Charles Manson: Master Manipulator, Even As A Child More than four decades after the cult leader planned nine vicious murders, he is still part of American culture. Jeff Guinn's new biography digs through details of Manson's troubled childhood, with access to family members and photos never reported on before.
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Charles Manson: Master Manipulator, Even As A Child

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Charles Manson: Master Manipulator, Even As A Child

Charles Manson: Master Manipulator, Even As A Child

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. In the summer of 1969, all eyes were on Los Angeles. Sharon Tate, a young movie star eight months pregnant, had been brutally murdered. A total of eight people had died on two nights, and the police said a cult was responsible.


UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #1: They called themselves The Family...

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #2: ...Followers arrested in the investigation of the murder of Sharon Tate and six others...

LYDEN: The leader of that cult was Charles Manson - charismatic, ruthless and manipulative. America was captivated by Manson, and by the young women who under his spell, had helped murder people they didn't even know. But more than four decades after the murders, there is still much that is murky about Charles Manson's life.

Jeff Guinn has spent many years digging into his past. His new biography is called "Manson: The Life And Times of Charles Manson," and he joins me from member station KERA in Dallas. Welcome to the program.

JEFF GUINN: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: You begin his story with an incredibly detailed look at his childhood. You had access to family members and photos which no one had ever had access to before. This boy - from the time he's able to verbalize, we see that something's wrong.

GUINN: It was amazing how the patterns of his later life were evident right away. Six years old - first grade - he's talking the girls in his class into beating up boys he doesn't like. Then, when the principal comes to ask Charlie, why did you do that? Charlie's response is, it wasn't me. They were doing what they wanted. You can't blame me for that - the exact, same defense he uses all those years later in the Tate-LaBianca trial.

LYDEN: You had a chance to speak to a cousin. You call her Jo Ann, in this book. I assume that's not her real name.

GUINN: I promised both Jo Ann and Manson's sister that I would not in any way describe them physically, where they lived; and I could only use their first names.

LYDEN: Right. Tell me - Jo Ann, she has misgivings, deep ones, about this child. Just tell me, how does his childhood contribute to who he becomes later?

GUINN: Jo Ann, who at this point in Manson's life has known him longer than anybody else, her first statement about Manson to me was, there was never anything happy about him, never anything good about him. From the time he moved into her house with her and her parents, he lied about everything. Jo Ann feels that everything about Manson that happened later, could not be a surprise to anyone who knew him as a child. And she said that to me over and over.

LYDEN: You also delve into his relationship with his mother, Kathleen. Can you tell me about that?

GUINN: Manson has lied about everything in his childhood every opportunity that he's had; and no one's ever really challenged him on it, though the record was there if you wanted to look far enough. He always claimed he was the child of an unwed teenage prostitute who tried to sell her baby once for a pitcher of beer.

In no way is that true. His mother was an incompetent robber who went to prison - when Charlie was 5 - for a couple years, for a spectacularly bungled attempted robbery. But there is no record anywhere that she was ever a prostitute, ever arrested. Thanks to finding Charlie's sister, we now know the mother's side. She tried desperately to help him, to keep him in school. She loved him. And to the end of her life, her heart ached for the things he did.

LYDEN: Once he gets out of the juvenile system, he tries for a few months to go straight - the only time in his life. He marries a teenage girl; he abandons her pretty quickly. And then he's out in California, following his mother. He's almost immediately at Terminal Island Penitentiary, in Los Angeles Harbor, for car theft and pimping. And that's where you say he begins to really learn the art of manipulation, from an unlikely source.

GUINN: Most of Charlie's instructions so far - in prison - had come from other pimps. Charlie wanted to know how to run whores more efficiently. But in this prison, he discovers a class, Dale Carnegie. The Dale Carnegie courses are being taught to prisoners, to help them adjust to the outside world. Later in life and in his trial, in his testimony, you hear people say over and over: Oh, it was like he could read my mind. He came and talked to me, and it was like he was immediately the friend I'd wanted and never had.

Every line he used, almost word for word, comes from a Dale Carnegie textbook, in a class "How to Win Friends and Influence People." He took something that was meant to be positive and uplifting, and turned it instead for his own, evil purposes. He always did that.

LYDEN: At 32 years old, he finally ends a really long string of prison sentences, and he's free to go back to the streets and start pimping again. He moved to the Bay Area; eventually, to Haight Street. It's the Summer of Love, 1967. You say that the culture, at that time, was almost the perfect laboratory for Charles Manson.

GUINN: In Haight-Ashbury, it's supposedly a place where if you just want peace and love, come here. Be brothers and sisters; share drugs, share sex; everything's wonderful. Manson immediately sees that the corner street gurus preaching philosophies attract all kinds of young, innocent followers who'll do anything they ask. Manson immediately begins cribbing a lot of their best lines. He remembers some of his Book of Revelation from his Nazarene upbringing; quotes The Beatles; and begins presenting himself as someone with all the answers.

LYDEN: You go into great detail about his relationship with the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson. What new things did you find out about Manson's place in the music culture of the time?

GUINN: By latching onto Dennis Wilson, Manson thought that gave him immediate entre into getting his ultimate dream - being signed to a recording contract, and getting to be a bigger star than The Beatles. The fact that Manson is very, very adequate - at best - as a songwriter and performer, has nothing to do with the fantasy that he built up. Charlie Manson had nothing that would make you notice him as a musician. He had great personality; he had charisma. But in a recording studio, where the music has to carry you, it wasn't there.

LYDEN: You know, Charles Manson will never get out of prison. But weirdly - and this book really emphasizes this - he is still a living part of our culture. You talk about kids who wear Manson T-shirts; about bands - many bands - who recorded parts of his songs, like Guns n' Roses. What on earth is the draw that Charles Manson has now?

GUINN: Since those terrible nights, August 1969, how many more horrific murders have we had in America? The media made so much of Manson, at the time. It was an era in America, and the world, where anything - good or bad - could happen. Men walked on the moon, the Mets won the pennant, Woodstock, and the Manson murders.

But the other thing is, I think Charlie would be modestly remembered, but mostly forgotten now, if he'd been executed, as was his original sentence. But the California courts overturned the death penalty. Just before his final arrest, he called the family together and explained to them, if he was ever arrested, he was going to put on his "crazy Charlie" act. And he has maintained the crazy Charlie act all these years since, and people have bought into it.

What may have happened - in all these 43 years since - is he's done it so long, he doesn't know the difference between that and himself anymore. But from the beginning, it was calculated. And you have to give the man credit, even though it's a disgusting sort of credit. It's worked.

LYDEN: That's Jeff Guinn. He is the author of "Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson." Jeff Guinn, thank you very much.

GUINN: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

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