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Episode 311

Strange Times, Terrible Crimes

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Posted by Mary Ann

I wasn’t looking forward to reading a book about Charles Manson, but a good writer and fabulous researcher like Jeff Guinn, author of “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson,” can help you understand the dismal logic of how someone like Manson could have come to be. Also, this book really threw me back into an era so strange only people who actually lived through it can comprehend – the 1960s. The fact that a criminal like Charles Manson could intersect with the worlds of music and entertainment in California is something that could only have happened in that wild and wide-open time, when people seemed to be willing to try anything.

But first – I’ve followed the career of Jeff Guinn for quite a while. He was the former book editor at the Fort Worth paper, but he extended his love of books by writing them. He excels at the nonfiction form.

I want to mention a couple of other books written by Guinn: the first is his 2011 book “The Last Gunfight: the Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – and How it Changed the American West. “ Guinn effectively showed that the showdown between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday on one side, and the Cantons and McLaurys on the other, was not a simple white-hat black hat affair. There were lots of violent skirmishes in the West, but this one is unique in having happened in broad daylight in Tombstone, Arizona, effectively catapulting it into legend. Guinn ably sketches the personal and societal and historical forces that led to the convergence. He also did a fine job on the notorious gangsters of 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, in 2009’s “Go Down Together: the True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde.”

I should add that Jeff Guinn has also authored, if that is the right word, a book called “The Autobiography of Santa Claus.” Maybe he was the ghost writer? In any event, it must have been a delightful break to ponder the life of a generous, happy person who loves children, after some of his other subjects.

On to Charles Manson and the 1960s.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a book that had nothing to do with Charles Manson’s life, but quite a lot to do with elevating the true crime book from something published in mass paperback form to a work of literature. That, of course, is “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote.

This book, published in 1966, completely transformed the genre. It’s about the gruesome killing of a Kansas farm family, the Clutters– four family members, the father, the mother and two children were murdered by two prison parolees who had heard about a safe containing money in the family home (there was no such safe).

Capote, who was considered a literary writer, heard about the crime, traveled to Kansas and eventually spent six years meticulously documenting the crime, the trial, the lives of the murderers and the community where the murders occurred in an attempt to answer the dark question: how can human beings inflict such terror on one another? He was helped in his quest by his lifelong friend Harper Lee, who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Capote really opened up the field for literary writers such as Norman Mailer to try out the true crime genre, which Mailer did with his nonfiction book “The Executioner’s Song,” about convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, his trial and execution. Published in 1979, this was one of Mailer’s most successful books.

Capote and Mailer were both literary writers who were looking at criminals and the criminal justice system from an outsider’s perspective, but a book written from an insider’s perspective, and one of the most successful true crime books of all time, was written by the man who successfully prosecuted Manson, Los Angeles prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi. “Helter Skelter,” which Bugliosi wrote with the help of Curt Gentry, was such a successful book that its title became a virtual household word (the title came from a Beatles song).. Bugliosi, who successfully prosecuted Manson and his followers for the murders they committed, had the ultimate insider’s view. More than 40 years later, people are still reading this book.

Many people said the Manson murders effectively ended the 1960s, as a belief in freedom and openness turned into paranoia and fear. Joan Didion, a superb writer who knew one of the participants in the Manson cult, vividly chronicled that passage in her 1979 book, “The White Album.”

Finally, I would just like to say that it was weirdly fascinating to learn that Charles Manson was influenced by two books that are considered classics in their field.

The first is Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Manson absorbed this book during one of his prison stays and took several lessons from it as he learned the art of manipulating people to achieve his own ends. As Guinn notes, Manson absorbed several lessons, notably “Let the other fellow feel that the idea is his.” Guinn notes that people involved in the Manson murders struggling to understand how he could get his followers to do such horrible things could have gone to this book for the answer. I should add that this book, which was published in the 1930s, has sold millions of copies, is still in print and has inspired numerous self-help courses taken by many famous people, including Warren Buffett, who used Carnegie’s advice for different ends, to say the least.

The other, which Manson reads when he was in federal prison, was Robert Heinlein’s science fiction cult classic “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Guinn writes that this book was very popular among more literate convicts because of its themese “of alientation, government deceit and redemption for the despised.” Manson also liked the story line of the protagonist Valentine Michael Smith, who, “fascinated by religion…founds his own faith, experiences group sex, uses psychic powers to make enemies disappear, suffers a martyr’s death and returns in spirit form.”

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