“Getting the Fear,” Manson called it—embracing the dry-mouthed jitters of sheer terror, riding that moment when your heart is thudding so hard it feels like something trapped inside your ribcage, trying to get out.
The golden road to expanded consciousness, Charlie told his flock in the summer of ’69, led straight through “the infinite plain of fear unto infinity.” What did he mean, exactly? The faithful wanted to know. “Well, I go into Malibu and I pick a rich house. I don’t steal, I walk into the house and the fear hits you like waves. It’s almost like walking on waves of fear.”
A nice turn of phrase, and an apt one, given Manson’s vision of himself as a con-man messiah—an L. Ron Hubbard for the Love Generation—and the setting: California, where the American Dream skids to a halt at the continent’s edge and surfers bob, existentially becalmed, waiting for the Perfect Wave.
Stroll brazenly into the brightly lit homes of the wealthy, Manson instructed “Squeaky” Fromme and “Sadie Mae” Atkins and the rest of the Family; the “rich piggies” would be too petrified to resist. “Do the unexpected. No sense makes sense. You won’t get caught if you don’t got thought in your head.” It’s the easiest thing in the world, he explained, to jimmy open one of those flimsy summer doors using, say, a credit card; to slit a screen with a knife and let yourself in.
As always, the girls took Charlie’s teachings to heart. Dressed in black, wearing homemade capes, they pried open windows in Malibu dream homes and “creepy crawled” through the rooms, as they called it, stoned immaculate on all that piggy fear, scooping up jewelry and furs. Then, they’d leave.
In the small hours of August 9, 1969, two of the girls, along with Tex Watson, creepy crawled into 10050 Cielo Drive. Everyone had a knife; for good measure, Watson came armed with a .22-caliber “Longhorn” pistol as well. Swaddled in the chaparral of Benedict Canyon, hidden away in a cul-de-sac, the Tate-Polanski mansion was remote from the city’s hum, despite its panoramic view of Beverly Hills. “Being secluded, it was also vulnerable,” note Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry in their heavy breathing account of the Manson murders, Helter Skelter. It was one of those hot California nights when the air thrums with silence. “You could almost hear the sound of the ice rattling in cocktail shakers in homes way down the canyon,” one of the killers recalled.
What happened next is part of the tabloid catechism that Americans of a certain age know by heart.
In August 1969, I was nine and living in San Diego’s South Bay, in the suburbs of Chula Vista. I have no idea if I heard horror stories about the Manson murders from my third-grade classmates—whisper-down-the-lane retellings of their parents’ veiled references to events in the headlines. There’s a chance I saw coverage of the killings on the nightly news, albeit a slim one, since my parents’ news diet was limited to our hometown paper. But the December, 1969 Time magazine cover (“The Love and Terror Cult: The Man Who Was Their Leader…The Charge of Multiple Murder…The Dark Edge of Hippie Life”) strikes sympathetic vibrations: who could forget Manson in mugshot black and white, giving the camera his best witchy stare with those off-kilter eyes, the left slightly higher than the right for maximum psycho-killer effect?
Growing up in Southern California, I knew the isolation of the cul-de-sac houses out on suburbia’s asteroid belt, where the night air was thick with the cloying smell of sage and wild fennel and the darkness echoed with the hiss of automatic sprinklers, stuttering across lawns. A man might scream, might run into his front yard and scream, as Wojtek Frykowski did that night on Cielo Drive, Oh, God, no, please don’t! Oh, God, no don’t, don’t, don’t…,and get nothing but echoes for an answer. (“Would you believe that he was screaming ‘Help, help,’ and nobody came?” Sadie Mae wondered aloud to a fellow inmate at the L.A. county jail for women.) I knew the mass-produced alienation of suburbia, where you could live your life in a tract home fit for a battery hen, your sixth of an acre flush against your neighbors’, yet never exchange much more than a nod of recognition as you pulled into your driveway and they out of theirs.
