My 12 in 12 Challenge – October – History – Book 5

Jeff Guinn’s book Manson is not just a biography of Charles Manson and a look at the “family” he formed in 1960s America and the crimes they committed. It is also an examination of a particular period in time in a certain place which the author argues allowed the crimes to happen as they did.

Charles Manson was allegedly a very charismatic man who gathered together a group of misfits and vulnerable young people, especially women. He welded them to himself and his ideas by making sure that they had few alternatives and by creating a way of life that was very dependent on his leadership. This group of disaffected young people were challenging the norms and seeking an alternative lifestyle, as was common in San Francisco and the surrounding area in the 1960s. The difference with this group was that they eventually turned to murder.

This is a gripping assessment of a group which amounted to a cult and their mindset. It is absolutely chilling to watch the situation escalate from Manson’s desire for fame and his parasitic lifestyle to a situation where the group tried to precipitate a race war to escape from the consequences of a drug deal gone wrong. It seems almost impossible that this could have happened but the author shows in detail how one step led to another and how they were all fuelled by Manson and his deranged ideas about secret messages he was receiving from the Beatles.

This is a straightforward narrative with plenty of research behind it. The author is clear and accurate about what happened but doesn’t dwell on the gore and details of the deaths – he is much more interested in the context and motivation of the participants. I have also read Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter about the same events and the books are very similar although I think that this volume is much better at setting the story in the context of its time and place.

You may not normally enjoy true crime books but if you are at all interested in the time or the events I recommend this one. It tries to help us understand what happened and why rather than sensationalising the story.