I was five years old in the summer of 1969. If you watched the news then, and I did, you would see plenty of amazing things. I didn't understand them all that well, but in the midst of the Apollo 11 triumph and the euphoria of Woodstock, the one guy I remember the best was Charles Manson, who died yesterday at the age of 83.
Manson was the monster under my bed personified. I was convinced that he was coming to Wisconsin to kill me and my family. My parents tried to reassure me that I was almost certainly wrong about my belief, but it stuck with me. It was lurid stuff:
Manson did not commit the murders himself; instead he persuaded his group of followers to carry out the killings. The crimes received frenzied news coverage, because so many lurid and sensational elements coalesced at the time — Hollywood celebrity, cult behavior, group sex, drugs and savage murders that concluded with the killers scrawling words with their victims’ blood.
Manson's lethal followers looked a lot like the young adults I'd see walking the streets of Appleton, Wisconsin. While they never made it to Appleton, they were on our family television at 5:30 every afternoon:
Manson and four of his followers — Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Charles “Tex” Watson — were convicted of murdering actress Sharon Tate, the wife of movie director Roman Polanski, in their Bel-Air home on Aug. 9, 1969, along with four others.
Watson had been a high school football star. Krenwinkel a former Sunday school teacher. Van Houten a homecoming princess from Monrovia. And Atkins once sang in her church choir. Linda Kasabian, a pregnant 20-year-old with a baby daughter, who said she was asked to go along that night because she was the only one with a valid driver’s license, testified against the others in return for immunity from prosecution. Atkins died in 2009 in prison; the others remain incarcerated.
As I left my childhood behind, I didn't fear Manson and his followers, but the wild-eyed image of Manson himself, compared with the dead eyes of his acolytes, is still jarring:
As is the description of their crimes:
Tate, 26, who was eight months pregnant, pleaded with her killers to spare the life of her unborn baby. Atkins replied, “Woman, I have no mercy for you.” Tate was stabbed 16 times. “PIG” was written in her blood on the front door.
It's difficult to understand evil of this sort. You can lay out all manner of rationales and explanations for what caused Manson to become the monster he was -- the linked obituary from the Los Angeles Times lays out the horrific events of Manson's childhood in detail -- but as always, there's the matter of free will. Manson chose his path, and while he was able to control his acolytes, they chose their paths as well. The childhood fears I had of Charles Manson weren't his responsibility -- Manson didn't ask Walter Cronkite to discuss his case every night, although he surely didn't mind it, either. But it became part of who I am today. And as I chose my own path, I had to put such fears away. They don't arise that often any more, but they will always remain.