longer rendition of this essay can be found in Searching for God in the Sixties
longer rendition of this essay can be found in Searching for God in the Sixties
The American Meaning of Charley Manson
- David R. Williams
Thirty years later, the Sixties remain shrouded in myth, demonology, and nostalgia. To young Generation Xers, that decade is a stumbling block; to Republican conservatives, foolishness; but to aging baby boomers who once felt themselves called to respond, that era still recalls something dimly remembered of an expedition into the heart of consciousness. Something happened still not understood. A wave broke in August 1969 when the followers of Charley Manson slaughtered Sharon Tate, her unborn child, her house guests, and the next night repeated the bloody ritual by killing a prominent couple named the La Biancas.
Today, Manson is in solitary confinement in
a maximum security fortress in
Terror manifests itself in many forms, most of them coming not from outside ourselves but from within. The external objects and events that scare us merely awaken fears slumbering in what Emily Dickinson called the cellars of the mind. The beasts under the bed, the monsters in the night shadows moving behind the trees are the projections of our own internal fears onto the landscape of the world. Enough real evil does exist to sustain our projections, but in the end even the projections are rationalizations, lies we tell ourselves to prevent having to face the real fear within ourselves. We need external demons to keep the demons in our souls at bay.
By the end of the sixties, for the baby boomers the beliefs of the old military/industrial combine had unraveled. The protective shell had been shattered and thrown away. With our protective social constructs crumbling, all that was left was the state of nature waiting to reveal itself as either friend or fiend. The idyllic suburbia of “Leave it to Beaver” had become a bad joke. John Wayne was no longer there to protect us from the Indians or lead the way to the next watering hole.... and the hot sun was climbing over the rim of the desert. Out of that desert emerged the very apparition that had always been there coiled up in the heart of the culture. Indians, wolves, monsters under the bed. Commies coming to get us, the Viet Cong, “Victor Charley”, and finally that other Charlie, Charlie Manson.
Joan Didion remembers that in
"I am the man in the mirror," says Charles Manson. And in that at least he may be right. “Anything you see in me is in you…. I am you…. And when you can admit that you will be free. I am just a mirror.” Nor is that the least that he is right about. And because he was and has since become even more of a symbol, not just of the end of the sixties, but of the terror that lies at the heart of the darkest cave in consciousness, he compels a more careful study.
Why then is Charlie Manson, as Geraldo Rivera said, “the stuff of a nation’s nightmares?” Not for what he did, nor even for what he said. Others have killed more people more brutally. It is because, as Didion foretold, we found in him an icon upon which to project our own latent fears. No one was surprised because everyone knew the potential was there, in each and all of us. So Manson became a living metaphor of Abaddon, the God of the bottomless pit. We, as a collective culture, looked into Manson’s eyes and saw in those dark caves what we most feared within ourselves, the paranoia of what might happen if you go too far. He was the monster in the wilderness, the shadow in the night forest, the beast said to lurk in the Terra Incognita beyond the edges of the map. By projecting our monsters onto Manson, and then locking him up for life, we imagined we had put the beast back in its cage.
Charlie Manson was exactly what the feudal European establishment foresaw and feared in 1517 when Martin Luther had first dared to suggest that truth lay not in the rationalizations of the scholastics but in the subjectivities of the spirit. Such philosophical abstractions are fine for the educated who converse with each other in Latin and, in the final analysis, know what social codes sustain them. But to preach such things to peasants invites anarchy of the wildest sort and leads to such events as the anabaptist rebellion at Muenster. Even Luther recoiled in horror at the extremes to which those radical Protestants took his ideas. He never imagined that Faith would be achieved here, on earth, in the literal realm of time and space.
The antinomian strain which runs through
American culture began with the radical Reformation’s declaration of
Fides, Faith Alone, superior to logic, and with the Priesthood of all
believers, the belief that anyone might experience the subjective
Godliness in the soul. Luther rejected the radicals application of this
political worldly realm and blessed the soldiers who slaughtered the
peasants who had declared Muenster a liberated city. But John Calvin,
In 1636, the Puritan Governor of
Political and social structures exist to
back up mental structures, and in return the collective consciousness
people helps to sustain the institutions of the state. They need each
“no Pope, no king.” The state backs up the church, and the church
beliefs which give us meaning. Once you start taking apart the
sustain us, there is no telling what else will fall.
There is no telling to what extremes the
human mind, convinced that it is in touch with the truth, will go. At
These disturbances that have come among the Germans have been all grounded on revelations, and so they that have vented them have stirred up their hearers to … cut the throats one of another, and these have been the fruits of them, and whether the devil may inspire the same into their hearts I know not. For I am fully persuaded that Mrs. Hutchinson is deluded by the devil.
Manson, too, following his own revelations, stirred up his hearers, and as a result throats were cut. As Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Ann Hutchinson was banished from
Romantic periods breed such antinomian excess. The command to follow ones heart wherever it might go very well might lead off the deep end. Camille Paglia has argued that romanticism almost always leads to decadence, that Rousseau with his noble savages was followed by the Marquis de Sade:
The continuum of empathy and emotion leads to sex. Failure to realize that was the Christian error. The continuum of sex leads to sadomasochism. Failure to realize that was the error of the Dionysian Sixties. Dionysus expands identity but crushes individuals. There is no liberal dignity of the person in the Dionysian. The god gives latitude but no civil rights.
The American romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson urged his readers to trust their own intuitions regardless of social conventions or the moral code. “Truth,” he wrote, “is handsomer than the affectation of love.” Love itself must be rejected “when it pules and whines.” At the execution of the antinomian fanatic John Brown, who had lead a raid on Harper’s Ferry after God told him to stir up a slave rebellion, Emerson said he had made the gallows “as glorious as the cross.” The somewhat less romantic Nathaniel Hawthorne muttered that no man was ever more justly hanged.
