How studying The Manson Family taught me a valuable lesson
I never set out to be a true crime author, let alone to find success in this genre.
In my book The Manson Family: More to the Story (published June 2019), I wrote about my interest in this particular crime story and my desire to dig deeper, past the official narrative offered by prosecutors — that the murders were committed to start Helter Skelter, a race war that Charles Manson convinced his followers of.
Like many of you, I first learned of the Manson Family by reading the book Helter Skelter (published 1974), written by lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. Bugliosi had successfully won convictions for several members of the Manson Family cult, based on that Helter Skelter theory. Specifically, Helter Skelter was used to implicate Manson, who did not actually kill anyone, of the crime of murder. Bugliosi was able to successfully convince a jury that it was Manson who manipulated the others into committing the crimes, and that he would ultimately benefit the most from them. This puppetmaster theory not only convinced a jury that Charlie had, indeed, ordered the killings. It also resulted in the larger-than-life mythology about Manson that perpetrates to this day, three years after his death in prison from natural causes.
I didn’t question the issue of motive as a younger person, but in recent years I had begun to doubt the official story still being perpetrated. I think my first inkling that there was more to the story was when I read a draft version of Susan Atkins’ second book The Myth of Helter Skelter, which was originally published at her (now defunct) website. Susan was one of several people convicted of the Manson Family murders and served a life sentence for her crimes up until her 2009 death (also of cancer). Her first book (1977’s Child of Satan, Child of God which recounted her life in the Family, her crimes and early incarceration, and then her conversion as a devout Christian) was more of an attempt at redemption. Her second book, which she did not finish, was being shared on a website her husband managed for her, gave a more mature and rational explanation for what she had come to recognize as coercion at the hands of Manson, a forceful but charming psychopath.
Susan, in particular, related the story of the shooting of a drug dealer a month before the murders, as having been the inciting event that ultimately led to the crimes. I concurred with that assessment — that the shooting of Bernard ‘Lotsapoppa’ Crowe seemed to trigger Manson’s growing paranoia and the terrifying descent into murder that followed.
July 1, 1969: The drug burn that led to the Manson Murders
there was always more to the story than ‘Helter Skelter’
I began to realize, reading her tale, that while Helter Skelter was certainly a part of the Family mythology and lore, and definitely contributed to the murders, it may not have been the primary motive.
A conversation with a friend over dinner several years later, led to the inception of my own book. When I told my buddy that I didn’t believe Helter Skelter was THE reason for the murders, he challenged me (as a researcher and author) to go on a search for the real reasons.
I spent three years researching and writing The Manson Family: More to the Story and ultimately I did determine what I believed to be the primary motive, a secondary motive, and four sub-motives (or motivations). That is because Charlie, the puppetmaster, had his motives for the crimes, and the killers had their motives. Beyond that, the men who committed murder had one set of motivations and the women, had another.
The women did believe in Helter Skelter. They were convinced it was about to happen, that their only hope to survive the coming Armageddon was to stay with Charlie and the others, and that the murders were the best way to start the war. Sadly, the women were also so drug-addled and delusional, they actually believed they were freeing their victims by killing them.
As I began to hone in on what I felt were the true motives for the murders, a secondary purpose to my writing began to take hold. Today, I would say that this secondary reason may be even more important than knowing WHY the crimes occurred. And that is, that I want to give space to people who were once in the Manson Family to speak out. Many have never done so. We can understand their reasons why. They were very young (13–14 years, at the youngest), they are ashamed of their past choices, and they continue to deal with the repercussions from their association with Charles Manson.
One of the reasons, I believe, that many former members of the Family have stayed silent is because of statements made by people like Prosecutor Bugliosi who claimed they were ‘cut from a different cloth’ than law-abiding people like you and me. I no longer believe that statement is true. I think that the members of the Family (with the notable exception of Charles Manson and perhaps Charles ‘Tex’ Watson) are exactly like you and me. I think that nearly all young people could be swept up in criminal activities like the Family committed, particularly under the coercive and controlling power of a dangerous person like Charlie was. Drugs helped, of course, detaching them from their past and creating a new reality. But today, I see the collection of people known as the Manson Family to be both perpetrators and victims of crime. I see the women, in particular, as sex trafficking victims. I view the incarceration of the killers as yet another way that Charlie managed to take over everything and destroy it.
Whether you believe that the killers were sociopaths, or brainwashed, or drug-crazed, the fact is that if we label them monsters and disassociate ourselves from them, we fail to understand how they wound up committing their crimes. We fail to recognize that if they could be pushed to do what they did, so can others.
It isn’t really possible to predict a Manson, but it’s very easy to prevent and predict future Susans, Patricias, Leslies, and others who are susceptible to trafficking and manipulation. Knowing what motivated the Family helps us learn how to prevent these atrocities in the future, and how to protect ourselves.
- The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications
The killers are not monsters despite their despicable crimes, but I would argue that Manson was. After all, he never attempted to atone. He never expressed remorse for those he led astray, or their victims. He told us he never felt guilt for the crimes. Frankly, there was little we learned from Manson the past fifty years, beyond how to identify other monsters. But we do need to understand human beings who do monstrous things, like Charlie’s followers.
I hope that I have helped expand the perspective of the Manson Family, so that perhaps we can all better recognize dangerous cults, charlatans and sex traffickers. I know that not everyone will concur with my assessment that the killers were also victims, and that’s okay. I didn’t write my book in order to help redeem or free the murderers, and I still believe each were guilty and deserving of lengthy (or life) sentences.
I chose to begin sharing content here at Medium at the start of the year, wondering how it would help me connect with a larger true crime audience. I’m incredibly appreciative of the engagement I’ve received, including those who differ with my opinions. Some of the most ardent responses have come from Mansonphiles — diehard aficianados of the Manson Family. I also remind them that I didn’t write the book for them — I knew they already saw through the shell of the Helter Skelter motive — but for the general public, particularly young people who can be more easily misled by the people they trust.
In the coming months, I hope to provide additional ways to help shine a light on the surviving members of the Manson Family and the ways they may be able to still contribute to society. Their voices — even those who killed at Charlie’s orders — still have something valuable to teach us today.
You can learn more about the Manson Family and their crimes by visiting MansonFamily.net