My friend Nicole can perform monologues from the movie Alive. She spouts those lines with such feeling -- you'd believe she had just snacked on a teammate's torso while stuck on a snowy mountain.
One of my guy friends likes to quote lines from the television show Suits -- especially the ones that are brutally disparaging to lawyers. Those words make him smile so widely, that I can hear it through the phone.
And me? I can quote from the book Helter Skelter.
Yes, I know all about the Manson Family. I’ve learned not to say things like, “I’m so into cults!” at parties because people take that exclamation the wrong way, moving away from me slowly and towards the tequila. And let’s be crystal clear: I’m not actually in a cult. I’ve never even been close to being a peripheral cult-y bystander. What exists within me is a fascination with fanaticism – and the depths one can sink to while holding on to a single-minded belief system like it’s a umbilical cord made out of a Twix bar.
Let’s venture back to the land of Death Valley, a place I’ve never been, to the summer of 1969, a time before I was born. A ratty band of kids embraced a life that was probably never presented in any book they had ever read, not even in the ones they surreptitiously pored over while hovered under their covers at night in their suburban California homes. This new existence, which they apparently dove filthy-feet-first into, was one of drugs, public sex, mortal prophets, and brown rice. They’d gather at night and eat from one communal plate with one communal fork as one tiny man proselytized from his perch on top of a rock above them, and they listened to his ideas until those ideas became fact. Ultimately, upon his command, they went out and killed innocent people in manners far more perverse than any seen in the slasher movies I teach my students – and I teach some of the grisliest segments of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The trial that ultimately followed the crimes was apparently a sort of grotesque theatre, complete with hair and makeup choices that eventually included script notes like “go bald” and “carve a bloody X into your forehead.” I’ve seen some of this footage online – apparently, I am not the only one out there who is interested in this bizarre event, because there is a garbage dump of footage – and every aspect of the proceedings terrifies me. The steadfast devotion to a sociopath is bad enough, but it’s the blank eyes of the young girls who called Manson father, lover, and little boy that never leave the underside of my mind. How did these girls lose themselves?
Back when I was growing up, I liked to break into my sister’s bedroom. She was older and her room was cleaner and her bed was larger and I liked to try on the clothes that she would never allow me to borrow. She hated every aspect of my presence, whether she was home or not, and if she were being particularly crafty in her efforts to keep me out, she would leave her well-worn copy of Helter Skelter in a place of prominence. The book, with its black cover and its blood-red typeface, scared the hell out of me when I was young. And the first time I had the balls to flip open the cover, I saw that the title page literally said something along the lines of “The book you are about to read will scare the hell out of you.”
What can I say? I was always the girl during a game of Truth or Dare who tossed back my hair and chose to be Double Dared. So eventually I read the book -- and then every reputable one that followed on the subject.
Because this cult-and-killing case, this mini-moment in time, has never fully receded from the cultural landscape. Books are still being written about the members of the Family, and movies are still being made. At this very moment, there's a Rob Zombie/Bret Easton Ellis project careening towards production about the summertime murders and a television series starring David Duchovny playing a cop who hunts their leader has been greenlit by NBC. Some of the projects are somewhat literal interpretations, like the been-in-production-forever feature Manson Girls, and sometimes they're movies “inspired” by the events. (And talk about sick: I might have been the only person in the theatre who actually smiled during the moment in Martha Marcy May Marlene when Patrick, the film’s cult leader, preached about how living in the Now is a beautiful thing and that death should be viewed as a beautiful release. Of course, he said those words after sexually and emotionally violating the girl he said them to, but in the darkened theatre, I appreciated that I knew the source of his character’s manipulation. And yes, I do sometimes question the things in life I get a kick out of.)
Funny, the person I find least compelling in this hysteria by far is Charles Manson himself. I’ve read and seen footage of his vague diatribes, as he talks in what, at best, could be described as a hexagon-shaped form of logic. I don’t get the appeal. The latest Rolling Stone article that delved into his prison life -- where it turns out he makes more daily phone calls than I do -- proved he's an unrepentant troll who still commands attention and speaks almost exclusively in violent imagery. And yet, he has a girlfriend. She's very young, with the kind of smooth skin that shows off her newly sliced "X" quite nicely. She wants to marry him.
Listen: it's unlikely that this girl is completely sane, and there's much evidence that Manson's late-60s disciples had been so far removed from society and self that they too became shells of human beings. Still, I can't help finding these rampant followers compelling. My God, we have all felt lost while experiencing loss. How far off of the map must one have to be to literally stumble into Psychotic Junction -- and decide to stay there for dinner?