In 2004, Denise Noe wrote "The Manson Myth" for Crime Magazine, an article debunking the charismatic image of Charles Manson propagated by Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in the best-selling true crime book of all time, Helter Skelter. Noe wrote that the real life Charles Manson was not some messianic leader gone bad, but a pathetic figure from the beginning. In 2008 she sent her article to Manson. When he responded by calling her collect, an unusual relationship began.
by Denise Noe
I first read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry when I was in high school. I was fascinated by its portrait of Charles Manson: a mesmerizing and charismatic criminal able to thoroughly dominate a band of fanatical followers. According to that book, Manson was able to convince his followers that a worldwide Armageddon between the black and white races was imminent. He believed that this race war had been prophesied in the Bible and in the Beatles’ White Album. Indeed, Manson supposedly thought the very title of the record was a reference to the coming black-white conflict. The helter-skelter theory was that blacks would kill off the white race – all except for Manson and his followers who would take refuge in a “Bottomless Pit” located in the desert.
According to the helter-skelter theory of which Manson had supposedly completely convinced his followers, Manson and his people would hide out until the race war was finished and blacks were the only ones above ground. Manson was a racist who believed that blacks would be unable to govern themselves and so would turn the reins of power over to him and the other Caucasians who would emerge from the Bottomless Pit. Thus, Charles Manson would become ruler of the world and his followers a class of aristocrats.
Helter Skelter portrayed Manson’s loyal followers as so thoroughly convinced of this grandiose theory that they committed the Tate-LaBianca mass murders in 1969 in order to trigger this race war. They murdered white people and left signs that they believed would lead people to think blacks were the perpetrators. They hoped this would lead to revenge by whites, then counter-revenge by blacks, and an ensuing worldwide disaster from which Manson and his people would eventually emerge as masters of the earth.
The above made Charles Manson a truly one of a kind criminal. His personality was so strong he could command others to do anything at all for him, even commit murder. His persuasive powers were so extraordinary that he could lead others to lay their lives on the line for his own bizarre and grandiose fantasy of supreme empowerment. In their book, Bugliosi and Gentry compare Manson to Adolf Hitler.
No criminal seemed more fascinating than this singularly powerful proto-Hitler.
In the years to follow, I read everything I could about Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders. As I did so, doubts grew about Charles Manson as the charismatic mastermind. Doubts also grew about the helter-skelter motive for the infamous mass murders.
Those doubts eventually led me to write “The Manson Myth” for Crime Magazine in which I attempted to debunk the Manson mystique. In that article, I pointed out that Manson’s so-called “followers” were anything but enslaved to him and went against his wishes when it suited them. I argued that Manson had no particular charisma and that the helter-skelter theory of the motive for the mass murders was a fallacy.
Due to the legend of the evil leader with special powers, Charles Manson receives more mail than any prisoner in the United States and perhaps more than any prisoner in the world. Thus, when I mailed him a copy of “The Manson Myth,” I wrote “The Manson Myth” on the outside of the manila envelope, hoping it would catch his eye.
It did. He refuses most of the mail he gets because he doesn’t have time to go through it all. He read mine and wrote a letter back to me. We began corresponding and I have several letters from him.
His letters are often difficult to decipher. He goes from cursive to printing but it is often difficult to read. I hasten to add that this is true of many people’s writings and hardly something unique to the notorious Charles Manson.
Additionally, the letters often include a variety of philosophical and mystical ramblings. A letter written on a post card begins, “Billions and billions of light years more lifetimes than stars in the sky. Words crumble and fall before spent.” Later on the same postcard, Manson asserts, “The Vietnam War was not what the media told you. It was the selling out of the USA’s trees and land resources and the never-ending war started by religions.”
I received several postcards from Manson and photos signed by him as well as more letters.
Then, listening to my phone messages one day, I found I had received what was intended to be a collect call from a prison from someone identifying himself as “Charles.” I thought it was probably Charles Manson but I didn’t know for sure.
A second time, I was home when a “Charles” from prison called and a recorded voice asked if I would accept the collect call. I accidentally pushed the wrong button and we were cut off.
The third time was the charm: Charles Manson phoned, I accepted the call and we talked.
What did we first talk about? The weather. I was on the phone with the world’s most notorious convict, a man widely regarded as a mass murderer with an especially diabolical personality, and he told me what the weather was like in Corcoran, California and I told him what the weather was like in Atlanta, Georgia.
A video I saw on learning a foreign language noted that human beings appear to be biologically programmed to talk about the weather when they first meet.
