It’s impossible to consider the Sixties—particularly the darkness at the end of the decade—without Charles Manson, the murderous cult leader who was convicted of nine murders, the most famous being actress Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski’s wife, then eight months pregnant with their child. Manson spent the rest of his life behind bars but his notoriety did not diminish—well-worn paperback copies of Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s 1974 book, Helter Skelter, were a rite of passage for the following generations who wanted to know just how Flower Power descended into sinister madness. Manson was the ultimate boogie man, and his mug—crazy-eyed, swastika carved into his forehead—repelled and fascinated us. So did his charisma and intellect, as Ivan Solotaroff discovered in 1992 when he went to L.A. to find the city that Manson terrorized in the summer of ’69, only to discover that even behind bars, Manson’s grip on us remained undiminished. —Alex Belth, Esquire.
In the photographs, Sharon Tate lies at the foot of a beige couch draped with a large, upside-down American flag, her legs tucked up awkwardly in front of her, wearing only underwear. Her eyes are open and staring at a blood-spattered carpet six inches away, and her lips are pursed unnaturally in the same direction, so that she seems to be smiling against her will. Her left arm, crossed over her breasts, covers all but one of five deep stab wounds to her chest, and she still looks vulnerable after death, even though all the blood in her body has settled to one side and to her forehead, causing that purplish tinge—known to coroners as lividity—that makes a corpse so instantly recognizable. There’s a razor-thin slash down her left cheek that drew no blood and a thick nylon rope wound twice around her neck that leads across a yard of increasingly bloody carpet to another body, Jay Sebring, lying near a zebra rug by a fireplace. The blue shirt, black-and-white pinstripe pants, and expensive black boots Sebring wears are caked with blood—so much, it’s almost impossible to look at him—and the eye drifts back to the couch, looking for some relief. For the first time, one notices the thin, purple band beneath the rope on Tate’s neck, indicating she had been garroted before dying, and that the fetal position of her body ironically obscures the fact that she is massively—more than eight months—pregnant.
In the four months between these murders and the indictments of Charles Manson and five members of what the media were to call the Family, a German magazine had a standing offer of $100,000 for these photos and for others even more gruesome: the morgue shots of Tate’s houseguests on the evening of August 9, 1969, and the crime-scene Polaroids from the following night of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, stabbed with a bayonet and punctured with a carving fork and knife some sixty-seven times. The photos that I’m looking at in the L.A. district attorney’s office have since found a more utilitarian purpose in what Ed Sanders, author of The Family, calls the prosecutorial performance art of Stephen Kay, an assistant D.A. and former Manson prosecutor, who exhibits them, along with a slash-by-slash litany, at the parole hearings granted to Manson and to the actual killers those two nights: Susan “Sadie” Atkins, Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten, Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel, and Charles “Tex” Watson—the former honor student, high hurdler, and football letterman who inflicted 90 percent of the wounds.
“I’m the only one left,” Kay tells me, “who still knows everything about the murders and the Family. These people like to minimize their individual participation, but they can’t get away with any detail with me there.” None of the forty-two boards Kay has appeared before since 1978 has needed more than three hours’ deliberation to deny parole, with Manson’s hearings (there have been seven thus far) always proving the briefest. “Manson knows that he will never get out,” Kay explains, “so why pretend he’s innocent?”
Read slow," Manson writes me, “one word at a time.”
His letter arrives some two months after I’d written him: two pages of yellow legal paper covered from top to bottom with impenetrable, punctuation-free, unsyntactic sentences, with after-thoughts like “50 years ahead is 50 years behind because forever goes ahead & behind—up down around & around until you center the vortex” thrown in lengthwise down the margins and across the back of the envelope. It seems—at least on first reading—like boilerplate exculpation from a man who has spent most of his life in jail, filled with arcane, chaotic, Sixties-era solipsism.
