By Ron Kenner

There's the story of the professor who wanted to demonstrate the dangers of alcohol. First he took a glass of water, into which he dropped a worm, and you could see that the worm continued to wriggle around. Then the professor poured a glass of whiskey, and dropped a worm into the glass. Now almost immediately the worm stiffened, sank to the bottom of the glass and died.

"So," the professor asked confidently. "What does that prove?"

One of the students looked at the glass with the dead worm, turned to the professor and quickly responded, "Drink whiskey—you'll never have worms!"

No doubt, the student got the main facts. But you can recognize the disorientation, a kind of misconception laced perhaps with the touch of rationalization of one who opts for the more comfortable answer. And so, too, with the Charles Manson story. The essential facts have come out yet only to be absorbed too often over the years as misconceptions followed as well by considerable exaggerations, narrow focus, and significant oversights.

It is now many years since my own book, The Garbage People, co-authored with John Gilmore, was published in the United State, Latin America, and Europe. One of the earliest of a half dozen books published on the subject, this came along with several films and, especially in the United States, thousands of column inches of newspaper and magazine reports.

All this makes the Manson story—with the exception of the O.J. Simpson trial or the Black Dahlia case—perhaps the most publicized crime story of the twentieth century, almost certainly so in the United States. Yet my own feeling is that in the United States, and much of the western world as well, these "misconceptions"and problems of over-emphasis and limited focus have not been corrected over time. Sometimes history sorts itself out. But in this instance, more likely the distortions have magnified as the details fade and we settle for more simple conclusions.

These observations are not offered as a criticism of all the Manson literature or of the pronouncements of others on the subject. The acquisition of information is only a starting point. Piece by piece the news unfolds and the story comes out, and sometimes, piece by piece, before the large picture is fitted together, we draw simple conclusions. One causal explanation sometimes seems as likely as another. Information is presented and received with a certain degree of emphasis, then integrated in a way that fits our own patters of thought. Thus it has been noted by the Spanish philosopher Georgio de Santillana, "The empiricist is much better at seeing what he believes than at believing what he sees."And that's the guy who is one step ahead of those others who already have, in some mysterious way, all of the answers.

It would be comfortable to some, no doubt, to pointedly view the Manson phenomenon as a "hippy problem,"or a "drug problem,"or as the tragic result of Charles Manson's "helter skelter"grand plan of social Armageddon, or as though the killers in this tragic affair were simply hypnotized by Manson, the devil himself, or, at the least, mesmerized by this strange cult leader as a charismatic father figure. Some, no doubt, find comfort in presuming that the followers in this "family"were simply stupid, or that they came from a special class or segment of society that has no bearing on the larger community, and this, of course, includes the comforting thought that this unique absurdity could never involve you, or your daughter, or your friends; not even your next door neighbor whom you've never met. There have been other such simple 'explanations', and yet any of these, while retaining perhaps some spark of truth—and even all of them together—fail to give us a reasonable understanding of the problem.

Especially in the United States, I think, we got the facts about Manson but somehow we didn't get the story. As with Vietnam those days the press reported the body count, the number of fatalities and how our troops died and where they died and the exact moment of the latest tragic occurrence and a thousand other things. Yet despite all of this—perhaps even because of the enormous quantity of information provided—some essential questions and answers got lost in the shuffle.

At the courthouse one day while the Manson family was being tried I had a conversation with Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecuting attorney and now the well-known author of Helter Skelter, the most successful book and film about the Manson family.

"It seems to me,"I told Bugliosi, "that one of the great moral lessons of the whole tragedy, one that seemed to be near completely overlooked, is that if somebody tells you to go out and kill someone the least you can do is ask why. And expect an explanation. Yet unfortunately, for whatever reasons, so many of us grow up not learning to ask why."

Much of this, I suggested philosophically while Bugliosi considered his next trial move, comes about because we've tried to educate our children, and our citizens, by telling them what's what, by adapting them to the society rather than by teaching them to figure things out for themselves in an intelligent way. In such a milieu it came as no big surprise to historian Harry Elmer Barnes, anyway, that the Renaissance itself near completely bypassed the university—that is, the Renaissance came about not because of the university but despite it. It's simply the way we operate from the seat of knowledge, preserving and protecting the status quo much the same as we politically tend to preserve and protect the status quo—sometimes no matter what, as when we supported certain dictators and seemingly bizarre nut cases, from Franco to Idi Amin or Pol Pot during the decades-long cold war.

Such a costly tendency to remain locked into supporting the inexcusable, I thought, was tragic, a kind of underlying invisible tragedy where we fail to ask sometimes what we're doing when we do terrible things. Or when our societies or countries sometimes do terrible things, in our names, and when we acquiesce. And even if these "necessary actions,"are not terrible, we ought to question to make sure what we're doing before America sends soldiers to defend a regime in South Vietnam—or El Salvador in the days of Iran-Contra—all in the name of democracy; though at least in certain ways such regimes have themselves often proven about as democratic as the governments of Idi Amin or Pol Pot. Did premier Ky in Vietnam really have a picture of Adolph Hitler on his wall to remind him of great leadership?

