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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Faith Inside Out? Random Thoughts on the 40th Anniversary of the Manson Murders

This isn’t a blog about design. The structures I’m mentioning weren’t architecturally significant, and most of them no longer exist. It’s a rumination about faith turned inside out.

Forty years ago today, Charles Manson’s “Family” brutally murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon. The next day, they murdered the LaBiancas across town in Los Feliz. Joan Didion wrote in her essay “The White Album” that no one was surprised. I am not quite sure what she meant by that. Woodstock took place a few days later, but the lazy hazy romantic notion of hippiedom was over. I am still trying to sort out those two days in the summer of 1969 and why they continue to interest me. On April 8, 1966, TIME posited that God was dead. Some bizarre faith healers, including Charles Manson, showed up to fill the void.

Within a few weeks of the murders, LIFE magazine ran several photos of the crime scene, and a few of us ten- and eleven-year-old kids at the community recreation center began playing amateur sleuths, theorizing how this could have happened and who was guilty. We were mesmerized. There were celebrities, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Like most vast conspiracies, this one wasn’t. If one of the Manson girls, who was in jail on an unrelated charge, hadn’t started bragging, the crime might not have been solved. I never got the event out of my head. It was a milestone, an announcement that childhood was over, and as Didion pointed out, it was the end of the 1960s. Maybe that’s what nobody was surprised about.

Most days, I walk three blocks south from the Civic Center BART station to my office on Folsom Street. I pass any number of people who look like they could have been in a snapshot of the Manson family. Recently I even saw one who was a dead ringer for (a taller) Charlie Manson. I was afraid to look him in the eye. I wonder how many of these homeless people are actually violent. I am distancing them. Charles Manson offers a permanent context for the “other.”

Manson was the most extreme of cult leaders. Ten years after his crime spree, people talked about a raft of softer gurus, like Rajneesh, Muktananda, and even Maharishi, as having formed cults that recruited middle-class children. And then there was Werner Erhard, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, L. Ron Hubbard, and others. Several high school friends of mine took Erhard’s est. Another friend ran off with the Moonies, and another took Scientology and eventually converted from Judaism to Catholicism. A close friend followed Muktananda, changed her name, and disappeared. I don’t mean to suggest that any of those gurus were cult leaders, nor that they resembled Manson. The late 1960s erased a postwar tape that included fairly prescribed religious paths for the middle class. And in the 1960s and 1970s, we were easy targets for shamans of all stripes. You think you wouldn’t fall under the spell of a false prophet, but where along the continuum does an authentic helper or faith leader become a destructive madman?

When you see or hear former members of Manson’s family on TV occasionally, they look and sound relatively normal. And it makes me think, how did kids just a few years older than me lose their way like that? Is redemption even possible? How close were any of us aimless kids to falling off the rails? How much angrier (or how high) would we have to have been to follow a madman who talked about starting an armed black Armageddon being waged from an underground city in Death Valley? If you think the Weatherman were out there, read the Wikipedia definition of “Helter Skelter (Mansion Version).” Manson quoted extensively from Beatles songs and the Book of Revelations. His was a strange brew of religion and popular culture. This was a pattern that we watched replay itself in other places like Jonestown, and later, Waco.

Growing up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s, we romanticized the folks we saw floating around on Telegraph Avenue. It was a long way from resisting conformity to the violence of August 1969. But that was one of the revelations of a middle-class white-male-dominated media. The ragged, fringed, long haired kids all blurred into one “other.” Exaggeration sold papers – at least back then.

In 1990, I drove up Benedict Canyon and found the house on Cielo Drive, still standing, behind a solid fence. From the gate, you could only see the top of the garage. There was little else to look at, even from the road across the canyon. My first apartment in Los Angeles was only a few blocks from the still-standing LaBianca House on Waverly Drive. Yes, I felt guilty being a murder tourist. Why had I read prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter twice? He pieced together the extraordinary concept of Helter Skelter and took the enormous risk of foregrounding the wacky idea as the motive for murder. He explained a mad revolution that was based on Manson’s twisted theology.

Tate Polanski residence

Of course, Roman Polanski went on to have legal troubles after a liaison with a 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson’s house on Mulholland Drive. He no longer visits the United States. Sometime in the 1970s, I saw Polanski’s masterpiece, Chinatown (where in one famous scene Polanski appears as a gangster and slices Nicholson’s nose). Polanski gave us the narrative for the creation of sprawling Los Angeles. It was born of a different kind of lust.

Within a matter of minutes, you now can find photos of the houses and the victims. You can learn that members of a band called Nine Inch Nails were the last occupants of the Tate/Polanski residence on Cielo Drive, and that the house was replaced by a Mediterranean-on-steroids monstrosity in 1994. The photos during Polanski’s tenancy show an American flag draped over an ample tuxedo couch, a few antiques, and some contemporary art on the walls. Good taste with a groovy flourish. When the relatively modest ranch house that was tucked into the landscape was razed, bits of stone and walls were sold to those interested in the macabre. Trent Renzor, of Nine Inch Nails, relocated the famous front door to Nothing Studios in New Orleans. The things you find out when you have a laptop and a few minutes to spare at the airport.

Spahn Movie Ranch

Spahn Movie Ranch

Spahn Movie Ranch

Just this week, a parole board approved parole for Manson Family member Squeaky Fromme. Sharon Tate’s late mother organized a successful campaign against parole for Manson and his followers. A few people escaped the actual event, including the landlord’s caretaker/houseboy and Linda Kasabian, who left the Family and became the prosecution’s star witness. It seems unlikely that the people who participated in the murders, despite their rehabilitation, will ever be paroled. Redemption will only take place inside prison.

Those events ruined the lives of dozens and dozens of people. Murder, cruelty, even bullying, ripples outward in ways nobody knows. In 1969, a number of people hungry for some kind of faith or misplaced recognition hooked up with a weird little man who portrayed himself as a new savior. He killed the essence of young people’s humanity, and they followed him into the night.

1 comment:

Undercover Mother said...

I was about the same age at the time, and I also read the book twice. I am watching a documentary on it now, and as a 44 year old, I look at how YOUNG these kids were. They were barely out of high school. We're used to that kind of callousness in the youth now, but back then, I have to wonder what the adults at the time thought. I need to ask my mother that, since they lived in LA at the time.