But the antinomian strain is so strong in
American culture that despite every return to structure, it survives to
again. For every attempt to build a Constitution that will contain the
of the mob, there is the insistence that a Bill of Rights be included
insures that individualism is allowed to flourish. After all, hadn’t
leading Conservative, Barry Goldwater himself, said in 1964, “Extremism
defense of liberty is no vice?” The Republican party today remains torn
a moralistic wing which would pass laws controlling everyone’s behavior
libertarian wing which would abolish many of our laws. Pro-life
torching abortion clinics, Oliver North refusing to obey the laws of
and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City are
in the antinomian tradition as Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther
Paul Hill, the Presbyterian minister who murdered a doctor who
abortions, quoted the abolitionist John Brown at his trial. Ted
Timothy McVeigh were two sides of the same coin. In
Charles Manson, then, is in good company. And what makes him an antinomian rather than simply a lawless thug and “mass murdering dog” is that his deeds and words are buttressed by an implicitly antinomian philosophy. He constructed a belief system and believed it and preached it. Another con-man could be easily ignored, but Manson has proven himself faithful to his beliefs. He is not faking them to get out; instead, his refusal to abandon them keeps him locked up tightly in jail.
To begin with, and to take care of one of
the most persistent misunderstandings about Manson, he was never
killing Sharon Tate or the LaBiancas. He was never even charged much
convicted of any of the murders that occurred that August night in
But the problem was, as Bugliosi admits, “Manson rarely gave direct orders.” Indeed, Manson rarely speaks in direct or clear statements. Instead , he is, said Rolling Stone’s David Felton, “a super acid rap - symbols, parables, gestures, nothing literal, everything enigmatic, resting nowhere, stopping briefly to overturn an idea, stand it on its head, then exploit the paradox.” He may never have actually told anyone to commit any of the murders. Bugliosi argued instead that Manson implied what he wanted done and that his followers inferred that intention. The command was never explicitly stated, and to this day Manson insists that his followers misunderstood and took literally what had been only another of his mind games.
Though this mind game ended up in deadly reality, it was not the only such game played at the group’s desert hideout. Asked what they did every day at the ranch, Manson told Tom Snyder in a 1981 interview, “We played games, - forgot who we were, - went off into other dimensions.” They even had a name for such game-playing, “The Magical Mystery Tour.” But not everyone understood it as just a game. As Manson explained it:
We speed down the highway in a 1958 automobile that won’t go but fifty, and an XKE Jaguar goes by, and I state to Clem, “Catch him, Clem, and we’ll rob him or steal all of his money,” you know. And he says, “What shall we do?” I say, “Hit him on the head with a hammer.” We Magical Mystery Tour it.
Then Linda Kasabian gets on the stand and says: “They were going to kill a man, they were going to kill a man in an automobile.
To you it
seems serious. But like Larry Kramer
and I would get on a horse and we would ride over to
The particular game that ended up in brutal murder has been described many times, but it bears repeating. That it was believable, even to these uneducated drop-outs from society, tells us as much about where the country was at in 1969 as it does about the particular consciousness of these individuals.
It begins with the Beatles, and with the Beatles’ celebrated White Album that came out in 1968. In it, while tripping on acid, Manson heard the message that put it all together for him. There would be a war between blacks and whites; whites would lose. Manson and his followers would hide out in the desert when the slaughter took place. When it was over they would emerge from their hiding places and somehow convince the blacks that they should be made the leaders of this new world.
He got all this not just from the Beatles but also from the Bible. Perhaps his most fascinating connection was to put side by side the Beatles song “Revolution 9” with Revelations 9 from the Bible. Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, has always been the favorite of mystics because its wild apocalyptic imagery is so bluntly addressed not to the literal but to symbolic consciousness. For those who read scripture not as a moral code of social behavior nor as a literal history book but as a symbolic rendering of a reality out of time and out of mind, the book of Revelations is the proof text. No one can read John’s visions of the beasts with the seven heads and seven horns and believe that it is a rational, literal narrative. This is mysticism.
Nevertheless, Manson seems to have taken the
literal descriptions and compared them, as so many mystics have done so
in the past, to literal events and persons in his own world. This lead
imagine that the predictions of Scripture were indeed addressed to his
Revelations 9 begins with the fifth angel being given the key to the
pit. Out of that pit comes, among other things, locusts “and unto them
power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.” These
locusts, Manson reasoned, were insects,
bugs. This was a hidden reference to the Beatles. They were ordered not
the grass nor any people “who had not the seal of God on their
shapes of these locusts “were like unto horses prepared unto battle.”
the four horsemen of the apocalypse out to wage the battle of
though they had faces of men, says scripture, “they had hair as the
women.” Hard as it may be to believe now, the length of the Beatles’
hair was a
scandal when they first arrived in the
This and more convinced Manson that the message was being sent from the Universe to him through the Beatles. So he turned from scripture to interpret the text of the lyrics of the album itself. There he found a consistent theme lurking between the otherwise cryptic lines and apparently random songs. Only on the surface was it all meaningless and random. Like life itself, it only appeared random to those who had not eyes to see. To Manson, the message was clear:
What do you think it means? It’s the battle of Armageddon. It’s the end of the world. It was the Beatles’ Revolution 9 that turned me on to it. It predicts the overthrow of the establishment. The pit will be opened and that’s when it will all come down. A third of all mankind will die.
“Rocky Raccoon” was the song that made the implicit connection to the black revolution. “Coon. You know. That’s a word they use for black people” Manson explained to Rolling Stone while he was still in jail waiting to be tried. “Blackbird” was a song calling on black people to “rise.” “Piggies” was a description of the rich establishment which would be overthrown. And “Helter Skelter” was a description of the battle of Armageddon itself, pure chaos and confusion. But “Revolution 9” was the song that Manson listened to and talked about most. It’s a good 6 minutes of disorganized, disconnected noise, babies crying, machine guns going off, church hymns, car horns, whispered words, football yells, and the repeated chant of “number nine, number nine, number nine.” Even more than Revelations 9, it is so freefloating as to allow itself to be interpreted in almost any way the listener wants - or fears. As such, it serves the purpose of much great art, that it bypasses the logical mind and zaps straight into the subliminal, allowing a direct flow of associations from the subconscious. Listening to it, Manson was inspired.
