During summer college breaks back in the mid-1980s, I did some work for my grandparents — the typical light home maintenance stuff on their place in La Cañada, California. My grandfather was on his last legs, his breath stolen by emphysema, which he earned with a heavy smoking habit in his younger days and by working with asbestos and god knows what-all building Liberty Ships in Long Beach harbor during World War II.
At lunch we’d sit at the kitchen table and I’d ask him questions about his ranching days and the move to L.A. during the Depression. These were just conversations, not interviews — and I neither recorded nor wrote anything down. Though I was a history major and a lifelong history nerd, I didn’t really think then of my grandpa’s life as part of history. I know. Youth is wasted on the young.
Sometimes the conversation wound down odd paths. I don’t know how we got on the subject of the Manson murders of August 8–10, 1969, but I recall the conversation vividly. Because the killings freaked my grandpa out — and he did not scare easy.
My friend Paul McNamee probably ain’t going to be too happy to see this piece. Commenting over at Frontier Partisans on Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, he expressed his…
“…disgust with the continued fascination & borderline glorification of serial killers. Manson was a piece of shit. Enough is enough.”
I get it. I truly do. Manson WAS a piece of shit — and nothing more than that. He wasn’t even exceptional as a “cult leader.” His purported charisma and the sway he held over his “Family” were just run-of-the mill psychological manipulation of the vulnerable.
There is something endlessly fascinating about the killings set against the cultural context of the times. It was context that made the killings so chilling to the likes of my grandfather. Part of it was that he either knew or knew someone who knew Leno LaBianca through the grocery business (I can’t remember which it was, but I think probably the latter). The slayings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were the second set of gruesome “Helter Skelter” murders, and are usually treated almost as a footnote to the slaughter of actress Sharon Tate and four others in Benedict Canyon the night before. A shocking murder that hits within a couple of degrees of separation is bound to shake anyone.
But what my grandpa told me was that the killings made him and my grandma and their friends feel vulnerable in a way they had never felt before. Things still felt “innocent” and “secure” for them back in 1969, despite all the social turmoil of the era. Really, for a whole lot of middle class people just working to make a living and provide a decent life for their family, “the Sixties” weren’t really a thing. My brother was in high school, too young for Vietnam; my older sister was married to an Air Force man, but he was stationed in England. There was just no real personal point of connection to all the sturm und drang. My grandparents lived in a nice suburb that had not yet become an enclave of the rich. It was an actual neighborhood. They left windows open on hot August nights (a child of the Depression, my grandpa refused to pay for air conditioning. The week after he died, my grandma installed a unit).
It would be several months before the Manson Family was fingered for the crimes of August 8–10. The sensational killings and all their bizarre and gruesome iconography made my folks and countless thousands just like them feel personally vulnerable. “They” — whoever they were — might just come into your home and carve you up. We like to think of the media “back then” as sober and responsible, but it was rife with speculation and stoked fear and hysteria. People — and not just freaked out movie stars — started sleeping with guns on the nightstand.
All of a sudden, the turmoil of the ’60s, which my people viewed through the TV screen but seldom encountered in the real world, felt very present and profoundly menacing. Is that kid with long hair hitch-hiking at the freeway on-ramp a killer? Who is that driving that beat up car down the street? What horror is going to happen next?
This was all going down at a very unsettled time for my family. In July, the birth of my sister had gone terribly wrong, and she was left with severe cerebral palsy. That event rocked my family’s world — and the aftershocks would rumble on for three decades to come. The world must have looked upside down that summer. Hell, the world WAS upside down.
While my family was insulated in what the counter culture would describe as a bourgeois bubble, tectonic shifts were going on across America and in L.A., a drug culture that would be rife in my own high school by the time I got there in 1981 was percolating out of the counter culture and into the mainstream. And, bubble or no bubble, my middle class, Nixon-supporting parents had for some years been deeply involved in a church that was “New Age” before that term was coined. It was a nominally Christian church that adopted and adapted a hodgepodge of Eastern religion and philosophy. Kooky California shit that was banging around the Golden State long before the 1960s.
1969 was just Maximum California Weirdness playing out in blood. Manson was an avatar of a variety of pretty commonplace cultural influences and obsessions — drugs, sex, pseudo-religious self-actualization cons, “revolution,” all rolled up, lit on fire and inhaled in combination with the ultimate L.A. drug — the deepest belief that somehow, someway, if you can just get in front of the right person at the right time, you can be a STAR. As Karina Longworth notes in her outstanding podcast series Charles Manson’s Hollywood:
“…certain that Fame and Fortune are his Destiny, he arrives in Los Angeles in late 1967 at a time when the very idea of who was going to get to be famous was beginning to be redefined — and he still couldn’t find purchase in a community which, for all of its countercultural indulgences and lip service to tearing down the system, was still elitist, still essentially run by rich old guys and the kids of famous people. When the celebrities he rubbed shoulders with, hoping for an entree into the elites, ultimately declined to open those doors, Manson declared war on what he called — after The Beatles — ‘Piggies,’ advocating for the redistribution of their wealth by any means necessary.”
The gruesome events of August 8–10, 1969, are often tolled out as “the end of the Sixties.” You can take your pick of end points. Altamont in December 1969? The landslide reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972? Watergate in 1974? The final evacuation and fall of Saigon in 1975? Such punctuation is inevitably somewhat arbitrary and inadequate. This much seems clear, at least from the standpoint of my people: What happened on August 8–10, 1969, shook the sense of security that middle class Angelenos (and maybe Americans writ large) had retained through the weird and wild times of the 1960s. Whether “the Sixties” ended then or not, a certain sense of the world did. Open windows and unlocked doors seemed mighty risky. Long hair and rock music wasn’t just distasteful — it was downright sinister. It may be putting too much weight on a single episode, but the way the killings went down — and the way they would continue to be obsessively recounted for another two decades and more — pushed a wedge into cultural faultlines that had already cracked open around Vietnam, the sexual revolution and a broad culture clash. It raised the stakes. They weren’t just rebelling — they were murdering us.
Those faultlines still remain 50 years down the line, and no number of security cameras can quite relieve the fear instilled — just as that piece of shit had wanted.