Helter Skelter in History Essay

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Helter Skelter

The strengths and deficiencies of Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi's account of Charles Manson, his followers, and his trial and subsequent conviction both stem from one single fact about the author. Vincent Bugliosi was the Prosecutor who tried the state's case against Manson, a trial which he ultimately won. Yet we must recollect that Manson -- recently making his obligatory appearance in the tabloid press after announcing his engagement to a much younger woman, an engagment later called off -- remains in prison in California for a number of murders that he himself did not actually commit. Bugliosi in the courtroom was required to paint the picture so that Manson could be tried for conspiracy, and succeeded. He intends to do the same thing in Helter Skelter. I hope to examine Bugliosi's book as a way of considering Manson as a historical figure.

This seeming emphasis on Manson's criminality as a conspirator, however, leads the reader to an uneasy awareness of Manson's relevance to the larger American history of his lifetime. In some sense, Manson was like an eerie prefiguration of President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate affair -- Nixon did not personally burgle the offices of the Democratic National Committee any more than Manson stuck a knife in Sharon Tate, and as a result the legal case had to be built upon conspiracy. Both Manson and Nixon were dangerously paranoid men who commanded a core of ruthless followers, although it is a toss-up as to whether the fanaticism these men could inspire would be better exemplified by G. Gordon Liddy demonstrating the triumph of the will by holding the palm of his hand over a lit candle flame or by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme taking a potshot at Nixon's feckless successor, President Gerald R. Ford. Both Manson and Nixon commanded a tightly-knit hierarchical structure, with a sort of chief lieutenant -- H.R. Haldeman or Tex Watson -- to whom most of the dirty work was designated by the chief. And Manson and Nixon each had an ambitious plan to use the racial divisons that were emerging in America in the late nineteen-sixties in order to establish an almost monarchical rule over the country. In Manson's case, the plot -- called "Helter Skelter" -- involved listening to the song "Blackbird" from the Beatles' "White Album" under the influence of LSD, and finding in Paul McCartney's lilting lyrics about "you were only waiting for this moment to arise" a prediction that racial uprisings were going to devastate American society leaving the Manson and the members of his "Family" at the Spahn Ranch as the only surviving white people in, and the de-facto rulers of, North America. In Nixon's case, the plot -- called "the Southern Strategy" -- entailed courting the political bloc of racist white Southerners by promising to advance their repressive social agenda against American blacks, and thus reverse the Civil Rights movement by cementing the role of white people as the de-facto rulers of North America. It is perhaps no accident that the Manson Family's murder spree took place in the same year, 1969, that Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority, an analysis of Nixon's 1968 election victory and blueprint for the "Southern Strategy" that now comes across as more surreal than listening to "Piggies" on acid.

Of course we can only extend this comparison so far -- when it comes to something like murder, of course, the Manson Family's 1969 killing spree at the Tate and LaBianca houses which claimed the lives of 9 innocent people was nothing compared to Nixon's extralegal carpetbombing of Cambodia in 1969-1970 which killed an estimated 40,000 to 150,000 citizens of a neutral nation during the Vietnam War -- but there is a real seriousness of purpose to drawing these connections between Charles Manson and President Richard M. Nixon. Although Manson may have been a drug-fuelled psychotic, a victim of sexual abuse, an aspiring rock musician, and many other things as well, his vision of "Helter Skelter" is quite clearly a response to many large-scale trends in American society in the late 1960s. At the scene of the murder of Gary Hinman -- which was ordered by Manson before the Tate-LaBianca murders -- family members would draw the symbol of the Black Panther Party in blood on the apartment wall, and write in blood the words "Political Piggy." (If this seems bizarre to us, those who are interested
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in the history of notorious crimes will recollect that a similar thing occurred at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders in London, with the so-called "Goulston Street Graffito" which seemed like a public incitement to blame the Ripper murders on London's Jewish population.) Similarly, Manson gave the orders claiming that the arrival of the millennial "Helter Skelter" he predicted would be hastened by provoking an armed standoff between the police and the black community. This is being made to look like a politically-motivated and insurrectionary act, although Manson's fundamental insincerity as a political ideologue is demonstrated by the fact that the real motive for Hinman's murder was money -- Manson had heard (incorrectly) that Hinman inherited twenty-one thousand dollars, and thus Hinman was kept captive for two days as family members tried to make him hand over this non-existent inheritance.

The chief limitation of Bugliosi's book on Charles Manson, though, is that it has a prosecutorial obsession with proving the subject's guilt. Bugliosi managed to do this in court during Manson's trial, but Helter Skelter is intended to let Bugliosi prove Manson's guilt to the general public. There is no denying that Bugliosi's role as the prosecutor gave him a uniquely comprehensive grasp of all the facts and evidence, and that Helter Skelter is a book full of facts. But the case of Manson really requires interpretation. Over forty years have passed since the murders and Manson's trial, and while Manson himself is still alive, we now have a sense of historical perspective. In some sense, we might view the Manson Family on a continuum that includes the Symbionese Liberation Army (the kidnappers of Patty Hearst in 1974), the Weather Underground (whose domestic bombing campaign would be started in 1969 by Bill Ayers), and the Black Panther Party itself (which was regarded by federal law enforcement as a criminal and insurrectionary enterprise, and was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover for special harassment under COINTELPRO). Were all of these criminal organizations? The SLA claimed to have broad and popular political goals -- they used the Hearst kidnapping to force Governor Ronald Reagan give free food to the poor black people of Oakland (Reagan remarked to reporters as the food was delivered "I hope they choke on it) -- but in reality they were based on some arcane and delusional belief system not unlike that of the Manson Family. The Weather Underground was a terrorist organization responsible for bombing infrastructure, but whose stated goals wanted to avoid the deaths of innocent civilians. Meanwhile the Black Panther Party was treated as the most dangerous of the lot, but was in reality an entirely lawful political party which happened to terrify fans of Richard Nixon by being militarized and also nominally Marxist. We might usefully compare Manson's case with that of Angela Davis, who was similarly vilified and regarded as a public enemy in California in the same time period. From the perspective of 2015, most outsiders do not think Angela Davis represents any kind of threat -- but what Angela Davis had, which Manson lacked, was a substantial amount of political support on the left. Angela Davis had songs written about her by both John Lennon and Mick Jagger in the 1970s, and also ran for Vice President as the Communist Party candidate in the same decade.

This sort of historical context -- comparison of other people perceived to be threats, or cult leaders, at the same time -- is not provided by Bugliosi because he is a historical actor writing a memoir, he is not an actual historian. Bugliosi is hardly going to give an account of Manson's activity that contextualizes him within the larger history of anti-government racist organizations, or the actual history of black radicalism and insurrection in the late 1960s, a history which Manson was trying to write himself into. Because Bulgiosi prosecuted Manson's trial and is writing the book so soon after, he does not write to provide his readers with historical context, since he can assume they lived through the historical context as surely as he did. But the larger lesson of the book is that people's interpretations of historical events -- if we may consider the crimes of the Manson Family to be a historical event -- are in a constant state of flux. This is not to suggest that at some point Manson might be rehabilitated and re-described as an insurrectionary whose critique of American society was valid, a la Daniel Shays. But the case deserves a better historical view than Bugliosi gives it. Obviously history…

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