As we were talking, I had a coughing fit. I repeatedly apologized to “Mr. Manson” for coughing in his ear and he graciously told me it was all right.
Over the past two years, we have spoken many times. Talking with him was spooky at first but soon lost that eerie sense. Describing our conversations can be difficult as his diction consists of a motley mix of allegory, parable, hyperbole, fantasy, and metaphor. He habitually jumps from subject to subject and from one mode to another. Many listeners would call his conversations “crazy.” My take is that he is not psychotic but deliberately refuses to humor his listeners by settling down to a subject or mode when he talks. He enjoys free-associating.
His often muses about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They are probably the two most famous American presidents with one tied to the country’s founding and the other to its continued unity despite its Civil War. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Manson tends to be positive on Washington and negative on Lincoln.
Part of the reason he tends to talk in a kind of free floating manner may be the particular effect on him of so much time behind bars. It has necessitated a lot of time spent simply in his own head. He is locked down rather tightly, primarily for his own protection. He told me that he is allowed to play his guitar in his cell. He has always enjoyed music although the Beatles obsession is probably just myth. The music he makes tends to be country and folk with some rock flavor and shows little Beatles influence.
He also spends quite a bit of time watching television.
He has made at least one very close friend, a man whose first name is Kenny and is prison for non-violent drug offenses. I have talked to Kenny many times. He’s laughed about Manson’s reputation and said, “He’s no boogeyman.” When talking to Kenny, I’ve sometimes called Manson “the boogeyman.” Kenny read “The Manson Myth” and asked me to run off a couple of copies of my article so he could show it to other people.
During my first conversations with Charles Manson, I addressed him as “Mr. Manson.” After we talked a few times, he said I didn’t have to keep calling him “Mr.” Since then, I’ve addressed him as “Charles.” I never have and never will address him as “Charlie” because that form of his name is so strongly associated with the “Charlie told me to” myth of the murderous Svengali.
Not too long after we began talking on the phone, I bought a tape recorder and attached it to my phone. Kenny suggested I do this because “the old man,” as Kenny refers to him, doesn’t like to be misquoted and his unusual diction makes it difficult to accurately quote him unless his conversation is recorded.
When I mentioned Manson’s wanting to ensure he won’t be misquoted to a friend of mine, the friend commented, “That should be the least of his worries.”
Actually, no. Despite his reputation as a crazy, Manson is not crazy enough to believe that he has any realistic chance of release. Fated to die in the harsh conditions of a maximum-security prison, he wants to keep the record accurate on himself.
He occasionally asks me questions about myself. I’ve always answered them honestly and he knows that I am a writer of short stories, poems, essays, and articles and that I have a strong interest in true crime cases.
I’ve been asked if he’s tried to “charm” me. If he has, it hasn’t worked. I don’t think of him as particularly charming, although I find him friendly enough most of the time and interesting.
I once asked Manson what he thought of “The Manson Myth”?
DN: Oh, um, overall what was your impression of “The Manson Myth”? Did you like the article I wrote called “The Manson Myth”?
CM: The one that Susie wrote?
DN: No, the one that I wrote called “The Manson Myth.” The one that I originally sent you. Did you like it?
CM: Yeah. It reminded me of an old Packard car I used to have.
CM: That had something like eight cylinders and half the time, two or three of them weren’t working.
CM: You can have something real good and something real sharp but if it’s not hitting on all cylinders, it’s clippity-clop. You got some ideas that you got from other places that are not valid.
I took this review to indicate that “The Manson Myth” is frequently accurate but that it also often misses the mark. This is not impossible. After all, I wasn’t there when the events I describe occurred and had to depend on the often conflicting accounts of several people in writing about them.
Perhaps my conversations with the uniquely infamous Charles Manson are as noteworthy for what is missing as for what they contain. The helter-skelter story holds that he was obsessed with the possibility of an imminent race war between black and white people. He has never mentioned a race war when I’ve talked to him. He only makes occasional references to race.
He has spoken with some frequency about environmental concerns. I’m not sure that he talks about it enough to be considered an “obsession” but it is definitely a major interest of his.
I need to make it clear that I don’t believe that Manson’s concerns about ecology played any role in the Tate-LaBianca murders. Several motives have been suggested for those crimes but they were not intended as retaliation for pollution. Additionally, in my opinion, Manson’s role in Tate-LaBianca has been exaggerated as I state in “The Manson Myth.” I now believe that even “The Manson Myth” itself may give him a larger role than he in fact had.
