Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, by Jeff Guinn

Five stars (of five)

Guinn tackles the extremely daunting task of presenting a cogent biography of one of the world’s most notorious serial killers of the 20th century. Charles Manson and his life are likely of keen interest to many, though the number who will admit it may pale in comparison. Guinn is left to explore Manson’s life before permanent incarceration, especially his development of The Family, the group he led by his amazing power of persuasion. Guinn sketches Manson out to be three distinct beings over his lifetime before incarceration: the two-bit criminal, the aspiring musician, and the all-controlling leader. These three personas do blend throughout the tome, though there are key points where their differentiation is clear to the attentive reader. Guinn’s work is not only stellar, but also highly informative, drawn on what can only been countless hours of interviews and correspondence with many to piece together the intricate and sometimes sadistic details of Manson and his followers. Including in-depth analysis of the trial that led to Manson’s permanent incarceration, Guinn spares no detail in presenting a piece of biographical gold.

Manson was a two-bit criminal for his entire life. Guinn opens the biography placing the larger family tree in front of the reader and showing how the various branches jetted off into their own directions. Manson was born to a teenage prostitute whose dalliances were more rebellious than filled with passion. His biological father departed before Manson was born and his mother left to spend years behind bars when Manson was but a toddler. Manson was always an awkward child and, according to Guinn, filled with trouble from an early age. Becoming an inhabitant of numerous boys reformatories in his youth, Manson’s life took a turn towards darker paths before he reached adulthood. Even during these incarcerations, Manson was able to develop key skills that he could use in his future criminal acts, including mechanical repairs, skillful negotiation, and sexual numbness. Guinn documents Manson’s numerous flitting relationships and how his life of crime did lead to those he wed disappearing as soon as he was behind bars. One skill he did pick up in his youth that might have led to a completely different path was music and the desire to make something of himself through musical stardom.

Guinn weaves an ongoing thread in the book to describe Manson as an ever-aspiring musician. Manson developed close relationships with many after he made the move out to Los Angeles and did cross paths with the likes of Dennis Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys. Manson always touted himself as a decent musician whose messages, grounded in the counter-culture, would fit nicely into the rebellious age of the 1960s. Wilson, along with Terry Melcher (son of actress Doris Day) and Gregg Jakobson (young producer) became the focus of Manson’s revolving request to make him a star. Guinn depicts Manson as a tepid singer and sub-par guitar player, who had the contacts needed but lacked the talent. This musician persona is so important to the biography, as the age in which Manson saw his own star rise and the collection of ‘fame’ around which he was surrounded created more of a blessed nature for Manson and did fuel his all-powerful leader persona, which represents the best known side of Manson for most readers.

Guinn shows Manson as the all-controlling leader throughout the tome, repeatedly illustrating how the loner was able to shepherd so many hapless souls and have them follow his directives without question. This is a mixed inherent/learned behaviour that Guinn attributes to Manson’s obsessive reading of Dale Carnegie’s self-help manuals and applying these techniques. Manson preyed on those who lacked confidence or disliked mainstream rules by presenting an alternative that brought praise to those who invested in his teachings and accepted what he felt was the path destined for them. Manson developed key followers by breaking down inhibition through sex and drug use, as well as demanding total investment in his alternative lifestyle. Sometimes calling himself Jesus Christ, Manson presented biblical scripture as the sole answer and interpreted things in such a way that those who followed him felt as if the words spoke directly of modern happenings. Manson and his Family soon became a group whose dedication could not be matched, though Manson himself felt the need to reinvent himself to keep the message fresh and the followers from waning, most famously with his Helter Skelter mantra, a black-white race war. Guinn also illustrates the leadership role Manson took in the summer of 1969, which started the killing spree for which he and his Family are most notoriously known. I leave it to readers to determine what sort of leadership structure they feel Manson created, though I would not shy away from a Jonestown or Branch Davidian flavour.

Guinn’s meticulous detailing of the chronological story keeps the impetus flowing and allows the reader to better understand the man and his thinking. While more recent interviews likely depict Manson as a crazed killer who will never escape his incarcerated state, Guinn allows the reader to see, over time, how this mindset developed and how Manson used his own goals to fuel the Family’s actions. The book’s length should not scare a reader off, for it is completely digestible and keeps the reader wanting to know more. From foundational snapshots of the era, Guinn paints a better picture for the reader who may not have been around for free love or Haight-Ashbury’s most prominent time, but it also provides a powerful backdrop to elucidate WHY and HOW Manson was able to expand his flock with such ease and the culture he chose to rebel against, all as a means of presenting himself as a leader worth following. Manson is a genius as well as a sadistic man, a keen listener as well as a prophet of edicts. The reader will likely leave this novel sensing this as well and come away with a better understanding of the man and a respect for the larger picture. This is not to say that there will be an Manson compassion, but the knee-jerk “he’s a fu**ed up son of a bitch!” holds no water if the reader allows Guinn to present his complete argument.

Will this book help present a softer, more loving side of Charles Manson to the general public? Not likely, nor do I think that is what Guinn sought to do. He did try, and succeeded, to show that Charles Manson’s actions in the summer of 1969 are but an end result of a long and arduous set of actions that brought Manson and his followers to commence a killing spree to begin Helter Skelter.

Kudos, Mr. Guinn for opening my eyes and my mind to such a rich history as it relates to one of America’s most notorious serial killer masterminds. How can a man, whose criminal acts ended in 1969, still hold such sway and whose name has such an impact on generations later? I cannot recommend this book enough to those who seek to understand and speak more confidently about Charles Manson and his crimes that rocked the world.