If that habitual failure to question isn't an invisible problem, and one wonders how it can be—as though we learned nothing from the "good soldiers"of Nazi Germany and so on down the line—at least we don't talk about it, not even those who know better, though it was obvious enough (for those who wanted to consider the matter) that you can't identify a Communist while shooting at him and traveling eleven hundred miles an hour in an airplane. And it should be obvious enough, at least now, that our ad hoc rationale for our unilateral invasion of Iraq—supposedly to spread democracy—was a pretty flimsy excuse.

No doubt as the world grows more and more complex, as we become overwhelmed by our own technology, as we learn to know what specialist we respect, or what politician we respect—rather than to ask questions and respect what we know—it simply becomes easier and easier to let someone else do our thinking for us. And the more simple the concept, the easier to grasp; and then we can do no wrong, naturally, because it wasn't our idea to start with.

Of course there was no way I could go into all of this and related matters in a brief discussion with prosecuting attorney Bugliosi in the hallway outside the courtroom. The focus seemed far removed from the murders in question. It was the middle of a trial break, only minutes before Bugliosi had to return to the courtroom as the prosecuting attorney bent on convincing the jury that Manson was a fiendish monster.

And no doubt about it, Bugliosi had his facts right. The ones he chose to use, anyway. Manson was a monster. Especially if you ignore the oversight that Manson was not merely a devil conjured up out of nowhere but a Frankenstein, a product of the society that now condemns him; particularly, one might say—though not as a simple excuse—a product of our brutal prison system and of his own early childhood.

Ironically, although Manson had spent most of his lifetime in prison, up through the final trial he was never psychiatrically tested. Finally he was decreed normal, fit to stand trial. But his old prison cell-mates knew better—they used to call him Crazy Charlie.

Then there was a good deal of talk about Manson's "charisma"and special powers of the mind. And to survive in prison, Manson did become an expert "con."But it was also in prison that Manson learned how not to use his mind. One "thinks"when one makes choices, between one thing and another. But in prison the choices are taken away. You're told what to wear, what time to get dressed, and what kind of utensils to eat with. For the most part, it becomes dangerous to think; to come up with challenging opinion. So you learn not to use your mind.

Nor does one experience in prison the things us "outsiders"take for granted. When Manson was maybe nineteen or twenty he had never ridden on a bus, never made a telephone call, never been on a date with a girl. Finally, the last time around, with little more experience than that, Manson was forced out of prison with thirty five dollars and a suitcase full of old clothes and expected to function in organized society. Even Manson knew he wasn't capable of functioning outside prison and he pleaded with the authorities to let him remain, where he had grown accustomed to the life and had learned to con his way. In retrospect, Manson, who was just smart enough to recognize he was a loser in a society more and more dividing up between winners and losers. Manson, who had a hatred of the "winners,"ended up the way one might have expected. Yet it was not Manson "the father"running the show but Manson the little boy pulling the strings; bent on revenge for a lonely and brutal childhood, and for his refusal to grow up in more meaningful ways.

Those who knew Manson well would comment that not only his personality but his very physical expression; seemingly the contour of his face, itself, would change from day to day. So you had in a way a number of Mansons, and the tendency would be to ask, "Would the real Charles Manson please stand up."Of course the unmentioned tragedy is that there really is no Charles Manson, that the Manson who might have been, the normal identity that might have developed, was stunted somewhere along the way. Only the shattered, revengeful child-like facets remained—a far cry from the father figure we kept hearing about.

Clearly you could see important distinctions between the "family"that went off to the Sharon Tate house and the thousands of well-intentioned soldiers going off then to Vietnam. It was not a parallel situation, and so it could be ignored. So what could I say of all this in a few brief moments with the prosecuting attorney. Bugliosi could see that the Manson lifestyle was certainly not normal and so "hippy"was as good a name as any, especially to a juror wearing a white shirt and a tie. Yet only moderate examination and reflection suggests that Manson was neither magician nor devil nor hippy but someone both deprived and spoiled in childhood, and, later, a prison-trained con with a streak of sadism further developing out of loneliness, beatings and isolation. In the process Manson would ultimately become a sort of strange antihero to those who had lost faith in the broader civilization that talked about "democracy"while maybe one million people got killed in Vietnam (if you trouble to include the Asians), with the very land itself destroyed for decades. As the French philosopher Sartre put it well about Vietnam, since the United States couldn't distinguish the enemy from the people, the people became the enemy.

So the language had lost its meaning and some chose their own enemies and took to communicating among themselves in Mansonian mystical "vibes."But if we could no longer believe in Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, or even civilization itself, neither can we reasonably believe, especially after the brutal crimes, in a Charles Manson or in the return to the "Noble Savage"or to "vibes"and "feeling"as an alternative to thinking—especially since Manson wasn't educated or equipped to think anyway. Nor could we reasonably put much faith, at this late date, in a return to our evolutionary pre-civilization beginnings. It should have been obvious that it was too late to try, as the Manson family did, eliminating conscious thought for "vibes"and opting for something akin to swimming with the more instinctual fish in our polluted waters.