Manson’s crime, thus, was an act of
imaginative literary criticism. Had he been a professor at
But does it even matter whether Manson knew this? Symbols are always both their literal selves and the things they symbolize. The existence of a literal object does not by itself discredit any symbolic meanings that might be attached to it. Perhaps Manson was thinking along the lines of James Baldwin with his argument that blacks represent the subconscious and whites conscious rationality. Perhaps Manson’s race war between blacks and whites was itself a symbol of the war of the subconscious rising up to take over consciousness as Norman O. Brown said it must. Manson was asked if he thought the Beatles’ intended the meanings which he found in their texts. His answer speaks to this very problem of authorial intention:
I think it’s a subconscious thing. I don’t know whether they did or not. But it’s there. It’s an association in the subconscious. This music is bringing on the revolution, the unorganized overthrow of the establishment. The Beatles know in the sense that the subconscious knows.
Nor is it clear how Manson’s followers understood him. Perhaps, as he claimed, they took him more literally than he intended. Perhaps they heard things spoken through him which he never intended to say? It is clear that at least one of his followers, a girl named Ouish, saw that both interpretations were possible. She told her friend Barbara Hoyt, “We all have to go through Helter Skelter. If we don’t do it in our heads, we will have to do it physically. If you don’t die in your head, you’ll die when it comes down.” Here, the literal and the metaphysical meanings run on parallel tracks.
Manson’s main defense is that his followers, sensing some frustration that his predicted Armageddon still had not occurred, set out on their own to get it started, to show the blacks how to do it, and to show the world their leader. According to Manson, they did it as if to say, “Here, we want you to see this guy, but I didn’t want to be seen.” Just as Lenin, unwilling to wait for history to achieve its inevitable Marxist end, had jump-started the world-wide proletariat revolution in pre-capitalist Russia, these zealots, utterly taken by Manson’s vision, wanted to bring their revolution quickly to life. After the Tate killings, when Susan Atkins proudly told him that they had just given him the world, Manson claims to have shouted, “You dumb fucking cunt, I already had the world. You just put me back in jail again.”
Just as Luther was astonished and then
horrified at the literal way in which the Anabaptists of Muenster tried
the “Priesthood of all believers” into practice in the
world, so others have been amused and amazed
at the extent to which we Americans’ willingness to believe in a
material Kingdom Come remains part of our culture. Here too we
the descendants not of the Lutheran but of the Calvinist Reformation
tainted by Anabaptist enthusiasm for the Coming Kingdom of Zion here in
world literally in the flesh. If Luther came up with the idea of a
pushed it open just a crack, a crack through which poured many of the
who had been looking for a way to break out of the structures in
The Dream can be real when you see it, and when you live it. And that’s what the Beatles are singing about. They’re singing it’s all a dream, life passes by on a screen. They’re singing it, but they’re still asleep singing it. They haven’t woken up to the fact that what they’re singing about is more than a song. They could be living it….
Give up everything and follow me, Christ said, and we have given up a lot to follow our dream. There are other communes, but everyone has their old lady and their old man. It’s just the same old song in different costumes.
There are no couples here. We are all just one woman and one man. “All you need is love.” We were the only ones gullible enough to take the Beatles seriously. We were the only people stupid enough to believe every word of it.
Gypsy uses the word “stupid” but she doesn’t mean it in a negative sense. She means it in the sense of being innocent as babies, as being, to use a line from another Beatles song, “the fool on the hill” whom everyone laughs at but who sees it all.
Here we have a 20th century American, like her predecessors, trying to convince worldly skeptics that in America the mystic promise really can be made flesh.
It must be said that if Manson did not really want his followers to initiate the race war he called “Helter Skelter,” he had the responsibility to make that perfectly clear, but he didn’t. Instead, he allowed ambiguity and uncertainty to proliferate. He stayed within his own circle and did not take responsibility for the influence he was having on what was going on in other people’s circles. Like the cagey ex-con that he is, he played his cards close to his own chest. In the world of prison, that ethic works. In the outside world, there is a broader definition of responsibility.
If Manson is to be held responsible for his ambiguous creation of a scenario which others then went and brought to life, what is to be said of anyone who writes a book or a movie or sings a song which then inspires others to go out and live its message? Is Marx to be held personally responsible for Stalin’s massacres? Should Orson Wells have been tried for the deaths of those people who killed themselves mistakenly thinking his “War of the Worlds” was a real alien invasion? Should the creators of violent television shows be jailed if a kid picks up a gun and imitates what he sees on TV? And what then of the Beatles themselves? Don’t they have some responsibility for what Manson heard in their music?
If metaphorical obscurity combined with a
violent suggestiveness are criminal activities, then the Old Testament
deserves to be banned. The bloody account of the Children of Israel’s
There is no necessity in supposing that the word death, or the Hebrew word so translated, if used in the manner that has been supposed, to have been figurative at all. It does not appear but that this word, in its true and proper meaning might signify perfect misery and sensible destruction, though the word was also applied to signify something more external and visible. There are many words in our language … which are applied to signify external things,… yet these words do as truly and properly signify other things of a more spiritual, internal nature.
Death, in this typological, symbolic reading of scripture, thus becomes a signifier of spiritual or ego death, the experience which was said to be a precursor of conversion. Jonah’s “death” in the belly of the whale and Christ’s death on the cross thus can be read metaphorically as well as literally. Those who misunderstood the spiritual reading and took the words literally have been responsible for millions of deaths over the 2000 years of Christian history. Perhaps this is why Plato wanted to banish all poets from his perfect Republic? The Beatles were poets too, creating images and messages which had repercussions.
