Fifty years ago, Los Angeles was shocked by the horrific slaughter of actress Sharon Tate, then eight months pregnant, and four visitors to her Benedict Canyon estate. The next night, across town, two more people were murdered in their home: Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. At both houses, the victims were found stabbed to death, with variations of the word "pig" written in blood on the walls. When police identified the killers as a "family" of brainwashed hippies led by an ex-con named Charles Manson, the murders took on a mythical quality, becoming a source of perennial fascination. With the release of Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood" - which dramatizes the Manson family's crimes with a grisly, revisionist twist - the misconceptions about the historic case may only multiply.
Myth No. 1: Manson, a serial killer, slayed the Tate-LaBianca victims.
Fox News, the Guardian and HuffPost have all recently used the term "serial killer" to describe Manson. It's an easy mistake to make, since Manson's group murdered many people in rapid succession, and Manson himself is synonymous with those crimes.
But Manson wasn't even at the scene when his followers killed Tate and her visitors - Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Steven Parent - on the night of Aug. 8, 1969. He was present at the LaBianca murders, but helped only by tying up the couple in their living room. After that, he left, ordering his followers to repeat the events of the previous night, but with less "mess."
Though Manson did not directly perform the killings, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi won a conviction against him on seven counts of first-degree murder by arguing that he had ordered them. Manson was also convicted of two murders that he did physically participate in: of Gary Hinman, a musician and UCLA graduate student, and Donald "Shorty" Shea, a movie stuntman.
Myth No. 2: Manson was a hippie.
When the Family was indicted on murder charges, the Los Angeles Times labeled the group a "hippie clan," and the tag has become an immutable part of the way we see them. In "Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood," the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio sneeringly dismisses the Manson girls as "hippies."And a new book on Manson, "Hippie Cult Leader," also suggests that he shared the movement's flower-power ethos.
But Manson and his ragged following were not hippies. To be sure, they fit the popular stereotype: The men grew their hair long and didn't shave; the women wore flowing peasant dresses and flowers in their hair; and drugs such as LSD, hash and marijuana were part of their daily lives. Manson borrowed some hippie lines about free love. But as he saw it, hippies were weak and ineffectual, and where they aimed to expand their consciousness, he wanted his followers "dead in the head." As an alternative, he adopted the term "slippies," derived from one of the group's signature practices: Late at night, they would slip in and out of the homes of wealthy families to rearrange their furniture and steal their personal belongings. They called this "creepy crawling," and it was hardly a way to make love and not war.
Myth No. 3: Manson obviously lacked musical talent.
Prosecutor Bugliosi's best-selling book about the Manson case, "Helter Skelter," claims that Manson didn't have the chops to succeed as a musician, citing a "folk-song expert" who found Manson's songs "extremely derivative" and wrote him off as "a moderately talented amateur." Bugliosi used Manson's alleged lack of talent to fortify his motive for the murders: In this view, he wanted to lash out at the Hollywood music scene that had rejected him. The notion that Manson was a bad musician has percolated into more recent narratives about the murders; a Vox explainer from this month repeatedly calls him untalented.
In fact, many musicians in Hollywood who heard Manson's music thought he was a promising singer-songwriter. Neil Young, in his 2012 autobiography, "Waging Heavy Peace," described the songs as "off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was quite good." The Beach Boys even recorded one of Manson's songs, "Cease to Exist," though they altered the music and retitled it "Never Learn Not to Love."
Myth No. 4: Manson was mentally ill.
The cruelty and sadism of the family have led many to conclude that Manson suffered from some mental illness. A Jezebel reporter, interviewing me about my book, wondered if the story was so complicated because Manson was "one of the most extraordinarily mentally ill people that the American public has ever been exposed to." A New York Times reporter put it more bluntly: "Manson was completely insane, right?" After studying historical footage for the role, actor Damon Herriman, who plays Manson in Tarantino's movie and in the new season of the TV series "Mindhunter," likened him to "someone with schizophrenia that you see talking to themselves on the street. . . . Clearly the guy was mentally ill."
In reality, though, Manson was never diagnosed with any illness. He refused to submit to a psychiatric evaluation at his 1970 trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the psychiatrists and psychologists who examined him during his subsequent years in prison disagreed about whether he was faking. (One report from 1982 recommended that Manson be transferred out of the psychiatric ward, concluding that he was only "a psychiatric curiosity or oddity.")
Myth No. 5: Manson hoped to ignite a race war.
As Bugliosi explained at trial and in his book - and as has been repeated in pretty much every news article, book or film about the case - Manson instructed his followers to kill everyone at the Tate and LaBianca homes and frame the Black Panthers. Manson's belief, Bugliosi contended, was that the subsequent police crackdown would spark an apocalyptic race war. Manson promised his followers he'd protect them in a bottomless pit in the desert, and then they'd reemerge to repopulate the planet with their perfect white offspring.
In the first book about the trial, "Witness to Evil," author George Bishop wrote that Bugliosi believed his Helter Skelter motive even "more than Manson" did. But that belief wasn't widely shared among Bugliosi's colleagues. Nearly a dozen cops and prosecutors involved with the original investigations told me that they thought the Tate and LaBianca murders were "copycat" crimes intended to spring a lesser Family member, Bobby Beausoleil, from jail: he was awaiting trial in the Gary Hinman murder, committed two weeks earlier, and the new killings may have been meant to sow doubts that authorities had captured the right man. Many of them said Bugliosi inflated a minor family "philosophy" about a possible coming race war into Manson's central, personal motivation. "Did you ever hear of dramatic license?" Aaron Stovitz, Bugliosi's original co-prosecutor in the case, asked me. (Stovitz, for his part, says he never bought the Helter Skelter theory.)
Bugliosi himself made a startling admission in the last interview he gave before his death in 2015."Did Manson himself believe all this ridiculous, preposterous stuff about all of them living in a bottomless pit in the desert while a worldwide war went on outside? I think, without knowing, that he did not," he told Rolling Stone. If not to start a race war, why did Manson order the killings? He died in prison in 2017, and we may never know the answer.
Tom O'Neill is an award-winning investigative journalist and the author of "Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties." Dan Piepenbring is an advisory editor for the Paris Review. They wrote this for The Washington Post.
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