Welcome to Part 5 (Beyond Good and Evil) of our 6 part series with Dr. Dave Williams, author of Searching For God in the Sixties. Each part is being presented on Mondays. Dr. Dave is making himself available to answer questions in the comments section.
One of Manson's proudest boasts is that he always spoke what he called the "truth": "I walk a real road. I am a real person. I'm not a phony. I don't put on no airs. I say what I think." What he meant by this is that he does not lie, that he insists on telling it as he believes it. In the parole hearing, he knew what the parole officers wanted to hear. He could have lied; he probably could have even lied successfully. He didn't. Asked what he might do if he was let out, would a hustling con have told the parole board, "I'll cheat. I'll steal. I'll do whatever I have to do to survive, and that's a reality"? But even in simple questions, when pressed for a yes or a no whether he had a family still waiting for him on the outside, he answered "I can't explain it to you man. It doesn't have a yes or no." All he has is what is in his mind. For him to give that up, to lie, would be to surrender the void back to the world, which is what society wants. Instead, he says to the court, "I showed you some strength. I haven't surrendered to this by copping out to yours or telling tales or playing weak…. You've done everything you can to me, and I'm still here."
This is part of the voice from the Infinite which Clem was drawn to. It was a large part of Manson's appeal for kids trying to escape from a sham suburban world of lies wrapped around lies wrapped around lies. "Manson is the only person I ever met who just tells you the truth and doesn't even understand someone having bad feelings about it," said Gypsy. "It's hard to live with a person who tells the truth all the time. Why? Because lots of time we don't want to hear the truth. Manson knows the truth because he knows nothing; he knows the power of an empty head."
But the ultimate irony is that in knowing the power of an empty head and how to use it, Manson also knew the destructive force of a whole civilization of empty heads all playing mindless games. He preached death to liberate his followers from the games of the old culture, games which were leading to wars, famine, oppression, the destruction of the planet. But the death of the old game-playing ego was only a prelude to the rebirth of the new spirit. Manson wasn't just a tree-shaker; he was also a jelly maker. Not just another deconstructionist proclaiming the void in all things, he saw the possibility of creating a new essential narrative. And it is in his horrifyingly honest articulation of his solution to humanity's dilemma that he fulfills Joan Didion's darkest paranoid fear, that out of this army of lost children would arise some fascist leader appealing to the cosmic mind inside everyone for which he was the self-appointed spokesman.
"Whoever is going to put order into the world," Manson tried to explain to Geraldo Rivera, "has to stumble across Hitler." Order is the answer to disorder. If the planet is to be saved from the rapacious destruction of human civilization, then, according to Manson, someone needs to "put order into the world." Manson even for a while set up his own organization with its own webpage (www.atwa.com) for this purpose. ATWA stands for Air, Trees, Water, Animals, the life which will be saved when he re-organizes our helter-skelter madness. Asked to explain the swastika he has cut into his forehead, Manson said, "How do you have Peace on Earth? How do you communicate to a whole group of people. You stand up and take the worst fear symbol there is and say, there, now I've got your fear. And your fear is your power and your power is your control. I'm your king of this whole planet. I'm gonna rule this world through ATWA. I want this world cleaned up." But the swastika is more than a symbol of fear. It is also a symbol of Hitler's particular attempt to put order into the world, an order that included each race staying within its own circle. Manson is definitely both anti-semitic and racist, to say nothing of sexist. He freely admits it. His idea of order is in fact more like that of the pre-war generations with which he identifies, than of the flower-children of the Sixties. The older generation had experienced the horror of the depression and the world war and wanted security. So did Manson. His ideas of social and political order were very old fashioned. He also admitted that he preferred the music of Frank Sinatra to the mayhem of Rock and Roll or even the Beatles. He wanted to overcome the chaos around him and restore a sense of order.
Manson once warned his parole board, "If I'm not paroled, and I don't get a chance to get back on top of this dream, you're gonna lose all your money, your farms aren't going to be able to produce. You're gonna win Helter Skelter. You're gonna win your reality." Whether this "I" refers to Manson the man or the universal "I" locked within each of us in the subconsciousness is, as usual, not at all clear. And it makes a difference. But in either case, Helter Skelter is the confusion of a world gone crazy and in need of order. "This dream" is the consciousness of mainstream society that is leading humanity into chaos and suicide. According to Manson, the liberation of the voice of the unconsciousness collective mind to organize all the unconscious minds into one big consciousness can change the dream in such a way as to prevent mankind from destroying the planet.