Like so many others in the Sixties, the
four Beatles followed a familiar progression from innocence to
decadence and back again. In the innocent early sixties, they sang
teeny-bopper love songs like “I want to hold your hand.” As they and
aged, they toked deeper into dope, let their hair grow longer, and
further and further out there. They remained enormously popular because
audience was undergoing the same transitions they were. They evolved
the baby boomer population they were playing for. “Sergeant Pepper’s
Heart’s Club band” with its
If this is so, then Manson's crime was that he was believed, that he never clearly designated the line between reality and imagination, between the fantasy and the deed, the literal and the symbolic. In that ambiguous realm, he moved from what we consider rational to the irrational. He abandoned all civilized self-control and became the complete antinomian, outside the structures of the legal and the mental law.
At the trial, Manson’s followers certainly claimed they were doing his bidding. He had said to them, “Just do what you have to,” and they had had a pretty good idea what they thought he meant. Manson’s proven presence at the LaBianca’s residence, having driven the killers there, undercuts whatever claim he continues to make that he was an innocent whose followers took it upon themselves entirely on their own to begin the slaughter.
But Manson’s repeated claim that he “broke no law of man or God” is not entirely without basis either. For in the prison world in which he grew up and lived most of his life, people are responsible for their own deeds - Period! The act of murder is what is punished, not some vague indirect suggestion by a third party. “I take responsibility for my acts,” he insists. “Every man must take responsibility for his acts. We each live within our own circles.” To this day, Manson still does not understand how the law can hold him responsible for murders that other people actually committed. His stubborn refusal to confess his guilt, as misguided as it may be, is at the very least an honest statement of his beliefs and not an artful dodge. He really believed it relevant that, as he shouted at Diane Sawyer,“I wasn’t directing traffic, lady.”
Indeed, that is the heart of the enigma of Manson. That is why back in 1969 and still today, so many people find something to admire in him. Bugliosi and other spokesmen for society have tried at times to say that Manson is little more than another two-bit thug, a thief, a pimp, a hustler out for himself, a murderous con filled with uncontrollable rage. It is too neat and too well-known a box. There is more going on.
Manson’s true crime, and the reason he will remain in jail until his death, is that he didn’t just blur, he erased the line between reality and imagination. He crossed over to the other side, completely outside society. Most of us are like the little boy crying at the corner because, he sobs, “I want to run away from home, but my parents won’t let me cross the street.” Manson demonstrated that the street could be crossed, that society’s rules and moral codes, even its prohibitions against murder, are artificial constructs and not to be idolized. Once the human mind is finally liberated from the rituals and traditions, the taboos and inhibitions, which have bound the web of human culture together, anything becomes possible. To some this is the meaning of insanity, to believe things outside the circle of what society allows. “Crazy” becomes a label applied to those who don’t agree with the consensus.
But the need to break the bonds of the society’s programming requires that occasionally people step outside the bounds of what is allowed and dare the wilderness, at whatever risk. Says Manson, “It’s so abstract that someone has to carry insanity. Someone’s got to be insane. Some one’s got to be the bad guy.” Looking at the world around him, Manson was not always convinced that he was the only one. Acknowledging the disintegration of the old paradigm and the resulting confusion since the sixties, he recently remarked, “A long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody’s crazy.”
Individuals have crossed that line before, many times, but what Manson also did, and what he was convicted for, was, like Socrates, corruption of the innocent. He spun the tales that they believed. His imagination created the constructions which they then acted upon. There is no evidence that Manson ever said directly that his followers should actually kill anyone. What he claims, and what seems believable, is that they believed he wanted them to kill and, freed from the usual inhibitions which would keep middle-class American kids from slaughtering strangers, that they acted out his fantasy and did not need his direct command.
Setting aside as much as possible the horror of the Tate/LaBianca murders, it is instructive to look into Manson’s belief system for evidence of why he was believed. According to Bugliosi, part of Manson's charismatic appeal was "his ability to utter basic truisms to the right person at the right time." What were these truisms? Why did they work?
What we find when we do take Manson’s own words seriously is that he had managed to absorb much of the developing philosophy of the sixties. In some way, he was the final extension of the mind’s true liberation, of the ideas of the Civil Rights movement, of the white radicals of SDS, of the acid twins Timothy Leary and Baba Ram Das, of the classical philosopher and author of Love’s Body Norman O. Brown. What he said seemed to make sense to so many innocents because these same ideas were running all around them. Manson is no intellectual in the conventional sense. He is at best self-educated but not at all bookish, having spent his entire life, from childhood up, behind bars. He has a sharp mind and has paid attention to the world around him. But he never had much opportunity to compare notes or to talk with others about ideas. He was like someone who learned French entirely out of books but never heard the language spoken. When he emerged from prison in 1967, in the summer of love, his language and his approach were just bizarre enough to seem to be a part of the multi-faceted counter-culture. And his beliefs seemed like the culmination of a decade of antinomianism, the logical extension of what had been going down, not just in the Sixties, but throughout American history.
We can see here why so many people in the counter-culture at first embraced Manson as one of their own, why the underground press treated him as a martyr to the cause. By taking on so much of the many strains of the sixties, “Manson” became a symbol of the hippyfreak fighting back against the machine. And the immediate assumption was, as it was when a black man was accused of rape, that this was an obvious frame, that Manson was being made a scapegoat by a crumbling establishment terrified that it was losing control over its children. There were even a few, who had already gone over the edge, who assumed that he was indeed the perpetrator of the crime and congratulated him for striking a blow in a revolutionary war. Bernadine Dohrn of SDS, when she heard the news, said “Offing those rich pigs with their own forks and knives, and then eating a meal in the same room. Far out! The Weathermen dig Charles Manson.” “Yippee” Jerry Rubin, who had rejected his parents’ liberal rationalism for the spontaneous emotions of the crowd, said, “I fell in love with Manson the first time I saw his cherub face and sparkling eyes on TV.”
