I know that I am decades late to the game on this one.
Helter Skelter is a book that I have known about for years and have not read. I’ve known that it would be important and that I would probably thoroughly enjoy the huge depth of the book. But I never dropped in.
I knew that the book would be a slog. Bugliosi does not spare much in the way of detail and much of the book is mired in the complex procedures of criminal law. The heftiest sections of the book take place in the courtroom and, while it is interesting, it can be hard to feel like you are making progress when the details are so complex.
So, yeah. It was an odyssey, but I think it was an important journye. Charles Manson is a cultural figure for a reason and reading Helter Skelter is a one-of-a-kind gateway into the man, the crimes, the motives, and the trial. In all honesty there is nothing like it. And I think it is more prescient than it has ever been.
Manson, more than anything, is a huckster. He uses drugs, half-thought out philosophy, and criminal experience to his advantage. Somehow, he knows how to take advantage of vulnerable populations. It almost seems like instinct for him. I’ve grown up with the parody-Manson, the goofball in jail who makes funny faces and is (maybe) completely out of his mind. This Manson, however, is far more sinister.
Not only was Manson the leader of a cult-like organization (the Family), he had the ability to order gruesome murder at a moments notice. He called himself Jesus Christ and, with the power that his followers gave him, he did have a degree of control over life and death. That type of power is scary. Especially, when you pair it with the act the Family describes.
Creepy-crawling is the one that gets me. The members would break into homes, steal nothing, and leave. They would maybe move some things around, so you would feel a little off the next day. But sometimes, they would stand over people’s beds and watch them sleep. That’s what gets me. A brainwashed bunch of young woman creeping around the corners of your house, while you dream on…
Nonetheless, the book is terrifying, Bugliosi allows himself to get stuck in detail. But I think he at his best when he shares the down and dirty details of the murders. They’re horrific in a way that horror movies can never capture. Part of the book reads and feels like a snuff film and I think that’s what Bugliosi wants. He needs to share these terrible details to show the extent of the Family’s violence and Manson’s madness.
Final Thoughts: It’s a hard book for a number of reasons. You will be mired in detail and horrified by violence. You’ll hate Manson and you’ll understand some of his charm. Overall, this book is a must read for any true-crime fan. And I would elevate it higher than just those interested in true-crime. Helter Skelter is a book for anyone interested in understanding the death of the 60’s and the ways that radicalism can destroy peace-centered movements.