Thursday, 21 May 2015

Helter Skelter - Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry

Just recently, my interest in the Charles Manson phenomenon has been re-awakened, and as part of this process I revisited the book "Helter Skelter", written by Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry. This is a comprehensive account of the infamous murders of August 1969, and the subsequent investigations and trial, seen partly through the eyes of Bugliosi, who was the prosecutor in the case.

As well as chronicling the intricacies of the police enquiries and the assorted legal manoeuvrings, we get some insight into the motives and mindset of Manson and his followers, although this is not really a biography as such. This is a true crime work with considerable cultural resonance.

The investigations are methodically detailed here, including the initial reluctance to connect the two sets of murders. The notion that the second incident was the work of copycats seems laughable - do copycats operate within such a short timescale, and do they go to such lengths? The inflexibility of some officialdom also comes through, in its refusal to believe or take seriously stories supplied by people who had knowledge of who was responsible, and why. Was the gap between "straight" society and the counterculture even wider in 1969 than it is now?  Those who pursued an "alternative" lifestyle were not to be trusted, it seems.

One gets a sense of how the investigations assumed greater urgency, cohesion and imagination once Bugliosi became involved, and he tries hard to hide his exasperation at the inefficiency of some sections of the police. I also gained a heightened appreciation of the skill, sharpness, diligence and ingenuity required to be a prosecutor (or any kind of lawyer, for that matter). The peculiar nature of this case clearly placed a premium on those qualities. From early on, the prosecutor realised what, and who, he was up against.

Of equal fascination to the purely criminal nature of this story are the wider socio-cultural aspects, such as the question of whether these terrible events caused the end of "the Sixties". This precise question is not directly addressed in this book. My feeling is that the murders, and what preceded them, was just one symptom, rather than the cause of the end of the "dream". This all assumes, of course, that "the Sixties" can be classed as a single entity. Some observers have pointed out the signs of decay and trouble which were present as early as 1967, and of course 1968 had scarcely been all sweetness and light. The events of August 1969 must have been a shocking affirmation that things had changed. Quite apart from the terrible nature of the crimes, a side-effect of the saga was that "non-conformists" in general were tarred with the brush of being deranged or potentially dangerous.

A thing which is brought out in the book is the process by which Manson cast a spell on his followers. It was a combination of methods, many of them learned by Manson during his spells in prison. The task was made easier by the fact that many of the people with whom he came into contact were receptive to his overtures because of their own background and/or foibles. They invariably had "issues" and lingering resentments and antipathies before they even met Manson, who was equipped to press the right buttons, so to speak. It is emphasized as the book progresses that some of the members of the group refused to go beyond a certain line, their moral compasses still being functional.

"Helter Skelter" is a compelling but at times disturbing read.

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