In the romantic revolt of the nineteenth-century, Ralph Waldo Emerson had proclaimed the superiority of individual intuition over the corpse-cold tea of rationality and logic, and he had urged himself and others to be totally self-reliant, to trust the self. What if this spirit you trust is from the Devil, not from God, asked his orthodox aunt, Mary Moody Emerson? “I do not believe it is,” he replied, “but if so I will live then from the devil.” What is in the self is paramount. It and not the combine must be allowed to direct traffic. He proclaimed that reality exists as consciousness and not as matter, and thus truth is to be sought not in science but in the subjective intuition of each mind. Each of us, he said, if we dig down through the layers of culture and belief that has been accumulating over the millennia will find a universal consciousness we all share and from which we all come. Therefore, he called on every free person to “speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense.”
Walt Whitman read Emerson and was inspired
to believe that his heart’s truth was indeed this universal truth, that
said “I” he was both “Walt Whitman, a kosmos,” and
The 1960s have been called
neo-transcendental because in many ways the ideology of the era was an
the transcendentalism of Emerson and Whitman’s day. Martin Luther King,
Baptist minister, opened the door a crack when he stood up in the name
righteousness against the laws that defended segregation. He was
proclaim in the name of God that these laws were immoral. How did he
felt it in his heart. But he denied that he was an antinomian. He was
all, a Baptist, in the historic tradition of his namesake, Martin
spoke from within a historic tradition tied to the morality of the
his Protestant faith. He may have been outside the circle of American
he was still well within the circle of Western cultural beliefs. Calvin
once before opened that door a crack and the result was the Puritan
Into all this, Charles Manson emerged in 1967 and soaked up the ideas then prevalent and articulated them with a voice which commanded attention. One of his followers tried to explain that he wasn’t brainwashed by Manson but impressed by him: “The words that would come from Manson’s mouth would not come from inside him, [they] would come from what I call the Infinite.”
like Walt Whitman, Manson believes that his “I” was more than the
of one particular small time hoodlum. When he says “I” he means the
that Whitman meant when he began his “Song of Myself,” with “I
myself, and sing myself.” The initial reaction of most people first
this is, “what a conceited, egocentric ass!” But further reading
his celebration is not of Walt Whitman of
You hear this same conceit in much of Manson’s rhetoric and behavior. Where does your music come from, he is asked? His response is to stand up, say “It comes from this,” and then go into a dance of flinging arms and swinging legs, a whirling dervish of energy. His spirit, he is saying, is the basic spirit from which all life emanates. He taps into that spirit. “I respect the will of God, son,” he says to Geraldo Rivera.
“What will is that?”
“The will of God.” And then he goes into his dance again humming and chanting along with it. “Whatever you want to call it, Call it Jesus. Call it Mohammed. Call it Nuclear Mind. Call it Blow the World up. Call it your heart. Call it whatever you want to call it. It’s still music to me. It’s there. It’s the will of life.”
That this will is also his will is implicit in what follows: “They crowd me in,” he tells Rivera, “and I’ve got this little space. I live in the desert. I live in the mountains, man. I’m big. My mind is big, but everyone’s trying to crowd me down and push me down and make me something they need me to be. But that’s not me.”
Manson calls himself Jesus Christ, but, like Emerson, he also says that every man is Jesus Christ. Every man has the original energy within him. “I am everything, man,” he says, and he means it. But he does not bother to explain when the “I” of his discourse is the person, Charles Manson, or the Universal eye that is the will of God. Thus he tells Rivera, “If I could kill about fifty million of you I might save my trees and my air and my water and my wildlife.”
Taking him literally, and hoping for a good violent soundbite, Rivera responds, “You’re going to kill fifty million people?”
Manson’s answer is instructive. It shows both what he is trying to say and his inability to communicate it. “I didn’t say I would kill anything,” he protests. “I’m reaping the head in thought. I’m Jesus Christ whether you want to accept it or not… I’m reaping it in thought. It’s a thought, a thought,” He taps his fingers on his head to emphasize his point. “Do you see what I’m saying? In other words, the whole world is a thought, and I am in the thought of Peace-on-Earth.”
The point is not simply that Manson is speaking metaphorically. He is doing that, but he is also saying that everything is a metaphor, that our very lives, our bodies, our surroundings, are metaphor; that we live in an illusion if we think this material reality is real. Like Emerson and the earlier romantics, he is a philosophical idealist. He believes that what is ultimately real is not matter but consciousness. This whole thing we call reality, or the universe, is an illusion, a dream. What we call God is the dreamer. And our bodies are no more real than are the strange beings that flit through our dreams at night. The whole world is a thought, and each person’s perceptions are but a series of thought within the framework of the larger thought. As Manson once put it, “everyone’s playing a different game with the thought.” All of the many perceptions of this existence are but dreams within a larger dream. This is where Manson is coming from when he says to the court and the straight world, “I don’t live in your dream.” This is why he says “You’ve got my body in a cell… but I’m walking in forever, man.” He is freer, he claims, to wander among the mountain in his jail cell than if he were struggling to survive in the day-to-day realities of the outside world. From his perspective, to believe that this physical world is the ultimate reality is to be trapped in the illusion; to be aware of the cosmic mind is to be liberated from the illusion.
That is where all the emphasis on life as game-playing becomes important. It is not a question of being brainwashed by the Capitalists’ game, as the Marxists imagine, but of being brainwashed by any game, Capitalist, Marxist, Buddhist, scientific, you name it. All of rational human consciousness is a walking dream from which people need to be awakened. We are all, as writers in the Sxities kept saying, in a movie, trapped in a movie. And the first thing we need is to realize it so we might try to break out of the movie or, perhaps, enjoy it more fully, more consciously, more completely and honestly.
The key to this notion is the same as the key to most poetry; it is the idea of symbolic consciousness. To realize, as Emerson said, that “we are symbols and we inhabit symbols,” is to take the first step out of the common sense perception of reality into a transcendent consciousness. Here, Manson sounds eerily like Norman O. Brown, whom he may have never read. But Brown’s words were abroad in the sixties; he could have picked them up anywhere. Rolling Stone’s article on Manson, written in 1969 and reprinted in Mindfuckers, puts quotes by Brown and Manson back to back. “Words are symbols,” Manson told Rolling Stone, “All I’m doing is jumbling the symbols in your brain. Everything is symbolic. Symbols are just connections in your brain. Even your body is a symbol.” In Love’s Body, Brown writes, “The body is not to be understood literally. Everything is symbolic, everything including the human body.” And elsewhere in the book he writes, “To make in ourselves a new consciousness, an erotic sense of reality, is to become conscious of symbolism. Symbolism is mind making connections (correspondences) rather than distinctions (separations).”
