Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku.

I have not been good. I have stumbled into this life with the blessing of God, and rolled through 100,000 years of all the disappointments of my millions of mothers and fathers. I have lived as a cruel, selfish killer among my brothers and sisters. I have hurt those I love and been hurt by them. I have sought the destruction of strangers as casually as I glance to the sky, and have found that even the saints are devils, that cognizance itself is contradiction, hypocrisy, and that we are all liars, all the time. And I have learned, of course, that this isn’t the whole truth.

World War I War U.S. war stamps poster.

The stuff of art and intelligence is in the recognition of patterns, the simplification of the divine equation. Oversimplification, however, is banal. That’s the fine line traversed by all art: the simpler the art, the more marketable it is—simple is easy to categorize, explain to consumers, contour for hype; conversely, the more complex a work of art, the smaller its audience and the more recondite the conversation around it.

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Leslie Van Houten, Homecoming Princess, yearbook photo.

But populist art, streamlined though it is for clarity and distribution, can still attain a “sublime” that would seemingly be exclusive to an art dedicated to what is fathomless. Populist art, often with intention, can operate on multiple levels, maintaining accessibility in the marketplace while operating on other planes of significance. Such work comprises much of the classical canon. The Mona LisaGreat Expectations. Ad infinitum. Even unwittingly, as a manifestation of cultural forces, populist art can take on unexpected meaning. Regardless of the lack of forethought, a work of art can be wonderfully enduring, purely in its strangeness. Plan 9 From Outer Space, let’s say, or a Brillo Box from the 1960s. Yet another mode of populist narrative is collective, and achieves nuance and complexity through the contributions of the appointed storytellers as well as everyone the story engages. The life of Abraham Lincoln, for example, is an ongoing, shared narrative, which we adjust and redirect and reinforce according to our own particular and immediate needs. Sometimes, a story is fueled by debate. What was the Vietnam War? Who was President Nixon? And, once in a while, a collective narrative benefits from the propulsion of all of the above.

The Manson family is such an example of the “all in”: a state-represented story (Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, which presented the prosecution’s argument), and a variety of other tellings that serve conflicting conclusions—the racist cult leader, the disappointed musician, the druggie guru, the angry ex-con, the clown, the devil. The narratives of Manson range from hatred to dismissal to sympathy to idolatry. And an ever-burgeoning heap of semi-evidence and speculation continues to add possibilities for aspiring sculptors of story.

Charles Manson.

Manson, at a diminutive 5’2”, was always a bit of a human doll; a characteristic he reveled in. His female followers would dress him—cowboy, biker, Native American—with schoolgirl enthusiasm. That identity is protean is a precept of many, if not all, religions, and Manson espoused the mercurial self in his homegrown, prison-philosophy/advanced–Haight Ashbury rap. His followers, dressing from a shared wardrobe, also chose identities with frivolous disregard, an exercise in pure desire.

During the trials of Charles Manson, Charlie Watson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkle, the changeability of The Family was something Manson cited as the source of their sudden popularity. The Family, he said, was a mirror for America. America would see what it wanted to see: a reason to put an end to the counterculture, a vindication of the conservative lifestyle, a Satanic cult. And America would make of The Family what America already was: a society of heartless, murdering hypocrites.

The argument that The Family marked the end of the sixties is another historical narrative that’s more art than truth. The Family wasn’t the end of the counterculture; without Vietnam, the unifying dissent of the protest movement was lost, and the counterculture was unable to reestablish a common agenda. And The Family’s defense was yet another spiel; the government, so the contention went, was an organization of killers. True enough, but not much of a defense. To do our killing is a large part of what governments are for. If hypocrisy were an adequate defense—that government, as killers, can’t adjudicate in the trial of murderers—not too many trials, in the course of history, would have resulted in a finding of guilt.

Charles Manson.

The American justice system is relatively good at fact-finding, and less so at finding motivations, or accurately assigning culpability, especially in group crimes. The fault extends to humanity in general; not even parents can sort out which of their kids did what, for what reason. In the Manson case, the prosecution narrative simultaneously assigned culpability to Manson and to his followers—the trick was mystifying, but closer to the whole tale than a trial could allow. Manson was the leader, but he was also an older, somewhat desperate hanger-on who would do anything to maintain his status. If Bobby Beausoleil was a musician, Charlie had to be more of a musician; if Charles “Tex” Watson started dealing drugs, Manson had to be a bigger, more experienced drug dealer; if Steve “Clem” “Scramblehead” Grogan or Bruce Davis started killing hitchhikers, Manson had to be more of a psychokiller; if Catherine “Gypsy” Share was a radical armageddonist, Manson had to be more of a radical armageddonist; if Sandra Good and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme were Jesus freaks, Manson had to be Jesus; if Susan “Sadie” Atkins was a Satanist, Charlie was Satan. The members of The Family were Charlie’s sex slaves (Charlie was bisexual, tending homosexual in his attachments), employed to bring Charlie influence over people he judged important, but Charlie, without the cooperation of The Family members, was nobody.

The prosecution tells a tale of random criminal insanity, and we look back in cringing horror. But we can’t judge those crimes by today’s standards of normality; the revolution was on, this was 1969. The need to find an alternative way of thinking about the world was a hysteria. Half a million young American men were in Vietnam; children torched by napalm were on the nightly news; there were daily protests, bombings, and police actions on campuses; blacks were in a state of uprising, and the pigs were fighting back. 1969 LA: drugs and drugs and drugs, and, as we now suspect, the Manson murders of August 9 and 10 weren’t random. These were people that members of The Family knew, and houses that The Family knew well, and the inducements for the crime were a snarl of personal envies and criminal avarices.

