As I’ve said before, I feel a certain level of responsibility in reading books and watching documentaries about crimes committed that seem unfathomable to the normal person. I’ve often felt (or hoped) that in learning about such crimes, we can learn more about human nature, psychology and why people do the things they do, even when they are against the law or condemned by society in general. However, it is important to note that human nature spans many different areas outside of committing crimes, and many people may think something is an unforgivable sin while others think it is okay. That is not meant to justify the actions of psychopathic and sociopathic serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Gary Ridgway.
The story of Charles Manson and his family embodies this belief. I feel as though there must be some way of understanding and explaining why these people did what they did. This was one of the main reasons I purchased and read Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. That, and the fact that it is hailed as one of, if not the, best true crime novel of all time. I was interested in it, not only from a yearning to understand, but also from a journalistic standpoint. I wanted to see how the case was portrayed and outlined and how any commentary played into the retelling of the events from beginning to end.
So, with this in mind, I began reading Helter Skelter a few months ago. I think it took me about two months to read because it is quite hefty and full of lots of little details that I found myself flipping back and forth to check and confirm.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Helter Skelter is the complete story, from start to (almost) finish, of Charles Manson and his family, who went on a cold-blooded killing spree in 1969. The murders of various members of the affluent neighborhood and Hollywood culture shook the Los Angeles community to its core. There was no apparent reason for the killings, which seemed to have a particularly violent and gruesome nature to them.
First of all, I am not going to rehash the entire story of what happened, 1) because I think the basics are so well-known at this point that you will know what I’m talking about; and 2) because you should just read the book.
Helter Skelter is written by Vincent Bugliosi, who was the prosecuting attorney during the Manson trial and who had a very hands-on involvement in the case as it was being investigated. Bugliosi and his co-writer Curt Gentry take the reader through each and every incident, point out every minute detail and record almost every interview or interaction with every person involved in the case, from lowly patrol officers to bikers to Manson’s family themselves. About halfway through the book, I was almost overwhelmed with the amount of detail included in the book. It’s as if Bugliosi wanted to be as transparent about the case as possible — probably considering the amount of fear and anger felt by the community after the attacks. I understand this and greatly appreciate it from the point of view of a reporter. Could you imagine what it would be like to be covering this case and then see all of the questions you wanted answered printed for the world in this book later? I mean, I would be pissed, but I would appreciate it too.
The book reads like a classic homicide-detective movie (I haven’t seen the film adaptation yet, but I can see why it was pegged for a movie.) Bugliosi tells us what and how things were found at the various residences and what police and investigators were doing while Charles Manson and his family were on the run and planning their next attack. The missed opportunities, miscommunications, corruption and laziness of the police (as Bugliosi tells it) continually frustrated me and kept me on edge for the entire first half of the book. And, while at times it seemed Bugliosi was simply airing his grievances about his investigators, I can also see the need to show exactly where investigators went wrong in the course of solving this case. Bugliosi walks a fine line between explanation and simply ranting about incompetent officers.
The writers do an excellent job of combining facts about the victims’ lives, the suspects’ lives and timelines about the case, with actual anecdotes and observations from both the investigation and the trial. I don’t think anyone else could have written this book other than Bugliosi, because he held a unique vantage point for the entirety of the incident, which is invaluable in our understanding of both the case and the people who committed these acts. The writers do an excellent job of conveying the impending sense of doom, the hopelessness, the exhaustion and the frustration felt throughout the investigation and trial. I can’t imagine how taxing it must have been for those involved to endure everything that happened, especially the little tricks Manson and his family were trying to pull with their lawyers.
And even though we all know what came of the trial, I found myself worrying that the prosecution wouldn’t win the case. That is how immersive this book is — I often had to remind myself that those on trial were either dead or in jail.
At it’s core, this book is not only a record of one of the most heinous murders to be committed in American history, but it is also a unique study in human nature. It is a study in psychology and mind alteration — the human desire to control and utilize all of its resources to get what it wants — as well as cult mentality and religious zeal and how those things can turn us into monsters without a sense of self. I have to tell you, it is fascinating in a really terrifying and horrendous kind of way.
For those of you interested in true crime or the psychology of serial killers, this must be on your to-read list. On Goodreads, I rated this book with four stars, although my real rating is 4 1/2. The only hangups I had about it were it seemed some details were included that didn’t really add much to the overall narrative. It seemed they were included simply because the writers wanted to give the reader a full playbook of what happened and what everyone was doing, even when it wasn’t pertinent to the case. There was also a lot of legal jargon and explanation that could have been pared down, in my opinion. But otherwise, it was a fantastic book about an utterly horrendous time.
But what is probably the scariest thing about the entire read is at the end. In my edition there is a part written by Bugliosi in which he talks about his hope that there will never be another crime as terrible as this in America — he hopes that nothing as terrible, that causes such fear and grief, will happen again. This gave me such a sense of hopelessness because there have been worse things that have happened over the past ten years that I’m sure not even he could have fathomed at that time. Bugliosi died last year. I wonder what he must of thought about the state of the world then, what he might think of it now. I suppose in times like the Manson Trial and in the face of today’s terrorism (both foreign and domestic), all we have is hope that one day things like this might not happen.
In the meantime, I will continue to try to understand. And hope that maybe we will learn from things like this, and make the future a better place for generations to come.
What did you think of Helter Skelter? Do you think the punishments the defendants received were just? Do you think people like Manson and the others are capable of real change? How can we combat mental illness and destructive thinking proactively to avoid such crimes? Let’s talk.