23 October 2017

Helter Skelter Book Club: Week 4

I was so excited to find out that our Forest City Murderino True Crime Book Club was doing Helter Skelter as the same time as the Bibliotaphs Book Club. Yay! Perfect time for a crossover, so here I am. My name is Vanessa Brown and I co-own Brown & Dickson Booksellers on Richmond Row in London, Ontario with my husband Jason Dickson. We host offline book clubs in our shop at no charge. If any London Bibliotaphs ever want to meet up in person, let me know! You can find us at www.brownanddickson.com

London Booksellers Vanessa and Jason of Brown & Dickson

Anyway, up until this point, I'd found Helter Skelter to be kind of clinical and relatively boring. That's probably because I knew a lot about the case. I watched a couple documentaries, including the 1973 'Manson' that contains footage of the Family still on the Spahn Ranch before the trial ended. Also, the podcast 'You Must Remember This' episodes on Charles Manson's Hollywood were packed with information and jumped right to the action. Reflecting on that, I think my non-plussed response to Helter Skelter was due to a lack of narrative structure. I mean, I get why Bugliosi had to layout the crime for us at some point.  However, I really couldn't wait to meet the character of Manson and have the players mapped out for me. Who is a good guy? Who is a bad guy? Who am I rooting for? 

Finally, we have our hero. Bugliosi brings himself into the story as protagonist and we are in real time. Further flashbooks in the book will fill in the gaps, but we'll find out about them as Bugliosi does. My reading speed increased a lot when I hit this section. Suddenly the clinical tone made sense. I realized that the style that I'd found so boring in the first part was now totally compelling. This is Bugliosi's voice. He's just that guy. 

The moment when the book really came alive for me was when we meet George Spahn. We walk into that fly-filled stinky room with Bugliosi and look the old man in the face. All my senses were invigorated as I read his description of that shack. I will also never forget the moment when Pursell finds Manson, hiding in a cupboard, lit only by candlelight. When he signs himself in with the police as Jesus Christ, I thought, "Holy shit. This guy really is insane." 

And no wonder. His life story is heartbreaking. Bugliosi takes us step by through step as we watch Manson move from dysfunctional childhood to monstrous adulthood. I have no pity for Charlie, but I do have the sense to see that he was only partly born and mostly made into a murderous cult leader. Every chance he has for redemption, he makes the wrong choice. It's like he's an active participant in life giving him the shaft, adopting all the knowledge he'd need to lead people astray, while eating up his lot in life with a badly tarnished spoon. He's bitter. Like Roger Elliot, he feels like life owes him something and he's been ripped off. He's the martyr, and he's going to take the power he feels he deserves. The abuses he suffered become the very tools he uses to brainwash his followers. He knows what it's like to be torn down because he has been torn down. He has, presumably, been sexually abused, told he is worthless, had his sense of self eaten away at. Charles Manson can't even be himself anymore. He doesn't know who that is. Instead, he is this character of a Messiah he has invented to replace the rock star that couldn't be. 

To me, the book could have started here, when Bugliosi gets the case. I think I would have preferred that, and seen the crime scene in flashback. This is where the story really begins. 


  1. Thanks so much for posting this week! I really agree with your last statement about starting the book with him getting the case and going back to the crime scene through flashbacks. I also agree with not really pitying him but also understanding there is a back story which helped shape him into the horrible person he is now.
    I was also very creeped out by how physically small they describe him as. You think of him or anyone this monstrous as physically dominating, but that isn’t the case here.
    It was a bit jarring to me as a reader when Bugliosi suddenly goes full
    Blown first person, but I do usually enjoy reading from that perspective so we will see how it goes!

    1. I also thought it was awkward when we shifted to first person suddenly. I forgot almost that the author was also the lawyer.

      I was really pumped for all this backstory on Manson but I actually found it quite boring. Did anyone else have pictures in this section though??? Because I did and they are awesome! The one famous photo of Manson that was on the cover of life is in there and apparently Squeaky goes "Charlie made the cover of Life!!!" which I think shows how fucked they are, because it was for being a mass murderer.

      Does anyone else find it weird how Bugliosi continues to capitalize "Family"? What is this about?

      I was interested in what Bugliosi said about himself as an attorney, and how he was looking for justice, not convictions, and therefore gets really involved in the investigations. I think this is insanely cool. It's amazing how lawyers, maybe even more than any other profession, devote years of their lives to their job. He had to walk around with 24hr security...

      I really want to watch that 1973 documentary now. Very excited.

    2. I definitely found the start of this section a little bland. The come-up of lawyers is typically pretty boring and certainly not as lively as something like How To Get Away With Murder might paint it. However, I did appreciate Bugliosi's attempt to demythologize the long-standing conception that lawyers are only after convictions (or acquittals, for defence attorneys). I know that there is truth to this in part, but certainly not to the degree that most believe. Solid effort by Bugliosi in that regard, though.

      Given Manson's heart-breaking upbringing as Bugliosi describes it, I wonder how much of these experiences he used to relate to the members of his so-called family later in life? Based on my previous entries, I think it's clear how interested I am to know what tactics he's used to motivate his followers to do everything he did. I know it's bound to religious fanaticism that was pushed on him by his grandmother, but I would like to know so much more about what he said to motivate and "inspire" to kill. Or rather, maybe more so what made him so believable and charismatic to this followers. And even years later, I believe he still has people devoted to him.

      Also, that photo of him from Life magazine? That gives me the CREEEEEPS! Every time I think of Charles Manson, I think of that fucking photo. The frenzied look on his face gives me chills. Also, low-key looks like Sirius Black in the wanted posters from the third Harry Potter movie. Just sayin'.

      Anyhow, I'm enjoying the detailed journey that Bugliosi takes us on. It's clinical and meticulous, and I love that he doesn't miss a beat about his own discoveries. Thanks for taking this past week, Vanessa & Jason!