What We Coulda Learned From Manson, But Didn’t

In the last three or four years, I’ve purged at least a half-dozen large boxes of books that spanned every genre you could think of. Even today, with my gutted and scaled collection, it’d take you some time to scan my shelves.

You’d notice, though, a penchant for dark fiction, strange and obscure history, and a terrific assortment of essays and non-fiction anthologies of great journalists and other not-so-fiction writers, ranging from everyone from Norman Mailer and H.L. Mencken, to Hunter Thompson and Lester Bangs.

Right now, I’m reading a strange batch of work. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, the occasional bit by HST, and what really has me intrigued from time to time, How I Got to Be This Hip by one of the best journalists of the ’60s and ’70s, Barry Farrell.

Farrell was writing from California at the end of the ’60s when the Manson Family did their handiwork in the Tate and LaBianca murders that changed Hollywood forever.

I didn’t realize there were articles in this collection of Farrell’s that dated back to the weird days that followed the murder, when speculation ran rampant about who, what, or why those baffling murder transpired, but their contemporary before-the-trial coverage offer an interesting glimpse in the knee-jerk judgment that became rife with the revelation of the sensational crimes.

The execution, for lack of a better word, of the Manson murders are the stuff of legend now. Words scrawled on the walls in victims’ blood, the pregnant Tate butchered, each victim stabbed more times than any coroner should ever have to count… just for starters.

Not buying the mythical degeneracy under which the A-list friends and wife of Roman Polanski lived,
Farrell starts off In Hollywood, The Dead Keep Right on Dying pretty succinctly.

“You wouldn’t believe how weird these people were,” the detective said, not for the first time.

(…)The detective, in fact, could almost find a parable for law and orfer in the killings: “If you live like that, what do you expect?” Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski–these were not people, these were weird people.

They were weird because they used drugs and “messed around with sex,” weird in all the fashionable ways, weird as in the new movies. Their circle may have been friendly enough to protect them in their lifetimes, but now, in their posthumous notoreity, rumour had revealed them to all as connoisseurs of depravity, figures torn from a life that was pure de Sade, with videotape machines in the bedrooms.

In respect for the dead, and for Roman Polanski, Sharon’s husband, it should be said that the truth is disappointing–that their wild dope parties usually ran to endless evenings spent boring each other into such a reach of mindlessness that it would finally seem a brilliant idea to watch the test pattern on colour TV.

(…)But the truth in such affairs is only so many entries in a detective’s notebook. What counts is the folklore, the expanded, popular version that everyone believes. The victims could have been any kind of moral vagabonds, but in fractured, menaced Hollywood, people can think of any number of good reasons for killing whatever they were.

Keep in mind, that was written in the fevered weeks right after the now-notorious murders. As time wound on, the victims were remembered more as innocents, but only because the true baffling reasons behind Manson’s fucked kill-’em-all Helter Skelter anarchy plan made it clear that the victims happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Between the Helter Skelter Manson murders and soon-to-transpire went-so-wrong Altamont concert, 1969 brought a swift and inarguable end to the proverbial “Summer of Love” that’d been lingering in the air since ’67. The ’60s were over with bang. Or, more like a stab.

In its place came a startling reminder that evil lived, but there was something less obvious, and possibly a little more insidious… That people would probably always think the worst of you before being given a reason to do otherwise.

Judgment and fear preceded sympathy and justice for the Tate Killing victims. Because a perception existed that they lived outside the norm (hey, Polanski directed Rosemary’s Baby so naturally he had to have occult connections, right?) the belief was they must have deserved a karmic backlash.

Kind of like some preachers said the Hurricane Katrina victims deserved for living in a city of sin. Or like Islamic terrorists think the United States of America deserves for living such gluttonous, sacrilegious, smutty lives. Or like Sharon Stone talking about Chinese earthquake victims getting a karmic check from Tibet. Or like right-wing Christians, like Sally Kern, think about gays afflicted with the plague of AIDS.

It’d be nice if every now and then people could ask “What’s deserve got to do with it?” when tragedy befalls others. It’d be nice if we could say that, in the 40 years that have passed since Manson orchestrated his little spree, we could say things have changed. But not so much.

With folk like Sally Kern alive, well, and keeping their public jobs, it seems judgment doesn’t really come with a shelf-life.