Why would Manson have a great deal of concern about the state of the earth? Such a concern is hardly unique or even eccentric. Organized environmental activism takes a variety of forms, ranging from relatively conservative groups like the Sierra Club to extreme radicals like Earth First!
One reason Charles Manson might focus on the environment may be that, having lived in prison for most of his life, he has been cut off from nature and experienced a deep yearning for it. It is also possible that, having been mistreated in various ways throughout most of his life, he identifies with an earth that he sees as mistreated by our advanced industrial civilization.
At any rate, his thoughts on nature and human responsibility to it don’t necessarily sound off-the-wall as readers will see in reading the following excerpts from a phone conversation I had with him.
CM: You is a goat on the side of the mountain that you’ve been milking and feeding on. It’s your mother. The earth is your mother.
DN: Yeah, the earth is my mother, that’s true. It’s everybody’s mother.
CM: There’s no everybody. There’s only me. You see somebody else, that’s on you. (Laughs) Kenny made this phone call for you.
DN: Kenny made the phone call? Thank Kenny for me.
CM: I’m not going to thank him for you. I don’t have time for all that.
CM: What are you doing for me, tramp? You ain’t done a damn thing for me yet.
DN: That’s true.
CM: You plant any trees?
DN: Did I what?
CM: Did you plant anything this week?
DN: No, I didn’t.
CM: Oh, well you ate a lot. You took a lot from the earth. Did you put anything back?
CM: Yeah, that’s what I thought. You took cotton when you wore your clothes, you took leather when you wore your shoes. You took the food, you took stuff from earth and never give anything back.
DN: I don’t think I wore any leather shoes this week.
CM: You don’t wear shoes.
DN: I do wear shoes. I don’t think I wore any leather shoes this week.
CM: Well, whatever you wear, whatever you do, you’re taking it from the earth.
DN: I don’t have a garden but I know a lot of people who have gardens.
CM: Do you have to have a garden to plant something? My God, woman. You’re in prison.
DN: I’m in prison? My youngest brother has a vegetable garden and my dad has a vegetable garden.
CM: Oh, wow, man. Your mind is locked. You’ve got to have a garden to put a seed in the ground? Did you ever eat an avocado?
CM: Did you ever think of just going out and punching a little hole in the ground and throwing it in the ground and letting a tree grow there?
DN: I should have but no, I didn’t.
CM: What about an apple core? Did you every think of just taking your finger and moving a piece of dirt and dropping the apple core down in there and moving the piece of dirt back over the apple core?
DN: No, I didn’t.
CM: You never thought about anything about helping life complete itself?
DN: Yeah, I have. But I mean I’ve thought of planting things, yes. My father plants things.
CM: You have any children?
DN: No, I don’t.
CM: Well, uh, uh, the trees would be like your child. If you’d have put some kind of walnut or something that you’ve been eating and take your finger – or even take a stick – you don’t need to even dirty your finger – just take a stick and pull the earth back a little bit and drop it in and then push the earth back over it and step on it. Then come back a little while later and there will be a little bush there. And come back a little later and there will be a tree there. It will be like a child, like one of your friends.
CM: It would be like the best friend you’ve got. All life loves you. It’s you that don’t love life.
DN: Yeah. I’ve got to plant some seeds.
CM: Everybody does.
DN: You ever do that?
CM: All the time. I’ve got a fig tree. Everywhere I used to go I’d plant a fig tree.
DN: Good. It’s good to plant trees. I sent you that article that I wrote about Arbor Day.
CM: I don’t read, man. I don’t read.
DN: Yeah, I think you read my article on Arbor Day.
CM: The article that you wrote – I threw it in the trash. I don’t care about what you think. I care about what I think. I live with what I think. I’m living with me, I’m not living with nobody else.
CM: If I were running from myself I’d be trying to live with you.
DN: You would?
CM: Yeah, and I’d be reading books and shit. I just got a book called Stonehenge.
CM: Somebody sent me a book called Stonehenge.
DN: Do you like the book?
CM: No, I don’t like the book. You cut down trees to make books. You should have some books but books cut down trees and destroy more life. I don’t think you really understand the gravity, the perspective. Let me try to give it to you again.
CM: I love you.
DN: You do?
CM: Totally. Completely.
CM: Along with everything else.
CM: I think that life is love. And love is life.
CM: But if you don’t have enough concern to reproduce or put back what you take, you must be a pretty callous person to realize that nature needs a hand.
DN: Nature does need a hand.
