Charles Manson: An American Superstar
He is a beloved recording artist, his image has been plastered everywhere from tee shirts to tattoos, and he has legions of devoted fans. No, not Bob Dylan, this 60s icon spent his entire youth in and out of prison. His name is Charles Manson, a name practically synonymous with mass murder. Manson and his followers, known as “The Family” were convicted of the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1971. In spite of or because of this, he has been given celebrity status as if he was a movie star or baseball player. His infamy is eerily commonplace in various areas of our pop culture. One can turn on the TV and catch his character portrayed in such comedy shows as “South Park” or “Family Guy.” In fact, it was through an episode of “South Park” where I attribute my earliest memory of Manson. I remember watching a SP Christmas special as a child in which Manson appeared as a character with redeeming qualities. Even though it was satire, at the tender age of nine my brain was already invited into the world of one of America’s most feared individuals. Ever since then, his name kept coming up over and over again; I knew he was associated with murder, but even at a young age, I thought of him as another famous name from my parents’ time period. Most people seem to be intrigued by the man and in the American media, Charles Manson has been glamorized to the degree of a superstar. For the television viewing public he has become an object of personal entertainment; just another fascinating celebrity in the league of Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson.
To begin to understand how or why this character of Charles Manson is so fascinating to the media and the American public as whole, we must start with a look at his childhood. Charles Manson was born on November 12, 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His mother was a sixteen year old prostitute that spent some time in prison when he was a child and he never really knew his father. Unlike most Americans, Manson did not live in a comfortable house on a safe street with at least one, if not two loving parents/guardians and all the other things we associate with typical upbringings. Manson by his own claims and he would claim this over and over again, lived on the streets. He did not know the world of the average American. At an early age it was reinforced that he was different from the rest of America. He was essentially abandoned by the very people whom should have loved him and spent the rest of his childhood years from this boarding school to that boarding school, often running away multiple times from each of them. One time, he tried to be with his mother, but she rejected him. Manson, felt unwanted and unloved and learned to never trust anyone for the rest of his life. With such a troubled past behind him it does not take Sigmund Freud to figure out that Manson would soon find himself deeply invested in petty crime. This included breaking into grocery stores all the way up to armed robbery at the young age of thirteen. He was in and out of juvenile hall centers. According to Manson, he was constantly raped and beaten at said centers and in fact he would run away upwards to eighteen times. His crimes continued into adulthood, basically making prison his new home. In 1967, he was finally released from prison, ironically against his own will; by this time he had spent seventeen years (more than half of his life) in prison.
When Manson left the penitentiary a new world awaited him. A generation had come of age and the Summer of Love was kicking. The 1960s counterculture, particularly in San Francisco, had taken over the nation, so to speak. Long hair, antiwar protests, and psychedelic drugs became ubiquitous seemingly overnight. Young people disdained their parents’ traditions and trashed anything representing the establishment. These kids related to the rebellion of Rock and Roll bands like The Rolling Stones and The Doors and admired the outlaw image of figures like Bonnie and Clyde and Che Guevara. They dug leaders that stood for a new kind of America, one that buried all the traditional values of the America they were raised in and felt abandoned by. Enter Charles Manson, who himself stated, “When I got out all your children would come to me because nobody else had told them the truth.” Of course this was far from the truth as certainly all children did not go to Manson for enlightenment. Naturally, most kids, no matter how drugged up and doped out they were, had enough sense not to join Manson and become part of his “Family.” But, just a few were enough. The man recruited several young, impressionable people, mostly women and was able to brainwash them (often with the assistance of LSD) into thinking he was Jesus Christ or a similar Godlike figure. These women essentially became Manson and would do anything he instructed them to. Even at this juncture in his acting career, Manson dazzled his audience with his intense and fascinating philosophies on life. He had so much control over them that he was able to mastermind his minions into committing the horrible massacre of the Tate-LaBianca murders in August of 1969. Though, Manson was not present, his underlings followed his orders to murder actress Sharon Tate and several others at her home in Death Valley. In prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi’s book, Helter Skelter he describes the terrifying scene of the crime, “Sharon Tate Polanski-murder victim. Eight months pregnant, she pleaded for the life of her child. “Look, bitch, I have no mercy for you,” one of her killers replied… Only on getting closer did the officers see the bizarre message the killers had left. Printed on the door, in Sharon Tate’s own blood, were the letters PIG” (142). The next night they committed similar murders at the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Subsequently, the police made the connection between both massacres and the killers and their ringleader were brought to trial. Finally, the whole world got to see Charlie and his angels perform and they loved the attention. This was the beginning of the Charlie Manson Variety Hour, a program the media has eaten up ever since.
