We all think we have full autonomy and sovereignty over our thoughts and actions. Sure, we have the hardware of our DNA, we are shaped by our upbringing and experiences, we are inspired by our heroes, and seek figures of wisdom to help us fumble our way through life – We learn from each other, we seek community, we share and grow. But, when it comes down to dire situations, someone couldn’t possibly “wash” our brains clean and fill it with new thoughts that go against our best interests and core values! That’s what it feels like, but psychological experiments like the 1961 Milgram study have proven that we aren’t always in control of our actions when we’re told what to do by an authority figure we trust.
Charles Manson is terrifying, much more terrifying than a serial killer, because he (mostly) kept his hands, and even his words clean. He used tactics of extreme grooming and manipulation to convince a group of people to take care of his every need, cater to all of his whims, and even murder for him. Most of us wouldn’t do Charles Manson’s bidding, but for those who saw him as a legitimate authority figure, they were eager to follow him wherever he led them.
First of all, Manson is one of those people with a magnetic personality; the very embodiment of “charismatic.” People who’ve known him report something about his presence that can make him at turns immediately captivating or terrifying. Manson often seems “crazy,” and completely out of touch with reality, but he really always had a grand plan he was working towards, and spent his whole life developing strategies to accomplish his goals at any costs. Other people didn’t exist for him beyond what they could do for him.
His major goal, the one thing he wanted more than anything else in the world was to be a big music star, bigger than The Beatles. In the meantime, however, he had to take care of his needs and wants. At 32 years old, when Charlie first started collecting his Family, he’d spent more than half of his life in some sort of corrective institution. His last two stints in prison had been a boon of education for him. Although Charlie was practically illiterate, he used his social skills to learn tools of manipulation from other prisoners.
Some of the ideas he soaked up during his incarceration for future use were pimp tips (pick girls who are damaged, but not completely broken,) Dale Carnegie’s advice, Scientology theories, and the plot of the popular 1960s novel about free love and alienation Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (his only known son from the Family was named after the main character Valentine Michael.) All this, along with a deep obsession with Revelations thanks to his grandmother’s fire-and-brimstone church, influenced Charlie’s particular style of manipulation and mind control.
Manson asked his followers to give up their ego, and only people who were able to sufficiently demonstrate their self-sacrifice were allowed to stay in the group. Although he spun tales about the future of The Family someday hunkering underground in a type of paradise and growing to an enormous size, Charlie would rather have a few, devoted followers who were willing to do anything for him than amass a large group that may grow unwieldy. He also tried to keep a perfect 5:1 women to men ratio so there would always be enough women to attend to the men’s every desire.
All of Manson’s followers were young people in their teens and early twenties who were dealing with conflicts with and feeling misunderstood by their families. When he got out of prison in 1967 and headed over to San Francisco in time for the “Summer of Love,” Charlie drank in the power of all these young, yearning people, many of them looking for someone like him: an alternative to their parents, an authority figure with a philosophy that jived with their desires. They wanted someone to tell them they were ok. Charlie, a fervent racist who saw women as lesser beings, didn’t subscribe to many of the leftist views on Haight-Asbury, but he was happy to reframe some of the mantras he heard other street gurus preach in order to capitalise on the idea of free love and communal living.
He told the young women he met that they were perfect and beautiful, and that their parents were the problem. He claimed to have a solution. “I never ever developed a sense of who I was and where I was going and what I wanted to do,” Patricia Krenwinkel, who killed for Manson, said recently from prison. “I wanted to please. I wanted to feel safe. To feel like someone was going to care for me. I hadn’t felt that from anyone else in my life.”
He seduced them, and convinced them that coupling up was toxic because no one belonged to anyone. No one belonged to anyone but Charlie, of course. Every ego he diminished he seemed to suck into himself. It’s human nature to look out for our own self-interest, it helps us survive. When someone convinces you to discard your ego in order to look after them, you don’t really give up that drive of self-interest, you just transfer it over to that person.
Charlie deepened this distortion of ego by calling himself both God and the Devil, by claiming to be the return of Jesus, and by telling everyone that death and life were the same. He told them individuality was a lie, and that nothing was bad. Society told us certain things were bad, but it all the same, he claimed. He’d emphasize his messages by dosing the group with LSD while he sermonized his points. High doses of LSD are known to create a sensation of “ego death,” or loss of a sense of self, and this further heightened Charlie’s power. In the case of The Family, however, ego death wasn’t just a mind-expanding experience, it was a constant state of being. He spun wild tales inspired by his own interpretation of Apocalyptic chaos. He told the Family they were the chosen ones who would survive an impending race war. The plan was to find a hole in the desert to a paradise underworld where they could transform into winged elves and drink from chocolate fountains. While underground, they would expand to 144,000 and wait until black people overthrew white people. Charlie said that once that happened, the Family would then emerge to rule the world.
Manson also knew to isolate his followers from outside influences, a key tactic for cult leaders. After living with Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson for a while, the Family eventually settled in abandoned old west movie set Spahn Ranch, but Charlie had his sights deeper in the desert. After the Tate-LaBianca murders, the family moved inside Death Valley Nation Park onto Barker Ranch, where they spent a lot of time scouting the arid land for The Hole to their underworld paradise.
When Susan “Sadie” Atkins bragged to her prison cellmates about being involved in the Tate-LaBianca murders, she claimed she stabbed Sharon Tate because she loved her. She thought Charles Manson was God and was leading her to a better world.
Susan, Pat Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and Tex Watson, the group convicted of the Tate-LaBianca crimes along with Manson, all later denounced their time with Charlie, and both Susan and Tex turned to born-again Christianity. During the trial, however, the girls were still under Charlie’s spell. They put on quite a show: singing on their way to the courtroom and performing on Charlie’s cue while there. Meanwhile, outside other Family girls would sit outside in protest, their palms turned upward. When Charlie cut an “X” in his forehead and shaved his head, the women followed suit.
The X, which Charlie later turned into a swastika was meant to represent the fact that the Family was “Xing” themselves out of society, branding themselves as other, as outside the “system.” What they didn’t realize was that they had only traded one system for another, more suffocating system, a system that truly and completely limited their free thought.
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