Manson in 1970
As the days pass, however, with each additional reading, phrases from his letters begin to reverberate: “Its like as if Everyone had the person I was gona bee befor they seen me—so as to fallow there own fears Death wichs & money”; “I am totely & compleetly alone & when you are compleet alone & compleet you are what my words call me”; “PUT IN YOUR WORDS that HERESAY dont HAVE the LAST WORD.” Despite the misspellings and solecisms, Manson’s words and thoughts clearly have their own very powerful significance and conviction, and I soon found myself plowing once again through the small library the Tate-LaBianca murders generated—not only questioning the extent of Manson’s culpability (which he has denied since his arrest) but feeling personally challenged to enter his world, which I’m beginning to realize is even more alien than I’d imagined: “Faces off—In 21 yers I never met no one in the press who wants to know the truth beyond words. Our vocabalary starts in prison. New words begin in the Under World—your world out there is dying & its smaller than my world in here.”
It’s dying, all right, say Manson and his followers, choking to death on smog and plastic and the fact that the long-awaited ecological savior, one Charles Manson, has been locked away since 1971, forbidden by the ruling class, the meat-eating, gas-guzzling owners of corporations and oil wells, to save America from its own filth.
“The world of sanity,” Sandra Good says, “is a little box. The world of insanity is endless, perfect. Charles Manson is the universal mind,” she intones this afternoon. “He can think through the mind of a shellfish.”
Her voice is clear, girlish, and full of a strange, dogmatic music. She now lives in the vast doldrums of California’s San Joaquin Valley, where she relocated after a five-year parole in Vermont that followed ten years in federal prison for threatening business and government leaders she felt were destroying the environment. She still sounds eerily like what she once was: the rebellious daughter of a San Diego stockbroker one can see in various documentaries about the Sixties—the parts about where the decade went wrong—an X carved into her forehead, her head shaved, and a beatific smile on her face as she warns a battery of cameramen outside the L.A. County courthouse, “You are all next!” The only difference, now twenty-one years since Manson was sentenced in that courthouse to die, is a slight inflection of self-doubt that creeps in at the end of her speeches, making them sound a bit like questions: “He’s powerful, I swear. And he’s still out there in the desert, watching . . . as a raven?! Then boom! He’s out in the bush with the Australian bushman or in the mind of a . . . Norwegian biologist?!”
"You are all next!"
It’s a good thing Manson can mind-travel like this, because there’s no other way for him and Good to see each other. Prohibited from visiting Manson because of her prior conviction for aiding an escape attempt, she has moved to a town twenty-five miles from Manson’s residence in the brand-new, maximum-security prison in Corcoran, California. She grows her own food, travels locally by bicycle, and shuns the media. She talks to me only because I’ve expressed interest in ATWA (Air, Trees, Water, Animals), an environmental-awareness group Manson formed in 1982. It’s not the first ecological lobby that Good and Manson have championed. In the early Seventies, Good and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme were involved with the International People’s Court of Retribution (IPCR): “A wave of assassins,” Good claimed, who “have been silently watching executives and chairmen of the boards—and their wives—of companies and industries that in any way harm the air, water, earth, and wildlife.” Indeed, Manson himself tells Good to inform me that his roots were informed by a sense of ecological catastrophe. “I became aware of Air, Trees, Water, Animals because of Uncle Jess,” Manson says. “Grandma came down from Kentucky because she could see the ATWA dying in the hollers . . . I seen the ocean dying up in Mendocino in ’67. . . . My water spirits are mad.”
My first conversation with Sandra Good ends with an invitation to meet her, provided I first investigate the ravages caused by acid rain in Sequoia National Park and call a man in Ohio—a white supremacist—who when I call at 4:00 P.M sounds as though I’ve awakened him, and who vets me for half an hour with questions like: “So, you realize Manson’s only kept in prison because he’s a white male?”
I broach the subject of white males with Good when we speak again, and all pleasantries vanish. “We were left to die in prison because we were white, man. And where were your liberal humanitarians when we were facing the gas chamber for trying to save Earth from people . . . getting drunk on the blood of children! Even child murderers get to point the finger at Charlie, accuse us of killing children. Peck, peck, peck, peck down the order. Sharon Tate’s baby dying? A baby that would grow up to be a fat fucking hamburger-eating, Earth-destroying . . . soul-destroying piece of shit?!”