Manson saw the world as a symbolic manifestation, not a literal reality. It is an illusion, a mask, and the things within this illusion point beyond themselves to some transcendent presence. Everything from scripture to sex is a symbolic message from the divine trying to tell us something. We are surrounded by messages we cannot read and locked into game-playing roles we do not understand, all at the mercy of some cosmic game player.
Throughout the sixties, this same message was repeated again and again. We are all playing games. We are all stuck in a movie. We are all conditioned to believe in things which are not true. We are all socially constructed, not essential, not in control. Some would replace the old conditioning with new conditioning, a better jail with a kinder jailer. The true Children of the Sixties, however, unlike the Marxists in SDS, did not embrace some new Egypt but kept on sojourning toward the Promised land outside of the cages, outside of any jail.
This is who Manson said he was, a Christ, the person who had broken through, who was free. Like Ken Kesey’s Randle P. McMurphy, another Christ, he had never been under the control of society. Ironically, being in jail, where they did not bother to educate or socialize him, he remained free of all the institutions by which the state brainwashes its other children. He received, as did McMurphy, another kind of conditioning, for sure. But it was different, so he came out different and knew it. He knew it was all a sham and roles we pretend to play, and he believed this insight set him apart, put him on a higher plane.
Rationality, he said, is a false god. It is part of the game playing of the world. The whole rational logical structure of the world is false and the people who play its games without realizing it are fools. So he had little respect for the law, for the courts, for the lawyers, for any representative of the establishment. His attack on the law had its parallel in Love’s Body:
Reik, in a moment of apocalyptic optimism, declares that ‘The enormous importance attached by criminal justice to the deed as such derives from a cultural phase which is approaching its end.’ A social order based on the reality principle, a social order which draws the distinction between the wish and the deed, between the criminal and the righteous, is still the kingdom of darkness.
The interconnectedness of all things in the realm behind the veil means that everything is dependent upon all, that there is no individual consciousness, hence no individual freedom, and therefore no individual responsibility. To be, as romantics imagine, in the divine consciousness, to participate in the godhead, is to be as Manson said, “inside of you. I’m inside every one of you. It’s beyond good and evil.”
To be romantic is to imagine that one exists
in a realm of perfect Oneness in the garden, not in the fallen world of
alienation, duality, and separateness. The fall, original sin, dualism,
that belonged to the orthodox and neo-orthodox, the over-30s who
themselves still in
To find that one mind behind the dualities of life, to find that cosmic center, that essence that LSD advocates like Tim Leary and Baba Ram Das also thought they found, was to find a place beyond good and evil. Manson believed he had found that one mind, tripping away on acid, and hence he had turned his back on all of the false constructs of the language of the world, all of the artificially constructed binaries.
Manson’s message then to the hippies he
picked up along the road was one they were ready to hear, that the
world they had dropped out of was false and that new possibilities
they broke free of that mindset. “People only love each other in
said, “you can’t love each other in reality because you’re all trapped
books, locked up in wars. You are all locked up in the second world
trying to unlock that war.” As the war raged in
Manson’s songs are perhaps the best example of this message. “Look at your game girl,” the song that Axl Rose made infamous, is Manson trying to convince a young girl that it is all “a mad delusion,/ living in that confusion./Frustration and doubt./Can you ever live without your game?” So everything she is is a game, and she needs to realize that “You can tell those lies baby, but you’re only fooling you.” Every adolescent, every human being, has doubts which reach far into the soul. In the Sixties, a whole generation going through an intense identity crisis, faced doubts about the game we had all been taught. Manson’s message was not unique, but communicated one on one to young, uneducated drop outs it came across as cosmically original.
One other song, “Ego is a too much thing,” also brings down to a basic level a complex idea which was very much part of the mindset of the era. They have placed rationality, your reason, in control, and shoved all the love into the back, ”And they call it your subconscious.” The computer up front demands to be in control; it demands to be accepted as you. It “makes you want to jump on a band and fight,/And you can’t stand not to be right.” It makes you “afraid you are gonna act like a clown/And you get made when somebody puts you down.” The answer to the problem of ego being a “too much thing”, is to lose your ego: “Your certainty turns to doubt/And then you start flipping out,/And then you ease on out of your mind.”
To lose one’s ego is to lose one’s common sense view of the world, to leave rationality behind. Included in all that is whatever social construct one was brought up to believe, be it Mormon Republicanism or Jewish liberalism or Roman Catholicism or scientific atheism. It does not matter. Each and every world view, conservative or radical, is just another world view, just another game. This anti-rationality therefore lends itself very easily to relativism, to the idea that all belief systems are equally valid, or invalid, but equally whatever value systems are. They are all “just games.” Or as Manson once succinctly summed up the spirit of relativism, “Shit’s like sugar to flies.”
And the games all take place in an illusion of which even the concept of time plays a role. It is part of Manson’s whole conception that the normal cause and effect relationships in which we all believe, including time, are themselves part of the illusion, part of the fallen world, not the Godhead from which it springs. There is only, he keeps saying, an eternal NOW. In this, he is saying nothing that mystics haven’t said since the beginning of time. But in his mouth, the idea has important legal implications. If there is no time, there is no cause and effect; if there is no cause and effect, what ever he might have said was in a separate sphere from whatever his followers might have done. The circumstantial cause and effect connections that Bugliosi carefully put together have no meaning. “The idea,” says follower Leslie Van Houghton in a recent cellblock interview, “was to let time disappear. There was no time.” Asked by Diane Sawyer what he expected would happen after he told the girls “you know what to do,” Manson answered, “I don’t live in anticipation, woman. I live in now.”