When Manson argued that his consciousness came from a deeper place "beyond good and evil," he at least conjured up in the minds of more learned people an historic parallel. Nietzsche, who used that phrase in a famous book, was also the product of a romantic movement, the culmination of nineteenth-century German mysticism. He was also the son of a Protestant father. His theory of the Superman who existed outside of the merely artificially constructed codes of bourgeois culture inspired the Nazis. Like Nietzsche, Manson saw that the codes of society are artificial, contingent, socially-constructed, and thus unworthy of respect. Like Nietzsche, he believed himself capable of freeing himself from them and living on a higher plane. He saw the void, but rather than surrender to it, he believed he had what it took to fill the emptiness with a new and better structure.
Joan Didion was right. At the end of the antinomian Summer of Love, a rough beast was slouching toward Bethlehem. A potential Hitler was organizing his small but faithful army. More importantly, if it hadn't been Manson, it would have been someone else. All of those ideas were out there waiting to be brought together and applied. Romanticism, as Paglia warns, ends in decadence that then leads to Fascism. The Sixties themselves, though they began on a note of triumphant liberation ended up liberating too much too soon. Like the peasants at Munster in 1535, the counter-culture went too far too fast, not just ahead of society but ahead of itself.
In light of all this, for reporters to harp on the literal facts of who did what when during the murders often seems as absurd as showing "Reefer Madness" to high school kids to keep them from smoking pot. Once again, the adults haven't a clue. Until they address Manson's issues, they won't have any credibility either. Someone needs to address these questions in language that people understand. Otherwise, kids will turn to the Mansons among us for their answers. "A lot of the kids," says Manson, "never met anybody who told them the truth. They never had anybody who was truthful to them. You know, they never had anybody that wouldn't lie or snake or play old fake games. So all I did was I was honest with a bunch of kids." That is a powerful indictment of our society.
However appalled one must be by the literal reality of Manson, it is almost impossible not to also take him on the level of symbolic consciousness. "They don't want to ever let me go," he explains, "because they feel secure as long as they've got me locked up in that cell. They feel like, yeah, they've got THE MAN locked up right there in a box." Perhaps this is only literal; or perhaps Manson has taken over the role in society that black people used to play, the symbol of the terrors of the subconscious. We need to keep our rational consciousness safe from the chaos on the other side. So we lock up the subconscious under what Freud called the censor. And through the power of symbolic consciousness we imagine that by segregating black people, or locking Charlie Manson in a cell, we have the irrational forces of the subconscious under our rational control. We try to keep the conditioning going. We try to make the combine run more smoothly by adjusting everyone's programming so everyone will think and behave as they should. And yet the secondary meanings are always there. The literal continues to point to the symbolic for anyone able to read between the lines of the text. Even when, perhaps especially when it is least intended, the ironic meanings bring us up short.
At his last parole hearing, Manson was of course rejected. The parole board went through a long explanation why and listed a series of problems. The final problem, number five, reads as if a line from Ken Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest, "The prisoner has not completed the necessary programming which is essential to his adjustment and needs additional time to gain such programming."
To which Manson has the final, chilling word, "Can't you see I'm out, man? Can't you see I'm out? Can't you see I'm free?
Since Charles Manson has never himself published anything in his own right, the best sources of his words are the many interviews he has conducted since being sent to prison.
A book by Nuel Emmons titled Manson: In His own Words (Grove 1986) is not in Manson’s own words at all but in the words of a former cellmate who saw a way to profit off his brief encounter. Tex Watson’s Will You Die For Me? (Revel 1978), while full of informative information, needs to be read in the context of its author’s attempt to evade his own responsibility. Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (Norton 1974) remains the definitive text on the Mason trial, written by the prosecutor himself. It is full of information and reliable quotations. When Manson was still on trial, an interview with David Felton appeared in the June 1970 Rolling Stone titled "Year of the Fork; Night of the Hunter." It was later published in a collection titled The MindFuckers: The Rise of Acid Fascism in America (Straight Arrow Books, 1972), to which I made a small introductory contribution. It is an excellent sourcebook. Also excellent is Ed Sanders The Family, (EP Dutton, 1971). Edward George’s Taming the Beast: Charles Manson’s Life Behind Bars (St. Martin’s, 1998) reveals its sensationalist bias in its title, but it does contain transcripts of Manson’s 1970, 1986, and 1992 parole hearings in a lengthy appendix. Much of this material once could be found on the website maintained by Manson’s confidant St George at http://www.atwa.com. Transcribed lyrics to several of his songs can be found in The Garbage People (Omega Press 1971) by John Gilmore and Ron Kenner.
Among the interviews given by Manson, including his parole interviews, for which I have either VHS videotapes or written transcripts and which I used for this piece are:
1981 "The Tomorrow Show" with Tom Snyder
1985 interview with "Maurie Povich"
1986 "Nightwatch" with Charlie Rose
1989 "Inside story" with Patti Daniels
1981 interview with Geraldo Rivera
1991 Hard Copy Interview "Charlie Manson Today"
1994 Diane Sawyer "Turning Point"Interview "The Manson Women"