Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
October, 1975  Bantam Books

I’m not sure how I’ve gone this long without reading Helter Skelter; supposedly it’s the best-selling True Crime book of all time, and it certainly had a landmark effect upon the reading public when it was first published in hardcover in 1974. Hell, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen the famous TV movie adaptation, but then I was only two years old when it came out in 1976, so I was a little outside the target audience. That said, I do recall seeing the beginning of it on TV sometime in the late ‘90s, landing on the channel right when the guy sees the corpses in the opening scene and then rushes off to puke; my buddy Ken quipped that a stagehand probably handed the actor a milkshake off-camera as he rushed by, so he could spit it out and feign puking. 

Well anyway let’s get back on track. I read The Family a few months ago – right during Christmas in fact! – and it really whetted my appetite for more Manson Family fun. Seriously though, there is some humor in prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s and co-writer Curt Gentry’s Helter Skelter, but it’s always very subtle, and nothing on the narratorial eye-rolling level of Ed Sanders (“ooo-eee-ooo” and such). But I was very happy to discover that there’s hardly any overlap between the two books; Sanders covers a wealth of material not here, and vice versa. And in fact I’d say reading The Family first, as I did, might even work better, as Sanders starts from the beginning of Manson’s criminal life and goes up to the Tate-Labianca murder trial (which isn’t even covered), while Bugliosi starts with the murders and then flashes back, before spending the majority of the text on the trial. 

This is because Bugliosi was the prosecutor on the case, and thus was in a better position than anyone to write the final word on Charles Manson and his fucked-up followers. And clearly he invested himself in the project; there is, as others have commented, an air of arrogance about Bugliosi’s narrative, with Bugliosi constantly right and others constantly wrong, but to tell the truth I didn’t mind it one bit. Indeed, it gives Helter Skelter a bit of a pulp vibe, with Vincent Bugliosi the crusader for justice and Manson his satanic archenemy, with the bumbling cops constantly getting in Bugliosi’s way. 

Bugliosi’s “arrogance” mostly arises over the incessant mistakes made by the LAPD. Perhaps in the mid 1970s it might have seemed surprising or hard to believe that “experts” could constantly make mistakes, but personally I found it one of many instances in which Bugliosi was ahead of his time. For, if we have learned nothing else in these past four years, it’s that “the experts” seldom know what the fuck they are talking about. It’s especially prescient in the parts concerning two different coroners working on the murders; one of them is so dense he keeps refuting his own findings when he’s up on the stand, only for Bugliosi to have to bring out the doctor’s own notes to show him what he’d originally stated. As for the detectives working the case, they’re either forgetful, stupid, or just plain have no idea what to do – possibly all of the above. 

The impression conveyed is that Bugliosi himself was the only person who “got” the case, who kept everything moving, who kept all the notes and kept track of everything. Who understood that “Helter Skelter” was Charles Manson’s philosopy of a race war armageddon, and the Tate-LaBianca (and other) murders were his way of kickstarting this armageddon. And who succeeded in convincing a jury of Manson’s guilt. But again, all this gives Helter Skelter a pulp vibe, which I really enjoyed; Bugliosi the criminologist who butts heads with the authorities in his determined pursuit of justice. If there is a hero in the Manson story, it would be Bugliosi – or Linda Kasabian, the Family member who turned against Manson on the witness stand. But then, Kasabian is herself the source of endless conspiracy conjecture, in particular that it was she who concoted the Tate murders, given that she was running a drug ring on the side with Charles “Tex” Watson (ie the guy who did most of the murdering at Tate and LaBianca). 

Even here it’s as if Bugliosi predicts the future detractors of the Helter Skelter narrative; he takes us through Linda Kasabian’s testimony, telling us at the end that she’s been on the stand for eighteen days, not once stumbling over her story, not once outted as a liar in cross examination. Bugliosi also admits she’s not the perfect little girl next door, and that she had her own issues with the law pre-Manson. But he also makes clear she is not a murderer, and that she’s the bravest of the lot because she turns on Manson. Bugliosi even takes apart the “Linda planned it” conspiracy theory in the final pages of Helter Skelter, and also skewers the “copycat murder” theory – most notably wondering how, if it was what really happened, why it wasn’t even brought up until the penalty phase of the trial, after Manson and his ilk were found guilty! And as Bugliosi also notes, the “copycat” idea was first floated in a Rolling Stone article by David Felton and David Dalton. Bugliosi makes a clear case that the “copycat killer” narrative had its origin in this very article, which took up practically the entirety of the June 25, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone. Titled “Year Of The Fork, Night Of The Hunter,” the article was collected in two 1972 paperbacks: The Age Of Paranoia, credited to The Editors Of Rolling Stone and published by Pocket Books, and in the memorably-titled (and scarce) Mindfuckers (review forthcoming), edited by David Felton and published by Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow imprint. 