“You judge me,” Manson writes, “with the world standing on me at the end of the pecking order. Never in history have they done to one person what they done to me.”
"Never in history have they done to one person what they done to me."
Sitting poolside at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in North Hollywood’s Studio City the next morning is the man most responsible for the world’s harsh judgment of Charles Manson: Vince Bugliosi, who successfully prosecuted Manson for seven counts of first-degree murder. If there is anyone who can shed light on Manson’s messianic aura, it is the former D.A. who hounded Manson onto Death Row and then wrote Helter Skelter, the best-selling account of the Manson Family.
“When you think of Richard Speck or Jeffrey Dahmer,” says Bugliosi, “you think of insanity, and you lose interest. The mass murderer Charles Starkweather said words to this effect: ‘No one’s interested in a crazy man.’ People don’t follow an insane person. They’ll follow an evil person, a man with abnormal values. Charlie is a megalomaniac and a sophisticated con man. But a murderer? That’s hard to say. There were thirty-five solved and unsolved killings attributed to him, so he has an enormous preoccupation with death, certainly. And look where he wound up—the Barker Ranch in Death Valley—and there are three murders attributed to him out there, too. I have no doubt he’s capable of killing. But the record does show Manson wasn’t physically involved in the Tate-LaBianca murders.”
After brunching with his New York agent, Bugliosi is in an almost charitable mood toward his old nemesis. Like everyone involved in the Tate-LaBianca case, he seems to have aged in a vacuum: His body is wiry, his face so identical to his 1969 photos that his graying hair seems like that of an actor playing him as an older man. He’s lost none of the prosecutor’s zeal for minutiae. Though he knows the details of the Family and the murders as well as anyone, he is clearly more fascinated with, and disturbed by, an unknown Charlie than the man he actually prosecuted.
“It’s become like some Kennedy-assassination thing,” he says, reaching for my notebook and pen on the poolside table, “people with theories about the murders and Manson. For example, it’s been posited by those I call Manson revisionists that Charlie visited the Tate house on Cielo Drive a few hours after the murders, to see for himself.”
Considering the theory, Bugliosi excitedly draws a map of the Bel Air street and marks the spots of the house, garage, and a back cabin with crosses and squares. “Look, you order a mass murder, and the reason you aren’t at the scene is you’re insulating yourself from responsibility. Then you go back?” He makes a row of crosses up the street, showing a path of return, then fills the page with more crosses and stick figures.
“Who would want to go back to the scene of a mass murder? If you’re a Dahmer, and you want to fool around with body parts or something dumb like that, maybe. But Charlie is extremely intelligent. It’s always veiled, but he’s very bright. When he’s talking, a lot of the time it doesn’t make any sense. Then it gets typed up and you see there’s a complex, underlying message full of riddles. Like his name: Charles Milles Manson. At some point, he changed the middle name to Willes. Why? So that spoken a certain way, it becomes 'Charles’s will is man’s son.’”
“What did he mean by that?”
“Who knows? But it’s powerful. And Charlie had tremendous power in his circle of runaways and dropouts. He was a heavyweight in that world, it would be folly to dismiss that. Wherever he went, a congregation would form. After the arrests, it was this power that really captured the imagination. It just seemed so bizarre to anyone outside his circle that this five-feet-two ex-con could dominate so easily. People are fascinated by murder, and the fact that celebrities were killed heightened the tension. But you know, I’ve talked about the murders countless times in the last twenty years and rarely, if ever, has anyone asked, ‘How many times had Sharon Tate been stabbed?’ No, there have been far more gruesome murders. It’s the bizarre that draws people in.”
"Can you imagine what kind of monster you would have to be to go back to a house where you knew there'd be such horrible carnage?"
Several hours after I fall asleep that night, Bugliosi calls and begins talking as if in midsentence. “I just can’t get that idea out of my mind,” he says. “You know, about Charlie going back to Cielo Drive. It’s a fascinating possibility, but it just doesn’t make sense.” He’s disturbed that a visit by Manson explains a number of unsolved details about the killings: a pair of unidentified eyeglasses found in the Tate living room and differences in the crime scene left by the murderers and the one found the morning after. “If it’s true though,” Bugliosi says with a chilled voice, “can you imagine what kind of monster you would have to be to go back to a house where you knew there’d be such horrible carnage?”
