helter skelter

All right, I know I’m out of order on my review posts here (and still way behind!) but since today is August 9, the infamous crime’s 45th anniversary, I thought it apt to do this review of Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry today. From Goodreads:

Prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi held a unique insider’s position in one of the most baffling and horrifying cases of the twentieth century: the cold-blooded Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. What motivated Manson in his seemingly mindless selection of victims, and what was his hold over the young women who obeyed his orders?

Whoa. WHOA, you guys. This book. I was completely enthralled in a morbid fascination kind of way. I started it at a bad time, only able to read a tiny bit each day for a couple of weeks (really busy with Fringe Festival coverage, out of town a bit), but as soon as my time freed up I devoured the last 75% in just 3 days, and this is a 670+ page book.

While I fully believe Charles Manson is guilty and belongs in prison, it’s undeniable that he’s a fascinating figure. Likening himself to Jesus Christ (in some superficial ways I see the similarities, but below the surface absolute opposites), Manson was able to grow a fanatical cult around his environmentalist and anti-establishment philosophies and apocalyptic prophesying. He was a predator and master manipulator, seeking out those who were lost—rejected, abandoned, or broken by society (as he was)—and creating a place for them to feel they belong, his notorious Family. It’s incredible and simply mind boggling that he achieved a superhuman grip over his followers, and still enjoys a bizarre, ignominious status of cult popularity today.

The story of these horrifying murders gave me the chills. I just can’t wrap my head around some of the evil that happens in the world, but for some reason I am drawn to it in literature. I definitely was gripped all the way through Helter Skelter (and have probably bored my husband already talking so much about it), despite being predominately about the investigation and trials rather than Manson’s psyche. (I’m not typically interested in court-room dramas.) I learned so, so much about this case though—all I knew before was that Manson was a mass murderer and serving a life sentence for killing an actress. Reading this, I can see how so many elements came together (Manson’s troubled past, growing use of drugs, political and social unrest, etc.) that allowed Manson to rise to dangerous god-like power over a handful of vulnerable young people (women, mostly) and effectively end an era of so-called innocence in the United States.

I also couldn’t believe how incompetent the LAPD came off, with prosecutor Bugliosi stepping in on investigations and interrogations. It was insane that the prosecution’s case was so difficult to string together, with very little admissible but an abundance of circumstantial evidence. Wow. Makes you think about the clashing systems of law and justice.

I have been wanting to read this book for a very long time. I had been putting it off because I knew it would be disturbing—and it was—but also so much more, so informative. I had no idea about Manson’s obsession with the Beatles, for instance, especially The White Album, and I didn’t know about his musical inclinations and attempts at hitting it big as a folk singer-songwriter (Nick and I did go back and listen to Guns N’ Roses’s cover of Manson’s song “Look at Your Game, Girl,” now that I know it was written by him, and it’s even more creepy and haunting). I also don’t think I can listen to Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral again the same way (it was recorded at the Tate residence decades later). I highly recommend Helter Skelter if you are into true crime and American history, law, and society, especially in the late 1960s–early 70s.

Helter Skelter is my fifth of twelve books read for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from July 18 to August 4, 2014.

2 thoughts on “helter skelter

    • Yes, exactly. Cults are fascinating and terrifying things to me. I watched a short documentary on the David Koresh/Waco stand-off and felt the same way—intrigued and mystified. It makes you wonder what your response would be if you met someone like these cult leaders.

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