To get back to my original point, though, there really isn’t much overlap between Sanders’s and Bugliosi’s books. Sanders almost pedantically covers the daily activities of the Family, throwing us into it with a multitude of characters with countless aliases, to the point that the reader is both confused and annoyed. He also focuses a lot on the roots of Manson’s philosopy, from Scientology to Stranger In A Strange Land to the Process. Hell, even a Satanic cult that drinks dog blood factors into the mix. Bugliosi doesn’t concern himself as much with explaining why Manson came to be, and in fact the Process stuff isn’t even broached until the final pages. To Bugliosi it’s all much more simple to explain: Manson was a depraved sadist who used prison psychology and psychedelic drugs to control easily-influenced youth, with the additional note that these youth themselves were already predisposed to violence and crime. 

When I read The Family I enjoyed it, though I got a bit fatigued toward the end. I had a suspicion that I’d enjoy Bugliosi’s book more. And that certainly turned out to be the case; no disrespect to Ed Sanders’s book, which is a fine read, but Helter Skelter is in a different league. It is masterfully told, Bugliosi and Gentry taking you through the long, twisting story with the pace never lagging. It is also structured differently than Sanders’s book; instead of starting at the beginning, Helter Skelter features a memorable opening set on the morning after the murders, with the discovery of the bodies and the ensuing panic and confusion. The reader is hooked from the first sentence: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.” The first quarter of the book retains this tone, reading almost like a crime novel. 

Then Bugliosi himself enters the narrative, apologizing to us for his sudden intrusion. This is because Bugliosi becomes part of the story, chosen seemingly at random to be the DA to prosecute the killers. At this point the second brunt of the narrative occurs, detailing how the murders occurred, how the Manson Family was finally tabbed as the perpetrators. And then the main portion of the text concerns the eight-month trial that ensued, Helter Skelter at this point becoming a legal thriller with a bird’s eye view of one of the biggest trials in “the annals of crime.” 

At 676 pages of small, dense print, Helter Skelter is not a quick read by any means. The cumulative effect is that the reader feels as if he has been as immersed in Manson’s world as Vincent Bugliosi was. And unlike Sanders’s The Family, which ran to only a little over 400 pages, at no point does the narrative become overwhelming. Bugliosi, who made a career of breaking information down for a jury to understand (and act upon), masterfully demonstrates his technique in the narrative. The only thing Sanders was better at was in the capturing of time and place, but then Sanders was part of the counterculture, whereas Bugliosi was not. Despite which, there is no indication of judgment or condemnation in Helter Skelter, other than of the murders, of course. The concept that Vincent Bugliosi was a staunch member of the establishment, sneering at these hippie types, is quickly dashed when one actually reads the book. 

Speaking of actually reading Helter Skelter: I mentioned in my review of The Family that while reading it I’d find myself going down various rabbit holes of research. As hard as it is to believe, there are still conspiracy theories about the Tate-LaBianca murders; I guess I first learned this when I read Maury Terry’s The Ultimate Evil (1987) about a decade ago. And today there are blogs and websites that will tell you, with nothing but conjecture, that the Tate-LaBianca killings were in retaliation for a drug burn, or that the killings were really “copycat murders” to get an imprisoned Family member out of jail, or that the entire thing was an MK-Ultra project courtesy the government. (Granted, the people who tell you MK-Ultra was involved will also tell you the Moon Landing was staged.) 

