Living, as we do, in an era when senseless mass killings have become all but routine, we were reminded by Charles Manson’s death last week, at age 83, of a time nearly 50 years ago when we were not yet so jaded — a time when the whole nation could be deeply shocked at a crime so horrible that, until it emerged from Manson’s twisted mind, had been unthinkable.
Was it a more innocent time? More like the end of innocence, because the Sixties were a turbulent and confusing decade in this country, and toward the end they were getting darker and more violent: assassinations, riots, drugs, the civil rights struggle, the war in Vietnam, sinister cults. And nowhere, perhaps, would things get stranger than in California.
“The jitters were setting in” during the summer of 1969 in Los Angeles, Joan Didion would later write in an essay. “I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full.”
On Aug. 9, a phone call brought confused accounts of the murders at Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski’s house. “Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed,” Didion would write.
The Manson “family” had paid a call, killing the pregnant Tate and four others. Charles Manson himself was not there, but he had ordered his brainwashed followers to do the job. They had killed before and they would kill again, the next night.
What set this crime spree apart was not the number of dead (nowadays, we far exceed that toll on a regular basis) but the sadistic way the victims were butchered, and the slogan “Helter Skelter” smeared on the wall in the victims’ blood — part of Manson’s addled plan to spark a race war, inspired by the lyrics of a Beatles album.
There would be a trial. Manson would carve a swastika into his forehead. There would be the equally weird behavior of his acolytes, one of whom, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, would later try to shoot President Gerald Ford.
And then it was over. Years passed, and Manson grew old in prison, only coming to the national attention every few years for a parole hearing.
Now he’s dead — and unless he still has a demented disciple or two, out there somewhere, no one is going to mourn Charles Manson.
May his name, and his memory, die with him.