who gets punished, who eventually walks free. If the members of the Manson family had decent legal representation (i.e., anyone not named Charlie Manson), I’m willing to bet some of them would have been out of jail years ago. A few of them might not even have gone to jail at all. Disclaimer #3: I am definitely not saying the last sentence would be a good thing.

Anyway….what struck me most upon reread of Helter Skelter is how candid Mr. Bugliosi is. He openly states that the prosecution didn’t have much of a case. But the thing that really amazed me  is how frank Bugliosi is about the apathy and incompetence of the LAPD in regards to the Manson case. I believe he left his job before Helter Skelter was published. I doubt he would have been so blunt if he was still in the DA’s office. To put it crudely, you don’t crap where you eat – or where you work.

Mr. Bugliosi also realizes that details make or break a story. So we get details. Helter Skelter contains a mind-numbing litany of names and details. I don’t recall half of them, but that’s okay. Mr. Bugliosi uses them to bolster his story. I call Helter Skelter a story because Mr. Bugliosi fashions a coherent narrative from an incoherent mess, and you’ve got to admire him for his tenacity and grit. It’s for this reason that Helter Skelter is the best true crime book I’ve ever read, bar none.

Rereading this review, I’m not sure how coherent I’ve been, so I may edit for clarity in the next few days.