The funny thing is, Helter Skelter takes on the majority of these alternate theories…and knocks them down, one by one. Of course, the modern sentiment is that Bugliosi was a prosecutor with a narrative he was trying to push (ie, that Helter Skelter was the reason behind the murders)…and yet, this guy spent years of his life on this case, fully committed to it, going to the locations and actually speaking to the killers, which is more than you can say about some guy who runs a Manson blog. All of which is to say, I take Bugliosi’s word as the final word on this topic; his “helter skelter” argument, while nuts, makes more sense than any of the other theories, all of which fall apart when prodded a little. And remember, Manson himself was fond of saying “no sense makes sense,” hence trying to figure out why the Tate and LaBianca homes were chosen might be a fool’s quest. That said, Bugliosi’s conjecture makes more sense than anything else: Sharon Tate was living in a house once occupied by producer Terry Melcher, and while Manson knew Melcher no longer lived there (Bugliosi also recounts how Manson visited the property twice while Tate lived there), it’s likely he wanted to send a message to Melcher, as Manson had a grudge with Melcher over a potential recording contract. As for the LaBiancas, they had the misfortune of living across the street from a house where the Manson Family would often hang out the year before. 

But just to look at a few of these conspiracy theories. For one, when I read The Family I shared Ed Sanders’s suspicions about the young groundskeeper at the Tate estate, William Garretson. This is the guy who was mere yards away from the murders as they went down, yet claimed to have neither heard nor saw anything. Sanders muses that he might’ve been hypnotized, and on one of those aforementioned blogs I saw a post that stated, without a shred of supporting evidence, that Garretson had gotten his job because he was a boytoy of Rudy Altobelli, owner of the Tate property. And further, Garretson had just had sex with young Steven Parent, the 18 year-old who was murdered for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time (the official story being that he’d shown up late at night to try to sell Garretson a ball clock radio). According to this post, Parent had really come over to Garretson’s place for a late-night fling, and was on his way home when he ran into the killers. 

And yet in Helter Skelter we are told that Garretson was polygraphed extensively by the LAPD, and one of the questions he was asked was whether he’d ever had sex with any of the victims. Garretson answered “no,” and he passed the goddamn test. This is what I mean when I say Helter Skelter constantly skewers any alternate theories. Not only that, but we are told that the LAPD also extensively researched Garretson’s story about not hearing any screams the night of the murders; a cop happened to notice what volume Garretson’s stereo was at the morning after the killings, and sound specialists went in there one night and played the stereo at that volume while others off in the Tate house screamed and tried to replicate the night of the murders. (Boy, sounds like a fun night’s work, doesn’t it?) And here too Garretson’s story passed muster; the experts proved that you could not hear screams and such in Garretson’s house, no doubt given the tricky way sound played there in the canyon. 

Bugliosi even goes back to Garretson much later in the book, briefly detailing his time on the stand during the trial. Again his story is cleared. And yet a stigma hangs over him even to this day (he died in 2016, so isn’t around to defend himself), courtesy conspiracy theories that started with Ed Sanders and others. Conspiracy theories like that Sharon Tate and her friends were into the occult, hence the “hood” that was found over Jay Sebring’s face, and also several more hoods that were found in the loft above the living room – this material, also originating in Sanders’s book, was a particular source of conjecture in Maury Terry’s The Ultimate Evil

And yet even here the alternate theory is shot; while never mentioning Sanders by name, Bugliosi sarcastically refers to “a writer” who made up those hoods whole-cloth, as there were no such things found in the Tate home. Nor – again disproving Sanders’s musings – were there any sex films or orgy movies, other that is than a brief film showing Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski having sex. (A film, Bugliosi tells us, that the LAPD respectfully put right back where they found it after their search.) As for the “hood” on Sebring’s corpse – itself the source of more “satanic mafia” conjecture – Bugliosi explains that as well: it was a towel, not a hood, and it was thrown there by murderer Susan “Sadie Glutz” Atkins, who wrote “Pig” in blood on the door with the towel and then tossed it behind her on the way out, not looking to see where it landed. 

Stuff like this is just an indication of how successfully we readers are pulled into the story; Bugliosi treats us as if we are the jury, giving us all kinds of information that was never made available to the public. (Given that this book was published in 1974 and Manson Family conspiracy theories still linger, one wonders if those conspiracy theorists have even ever read Helter Skelter.) There’s a part in the book where Bugliosi reveals how President Nixon made an errant comment that Manson was guilty, while the trial was still underway, and Bugliosi suspects that, if the sequestered jury had even heard the comment, they would’ve been offended because Nixon had taken away their decision. Having handled so many trials, Bugliosi is aware that jurors soon relish being part of the proceedings, privy to information the outside world doesn’t know. I found this a very astute observation, as I somewhat felt this way when called as a juror in a Federal criminal trial last year – it was like being pulled into a completely alien world, one where I was treated with great importance and expected to make the final decision. 