As a capstone, there is the theory of language. “The Fall is into language,” said Brown, and Manson echoed that idea too. He blamed his conviction on the way the prosecutors “had to use catchy little words to make it into a reality, like hippie cult leader.” In such ways, the illusions with which we live in the world are created and sustained by language. Language is the instrument of the illusion, of the fall. Said Manson,
That’s what Jesus Christ taught us, words kill. They’ve filled every living thing with death. His disciples betrayed him by writing it down. Once it was written, it was as dead as a tombstone….They killed him with every word in the new Testament. Every word is another nail in the cross, another betrayal disguised as love. Every word is soaked with his blood. He said, “go, do thou likewise.” He didn’t say write it down.
The whole fucking system is built on those words - the church, the government, war, the whole death trip. The original sin was to write it down.
If the fall is into language, then words are the evil of the world. Words are the tools of deception and control, the way in which the illusion is maintained. They must be used carefully, if at all. Or they must be discredited to liberate people from the illusion that words actually “mean” anything. What, after all, does it even mean to “mean?” It’s all just words trying to fool us into believing we know not what.
The way, finally, to escape from the illusion was a surrendering of the letter and the acceptance of some larger vision. This could be achieved by breaking the hold of language, the letter, which keeps us chained to the illusion of the rational. Once one realizes that words are just sounds and then passes beyond the illusion of inherent meaning, escape becomes possible. In the “Bug Letter,” written from his cell, Manson provided an example of this process:
I must slow my mind down. I’m not human in my ways of thought and I
to be programmed by schools of thought what man is or what man is not,
etc. “nature” has a balance. I want it like a hunger. I learn a
universe in a
look, in a flash. I could slow down and spell the word over and over
hangs in my thought pattern and holds little bits and pieces of power.
I try to
clear all patterns out of my mind to where I can become a tree or
mountain, a world, a universe.
The pattern here is one that had been part of Manson’s Protestant background for centuries, a death and rebirth sequence; it was to be born again. He himself often told the story of his own death and rebirth experience in the desert. He even used the scriptural language to define it. About the kids on his ranch, he said, “I turned ‘em loose. They became free in their minds. We started a rebirth movement, a rebirth in Jesus Christ. It’s a Holy War really.” But so ignorant was he of the larger historical framework and its wider influence over so much of American culture that he once charged Jimmy Carter and the religious right with stealing his idea, as if he had thought it up first.
This explains his fixation with death and the need to die. This is the meaning of the song “Cease to Exist” which he wrote for Dennis Wilson and the Beach Boys and which they put out as a mere seduction song, “Cease to Resist.” But as so often throughout the history of Christian hermeneutics, the question of literal and metaphorical readings is constantly a problem. To have stated clearly a distinction between the two would have been to embrace another duality. So Manson talked death to his followers, some of whom never did understand that there was even a question of whether he meant literal or spiritual death.
Yet, literal death is important as a way of talking about spiritual death. They really cannot be divided. The death of Jesus of Nazereth the incarnate human on the cross is a necessary symbol of the spiritual death of the soul that is conversion. We humans love ourselves, our bodies, our existence. We don’t want to die. So this fear of death becomes an image or shadow of the greater fear of spiritual death, of eternal death - “To die and know it! This is it. This is the black widow, death.” Fear and paranoia thus become a part of the package. When the old Adam starts to die, he panics trying to hold onto the old consciousness as it disintegrates in his mind leaving him exposed and naked. When the old certainties disintegrate, anything suddenly becomes possible, absolutely anything. Images of the devil, of hell, of aliens farming humans for consumption on their home world, you name it. Manson’s and the Beatles’ message then to “let go and surrender to the void. It is not dying” was a push into a terrifying experience.
To realize that one is only playing a game, and then to watch oneself playing that game, and then to watch oneself watching oneself playing that game, is a terrifying fade back into the infinite upon infinite layers of consciousness until one’s mind is as Jonathan Edwards said “swallowed up in God.” Thus all the emphasis on exposing game-playing that one reads throughout the sixties finally culminated here. We have all been programmed by the combine. We need to realize that we are programmed, that we dont know why we believe what we believe or do what we do, and we need to escape from those illusions. This is true liberation from all of the games that have been laid down for thousands of years of civilized history.
Growing up in prison, Manson had
experienced a different reality, a different world entirely from that
outside. In prison, little tolerance is shown for the pretensions that
mark personalities in the outside world. There each individual is
on his or her own final line of defenses, reduced, like the soldiers in
Sure, I influenced a lot of people unbeknownst to my own understanding of it. I didn’t understand the fears of people outside. I didn’t understand the insecurities of people outside. I didn’t understand people outside. And a lot of things I said and did affected a lot of people in a lot of different directions. It wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t with malice aforethought.
But a few seconds later when asked if he also felt “remorse,” which presumes guilt, Manson sat for a long time in silence before saying, in resignation, “we reach an impasse here, man.”
One of Manson’s proudest boasts is that he always spoke what he called the “truth”: “I walk a real road. I am a real person. I’m not a phony. I don’t put on no airs. I say what I think.” What he meant by this is that he does not lie, that he insists on telling it as he believes it. In the parole hearing, he knew what the parole officers wanted to hear. He could have lied; he probably could have even lied successfully. He didn’t. Asked what he might do if he was let out, would a hustling con have told the parole board, “I’ll cheat. I’ll steal. I’ll do whatever I have to do to survive, and that’s a reality”? But even in simple questions, when pressed for a yes or a no whether he had a family still waiting for him on the outside, he answered “I can’t explain it to you man. It doesn’t have a yes or no.” All he has is what is in his mind. For him to give that up, to lie, would be to surrender the void back to the world, which is what society wants. Instead, he says to the court, “I showed you some strength. I haven’t surrendered to this by copping out to yours or telling tales or playing weak…. You’ve done everything you can to me, and I’m still here.”