CM: Why can’t you help God? God is open for concern. Why can’t you have concern for God?
DN: I should. I should.
CM: All those Christian preachers are sucking your life up with that desire of money and greed and lust for comfort that murders your soul. To surrender to life is to assist yourself. To help yourself. You’re running out of atmosphere.
CM: Because you’re using up all the energy.
DN: That’s true.
CM: The reason you’re using up all the energy – God says – not words but he says in logic and intelligence and understanding – God says if you take something from life you must put something from life you must put something back. If you take 100 grapes, you’ve got to put 10 of them back.
DN: That’s a good philosophy, yes.
CM: It’s not my philosophy.
CM: It’s the way things are.
CM: If you don’t put that 10 percent back, you’re going to end up running out of everything.
DN: That’s true.
CM: It’s not for anyone else that you do this. It’s for the love of yourself that you do this. If you go get 10 tomatoes out of the garden or out of the mountainside or wherever you get them, you’ve got to put one back. You should put 10 back. Always put a percentage of your life back into life so that you can get some more life out of it. If you’re living life and you’re not giving nothing back into life, you’ll go crazy and you’ll invent all kinds of problems that you wouldn’t have had if you’d have given life back into what was supposed to be right. You see?
DN: I do see.
CM: Well, then look at me inside of you and start doing right, man, for yourself.
DN: Yeah. I’ve got to put seeds back into the ground.
CM: All the time, sweetheart. That’s love, man. Not only that, if you see a tree that’s hit with lightning and hurt or something, you’ve got to love the world. You’ve got to heal the world, the whole world. People will call you crazy but they’ll follow you.
We have discussed the reason he is in prison. He never expressed remorse but always maintained he does not feel much sense of responsibility for the Tate-LaBianca murders. This makes sense if, contrary to the Helter Skelter book, they were not committed either for him or at his command or as a result of any grandiose plan he dreamed up.
When it was close to August 9 and 10, the anniversary of the crimes, I asked if he gets emotionally upset at this time of the year.
DN: Yeah. Do you get in a bad mood about this time of the year because of the fact that it’s the anniversary of the murders?
CM: No, man, that anniversary ain’t got nothing to do with me. That never affected me.
CM: Hell, no. That’s like me telling you – you’re from Alaska and you spent all your life in Alaska and you’re a polar bear.
CM: And I know that you’re a polar bear and you got two teeth missing in front. You dig? You’re not a polar bear, you don’t have two teeth missing, and you’re not from Alaska. You know that.
DN: Yeah, I do.
CM: So whatever I’m saying, what does it mean?
DN: Hmm. I guess nonsense.
CM: Nothing. Not a fucking thing, man. They say, “you’ve got no remorse.” I say, “Remorse about what”? They say, “All those people got killed.” I say, “Well, people get killed everyday. That many people got killed on the L.A. freeway this morning.
DN: Probably so.
DN: Probably so. A lot of people get killed on the freeway.
Although almost all accounts agree that Charles Manson was not acquainted with the victims prior to their senseless murders, in our conversations he has expressed extremely negative feelings toward the most prominent victim, Sharon Tate. Indeed, his statements about her are incredibly callous.
CM: Yeah, and like you got the Queen of the Vampires. She made vampire movies.
CM: She had the devil’s baby.
CM: And she sold morality. She gave her body for fame and glory. She did everything that the Bible says don’t do.
DN: Are you talking about Sharon Tate?
CM.: Yeah. In other words, all those people that were all those wonderful people – they weren’t really wonderful people.
CM: And who was she in bed with when the – when the murders began? She wasn’t in bed with her husband, that’s for damn sure.
DN: Well, she wasn’t in bed with anyone. I think there were talking on the bed.
CM: They were talking on the bed with their clothes off – yeah.
DN: Uh-huh. They had their clothes on.
CM: Yeah, I’m really stupid.
CM: What – did she take her clothes off after they stabbed her?
DN: I don’t think so. I think she had –
CM: Well, then how the hell did she get her clothes off, man?
DN: She didn’t have her clothes off.
DN: She didn’t have her clothes off. She had –
CM: Well, then, what was she doing stabbed up and naked?
DN: She wasn’t naked – I don’t think.
DN: No, she had a –
CM: Well, then, I must have seen the wrong pictures.
DN: – a bikini panties and bra on.
CM: Do you realize man that you’ve got about 150 million too many people?
CM: That if you don’t get rid of a couple hundred million people, you’re not going to survive as a human species on the planet earth.
