The Guardian, Friday 10 August 2012 18.00 EDT
To his daughter, Paul Watkins was simply her dad. Could it really be true he was also the notorious 60s cult leader's right-hand man?
The first time I did my parlour trick I was in college, sitting in the attic bedroom of a friend, smoking from a filthy bong. We were semi-hardcore stoners and waffling vegetarians, flaky philosophy majors and binge drinkers and, of course, wannabe novelists. A blurb about Thomas Pynchon's forthcoming novel – Against The Day – had appeared and then disappeared from Amazon, and we were, as I remember it, speculating about the book. "It's about 9/11," someone said. "It's gotta be." We were probably listening to the Beatles because from here we got to the Manson family. My friend, the host, was orating on the topic with the bombast with which we explicated everything then, talking the Manson legend as if he'd lived it. My then boyfriend – who had some benign rivalry going with our host – knew about my salacious family history. He nudged me. He wanted me to do my parlour trick, to say, "My dad was in the Manson Family. He was Charles Manson's right-hand man."
When I didn't pipe up, my boyfriend leaned down and whispered, "Dance, monkey." It was just the kind of joke I love – quick and close to the bone.
I did dance, and have danced often since. And I am dancing now, I fear.
The dance begins in March of 1968. My father is 18 years old, bare-chested, moccasin-clad, smoking grass and playing his french horn on a ledge overlooking Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley. He is a dropout, an acid head, a self-styled gypsy, a runaway. Childhood evangelism has given way to jam sessions in the Haight, and this spring these will draw him to Spahn's ranch, the movie-set commune in Los Angeles's Santa Susana Mountains, to Charles Manson, to his "family": other dropouts and acid heads and gypsies and runaways. Manson will send my father to Death Valley to prepare for Armageddon, while back in Los Angeles he will convince his tribe to murder at least nine people, among them Shorty Shea, a Spahn ranch hand, and Sharon Tate, eight and a half months pregnant, all this described in the true crime classic Helter Skelter.
Helter Skelter notes that my father will pull away from Manson in the desert, that he will testify against him, though not that he will marry, divorce, then meet the woman who will be my mother in a bar on the southernmost edge of Death Valley. They'll start a newspaper, then a chamber of commerce, then, on August 3 1990, he will die of leukaemia. I'll be six then, and I will hardly remember him.
These days I find my father where we find everything: online. Most recently, my search took me to a site called familyjams.com, "the exclusive online distributor of Charles Manson's new CD, One Mind". For $14.98 I buy not One Mind – billed as "pure Charlie, no additions, no corrections, no added opinions… all new material… songs, trance-poetry, conversations, raps, ramblings, musings and more" – but instead a CD titled Paul Watkins Reflects, June 1988.
I rip the CD on to my iPod and wheel to my father, who has appeared in the Ps between Paul Simon and the Pixies. Maybe he would have liked that, being a musician. Maybe that's where he would have been anyway, if he'd kept singing and playing music, if he hadn't had his vocal cords singed before he was slated to testify against Charlie, when the Volkswagen van he was sleeping in caught fire, was perhaps lit by Steven "Clem" Grogan, one of three Manson Family men who claimed to have undone Shorty Shea with a pipe wrench, a machete, a bayonet.
June 1988. I am four years old; my sister is coming up on three. We live in Tecopa, California, just beyond the southern rim of Death Valley, flung so far out in the Mojave desert that it's easy to imagine everyone here is running from something.
June 1988. My father is making a tape for someone who's made one for him, someone called Nick, who must have corresponded to ask about Manson, as many have before him. The recording is crackling, as though the desert wind is whipping sand across the mic, and in my headphones my father is saying, "Hello, Nick. This is Paul, Paul Watkins."
June 1988. My father thanks Nick for the concern in his voice but assures him that his cancer is not an uncomfortable topic because he's "got a good remission going". He is, he says, "in a victorious position.
"This turned out to have a really happy ending," he tells Nick. "I have this old homestead in the desert, with water, trees. I have two wonderful children, little girls, three and four. Claire and Lise. Claire is the four-year-old; Lise is the three-year-old. They're just delightful. I have a wonderful wife I'm very much in love with. Martha. That's truly a blessing. It's truly wonderful. Not that it's all, how'd you say, daisies and sunbeams, or whatever, but it is, pretty much, much of the time. And getting better all the time."
He says, "I have a really good chance of having a really wonderful life."
Memoir is the meaning-making genre, and meaning-making is a specious, slippery project, a dance I distrust. The back flap of my father's own Manson family memoir promises the impossible, in bold black type: "It can be explained. I can explain it…" I can tell you that my father might have been a great musician if Clem Grogan hadn't tried to burn him alive. Or I can tell you that he would have become a great musician if I hadn't been born. There's no one reason he found himself high and hiking up Topanga Canyon, no one reason why he agreed when a slight, shirtless guy with a guitar said, "Won't you stay and make music with us?"
I believe this, yet I do look for my father in the artefacts of the Manson Family, a violent, misogynistic, drug-hazed milieu often and aptly described as "random" and "senseless". Apparently my father was a meaning-maker, too. He tells Nick, "Cancer served me very well. It was… like God grabbed me by the neck and said, 'You want to look at your life and, uh, get it back in the productive mode? You want to really live it, or do you want to continue to rape, pillage and plunder?'
"Not that I was out raping, pillaging and plundering," he says. "But in a sense, yes, there is that element there, the element of subjugating the women in my life, there's the element of not being able to be happy, of not being able to be happy having children."