If after all these years the Family’s motives for the Tate-LaBianca murders still seem chillingly and ultimately inscrutable to Bugliosi, they’re perfectly lucid, at least in retrospect, to Sandra Good. In her mind, the Manson crew were environmental crusaders from the beginning. “What we did was necessary . . . to start a revolution against pollution! We made a statement and we wrote it in blood in the Tate house and in the LaBianca house: ‘This death you look at? This is your children. Tate-LaBianca is the house of the future.’ We were little kids, trying to save the sheep from the wolves—and I don’t mean, you know, to put down wolves! And where are Abbie Hoffman and Bernardine Dohrn and Jerry Rubin and all you liberal humanitarians now? Crying about Nelson Mandela? About jobs for the homeless? Jobs that destroy air, trees, water, animals? About some guy in a fur coat who left home without his rubbers . . . and got AIDS?! Excuse me, but that is just white-liberal-guilt-fear, the same that can’t forget nine little murders, and yet will ask me to lay down for a black man . . . and commit genocide?!”
“Genocide. That’s essentially what you do when you go to bed with someone who’s not of your own race. You breed your own genes out of existence, you breed theirs out, too, and any goddamned fool can see that. The blacks don’t even know how to dance anymore. Yet in one swoop of guilt-fear, they’ll ask me to destroy thousands of years of Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Celtic genes and lay down . . . for some African! Excuse me, but what are his genes? Hottentot?”
Good stops suddenly, apologizes for ranting, then begins to talk at length and with eloquent fury about the rape of the environment—everything from the arsenic trailings left by silver mining to rain-forest beef, water tables, dioxins, paraquat, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s abandonment of wild horses in Nevada.
The subject of nature, however, leads inexorably to eugenics, then white men in prison, then to one particular white man in prison.
“What people say about Manson,” Charlie writes me, “is there own dreams. They see[m] to come through a Heaven’s body to form real from the demon’s soul . . . [their] own reflections to say what is real and or is not real.”
The sensationalism of the Tate-LaBianca murders has always overshadowed the environmental/racial cause, as followers refer to it, that Manson is said to espouse. Jerry Rubin, one of the first to visit Manson after his arrest, says he “fell in love with Charlie Manson the first time I saw his cherub face and sparkling eyes on TV.” Two hours into their meeting, however, Rubin was horrified to learn that Manson had never heard of Huey Newton.
Rubin was not the only Sixties icon to fall under Manson’s spell. Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson took Manson and a dozen young women into his Sunset Boulevard mansion in the spring of 1968. Wilson, his former producer Gregg Jakobson says, called Manson the Wizard, gave them free rein to his clothes, drugs, Rolls-Royce, and Ferrari, then included a reworked version of a Manson song, “Cease to Exist,” on the Beach Boys album 20/20. His brother Brian, however, was immune to Manson’s charisma, locking himself in the bedroom of his Bel Air house when Dennis brought the Wizard and a few girls over to record, then having his toilets disinfected several times for fear of gonorrhea.
I drive down to Laguna Beach to meet Jakobson, who was a friend and philosophical confidant of Manson’s in the halcyon days, and probably the only person who spent time with him while both cogent and nonindoctrinated. “If Charlie had come up twenty years later,” he says, “with MTV, he would have been a natural. He was a magic man, and in those days magic was allowed. Hanging out with him was an event, though you could only take so much of him, because he was always on, always on the move. I remember—and this is one of very few more-or-less conventional nights—we ended up on the Strip, at the Whiskey, with Dennis, Charlie, and a huge entourage, some big show going on. Charlie hit the dance floor, and it wasn’t but a minute till he’d cleared it. Don’t forget, this is the Whiskey A-Go-Go in ’68, and a pretty hardcore place. It’s loud, it’s happening, and nobody gives a shit about anything. But there’s too much electricity coming off him. He’s just humming, shooting sparks out of his eyes and his head.”
“Was it good dancing?”
