Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Book Review)

Little Charlie Manson never met his biological father, a 23-year-old con man named Colonel Walker Scott (Colonel was his first name, not a military ranking) who skipped out of town the moment he discovered 15-year-old Kathleen Maddox was pregnant. Not long after her son was born Kathleen married William Manson, another man who exited Kathleen’s life almost as quickly as he entered it. By the time little Charlie was 5-years-old he was shuffled off to live with an aunt and uncle after both his mother and another one of his uncles had been sent to prison for strong armed robbery. After Manson came home crying from his first day of first grade at a new school, his uncle sent him back to school on the second day wearing a dress. When Manson’s mother was paroled from prison a few years later, the two of them lived in dirty hotels while she worked as a prostitute.

When pitting nature vs. nurture, Charles Manson never had a chance. Described by everybody who ever met him as an incorrigible youth and a habitual liar with violent tendencies, Manson spent the majority of his teen years locked up in reform schools where he was beaten or raped (or both) on a daily basis. He got picked up for stealing cars and committing multiple armed robberies by the age of 13. When his aunt and uncle felt sorry for him and had him over for Christmas dinner as a young teenager, he waited until they left the house and stole his uncle’s gun.

Unlike Helter Skelter, the best selling true crime novel of all time which focused on the Tate/LaBianca murders (and written by the prosecuting attorney), Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn is the biography of Charles Manson. It is perhaps the only thing I have ever read about Manson that made me feel any empathy toward him.

More than anything, Manson points out dozens of pivotal points throughout Charlie’s life. While in prison, Charlie gets housed with pimps who teach him the best way to pick girls and brainwash them. Also while in prison, Manson attends the classic Dale Carnegie course “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Most of the techniques Manson used to mentally control members of the Family came directly from this course.

After having spent more than half of his life incarcerated Manson gets released from prison and lands smack dab in the middle the Haight-Ashbury hippie heyday. By then lost souls from all around the country were flocking to San Francisco looking not just for peace, love and drugs, but someone to show them “the way.” Manson did just that. And while things may have gotten a little out of control, they didn’t get violent — at least not for a while. (Spoiler alert: eventually they do.)

Throughout 700 pages, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson takes readers through the life and times of Charles Manson, from several years before his birth through his countless encounters with the law, his court trial, and of course, “Helter Skelter,” Charlie’s prediction of an impending race war. Author Guinn performed dozens upon dozens of interviews, some of which (like Manson’s cousin he lived with and half-sister) had never previously agreed to be interviewed. Understandably, many of the people interviewed for this book prefer to avoid the limelight and being associated with the infamous Charles Manson.

One of the recurring themes throughout the book is that, above all, Charles Manson wanted to be a rock star. Most of the Family’s efforts early on were geared toward making that happen. Based on Manson’s lifelong history of criminal behavior it’s hard to say whether getting signed to a record label would have changed the bloody outcome of history, but you never know. The failure of Manson’s music career is only one of multiple factors that eventually culminated into the murders that took place in August of 1969.

Some of the most detailed and frustrating stories in the book come during the police department’s investiagation into the Hinman, Tate, and LaBianca murders. Despite the fact that all three crime scenes had some variation of the word “pig” written in the victims’ blood on the walls, investigators failed to link the three crime scenes together. A “Black Panther” sign left at one of the crime scenes was overlooked. Police arriving at the Tate household carelessly destroyed fingerprint evidence. A man and his son found the murder weapon (a .22 pistol) and turned it over to police; four months later the police announced they were still looking for it, despite the fact that the man and his son had called investigators back twice urging them to recheck the gun they had already turned in. Merely weeks after the Tate/LaBianca murders had been committed and despite the fact that everyone involved had told at least one other person or group of people (many of whom had in turn told other people), police could not crack the case. When a female inmate told a deputy her cellmate (Susan Adkins) had confessed to her that she had committed the murders and asked to call investigators, her request was denied. When she pleased with the deputy to call on her behalf, that request was denied too. When the inmate eventually called the LAPD and told them her story they told her it was a county case, not a city case, and they hung up on her. When they called the county, they said they would send someone out to speak with her that day. They didn’t. Throughout all of the investigation all of the Family members were in jail (including Manson himself) on unrelated charges — mostly for possessing weapons, drugs, and stolen cars. Four months after the murders were committed, police stated through a newspaper article that they were still looking for the killers’ discarded clothes. It took ABC news reporters 10 minutes to find the bloody clothes based on the information provided in the article! It is truly, truly amazing that the police were able to ever arrest and prosecute anyone for these crimes, despite their best efforts to bungle the investigation at every turn.

I wasn’t born until four years after the Tate/LaBianca murders were committed. Other than through Helter skelter my only exposure to Charles Manson and the Family has been through a few documentaries, books, and jailhouse interviews. The one question I’m not sure will ever be answered is how much of his own tales does Manson himself believe. Whether Charles Manson truly believed he would find a bottomless pit out in the desert where the Family could hide in until Helter Skelter blew over, who’s to say?

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson is the most complete book I’ve ever read covering the life of Charles Manson. I can’t think of a single detail or fact I’ve ever read about Manson, the Family, or those horrible murders that isn’t covered in this book. The book does a good job of explaining where Manson came from and how he and a bunch of brainwashed followers ended up bringing abut an abrupt end to the Summer of Love.

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2 comments to Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Book Review)

  • Mom

    I remember reading Helter Skelter (many years back) and about how badly the investigation was messed up, due mainly to the refusal of the different police agencies to work with each other; and I also remember the trials. Manson was and still is a pitiful but scary character, crazy like a fox. He is where ultimately he belongs.

  • shadow

    I know subject matter is rough but if it had been written 30 years ago I would have sat you and your sister down at 11 or 12 and insisted you read it