DN: Hm-hmm. Yeah.
CM: Does that somehow communicate to you in some way-out, far out way that you’ve got too many children? You’ve got too many babies?
DN: Well, they’re doing something about that now. I mean there’s –
CM: They shoulda did it 100 years ago.
CM: You know, you got no checks or wars – you need some wars to thin the public out – you’ve stopped all the diseases that were the balance for life on earth. You’ve done everything against nature with an artificial industrial revolution – the revolution for your destruction.
CM: And you are upset because one of your actors got on the wrong lane doing something with the wrong people and God coming up with her and gave her what she had coming. And you want to blame somebody else for it. And you got to dig up some poor-ass idiot that don’t have the brain of a retarded spastican and make him a cult leader!
CM: You know, I’m brain-dead. I’ve been in prison 63 years.
CM: I don’t step on bugs, much less bother myself with killing people.
DN: Uh-huh. No.
CM: I wouldn’t do that much favor. You in Georgia should know what they did to Atlanta. What Grant did to Richmond. What the north did to the south. Got already?
In a previous conversation, he had also spoken negatively about Sharon Tate.
DN: Yeah. Charles, I wanted to ask you about something. You like movies, don’t you?
CM: No, not really.
DN: No? Well, I was wondering: Do you get any particular kind of eerie feeling when you see a movie in which Sharon Tate is playing?
CM: I never get over shit like that, man. You know I don’t go to movies. I live in the mountains, man, I live out in the deserts. I ride around in motorcycles and shit. I am a movie. I make movies. Every night I’m a movie.
DN: Yeah but when they show movies at the prison – have you ever seen any of Sharon Tate’s films like The Fearless Vampire Killers –
CM: Sharon Tate didn’t make no films. She made a few sidelines for her pimp from Poland who was pimping her motherfucking Aryan ass. You know, it was like that – you don’t know Hollywood. You know Hollywood?
DN: Kind of.
CM: Well, everything’s fucked. If you ain’t fucking, you ain’t moving. You ain’t sucking or fucking or doing something – What kind of woman would you call the Queen of the Vampires?
DN: Oh, I don’t know.
CM: Well, let’s have the devil’s baby – Rosemary’s Baby – how was that Jesus? How did that go with your Bible belt?
DN: I don’t know.
CM: Like your kids out there sucking on each other’s blood. Look at what those people did, look at what Polanski created. Look at his movies – would you go watch them?
DN: I’ve watched a few of his movies.
CM: Do you think that they were educational?
DN: Umm, entertainment.
CM: Like how to suck on something? Would you like your kids to go learn how to bite people on the neck? Go and kill them?
DN: Well, I don’t have any kids.
CM: Well, if you had some.
DN: No, I wouldn’t.
CM: Well, there you go. You make us the bad people but actually the bad people died. What were they doing over here in this country anyway? Behind selling the blood of this country. And who were they? Roman Catholics in disguise? This is a Protestant place, man.
Why does Charles Manson speak so derogatorily about Sharon Tate? He didn’t know her prior to the murders. Even if his involvement in the murders was much less that commonly believed, even if they were not committed “for” him in any sense, they remain to some degree the defining events of his life. His attitude might reflect a kind of defensiveness. For whatever motives and at whoever’s suggestion, Manson’s closest friends murdered innocent people. Thus, he wants to see its best-known victim as somehow deserving of the horrible fate they visited upon her or at least as undeserving of the sympathy that decent people would have for her.
Manson’s reviling of Tate for a supposed sexual indiscretion seems highly ironic and bizarrely hypocritical. During the two years of freedom between his parole and arrest for Tate-LaBianca, he was promiscuous and oversaw numerous sex orgies. He is hardly in a position to criticize other people for unconventional sex lives. Defensiveness may show up again in this as he is aware that many people would condemn his intimate activities and wants to point out what he sees as actions by Tate that would be ripe for the same people to fault.
Finally, Manson is not a normal person. He is a career criminal – albeit one who had no extensive history of violence prior to his infamy – and a denizen of jails. He does not possess the attributes of compassion and morality that most people do and that is reflected in his demeaning attitude toward Sharon Tate.
A few matters need to be clarified. Sharon Tate was not in the movie Rosemary’s Baby. Her husband, Roman Polanski, directed it. Mia Farrow starred as the woman who gave birth to the devil’s baby. Sharon Tate was in a movie called The Fearless Vampire Killers.