This is part of the voice from the Infinite which Clem was drawn to. It was a large part of Manson’s appeal for kids trying to escape from a sham suburban world of lies wrapped around lies wrapped around lies. “Manson is the only person I ever met who just tells you the truth and doesn’t even understand someone having bad feelings about it,” said Gypsy. “It’s hard to live with a person who tells the truth all the time. Why? Because lots of time we don’t want to hear the truth. Manson knows the truth because he knows nothing; he knows the power of an empty head.”
But the ultimate irony is that in knowing the power of an empty head and how to use it, Manson also knew the destructive force of a whole civilization of empty heads all playing mindless games. He preached death to liberate his followers from the games of the old culture, games which were leading to wars, famine, oppression, the destruction of the planet. But the death of the old game-playing ego was only a prelude to the rebirth of the new spirit. Manson wasn’t just a tree-shaker; he was also a jelly maker. And it is in his horrifyingly honest articulation of his solution to humanity’s dilemma that he fulfills Joan Didion’s darkest paranoid fear, that out of this army of lost children would arise some fascist leader appealing to the cosmic mind inside everyone for which he was the self-appointed spokesman.
“Whoever is going to put order into the world,” Manson tried to explain to Geraldo Rivera, “has to stumble across Hitler.” Order is the answer to disorder. If the planet is to be saved from the rapacious destruction of human civilization, then, according to Manson, someone needs to “put order into the world.” Manson has even set up his own organization, with its own webpage (www.atwa.com) for this purpose. ATWA stands for Air, Trees, Water, Animals, the life which will be saved when he re-organizes our helter-skelter madness. Asked to explain the swastika he has cut into his forehead, Manson said, “How do you have Peace on Earth? How do you communicate to a whole group of people. You stand up and take the worst fear symbol there is and say, there, now I’ve got your fear. And your fear is your power and your power is your control. I’m your king of this whole planet. I’m gonna rule this world through ATWA. I want this world cleaned up.” But the swastika is more than a symbol of fear. It is also a symbol of Hitler’s particular attempt to put order into the world, an order that included each race staying within its own circle. Manson is definitely both anti-semitic and racist, to say nothing of sexist. He freely admits it. His idea of order is in fact more like that of the pre-war generations with which he identifies, than of the flower-children of the sixties. The older generation had experienced the horror of the depression and the world war and wanted security. So did Manson. His ideas of social and political order were very old fashioned. But he also admitted that he preferred the music of Frank Sinatra to the mayhem of Rock and Roll or even the Beatles. He wanted to overcome the chaos around him and restore a sense of order.
Manson once warned his parole board that “If I’m not paroled, and I don’t get a chance to get back on top of this dream, you’re gonna lose all your money, your farms aren’t going to be able to produce. You’re gonna win Helter Skelter. You’re gonna win your reality.” Whether this “I” refers to Manson the man or the universal “I” locked within each of us in the subconsciousness is, as usual, not at all clear. And it makes a difference. But in either case, Helter Skelter is the confusion of a world gone crazy and in need of order. “This dream” is the consciousness of mainstream society which is leading humanity into chaos and suicide. According to Manson, only the liberation of the voice of the unconsciousness collective mind to organize all the unconscious minds into one big consciousness can change the dream in such a way as to prevent mankind from destroying the planet.
When Manson argued that his consciousness came from a deeper place “beyond good and evil,” he at least conjured up in the minds of more learned people an historic parallel. Nietzche, who used that phrase in a famous book, was also the product of a romantic movement, the culmination of nineteenth-century German mysticism. His theory of the Superman who existed outside of the merely artificially constructed codes of bourgeois culture inspired the Nazis. Like Nietzche, Manson saw that the codes of society are artificial, contingent, and unworthy of respect. Like Nietzche, he believed himself capable of freeing himself from them and living on a higher plane. He saw the void, but rather than surrender to it, he believed he had what it took to fill the emptiness with a new and better structure.
Joan Didion was right. At the end of the
antinomian Summer of Love, 1967, a rough beast was slouching toward
In light of all this, for reporters to harp on the literal facts of who did what when during the murders often seems as absurd as showing “Reefer Madness” to High School kids to keep them from smoking pot. Once again, the adults haven’t a clue. Until they address Manson’s issues, they won’t have any credibility either. Someone needs to address these questions in language which people understand. Otherwise, kids will turn to the Mansons among us for their answers. “A lot of the kids,” says Manson, “never met anybody who told them the truth. They never had anybody who was truthful to them. You know, they never had anybody that wouldn’t lie or snake or play old fake games. So all I did was I was honest with a bunch of kids.” That is a powerful indictment of our society.
However appalled one might be by the literal reality of Manson, it is almost impossible not to also take him on the level of symbolic consciousness. “They don’t want to ever let me go,” he explains, “because they feel secure as long as they’ve got me locked up in that cell. They feel like, yeah, they’ve got THE MAN locked up right there in a box.” Perhaps this is only literal; or perhaps Manson has taken over the role in society that black people used to play, the symbol of the terrors of the subconscious. We need to keep our rational consciousness safe from the chaos on the other side. So we lock up the subconscious under what Freud called the censor. And through the power of symbolic consciousness we imagine that by segregating black people, or locking Charlie Manson in a cell, we have the irrational forces of the subconscious under our rational control. We try to keep the conditioning going. We try to make the combine run more smoothly by adjusting everyone’s programming so everyone will think and behave as they should. And yet the secondary meanings are always there. The literal continues to point to the symbolic for anyone able to read the text. Even when, perhaps especially when it is least intended, the ironic meanings bring us up short.
At his last parole hearing, Manson was of course rejected. The parole board went through a long explanation why and listed a series of problems. The final Problem, number five, reads as if a line from Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest, “The prisoner has not completed the necessary programming which is essential to his adjustment and needs additional time to gain such programming.”
To which Manson has the final word, “Can’t you see I’m out, man? Can’t you see I’m out? Can’t you see I’m free?”
The light at the end of the tunnel may have
been the metaphor for