Unlike Sanders, where the tide of multiple-named Family members soon became overwhelming, as did their peripatetic wanderings, the story here unfolds with an almost relentless pace; evocative scene-setting in the opening quarter (the discovery of the corpses is especially well-handled…as is the darkly comic ineptness of the LAPD in mishandling the evidence), and the “good vs evil” motif of the trial is also entertaining and constantly gripping. And while Bugliosi clearly sees Manson as a force of evil – the Epilogue is essentially a condemnation of him as a modern Hitler – from the vantage point of fifty-plus years on I have to say Charles Manson comes off more like a buffoon than anything else. 

Maybe in 1974, with the fear of more Tate-LaBianca-style murders in the dead of night (Bugliosi often scares us by noting various Family members who have a proclivity to kill…and then warning us that they’re “still out there”), Manson might have seemed like a supernatural force of evil. Indeed, The Cult Of Killers was about this very concept. Seen from the modern perspective, however, Manson doesn’t so much seem malicious as he does a guy who relishes his brief moment in the national spotlight. The trial is the best indication of this, with Manson and his three female followers looking like fools as they throw tantrums in court, or talk about how Manson might be the reincarnation of Christ, and so on. That anyone took them seriously is yet another indication of how, despite the drugs and stuff, the ‘60s were just a more innocent time. 

Bugliosi himself feels no fear – though he frequently reminds us that he had reason to be scared – and indeed there are some funny parts where he has interractions with female Family members, calling two of them a “bitch” in confrontations. He also “raps” often with Manson during the trial, and, at least insofar as the text goes, Bugliosi displays how there was a respectful rivalry between the two of them, with another humorous part at the end where Manson himself has to defend Bugliosi in court, given that Manson asked to talk to Bugliosi after the trial and the defense lawyers thought it might be a breach. It’s curious, though, because when Manson does interract with Bugliosi in the book, he comes off as a harmless befuddled hippie, not the malevolent mastermind of the Helter Skelter plot…but then, that was probably inentional. Bugliosi also astutely notes how Manson could turn himself off and on, how he could be a different person for different audiences – particularly when there were cameras around. Or when impressionable, acid-fried young women and men were around. 

Also unlike in The Family the characters here are memorable, and Bugliosi actually does Manson a service by keeping him off-page for the majority. This gives Charles Manson even more of an “evil mastermind” persona, again no doubt intentionally; it’s his true-blue female believers Bugliosi most encounters, in particular future would-be Presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme. (An act which occurred after publication of the book, though Bugliosi again sees the future by stating in the Epilogue how Squeaky is more than capable of evil, and is “still out there”). Bugliosi also seems a little taken with Susan Atkins aka Sadie Glutz, the former topless dancer who nonchalantly talked on the witness stand about stabbing Sharon Tate until she stopped screaming, and then turned “snitch” on Manson. And then changed her mind, to be condemned to death with the others. I got a chuckle out of Bugliosi’s random comment that most of Manson’s girls were flat-chested…except for Sadie, of course. 

As with his comments on Squeaky, Bugliosi demonstrates a strange prescience when discussing Leslie Van Houten. Given less narrative space than the other killers in Helter Skelter, Van Houten is ultimately portrayed as a spoiled rich girl with little concern for others. However, Bugliosi notes when quoting prison psych evals, Van Houten was “less devoted” to Manson than the other killers, and there was question of what exactly she did on the LaBianca killing (she wasn’t part of the Tate group): from her own account Van Houten “stabbed” Rosemary LaBianca, but was Rosemary already dead? There is a sort of question mark hanging over Leslie Van Houten in Helter Skelter, as if Bugliosi is unsure how to feel about her…which makes it interesting that Van Houten is the only one of the killers who is now free (released from prison in 2023). But then, Bugliosi also notes that Van Houten’s lawyer was better than the other defense lawyers. 