“Well, of course, good doesn’t mean much when it comes to Charlie. It was total freedom, and he was moving to the music, and if you’d want to define dance from the bottom up, that’s not a bad place to start.”
“What was it like talking with him?”
“Exactly the same, and his rap was solid. He had this charm of throwing ten things at you, and while you’re still working on number three, he’s at seven, and getting physical about it. He’d bend down, pick up a handful of rocks, and throw them in the air. They’d all come back to him, and he’d look at you and say, ‘Throw it all away, and it’ll come back to you.’ See, there wasn’t a thing Charlie wouldn’t interpret for you. One time, he was telling me about the end of everything, and I was saying, ‘You’re full of shit, but we oughta film you and make some music.’ He took me for a ride up to that end of the Valley where they were building three hundred new houses. We drove up, new homes, new streets, new lights, not a soul there. And he stopped. Silence. He says, ‘Where are we at? What does this make you think of?’ It was like a graveyard. He said, ‘Exactly, that’s where we’re heading. This is the future.’”
“Weren’t you afraid?”
“No, I really wasn’t. And if I was and tried to fake it, Charlie would’ve seen through it immediately. See, Charlie really believed what he believed in, he never faked it. His reality was bizarre, but so is prison and that’s where Charlie came from. He was true to his conditioning: Observe from a distance, through a glass wall, above barbed wire, and what comes out is strong ideology. He never learned that reality and ideology are two different things, and he was one of the few who can live with those two as one—like the Maharishi, Mother Teresa. And one thing is for sure: Wherever you have a Mother Teresa, you’ll also have a Charles Manson. I love them both. She brings tears to my eyes, and strange as it sounds, I loved Charlie for pointing that gun at my head.”
“They always seem to end up blaming me,” Manson writes me, “for being what They say—I was the phonie prophit befor I said 4 words.”
Death Valley is only 170 miles from L.A., but it’s one of those distances maps can’t begin to measure. The first copse of Joshua trees and odorless sagebrush welcome you, some twenty-five miles outside San Bernardino city limits, to the sun-blackened gravel and red clay of the Mojave Desert. By the time you reach the Pinnacles, a series of conical mountains rising from the white salt flats that begin 125 miles out on Interstate 395, you begin to feel a profound conviction of the worthlessness of all activity other than sitting utterly still.
“People do not believe in cops out here,” says Deborah DeRose Fraser, the attorney for Susan “Sadie” Atkins, who is driving us into the desert.
“That’s what drew Manson here in the first place,” Bill Nelson chimes in from the backseat. “No one to stop him from killing.”
Bill, a forty-eight-year-old Orange County man, is easily the world’s leading Manson revisionist. A former minister and former Secret Service officer under Nixon, he’s devoted much of his last five years to an investigation of the Tate-LaBianca murders, culminating with the recent publication of a vanity-press edition of his Tex Watson: The Man, the Madness, the Manipulation. Though Watson seems to be his primary fascination, Nelson keeps tabs on every Family member he can. He’s been calling me, asking, “Do you wanna come stake out Sandra Good’s P.O. box with me this Saturday?” or “How about Friday, from 1:15 to 3:45? We can tail Suzan LaBerge [the born-again daughter of Rosemary LaBianca, and an active supporter of Watson’s parole bid]. I know which aerobics class she goes to.”
I’ve taken Bill up on his third offer, to go out to Barker Ranch, the Family’s former communal digs, with a Mojave woman I’ll call Onyx, a forty-something mother of five—and former Family member—who wants her name hidden, Bill tells me, to avoid further embarrassment with her neighbors. “Her teenager,” he says, “already had to drop out of school last year because the kids were beating up on him for having the witch with an X on her face for a mother.” As we pass the last of the Pinnacles and turn toward her town, Bill unsheaths a six-inch Buck knife and holds it to his left cheek, telling me it’s the same kind Watson used on the first night of the murders. “Tex claims he was on so much speed he didn’t know what he was doing,” Bill says. “Tex knew exactly! He gave Sharon Tate a slit down her cheek with this before killing her. Like a cat with a mouse.”
