August 9 and 10 mark the 40th anniversary of the murders that made Charles Manson and his followers infamous, and with the anniversary comes a flurry of activity on the Manson front.
Squeaky Fromme, who though she had been lucky enough not to have been chosen for the Tate-La Bianca slayings, eventually, sort of, tried to assassinate Gerald Ford. Fromme, nevertheless, is about to be let out of prison after 24 years. Susan Atkins has been in the news for seeking a compassionate release from prison due to brain cancer that has left her partially paralyzed.
And the Huffington Post has just serialized a five-part excerpt from filmmaker John Waters’ upcoming book, Role Models, which they have entitled “Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship.” The release of the essay and the anniversary of the slaying is obviously not coincidental. (Note: the above link is only part one and you'll need to do a Google search or the equivalent to continue on to the later parts.)
I can’t say that it surprised me much that John Waters, the filmmaker, who is considered the “king of bad taste and shock value” by both his supporters and detractors, has spent over 20 years visiting and corresponding with a member of the Manson Family. So much gruesome fascination with the case has been spewed out by the media over the years that it would have been extremely difficult for even Waters’ version to be significantly worse than what media and entertainment have done to cash in on America’s favorite bogeyman, Charles Manson.
Tom Snyder interviewed Manson. Geraldo Rivera interviewed Manson. Were it not for the fact that California passed a law against it, Jerry Springer would have eventually interviewed Manson, the prisoner who has received more mail than anyone else in U.S. history.
Therefore it turns out to be splendidly shocking that Waters has written perhaps the most thoughtful and compassionate piece on the original event and its long aftermath that I have ever read.
I have my own history with the case.
When I was six or so, I used to check out my parents’ books, look through the pictures, and read the captions. This turned out to be a huge lifetime mistake. I’m pretty sure that I made it through Alive without ever realizing that it was a book about cannibalism, but I wasn’t nearly so lucky with Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. I was looking for pictures of wildlife, or whatever, and instead found gruesome, graphic pictures of randomly murdered bodies, where the killers seemed to have stabbed everybody about as many times as humanly possible and then wrote a bunch of threatening and offensive words in their blood. Please God, let your children watch Reservoir Dogs, if they have to, but keep them away from a hardback copy of Helter Skelter.
I don’t think I’ve dealt with falling asleep well ever since. About seven years later, I got one more final image of terror to close the deal. I woke up at something like 3:55 and wandered towards our basement television set. As luck would have it, what I immediately saw was Steven Railsback, as Charles Manson in the last 30 seconds of the movie, rocking back and forth on his jail cell cot like an autistic baby until he suddenly turns his head and gives the most frightening glare in the history of cinema. I’m guessing that I didn’t sleep for at least a week after that. I would have been better off being forced to stay awake long enough to see every single Stephen King movie in one sitting.
Since that youthful scarring, my insomnia seems to guarantee that I watch most of my television in the middle of the night. That’s basically when infomercials and specials about the Tate-La Bianca slayings are on. Unfortunately, even with my history, perhaps because of my history with Charles Manson, even I can somehow never turn the channel once I see that a new examination of Crazy Charlie and his clan is on. I watch them knowing that it is going to leave me scared out of my mind for the next three hours that it will take for the sun to rise. The worst instance of this occurred during my time in Los Angeles, when I realized that my friends and I often frequented the Mexican restaurant where Sharon Tate ate her last meal. The Hollywood Hills are beautiful and they scare the hell out of me, because of what went down there.