At the time the residence was invaded, Tate was on a bed talking with Jay Sebring, a top Hollywood hairstylist. Sebring had been Tate’s boyfriend prior to her meeting Polanski. After she became romantically involved with the director, she and Sebring continued a non-sexual friendship with the knowledge and approval of Polanski who also made friends with Jay Sebring.
Tate was not naked but neither was she modestly attired. A free spirit of the late 1960s who was married in a miniskirt, Tate was wearing only a bra and bikini underpants. In some of the police photographs taken at the crime scene, Tate looks like she is nude
Manson and I have talked about Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme. She had been closely associated with Manson and was convicted of attempting to assassinate then-President Gerald Ford. She pointed a gun at him that had bullets in it but none in the chamber. She claimed that she deliberately did not put the bullets into the chamber because she never had any real intention of shooting. She had given as her motives a desire to call attention to what she saw as the need for a re-trial for Manson and his co-defendants in the Tate-LaBianca murders and to call attention to the continuing pollution of the environment.
DN: OK Have you heard the news about Lynnette Fromme?
DN: You haven’t heard the news.
DN: Oh, I get the privilege of being the first to tell you. She’s about to be released from prison.
CM: Oh, yeah, yeah, I heard something in the wind about that.
DN: Yeah. It’s official. They’re going to parole her.
CM: Yeah, they should have let her go a long time ago.
CM: But she never would go up for parole.
DN: She has now and she’s going to be paroled.
CM: Yeah. I think they’re lying.
DN: You think so?
CM: Yeah, you know, they’ll probably let her go but you can’t believe what they say.
CM: I know she didn’t go up for parole.
CM: She committed herself. I never knew that woman to ever tell a lie about anything. If she says something, she’ll stand on what she says.
DN: Well, maybe they just decided to let her go.
CM: Yeah. She stood on point.
DN: She did?
CM: She stood on a valid point of our constitution and our government. She’s one of the children in the United States of America who study their lessons and learn them well.
CM: She learned her Constitution, she learned her Bill of Rights. She was right. The woman was right.
DN: Yeah. You sound pretty spry. You sound like you’re doing pretty well.
DN: You sound like you’re doing pretty well.
CM: Yeah, she’s a tremendous person, I’m telling you.
On another occasion, the subject of Fromme came up.
DN: How do you feel about Red, about Lynnette Fromme being released from prison?
CM: How do I feel about it?
CM: I don’t think we’re really in prison – if we believe in God.
CM: I don’t believe in prison.
CM: No, I believe in God.
CM: You know. Wherever I’m at is where I’m at. I mean, you can call it what you want to call it but it’s still wherever I’m at.
CM: If I’m on the beach you can say I’m in the mountains but I know I’m on the beach.
CM: You know, you can say I’m on the road and I’m in the house, I know I’m not on the road, I’m in the house.
CM: In the mountains – if I say I’m in I’m in – I don’t let other people tell me. If I want to know something, I go get my Bible and I look in there.
DN: You look in your Bible?
CM: Yeah. I don’t – what other people – what man says doesn’t mean anything.
DN: Yeah. But have you talked to Red recently?
DN: How does she sound?
CM: Like she always does.
CM: I’m not giving up no information that people can use back against me.
DN: Oh, no?
CM: That’s what put us in here.
He has expressed conflicting feelings about the recently deceased Susan Atkins. This is not overly surprising. During the slightly more than two years they were together, their relationship was by some accounts – the accounts I find credible – very troubled. Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter and arguments in court depict Atkins as Manson’s willing slave, endlessly subservient and obedient to him. “The Manson Myth” quotes sources that show they were often at odds. For example, in her memoirs, Atkins describes Manson as asking her to forgo taking LSD when she was pregnant because “children are precious” and she might harm the fetus. She took it anyway because, in her own words, “selfishness was in high gear with me.” However, their relationship was also often cooperative and sometimes sexual. His expression of positive feelings toward her immediately after her death once again demonstrates that this abnormal personality isn’t totally cut off from the sorts of emotions common to normal people.
Atkins was one of those at the Tate residence during the slaughter there. When Tate tried to escape, Atkins caught the actress who was slowed down by her advanced pregnancy and put the woman in a chokehold. She held the struggling Tate’s arms behind her back while Charles “Tex” Watson stabbed Tate to death. Then Atkins wrote the word “PIG” in Tate’s blood on a door.
Atkins helped break the case by telling jailhouse friends about the crimes. She testified about them before the grand jury. Later, she recanted her grand jury testimony and was tried along with Charles Manson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten for the murders. However, her co-defendants were often cold to her as they blamed her for their predicament both because she bragged about the murders to others in jail and because she later testified about them in front of the grand jury.
