Written by C.W.S.
According to journalist Daniel Simone, Charles Manson believes himself to be immortal. The news of his recent hospitalization for possible intestinal bleeding is putting his belief to the test. Some believe this may be the end of the infamous criminal whose contribution to the unfathomably brutal murders of nine prominent people in the Beverly Hills community has grown into mythic proportions. But perhaps, even if Manson does die, in some ways he’s right. His hospitalization was front-page news. Television series, documentaries, podcasts, books, and articles about Manson continue to pour into our consciousness. Manson is known for the murderous spell he placed upon a group of impressionable young hippies, but maybe we were put under a version of this spell ourselves.
There are two camps in the great Manson debate: those that believe prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s story and those who find Manson’s own story more believable. The competing accounts of what led to the murders differ incredibly, but hold the same base events. Vincent Bugliosi’s is based in the book he published in 1974 called Helter Skelter after he successfully prosecuted Manson and several members of “The Family.” And Manson’s version is based on the book, Manson in his Own Words that was dictated from prison to Nuel Emmons by Manson himself and was published in 1988. Really there are three camps, including those that believe the real story falls somewhere in the middle of the other two.
Bugliosi’s story centers around the race war that Manson and his friends wanted to incite, all coming from information they believed was hand placed for them inside the lyrics of The Beatles’ White Album. Manson’s account centers on out-of-control drug use and crime, several misunderstandings, and a subsequent harebrained scheme to save one of their own. There is no need to argue which account is legitimate; it doesn’t really matter. The ends of this crime have no justification. They have no reason behind them that would make the senseless deaths understandable. It’s a terrible tragedy either way; it just depends on how you want the story to go.
Manson easily became the boogieman of the early 1970s. It was one of the final nails in the coffin of the hippy movement, a counterculture focused on ideas of peace and love that, to the rest of the country, appeared on a fast track to drug addiction and darkness. It was a similar narrative to the one the The Family experienced, no matter which camp you fall in.
Is there any other criminal serving a life sentence that has a following comparable to Charles Manson? It’s easy to write off Manson’s past and current followers as maniac weirdoes who are hell-bent on committing evil acts. But here’s the thing: the people following him are not talking about murdering the rich, they are not talking about inciting the race war, they are not talking about hidden messages in rock songs made just for them—they are just talking about saving the earth. It was the same with the young followers of a still-free Charlie: they saw in him a beacon of peace, environmentalism, and self-awareness that would help lead to a better world.
Manson’s followers’ website is an unpolished blog that posts his quotes from prison and gives updates of his life behind bars. Manson speaks often of ATWA, which stands for Air Trees Water Animals:
"One Air, one Water, one Life, one Knowing...One Mind, one Time, one Forever, one Always in the Hallways of MyMe"
"There is only Air = All - Trees = the Water = Way - Animals-Zoo = Alive.
All The Way Alive is one life-form on Earth. One god, and everything and everyone serving and working as hard and as fast
as they can to make up for hundreds of years of lies, covering it up with wars and greed.
There is only one god, and there is no other god but God, and ATWA is witness."
This is the kind of sophomoric deep green poetics that reel in young people, ones who want to make a difference in a world that feels, and certainly is, out of their control. Take, for example, Manson’s fiancé, Star Burton. Star, a 28-year-old woman who first read Manson’s ecological writings when she was 15, agreed to marry Manson in 2014, though their marriage license expired before they went through with the union. Star had this to say about the marriage: “I’ll tell you straight up, Charlie and I are going to get married. When that will be, we don’t know. But I take it very seriously. Charlie is my husband. People can think I’m crazy. But they don’t know. This is what’s right for me. This is what I was born for.”
Star also helps run the Release Charles Manson Now blog. In one post, she writes: “thousands of people around the world understand that Manson has been illegally tried,” and also calls Manson “an honourable man, with much insight and wisdom that is recognised by a great number of people of all ages and cultures.”
Mansondirect.com is full of poems and quotes from Manson and others, mostly about ecological issues. The news of Manson’s hospitalization was addressed by one of Manson’s most dedicated followers, known as Gray Wolf, on January 4th:
How is Charlie doing? He is doing as well as you.
Why can't you call him? Why can't you call and ask Charlie how he is doing? Why can't you ask the doctor how Manson is doing?
Why can't you interview Charlie right now?
Well, I know how he is doing. He is as well as the air, he is as sick as the water.
Your water. Your air.
He is doing as well as the Tiger, as well as the Elephant and the White Rhino.
Why don't you call Africa and ask how you are doing?
Manson is as well as the California Redwood Tree.
How well are you? How capable are you? How capable are we? Can we save ourselves?
Thanks for checking in on the Soul.
Thanks for checking in on your Soul.
Thanks for checking in on our last chance to survive.
This kind of rhetoric of is attractive. Who doesn’t want to preserve our world for future generations? Who doesn’t want things to get better? What person still possessing even a shred of humanity doesn’t love the redwoods, the tiger? It is easy for young people, especially those prone to the idealism that can make great artists, great journalists, great leaders, to be manipulated into the belief that they are part of something bigger, something that might save a world that seems bleak to every generation’s counterculture as they approach an adulthood that is far from the dreams they had for it.
Those who defend Manson will say that Manson never actually murdered anyone, which is technically true. They will also say that he did not orchestrate the murders, and that The Manson Family acted on their own accord without his brand of mind-control. They will say that Charlie is a prophet of sorts, persecuted for his political opinions. The problem is that the lifestyle that Manson created for these women, many of whom were still underage, ended with a brutality beyond comprehension. So is that really a path any young person should want to reimagine? There are many other heroes to follow who are working toward the goals that Manson and his followers are still apparently looking to fulfill.
Whether Manson was the evil mastermind of media reports, or a philosophical con man with a life that spiraled out of his control will most likely never be known. But we know what did happen: innocent people died horrifically. “I strongly suspect that his ‘magical powers’ were nothing more or less than the ability to utter basic truisms to the right person at the right time,” Bugliosi writes in Helter Skelter.
Most of us are not on Mansondirect.com pining over the wisdom of convicted murderer Charles Manson, but many of us continue to follow the story of this man’s life. Perhaps it is a fable for the modern seeker to never let our ideas grow larger than our humanity. Members of all types of faith communities have committed violence that breaks through the basic tenants of whatever belief system they are subscribed to. Whether it is be due to fear or greed, hatred or otherwise, it happens, and it happens all the time.
This is in no way a justification. There isn’t one. These same systems of faith that have produced violent outliers have produced many more people who practice quietly and without hatred. The Manson Family cast a shadow on a counterculture that began as a simple belief in the idea of peace. At its closing we have Charles Manson and his followers, dead-brained from long-term drug use, lost and clinging to something that made them feel greater than themselves. We have a group that committed to excess the very sin they wanted to erase from the world: violence. It happens all the time, and perhaps it was Manson that gave it an easy, wild face.