The other benefit of reading Helter Skelter so long after publication is to see how everything panned out – given that the death sentences were commuted to life per California Supreme Court decree, Bugliosi speculates that Manson and the others will be eligible for parole in seven years, and further speculates that while Manson might not get out, the girls probably would in twenty or thirty years. But it turns out that “life” really meant life, at least for Susan Atkins (who died of brain cancer in prison in 2009) and Manson himself (who died of natural causes in prison in 2017). This only leaves Patricia Krenwinkel and Tex Watson, and given the savagery of their actions those nights I doubt either will ever be released from prison. Speaking of Tex I was very surprised to learn he was from nearby Denton, Texas. And Linda Kasabian had one of the sadder fates, essentially disappearing from public view before appearing in a few Manson docs in the late 2000s, ultimately dying penniless in 2023. 

It’s a credit to Bugliosi that he even got Manson and his followers convicted, as Bugliosi didn’t receive much help from the cops. Again the idea that “the experts” know what they are doing is put to the test as we read how evidence was overlooked, misplaced, or not even properly gathered – Bugliosi is particularly vexed that one of the techs failed to take blood samples from all of the pools of blood at the Tate residence, merely assuming they were from the same victim. Of course this has only served to inspire more conspiracy theory conjecture today. Speaking of which, another angle Ed Sanders mused upon was that Sharon Tate’s body was moved post-mortem, but not by her killers, intimating that Manson came back later to do so. None of that is mentioned here, and in fact we are told that the killers did indeed have rope with them, in the hopes of hanging their prey from rafters, thus bringing to life one of Manson’s Helter Skelter maxims. Bugliosi also refers frequently to the mysterious pair of glasses left at the scene, but this is another non-mystery, given comments Sadie made to an inmate that none of the killers wore glasses. 

I didn’t think I’d be as interested in the trial material, but it turned out to be just as fascinating as everything else – though admitedly I enjoyed the opening sequence of the book the most, with its brutal documentation of the discovery of the corpses, up to the capture of Manson and the killers. I almost wish the entire book had been like that. But then, Bugliosi as mentioned becomes part of the story itself, and to be honest once he was the protagonist of the book I could barely remember him not being in the book. He successfully brings you into the story, and I didn’t think he was arrogant so much as he was convinced of how right he was…and again, there’s a lot of subtle humor throughout, as he essentially bangs his head against the wall when confronted by errant stupidity, most notably by the blustering delay tactics of one of the defense attorneys. 

Again, this is not a quick read. It took me about a month to read Helter Skelter, but then I was reading other books at the same time. Well, not at the same time, but you know what I mean. I kind of wanted to savor the experience because I enjoyed it so much. And more than Sanders, Bugliosi brings home the loss of the victims; I was especially moved by his closing argument in the trial: “Sharon Tate…Abigail Folger…Voytek Frykowski…Jay Sebring…Steven Parent…Leno LaBianca…Rosemary LaBianca…are not here with us now in this courtroom, but from their graves they cry out for justice.” Helter Skelter is the enthralling account of how Vincent Bugliosi got them that justice. If like me you’ve gone this long without reading it – well, read it now! I loved it, and will probably read it again someday.


Baron Greystone said...

I read Helter Skelter a good long time ago, but I still get a chill thinking about it. An excellent book. I won't say it's a "must-read," but it's extremely powerful.

REX said...

Have you read Jeff Guinn's bio of Manson. Really like his works, and he definitely does't think much of Bugliosi. Paints him pretty convincingly as a self-aggrandizing ego who practically fabricated the Helter Skelter motive as a way of roping Manson in on conspiracy.

The TV movie's well worth watching, too, if you can find it.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments! Rex, I have not read Guinn's bio, but coincidentally I did just see him last week on a "Dateline: Secrets Uncovered" TV special on Manson -- he was one of the people interviewed for the show. He certainly seemed knowledgeable and I noticed that the "copycat killer" angle was floated WITH the "helter skelter" angle. Bugliosi only appeared in older clips given that he also passed away a few years ago. I can see why he was successful on the case because he convinced me on the motive...but it is curious that so many alternate theories have persisted. That Dateline episode also featured an interview with a guy who was roommates with murder victim Gary Hinman, back when Manson and family would come over to party with Hinman...apparently it was this guy's first-ever TV interview. He also brought up the copycat idea, saying that the family had been watching an old James Cagney movie on TV and took the idea from there!

REX said...

Also, this is a weird time capsule of the '70s. Bugliosi being Bugliosi and some ancillary members of the Family being weird.