Susan Atkins was known for her flamboyance and much of the mythology around Manson is due, in my opinion, to the wild stories Atkins told. She published her memoirs, Child of Satan, Child of God, in 1978. More recently, a lengthy essay called “The Myth of Helter Skelter” has appeared on a website devoted to her by her husband James Whitehouse. Whitehouse has said he pieced the essay together from things Susan wrote and stated.
CM: You know people will tell you things to win your attention or approval. Have you read Susie’s book?
DN: You mean Child of Satan, Child of God?
CM: No, I mean the one she just came out with?
DN: The Myth of Helter Skelter?
DN: I read part of that. I read part of that online. Yes, I have. What do you think of that?
CM: The chick has went to school and she studied prudently but what happened is that she wanted to be a star, a media star, and we wouldn’t let her and she’s hated us ever since.
CM: They wanted to do Steve Grogan, Bruce Davis, Charlie, and Susie and we said no. And she just – it broke her heart. And she hated us. She’s been hating us ever since.
CM: Cause she wanted to be, she wanted to be real famous. And we said that would have been all right but she told on everybody.
CM: Telling on everybody doesn’t make you a bad person but telling and lying – why did you have to lie?
CM: You know. She had to make up all kinds of things for attention, for approval from somebody else that really doesn’t exist. The book is not valid, it’s her – first she said she was going to die in a few months – that’s bullshit. Then she said she lost a leg – that’s bullshit too. I mean if you’re lying, what are you writing for?
After Susan Atkins’s death, he expressed more positive feelings about her.
DN: I just wondered if you weren’t kind of sad or upset when you heard that Susan died – Susan Atkins.
CM: Uh, Susie don’t die.
CM: Susie never dies.
DN: Oh. Well, Susie did –
CM: At the first playground – Susie never dies.
DN: Well, Susan Atkins did die recently so I was wondering –
CM: Oh, there you go. See you believe everything people tell you but you won’t believe what I tell you.
DN: Oh, yeah, I believe what you tell me, Charles.
CM: Well, then believe me when I say that Jesus Christ said that eternal life was assured. [At this point, he began singing the following: Standing on the promises, standing, standing, standing on the promises.]
DN: On the promises?
CM: You’re in Atlanta, Georgia, right?
DN: Yeah, I’m in Atlanta, Georgia. That’s right.
CM: Well, Atlanta, Georgia is still here. Just think just how many times Atlanta, Georgia has died.
CM: You know, you’ve got a big prison down there, a big federal prison. Thousands of Confederate soldiers that they said died there but they’re still there. Everybody’s still here and everybody always was here.
CM: You know, we go through changes and we change bodies.
CM: You see a dragonfly, that dragonfly laid eggs and those eggs fly back and they’re still dragonflies.
DN: Yeah. Well, I was wondering if you’re sad because Susan Atkins left her body.
CM: Susan Atkins is an angel.
DN: An angel?
CM: Susan Atkins lives in eternity with God.
CM: If you believe, she still lives.
DN: That’s what she believed. She was supposed to be a Christian, a devout Christian.
CM: That’s what she was.
CM: She was. She gave her life for a cause that she believed in.
DN: What cause was that?
CM: ATWA. The atmosphere – the air, the water, the trees, and the life on earth. She believed that Jesus was coming on earth. She was preparing herself for Jesus on earth.
CM: She left the hospital with Jesus.
CM: She left a leg – she got a leg out the door – Red got a leg out the door – Got two legs out the door. A red and a blue. The red, white, and blue is still there. You believe in red, white, and blue?
DN: Of course. They’re the colors of the American flag.
CM: Well, I’ll be damned. Can you imagine that? (Laughs) And those two girls were your daughters. They went to school and learned the rules and the Constitution and the Bible and they believed in God. What can I say? They spent their life for Jesus.
That conversation turned to Lynnette Fromme and than back to Susan Atkins.
CM: We thought we had friends and there was mercy. They didn’t show Susie no mercy.
DN: No, they didn’t.
CM: No. Well, then that’s what they got coming. They used Susie to judge themselves.
CM: They didn’t judge Susie. Susie judged Susie.
CM: I judge me.
CM: You judge you. They judge themselves.
In discussions about food, I never told him that I’m a heavy meat eater because I had always heard that he was a strict vegetarian and I didn’t want to gross him out. However, he apparently is not a complete vegetarian.