Charles Denton "Tex" Watson
Onyx sits in her stucco house, where the TV is broadcasting a running Teletype of scripture and church events. She looks like a sepia-tone version of the dozens of photographs I’ve seen of her, and not a day older. In the glare outside, however, I see that her face is deeply etched with frown and worry lines; as we pile into the back of Deborah’s four-wheel-drive Jeep, I notice the X carved in the middle of her forehead. It’s a startling sight, and I can’t stop looking. In the intense desert heat it seems almost biblical.
“Hey,” she says to me, “you’re crushing my Gloria.”
I smile foolishly for a few seconds, thinking what a weird afternoon this is going to be, until she reaches for the half of her money belt I’m sitting on and pulls out a cassette of Gloria Estefan’s greatest hits. Deborah, who also seems riveted by Onyx’s forehead, asks what she tells her children about the past. “I tell ’em, ‘Well, hon, your mom fell on a cookie cutter.’” I hear a strange roar of laughter from Bill, sitting next to Onyx. “A cookie cutter,” he bellows. ‘That’s too rich.”
“Sexy Sadie, you broke the rules,” Onyx is singing as we clear the top of Golar Wash and park in front of the ramshackle sprawl of Barker Ranch. “You laid it down for all to see-ee-ee-uh.” She seems disappointed by the bad state of repair the ranch is in. “Oh, well,” she sighs, “the ground settles, concrete cracks, life goes on. We were happy here.”
The Family spent two significant periods of time at the ranch—the late fall of 1968, when Manson fell in love with the remote and mystical peace of the desert, and two months in the early fall of 1969, after the Tate-LaBianca murders. They weren’t under suspicion for Tate-LaBianca when they were arrested in October for torching a $30,000 piece of land-moving equipment being used to cover up a nearby hot spring they loved, and they were due to be released on the arson charges when Susan Atkins decided to shock her cell mates by talking about the murders she’d committed for a man she loved named Charlie.
The main room of the ranch house is pretty much as it was left after two raids netted the entirety of the Family. Mattresses and an occasional piece of cheap furniture are strewn about, and some animal I don’t want to know about is rattling inside the oven. There are a few old hardcore porno shots hanging from the mantelpiece and some graffiti of more recent vintage on the wall—6/24/90 STILL LOYAL TO CHARLIE STEVE KEVIN MARK—and a pentagram with the words, JOHN & DON AUG 9TH ’90 “TO SHARON.”
As we walk a quarter of a mile to Myers, a second ranch the Family often used but was never allowed to settle in, I ask Onyx if any of the rumors of their involvement with black magic were true. ‘There was a lot of talkage about everything. Satan babble, Jesus babble. Hopi babble, Helter babble. Skelter babble. We talked scads of shit. But it was all talkage, not doage.”
‘The murders, though,” I say, “were a doage.”
“Yes,” she says, getting serious for the first time. “That appears to have been a doage.”
Charlie considered the Myers ranch a kind of ultimate destination. Situated on a cold spring—the first water source I’ve seen in fifty miles—and adorned with fig and eucalyptus trees, a running shower, a swimming pool, and lush vegetation, it has the feel of some ranch in the Shenandoah Valley. Near a stand of closely planted fruit trees is a dense growth of six-foot reeds that Onyx tells me they used to hose down for the “world’s best kiddie slide,” all the way from the ranch house down to the springs. I ask if the Family was always environmentally aware.
“Oh, yeah, though the word ecology hadn’t been invented yet, and we were way too far strung-out for issues and point-counterpoint. Save the spotted owl? Fuck, he’s too fuckin’ far away. Squeaky’s trigger shit was just trying to push a button on the intercom and make the world listen. Same with Sandy. They just pushed everyone’s parole back twenty years.” She seems enormously guilty that she’s free to live out here while Manson sits in the hole.
This desert is the only realm Manson speaks of with any longing, and it’s easy to see why. There’s an ethereal emptiness in the vista of Death Valley—literally the lowest point in the United States; it’s a place where forceful visions meet no limitations. For all his yearnings, Manson harbors no delusions of seeing his desert again. “By the time I get out,” he has predicted, “I’ll parole to space.”
This article appears in the February '92 issue of Esquire.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.