Friday, March 26, 2021

"Helter Skelter," by Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry--Nonfiction Review

This book, “Helter Skelter,” written by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, is the true-crime gold standard. The Manson family murders and their motivations behind their crimes were beyond the pale in ghoulishness, and at its core, this book is really about one man, Charlie Manson. It’s a biography of how one charismatic vicious cult leader set off one of the most chilling crimes of the last century.  

Vincent Bugliosi

What I love about this book:

Since Bugliosi was the prosecuting attorney during the Manson Family murder trial, this is the ultimate insider story about the case. Bugliosi and his co-author go into exquisite detail about the twists and turns of first the crime, then investigating the crime, and then the circus that was the actual trial. It’s such an outlandish story it almost screams for a theatrical treatment, which is probably why it was made into a movie—more than once.

My favorite part of the story is the actual trial itself, which I know can sound dry. Still, there is something about a lawyer explaining exactly how the criminal process works that’s always captivated me, another reason why I like this nonfiction book. Often my problem with trials in fiction is they’re written by people who aren’t lawyers, and I’m always left wondering, is that right?

I know this isn’t very high-minded, forgiveness for all and whatnot, but I derived a certain amount of schadenfreude pleasure when finally, Manson and his “family” get what was coming to them, and their murderous make-believe world crumbled around them. As a rule of thumb, I don’t believe in the death penalty, and when it was repealed, sparing him and the girls from it, I still felt life in prison, wasting away slowly but inexorably, was a fitting punishment. 

What I don’t love about this book:

So one of the grossest things to come out of all the Manson family trial publicity is the ever-enduring inappropriate admiration for the man himself. It’s the same thing that happened with Ted Bundy. Even after hearing all he’s accused of, there are people, still, somehow, who are attracted to him.  Or sometimes it’s his philosophy, or—worst of all—both.

This happens because of how high profile the murder investigation and trial was, and when that happens, more people hear about a thing. Gather a big enough crowd of people, and eventually, you’ll strike weirdo pay dirt. Oddballs that when confronted with facts like Manson once shot a man in cold blood and is suspected of murdering and dismembering at least one other person, they’re still going to think he’s dreamy.

I’m positive Bugliosi was a fantastic lawyer. Why am I confident of this? Because of all of the copious notes upon notes he clearly took about this crime, investigation, and trial. And I hear, you dear obscure reader, metaphorically, not really—that would be weird. Anyway, you’re saying, why is this in this section? This all sounds like they are good things. They are, but it also feels like Bugliosi didn’t leave out even one single note from this book, and it shows in the length of the book. Let’s just say it’s not a quick read.   

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Parting thoughts:

So—in many ways, Manson and his followers were ahead of their time when it comes to unhinged nutters. Like a prototype Q-Anon, Manson told his followers that they were special, smart people who were aware of and needed to prepare for the coming revolution. That was what he said “Helter Skelter” meant. Specifically, there would be a race war. Supposedly black people would overthrow everything. Afterward, Manson and his family—who would have survived the revolution by hiding in the desert—would return to be the ruling class in the new world order. 

Why would they be literally the ruling family after the black revolution while being some of the most lily-white dickheads to exist? Well, this is going to come as a complete shock, but other than being a murderous asshole, Manson was also profoundly racist—who would have guessed? Anyway, he figured that black people would be capable of revolution, but he didn’t think they could create and maintain an actual society. So they would need Charlie Manson to be their King, or Emperor, or whatever the fuck he’d call himself.

All of this sounds as grandiose as it is ridiculous, and hindsight has only made it more so, not less. It does lead to my final point I want to make today though, this impulse we have—and we all have it, don’t try to fool yourself—to self-delude ourselves about the nature and consistency of objective reality isn’t a new thing.  This isn’t something that only Capitol rioters are specifically afflicted with but a feature of us as a species. It’s a bone-deep belief that reality, or the universe, or in some people’s cases—god—can be reasoned with or better yet bargained with, and the outcomes of our lives can be changed by simply wanting it bad enough. Put another way, wishing. 

This is why I go on and on about magical thinking and why it becomes exponentially more dangerous the more advanced we get as a species. It’s because charismatic and misguided individuals have way—way more power today than ever before. The last four years in the United States ought to have proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Magic makes for great fantasy but poor everyday life. Just because you want to believe something is genuine or conversely don’t want to believe something is real—the coronavirus, for instance—doesn’t make it true. This belief either, consciously or unconsciously, that reality can bend to wishes is a delusion and a dangerous one. We can only change our world through concentrated and often cooperative action. Usually, that last part requires a leader of some sort, and ask yourself, do you want to have any shadow of a doubt that leader is unglued from reality? I know I don’t. 

Remember—as the cliché goes—the bill always comes due at the end. Reality has a way of catching up eventually. Every. Time.

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