Spoiler Alert: This book was originally published back in 1974 and is a true crime novel about one of, if not the most well-known mass murdering cult in the world. So, I’m sorry if you’ve lived under a rock for your entire life and got internet access just today and this is the first thing you saw, but I accept no responsibility for your sheltered existence and I think it’s better to rip the bandage off quickly.
(4 of 5 stars) I picked up Helter Skelter in order to meet the second item on Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge: a true crime novel. I read Capote’s In Cold Blood last year and was fascinated by it as a milestone in the development of the true crime genre. Capote’s book came out in 1966, just three years before the murders that the Manson family is best known for. And because of his book, Capote was one of those celebrities who popped up to offer (uninformed) opinions about the case on late-night television while the Manson murders were making headlines.
Everyone has heard of the Manson family murders and Charles Manson. He’s infamous and I applauded when he died late last year. Good riddance. But because the events in the book took place a few years before I was born — and I have never managed to be interested in any of the various documentaries or movies made about the murders — I really didn’t know much of the details or what Manson’s bizarre take on reality was exactly. It was crazier than I could have imagined. Here are some items that leap to mind as surprising details/elements from the tale:
- “Helter Skelter” was Manson’s name for a racial Armageddon in which black people rise up and take control of society. But because they’ve been oppressed for so long, Manson felt that they would not be able to rule for long, so they would turn over the reins of power to him (of course) because he, I guess, would be the only white person with leadership ability that they could trust… even though he’s a racist.
- BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! The reason Manson and his cult would survive Helter Skelter is because they would be hiding in a bottomless pit out in the desert. A pit that was formerly populated by ancient people? or something? But it has light and food and water and it’s very comfortable. But Manson would want to leave to rule over black people. ?
- Manson would tweak his brainwashing techniques for each person, but it generally involved sex and drugs. He even went so far as to choreograph some of their orgies… and the “family” was RIFE with STDs. I’ll spare you other details and allegations on this front, but it was absolutely crazy.
- One of Manson’s followers got within feet of Gerald Ford with a gun. The only thing that really saved his life was the fact that she didn’t cock the gun.
- Manson thought that the Beatles were speaking to him (not him in particular, but rather that they were “preaching the same things he was preaching.) through their songs, especially those on the White Album.
- There are an astonishing number of ties between the Manson family and their murders and various celebrities that I wasn’t aware of before.
- There are some connections between Manson’s ideas and the Church of Scientology as well as some satanic cult I’d never heard of before, either.
Overall, it’s absolutely shocking and worse than I thought.
The primary voice and perspective in Helter Skelter is that of Vincent Bugliosi who was the prosecutor in the 1970 trials of Manson and several of his followers. He begins the book by recounting the details of the crime scene, followed by the discovery and subsequent investigation; from there, he goes into the trial and verdict. The version of the book I read also has an epilogue from 1994 in which he recaps what various members of the family and associated people were doing at the time and Manson’s various antics in prison and how he managed to narrowly escape the death penalty.
It’s a good book. Well-constructed, detailed, and insightful. But it’s also very clearly written from a single perspective and comes with it some almost comedic elements of Bugliosi’s own agenda and ego. Several times while reading, I thought the subtitle of the book could be “How Vincent Bugliosi is the best lawyer in the world, but is surrounded by idiocy, ineptitude, and irrationality.” For instance, the LAPD is painted in this book as as bumbling and dishonest about it. They failed to follow strong leads. They all but refused his requests for evidence and documentation. They mishandled evidence, etc. If what he describes is true, then one can’t help but agree with his apparent evaluation of the department. But since we never get their perspective on the things that happen, I don’t know if I completely believe him or if there weren’t some externalities that interfered with their ability to carry out their responsibilities in the matter. Bugliosi also takes care to tell us various complimentary things people said to and about him and he gives us several occasions in which to observe his kindness and magnanimity. Other lawyers are less thoughtful, skilled, and insightful than he is and he is both pleased and shocked at his own superiority.
I’d like the above to be a criticism of the book, but honestly it made it more fun to read. Rather than a dry, journalistic recounting of the events, the book has a strong voice that isn’t 100% likable, but also isn’t completely wrong. The righteousness Bugliosi feels in contrast to the utter depravity of Manson and his family is warranted and probably served him well as an inoculation against the evil he was confronting.
So, if you enjoy true crime and you aren’t familiar with the details of Manson and his cult, this is a great book. I enjoyed it quite a lot.