As 1968 shifted into 1969, the Manson group was evolving, individually and as a collective. Speed, which Manson didn’t like, had found its way into the chemical mix, and Manson’s followers were deep into their own trips, taking from the costume pile each day, trying on new personas—witches, ranch hands, film stars, drug dealers, whatever. Charlie, to control the situation, enlarged his own presence, and made a conscious effort to diminish their egos. During the court proceedings, the women were the only ones to adhere to their unselves, which, by the time of the killings, were in a continual state of flux. The verdict was a final act of patriarchy; Leslie, Pat, and Susan would never get out of jail, while Clem would be paroled in 1985, and Bruce Davis was recommended for parole three times by the parole board (he was last denied by the governor this year). Of the three women imprisoned for the Tate/Labianca crime, Pat was the most active during the killings. Susan would do a lot of lying and boasting about what she’d done, as would Leslie, to a lesser degree but more poignant effect. The more you stabbed, she said, “the more fun it was.” Tex, as he has long acknowledged, carried out the majority of the killing. Tex, like Sadie and Bruce, rediscovered himself as a born-again Christian; whether to her credit or detriment, Leslie is one of the few ex-Mansonites to have eschewed prison Christianity.

Leslie, Pat, Susan, on the way to court.

Leslie’s independence—she is willing to talk about her regrets, but hasn’t turned proselytizer—exemplifies what’s interesting about her. Leslie is always at the threshold: she was there for one night of murders, not two; she was the youngest killer (nineteen) and probably did the least; she was the first Family member offered a deal by the prosecution (she turned it down, while Linda, no less corrupt but more willing, obliged). And Leslie is still the iconographic Manson killer, the child-pretty, child-talking, ultra-evil brunette. She might one day get parole, but probably not, which is difficult to answer in the context of Clem’s parole—besides being a murderer, Steve Grogan is a child molester (he was convicted of exposing himself to children), and by the accounts of other family members and associations—unproven, but I credit them—a serial murderer, and rapist.

Leslie, at the time of her second trial.

I’m interested in Leslie partly because she resembles people around me, and partly because I’m attracted to her, and partly because she fulfills my own (and what I believe to be a national) vision of death, of Athena, of Joan of Arc. In another war, Leslie might have been Joan of Arc, and Charlie a scrappy Che. It is distasteful to consider such a recasting, or to entertain the villainy of the heroes we do accept. “Justice” is an endless struggle: on the one hand it is the practical dispensation of penalties, and on the other it is the woeful certainty that all crime is a fall of angels—their demises, and the repercussions, scaled beyond mortal understanding, of their sins.

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“Here’s a Cut-Out Mask For Young or Old to Help Celebrate Halloween.” Biloxi Daily Herald (Mississippi), 1910.

Paper dolls are in the middle of an Internet renaissance. Vintage paper dolls, many dating back to the seventeenth century, are freely available to print and cut out at home. The art of the paper doll often bears historic content: this king, or that royal court attire, or, in more contemporary incarnations, this wedding dress, or that tennis ensemble. The concurrence of history and paper dolls begs the question: In our storytelling, what is the difference between history and art? The primary distinction would seem to be one of emphasis; our historical stories tend to be more collective, and our arts (stories, whether in words or other mediums) tend to be more personal. Otherwise, the stories are the same, fashioned from the immeasurable all-nothing, made coherent by their incompleteness, by all that we don’t include. Regardless of what we’d prefer, history and art are amoral, their truths too large for our monkey measures, their total realities inconsiderate of our ethical comfort. The cutouts of our stories are images of ourselves and our desires; sometimes our desires are puritanical, or demonic, or hold ethical content, but they don’t need to. Desire is bereft of morality, as unbound to right and wrong as love.

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“Bride and Groom” paper dolls, Whitman, 1970s.

If the measure of goodness is how we have treated other people, we are none of us good. We are tempters, dissemblers, punishers. We have plucked angels from the sky, and sometimes we have wept for it, but, more often, we have laughed. That is the fear, isn’t it, when we come up with these questionable things? Like a Manson Family (Color Yourself!) Paper Doll Book? Are we laughing at the tragedy of others? At the tragedy that is, ultimately, the human tragedy, and thus our own?

No matter how much we self-censor, no matter how much we insist that there are stories that simply won’t do, that there are stories that we don’t have a right to, that there are stories beneath our dignity—contemptible stories— we understand instinctively, perhaps in our genes, that to deny ourselves stories is to capitulate to stasis. Even the stories that we don’t understand, that we don’t abide, we yearn for. And it is that we don’t understand these stories, that we don’t approve of these stories—and yet are drawn to them—that gives the first evidence that our compulsions are essential to us in ways we as yet can’t apprehend.

Are there just two reasons to tell stories? To change who we are, or to stay the same? To seek transformation, or justification? If that’s the case, these dubious acts of storytelling—something like, let’s say, a Manson Family (Color Yourself!) Paper Doll Book—have on their side the oratory of radicalism. Change! And maybe all this is just a fancy way of saying that the act of art justifies itself. But I rankle at the contention—I simply can’t agree—that the Manson Family (Color Yourself!) Paper Doll Book is a celebration of the historical story we tell now. I feel, rather, that it is a claim on a story we have lost, that has gone out of our control, that has rendered us a helpless, captive audience. Yes, it was my desire to have my very own Leslie Van Houten paper doll book, to be able to dress the Manson Family in stylish ensembles (color yourself!). Don’t you want to, too?


John Reed

John Reed is the author of Snowball's Chance, All The World's a Grave, and other works; Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems is recently released from C&R Press (2016).

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