Twenty-five months later, he died, and after there lingered something magnetic about the father we never knew. He pulled us to him. As soon as she could leave Nevada, my sister Lise moved to San Francisco, moved unknowingly into an apartment above the intersection where my father was dropped off when he first hitchhiked to that city as a teenager. I moved to West LA, where I could have driven to Spahn's ranch, or the guesthouse in Trancas Canyon where he died, but never did.
I did go to a party in Venice Beach, to a bungalow near the ocean with bougainvillaea shading the walk, the fire in the pit out back ringed by balding men playing guitar and hand-drumming. It was the kind of scene with white women dancing barefoot in the living room, sloshing red wine on the wood floors, the kind of scene where someone, somewhere is always jangling a tambourine. The occasion was the birthday of an old friend of my father, someone who said she had been there when he died. It's not that I don't believe her, exactly, but that so many people have told me they were there when he died that the dim bedroom of that Trancas guesthouse is stuffed with people, ringed with folks pressed shoulder to shoulder, the bed a stage.
Where was I the moment he died? Take the sliding glass door out to the yard. I am with my sister, swimming naked in a defunct Jacuzzi filled with cold water from a hose. I am counting underwater somersaults.
In Venice, the birthday girl was fucked up and so was I. When she saw me she led me into her bedroom and asked me to lay with her. I did, and there she wept, saying, "You look just like your dad." And though I don't particularly look like him, I wept, too.
After my father died, he became a benevolent deity. He was pure, he was a good guy, all he did was love us. So say his brother and sisters, so say his friends and everyone who knew him when I did not. Nearly everything dark or complicated I've learned about him, I've learned from books.
I was 10 years old when I read that my father was "a good-looking youth with a way with women, had been Manson's chief procurer of young girls". My sister came home from school crying because some kid had been teasing her. His taunt was that our father was a murderer for Charles Manson. We didn't know about Charlie yet, but for me the words "Charles Manson" had somehow already been imbued with evil. When our mother came home from work, we asked her about it and she said, "Yes, he was in the Manson Family. And no, he didn't kill anyone." She pointed us to Helter Skelter, which had been on a bookshelf in our family room all along. My sister found him in the index:
Watkins, Paul, 311, 313, 316-32, 335, 343, 366, 373-74, 384, 388, 391, 440, 465, 479, 481, 485, 498, 502, 512, 513, 551, 590, 599, 603, 610, 630, 642, 664-65
Lise skimmed his entries and, satisfied that our father had not killed anyone, we went on with our lives. It wasn't traumatic. It wasn't a moment of revelation. Our father was still dead and we were still left with a scrim of memories so thin we sometimes had no memories at all.
I was 20 years old when I read my father's account of fellating Charles Manson. I was living with friends in Reno in a neighbourhood dotted with halfway houses. I was sleeping around, cheating on boyfriends I didn't have the courage to leave. I took men I hardly knew down to my room in the basement, where I had a bed, a heap of clothes and a heap of books, among them my father's pulpy tell-all, My Life With Charles Manson. The book has all the gritty anecdotes requisite of its genre and I would read them, nights I was alone: longing accounts of acid trips at Spahn's, Charlie's violent and portentous outbursts, "times when we'd take a little orgy contingent to Dennis Wilson's house just to blow the minds of his 'hip' guests".
One night, my father writes, Charlie brought "a new girl named Darcy" to lie between them on the floor of Spahn's saloon. In the candlelight Charlie asked Darcy whether she "felt the cosmic vibes that night". Then he asked her for a blow job. After a bit, Charlie said, "Hey, Paul… show this girl how to give head, will ya." And Paul did, because he wanted to "please Charlie". Later he calls this "my sexual number with Charlie".
This passage stayed with me, not because it revealed the way I'd been convincing myself I wanted to do things I didn't want to do – I'd go on with that for years – but because it was so starkly not something a daughter should know about her father. That passage made him real for me. Which is to say he became, finally, a little bit human.
Though I have only ghosts of memories of him, I have always associated my father with great affection. I recall him being lenient and adoring and fun. I think I can remember manipulating him with his own kindness. I have no reason to doubt he was as good a man as his loved ones say he was. But from my iPod he reminds me, "Life doesn't lend itself to being easily defined. There's always more. There's always more to learn. There definitely is mystery and magic, and this is a matter of fact…[Life] is in fact a wonderful and wide, wide thing. I am an avid lover of life. I suppose that's what's gotten me into so much trouble."
The only person who ever told me about the trouble was my mum. She could be frank about him but elliptically so, as in, "Your Uncle John is a pain in the ass. Your dad was just like him." But now she is gone, too.
She called me once, my mother, when I was in college. She'd just slit her wrists with a steak knife and was, in her mind, dying. "I just want to say goodbye," she said. Then, "I miss your dad."
"Well, you're not going to join him," I said. "If you kill yourself, you're going to hell, right?"
Sorrow had fatigued us, and we were falling back on a lazy cosmology neither of us believed in.
"Then I'll see him there," she said.
By this point in my life my mother had to work to shock me, but this did it. "You think Dad's in hell?"
She laughed at my naivety. "Sweetheart, he was Charles Manson's number one procurer of young girls."
With my mum gone, there's no one to challenge our family mythology, and I sometimes fear my father has become our own private Christ. One meaning I can make here is that Charlie is, in a labyrinthine way, the only one willing to disclose my father's flaws. So in this way I have become grateful to Helter Skelter and familyjams.com. I am, perhaps, grateful even to Charlie. Because I, too, have raped, pillaged and plundered. Because I, too, have spent much of my short life doubting whether I am capable of being happy. Because I am 28 years old and an orphan, and I often feel as alone as that word suggests. And from my iPod crackles a bit of comfort. From my iPod my father is saying to Nick, to Charlie, to me, "There's nothing wrong with not knowing who you are."