The philosopher Ortega y Gasset observed that those things that distinguish a bird, or a fish—the ability to fly or to swim—are instinctual and inherent. While those things that distinguish people, our ability to be introspective and to think—in short, to be civilized—are not instinctual and inherent but only slowly and painfully acquired over a period of many millions of years of evolutionary development. Yet, as Gasset put it, civilized behavior, that ability to be introspective and to question what we're doing before we do it, civilization itself, all that can be lost "in the twinkling of an eyelash,"as history has perennially demonstrated. In its search for an alternative to a Nixonian civilization, the Manson family, too, demonstrated the fragility of civilized behavior.

A tenuous civilization with too much uncritical cynicism and too little healthy skepticism—and too little faith in civilization itself—has its breaking points. Yet it should be obvious that the answer to sloppy thinking is not no thinking, nor is the answer to the abuse of language to be found in the rejection of language or the rejection of civilization itself.

Although following comic book solutions, the Manson family proved itself not totally unique. All of the girls came from average families. At one time or another each of them sang in the church choir. Nor were the Manson followers stupid. They had merely put on blinders, as do many of use when convenient, in order to see what they wanted to see. They had stopped questioning and it would be too simple to rely on drugs as sufficient explanation for this and for all the family's behavior.

Even so, the Manson family experience with drugs, with sexual orgies, with "vibes,"and most of all, with the meaningless murders, all that seems so alien to most of us that the more popular "explanation"of the tragedy suggests merely an analogy of the Manson "family"as so many broken marbles in a bag, with no real connections to the rest of us marbles. Such a view leaves our system intact and the best man wins and there's justice for all—supposedly. So if you go to school and mind your own business and get a college degree, you're supposed to get a good job. That's how it supposedly worked; except of course for the engineers who got the U.S. astronauts to the moon and then got laid off and couldn't find other work. And technically, if you're a good boy or girl, there's not supposed to be innocent victims. Even the poor, with merely a little help, are supposed to be able to pull themselves up by their "bootstraps."

Thus in such an ordered world perfect strangers aren't supposed to get killed; at least not without some reasons or at least some flaw of character. And so in some interpretations even the victims of the Manson wrath—Hollywood actor types and their cohorts, apparently living at least on the fringe of the drug world—in some way supposedly contributed to their own downfall, through their lifestyle. Such a theory doesn't hold up, of course; and no doubt it was the very shock of strangers being killed, for no comprehensible reason, such an affront to our sense of order, that it was probably this more than anything else that accounts for the Manson murders as perhaps the most publicized of the century. The bubble had burst. The secret was out. The "chain of being"has its broken links. The best man, or the good man, not only doesn't always win—he can't always rely on justice or even that he'll be able to stay alive.

One can always hope the murders were what the mathematicians would call "an error of special case,"that it was only a rare situation not particularly relevant to us. So even if the victims were innocent, as many recognized, one can say they had the bad luck to meet up with a monster, a mutant in the "chain of being"who didn't know his or her place and simply had no idea of justice. In this more comfortable system, the current paradigm, one can say that Manson and his family are the bad guys. They got caught, and punished, and that's it.You might even say justice prevailed.

It begins to sound reminiscent of the science fiction horror movies. Here all of the evils of the world are symbolized in one terrible monster. Then eventually the monster is caught, or 'knocked off' somehow, and all's well with the world again. In the real world, however, there are variations on the theme and new monsters are always cropping up, as though the problem wasn't really solved.

Marshal McLuan, the Canadian linguist, became famous for his phrase, "The medium is the message."Comparatively few really grasped what he was getting at. But when the Manson family wrote "PIG"in blood on the door of the victims, the message itself because less important than the new medium of blood, the new communication of shock after the gap had grown too wide for more subtle conversation.

In the "developing countries,"the communication gap too often widens between the rich and the poor. It would be a great mistake to link the two groups, the "helter skelter"Manson family and, say, many revolutionaries. But still when one group finds it impossible to talk to the other, less subtle forms of communication develop, and of course without subtlety one begins to live without restraint and finally with a sledgehammer approach to life.

In the United States, especially, this suggests the popular Manson theme of helter skelter, linked as it has been to the "hippy mentality."Yet the hippy mentality was not a warring one but a protest of the war and the civilization that supported it. Meanwhile, Manson clearly had the kind of angry scheming mind that develops in prison and isolation; not the kind of mind that emerges in the "love society"of the "hippies"that was short-lived and had already faded from the Haight-Ashbury scene by the time Manson arrived. Manson did not join the love culture but the residue drug culture that remained; although, as indicated, blaming drugs for the full Manson problem is like blaming Communism for all of the discontent of the poor worldwide.

Meanwhile, if anything describes a hippy, theoretically, it was the phrase, "doing your own thing."But ironically the followers didn't do their own thing, they did Manson's thing—itself not so much a helter skelter grand plan as something thoughtlessly out of control. Perhaps the question for us is—"Whose thing are we doing now?"And how much thought is really behind it?


By Ron Kenner — The Manson Misconceptions —