CM: I eat my own food. I just cooked my own lunch.
DN: You’ve got something in there you can cook with?
CM: Yeah, I’ve got a hot plate. I can make coffee and cheese and make soup with cheeses and beans.
CM: Dried beans.
DN: I thought for a minute you might have said “beef” but I know you don’t eat meat.
CM: No. I had some beans, I had nice little lunch with some tortillas, some flour tortillas.
DN: Yeah. Were you in Mexico for a while?
CM: Yeah, yeah.
DN: Is that where you acquired a taste for Mexican food or have you always liked it?
CM: No, it’s just all around you, it’s on the canteen. There’s no such thing as Mexican. The world is a Mexican, you know.
DN: Well, I love Mexican food myself although it’s fattening.
CM: Whatever it is – whether it’s Chinese or Booboo – I don’t tag nothing. It’s all one.
CM: Just have a good day. I don’t want to have a bad day.
We had another conversation about food.
DN: Did you ever have any problems adjusting to a vegetarian diet? One of my brothers is vegetarian and I have friends who are vegetarians. I just wonder if you had any trouble adjusting when you gave up meat.
CM: Uh, I’m still doing it. Every once in awhile, I’ll eat a hamburger.
DN: You will?
CM: Yeah and once in awhile I’ll eat a little lunch meat sandwich or a sausage or something.
DN: Uh-huh. So you still eat meat but just on rare occasions?
CM: Yeah, well, it’s just a very subtle thing, man. I’m not trying to do anything, I just do what I do and I don’t judge anything. I don’t say it’s this or that. I don’t put things in categories or tag things or have judgments about stuff.
CM: I don’t eat meat because I don’t like the taste of it. I know it’s poison. I know it’s bad. I like animals. I like the cow better than the hamburger. The cow’s never done me no wrong. I feel bad. I eat a piece of beef and then I look at the cow and the cow says you know, “What if I start eating you, chump? Would that be all right if I just take a bite out of your leg, eat you?”
CM: Yeah, well, I give you that, you can eat me if you want and the cow says, “Well, then, that’s all right, you can eat me again. But you can’t eat me any more than I can eat you.” Or you’re going to feel guilty and you’re going to punish yourself for it. That’s the truth. If I feel bad about something I do, then I’m going to take it out on myself. So I don’t do things that I will feel bad about.
Charles Manson spent over half his life before the Tate-LaBianca murders in some sort of correctional institution, ranging from reform schools to jails to prisons. He has spent all of this life since his arrest in maximum security. I’ve wondered how someone he copes with the daily boredom, squalor, fear, and degradations of life in a penitentiary.
DN: What do you think is the hardest – excuse me, go ahead.
CM: I wasn’t saying.
DN: I interrupt people. That’s a bad habit I have. I was just wondering, what in your opinion is the hardest thing about living in prison?
CM: Accepting that there’s no such thing as prison.
CM: Everybody tries to make it a reality. But it’s not a reality.
CM: Every person is their own prison. No matter what people do to you, man, they can’t really touch you if you don’t let them. In other words, if somebody does you wrong, there’s no wrong unless you say it’s wrong.
CM: You can say OK, it’s all good. You don’t let anybody make a bad day for you. You have a good day every day. Everybody around you is all miserable and they hate each other and they’re all yelling at each other and fighting on each other and you’re sitting there in the middle with a smile having a good day.
CM: You learn that in prison. Prison is a monastery. It’s a good place. You learn in prison. It’s not bad. There’s bad and good in prison just like there’s bad and good outside. People are walking around outside who are more in prison than prison whatever they say that is.
CM: Everybody’s got – what the hell’s the word prison? That’s an old primitive thing that they used to have in the old days. They have no prisons. Give me this fucking phone, man. Why can’t I – I mean I got a phone on the wall and if I’ve got a phone in my cell they say it’s illegal. What’s more illegal than the phone I’m talking about?
CM: If I’ve got a phone, I’ve got a phone. I got my own clothes on, I got my own shoes on.
CM: I eat my own food. I just cooked my own lunch.
So just who is Charles Manson? I believe the above conversations support my contention that he is not the grandiosely ambitious monster of the helter-skelter myth. After all, if he really believed that he would rule the world from a palace, he would surely chafe under the harsh conditions of confinement in a small prison cell. But he does not. It’s been home for almost all of his life. His comfort seems to lie in allowing free rein to his imagination and fantasizing as freely out loud as most people do in the supreme privacy of their heads.