During and after the trial (he and his Family were all convicted of murder), Manson’s image became one of the most recognizable in the world. Most famously, his face graced the cover of Life magazine (though he also made the cover of Rolling Stone, amongst others) and this has since become the most famous photo of Manson to date. The mainstream media loved Manson, but obviously portrayed him (rightfully so) as a monster. Of course, if they had made Manson a christ figure they would have lost most viewers, but just by giving him so much attention, he was given all the glamour he needed. The underground press or much of it anyway had no issue with portraying Manson as not only a victim, but another hero of the Revolution, another freedom fighter. At the time, the Vietnam War was boiling and people were taking sides. On one hand was the establishment (Western Civilization) and on the other was anti-establishment, which it turns out in many cases could very well be solely those that opposed the establishment. Thus, Manson became an icon of sorts for the counterculture. Fellow outlaw, Jerry Rubin wrote of visiting Manson in prison following the trial. Rubin, however was not a murderer, but rather one of the leading social activists of the era with a radical sensibility. In his 1971 book, We Are Everywhere, he wrote, “I fell in love with Charlie Manson the first time I saw his cherub face and sparkling eyes on national TV…Manson’s soul is easy to touch because it lays quite bare on the surface. He said he was innocent of the Tate murders and was being persecuted by the pigs because of his lifestyle… Is Charlie innocent or guilty? What is innocence and what is guilt? Can Amerika, after all it has done to Charlie Manson, now put him on trail?” (239-240). Rubin’s sympathy and endorsement of Manson was not uncommon during this era, particularly amongst other subversive and/or underground figures. In fact, in some interviews/speeches, Rubin and others radicals almost sounded like Manson: militant and dogmatic in their attitude and always condemning the American society that turned them into who they were. Of course, the former spoke of liberation, while the latter spoke of domination and annihilation, hardly a freedom fighter,
In the years since his imprisonment, Charles Manson’s stardom has only increased. He has become a massive figure in our American pop culture, he might as well have his star on the Hollywood walk of fame. From books to movies to documentaries, Manson is everywhere. To this day people, particularly young people, follow, worship, or are at least fascinated by Manson. Why? This can be attributed to Manson’s lack of respect for authority. His sense of anti-authoritarianism, at least on the surface, and individuality is attractive to young people, whom are finding themselves as well. Secondly and more significantly, in general the public loves a juicy story, and when it is a celebrity, it is all the more entertaining. The bizarre, the unusual is a big dollar. And the Manson murders were anything but usual and have since become one of the most famous murder cases in history. After his imprisonment, he received numerous interviews on national TV from some of the most famous reporters of all time including Geraldo Rivera, Charlie Rose, Tom Snyder, Diane Sawyer, and others. With the help of the Victims’ Rights Movements, this trend of interviewing serial killers has dyed down over the years. Ultimately this media coverage does very little to nothing for society, except make us crave Manson and other serial killers all the more. When we watch said interviews we do not gain any knowledge or further understanding. Admittedly, they are entertaining, but they mask themselves as something more. But, there is truly no moral purpose to interviewing Charles Manson and giving him the time of day for millions of Americans to tune in to him in their homes. When all is said and done, it is nothing more than cheap entertainment, which is okay, but should be acknowledged as just that. It is no different then any other tabloid, celebrity story. Though Manson is still quite famous, it is for the best that he receives less and less attention, so instead we can focus on real issues rather than fascinating stories to satisfy our taste for the peculiar. In one of his famous prison interviews, Manson was posed the question, “People look at you today, twenty years later and they still have no idea what you’re about. Tell me in a sentence who you are.” After making a series of comical faces, he replies, “nobody.” And there you have it, no one knows Manson as well as Manson himself. For once, I agree with Charlie, he is “nobody,” just another celebrity in a sea of celebrities.