Lots of listeners read all kinds of messages into The Beatles' White Album, but nothing compares to the album's impact on Charles Manson. He heard it as a message to him and his followers — known as "The Family" — that the world was on the verge of an apocalyptic race war in which blacks would rise up against their white oppressors and enslave them.
This battle would be set off by an event called Helter Skelter, after the eponymous Beatles song, and Manson planned to lead his followers into the desert, where they would hide until the chaos ended.
That's just one example of Manson's distorted thinking, but there are many more in Jeff Guinn's new biography of the cult leader, Manson. Among the many people Guinn spoke with are Manson's sister and cousin, who had never before given interviews, and former Manson followers who are now in prison serving time for murder.
Manson and his followers were responsible for nine murders, including that of Roman Polanski's pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. Guinn's book has new information about Manson's upbringing and how Manson came to San Francisco in 1967, after serving time in prison, and used what he learned from pimps, the Bible, Scientology and '60s counterculture to attract followers — mostly young women — and teach them to follow and fear him.
Guinn tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about how Manson accumulated followers and then struggled to keep them.
On how location influenced Manson's success in recruiting followers
Charlie Manson is paroled from prison in California. Now, if he's in Nebraska, let's say, and he gets out of prison and goes to live in Omaha; if he tried to pull this shtick with the daughters of the farmers of Nebraska, they would've stuck him on a pitchfork and left him out in the field as a scarecrow.
But [San Francisco's] Haight-Ashbury is the place where as many as 300 teenage waifs a day are drifting in. And Haight-Ashbury is overflowing with children who don't know where they're going, what they're going to do ... but they've come in search of some guru to be able to tell them what to do and make their lives better. And that's who Manson preys on. Any other time, any other place, it could not have worked. But unfortunately for the world, he was in the perfect spot to exploit his very terrible gifts.
On how Manson's musical failure pushed him to find fame through murder
Gurus can't be seen to fail by their followers. When that happens, that's when the followers start to drift away. And some of Manson's followers were leaving him, some of his long-term people that he counted on and depended on. So he needs to do something spectacular.
And here's where the other threads come in: Los Angeles is a hotbed of racial tension, maybe the worst in all major American cities in that year, in that hot summer. ... All across America there were race riots. It's a terrible, tense time, and that permeates through the city, and Manson sees a way to use that.
At the same time, a drug deal has gone wrong, and Charlie has shot a man he believes to be a Black Panther who was owed money by The Family for some drugs. And Charlie expects that the Black Panthers are going to come storming onto Spahn Ranch [The Family's home] anytime and attack, so there's that pressure on his followers.
On why Manson targeted famous people
Manson thinks that they need to kill famous, rich people to get the kind of attention he wants. If they can make it look like black militants did it, he tells everybody, "This will start Helter Skelter: This will make the whites mad; the blacks will retaliate; we'll be in the desert. This is the beginning of the time that we're going to become masters of the world." ...
So they pick this house ... not because they know Sharon Tate is there, but because they know how to get there. It's location that decides the fate of five people that night.
On how Manson changed the Tate murder scene to look more spectacular
He gets in the car and drives back to the house where these murders have occurred and changes things around. And the reason we know that ... [is] during the Helter Skelter trial, when they're bringing out photographs of the murder scene, [accomplice Patricia Krenwinkel] starts looking and thinking, "Wait a minute, that wasn't there, that wasn't there ..."
In particular, Manson found a large American flag in another part of the house, and he took it over to the sofa and draped it theatrically on the sofa, and [on] the floor beside the sofa was the butchered body of Sharon Tate. He was convinced that was going to be the visual that was going to start bringing down, not necessarily Helter Skelter ... but if it could trigger even a small race riot in Los Angeles, then he can point to that to his followers and say, "See, I told you, we have the power to make these things happen."
On Guinn's method of writing history
What I do in all of my nonfiction books is I try to pick an era in American history that I want to write about. Once I pick that era, then I try to find some iconic individual or event. The theme, the theory behind all my books, is that history doesn't happen in a vacuum. So I look for interesting times in our nation's history, when all of the different threads of things would come together to make one moment possible, be it a wonderful moment, be it something horrific like the Tate ... murders. But really, the purpose of the book is to, through Charlie Manson, show the context of the 1960s.