Whether or not I was aware of the Manson murders, the spreading stain of fear was seeping, in August 1969, under the locked doors of everyone’s consciousness. Rumors crackled through Hollywood’s bush telegraph, talk of ritual slayings, of corpses in black hoods, of Sharon Tate’s baby ripped from her womb, of sexual mutilation, of one of the Beautiful Peoples’ sadomasochistic orgies interrupted by the arrival of some uninvited Garbage People, as Charlie called his Family. Like Santa Ana winds whipping wildfires through arroyos, the media fanned fears to near-hysteria. “TV programs were interrupted for updates,” write Bugliosi and Gentry. “To the millions of Angelenos who commuted to work via the freeways their car radios seemed to broadcast little else.”
Locksmiths reported two-week backlogs; a Beverly Hills sporting goods store that had sold three or four firearms a day before the murders sold 200 within two days after them.
It was reported that Frank Sinatra was in hiding; that Mia Farrow wouldn’t attend her friend Sharon’s funeral because, a relative explained, “Mia is afraid she will be next”; …that Steve McQueen now kept a weapon under the front seat of his sports car; that Jerry Lewis had installed an alarm system complete with closed circuit TV. Connie Stevens later admitted she had turned her Beverly Hills home into a fortress. “Mainly because of the Sharon Tate murders. That scared the daylights out of everyone.”
Joan Didion, in her deadpan valedictory for the passing of ‘60s utopianism, “The White Album,” contemplates the death aura of the decade’s end from the safe remove of the late ‘70s. Using her improbable friendship with Linda Kasabian, “star witness for the prosecution in what was commonly known as the Manson Trial,” as a leitmotif, she puts the ‘60s on the couch, diagnosing the social pathologies and cultural neuroses of the era from a series of convulsions whose only common thread, at first glance, is their shared timeline, 1968: the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the nightmare at My Lai, the trial of Huey Newton, the murder of the silent-movie star Ramon Novarro by a couple of hustlers, the ugly mood at a Doors recording session, so thick you could cut it with a knife. (Speaking of which, why didn’t Manson take his cues from Doors records? A band dedicated to “anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, about activity that appears to have no meaning,” as Jim Morrison put it, would seem to be more in tune with Charlie’s acid-casualty theology and his Boschian visions of a world run amok than The Beatles’ all-you-need-is-love homilies.) “The jitters were setting in,” Didion wrote.
I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive…
For many of the people she knew, she says, the ‘60s ended at precisely that moment.
I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there, in the sense that none of us, at age nine, can truly be said to be anywhere outside our cranial vaults. But I do know that the Manson murders are among my only recovered memories, from the ‘60s, of the world outside home and head. I know, too, that the hair on my forearms always prickles when I read the passage in “The White Album” where Didion freeze-frames a floating world where everything was in flux, held up by a kind of existential surface tension, in her encounter with the stranger in her hallway.
It was a time, she writes, when she “knew where the sheets and towels were kept” but didn’t “always know who was sleeping in every bed.” (Is that why Sharon Tate’s houseguest, Abigail Folger, looked up from her book to smile bemusedly at the stranger passing her bedroom—Manson killer Sadie Mae, who smiled back? Because people came and went, talking of Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo, and who knew who was sleeping in what bed?) Didion had “a sharp apprehension,” in those days, “of what it was like to open the door to a stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have a knife.” People she didn’t know would bluff their way into her house. Some just invited themselves in, without knocking; there they were, in her entrance hall.
I recall asking one such stranger what he wanted. We looked at each other for what seemed a long time, and then he saw my husband on the stair landing. “Chicken Delight,” he said finally, but we had ordered no Chicken Delight, nor was he carrying any. I took the license number on his panel truck. … I put these license numbers in a dressing-table drawer where they could be found by the police when the time came.
That feeling—a premonitory sense of victimhood, of one day ending up a chalk outline, your last minutes narrated in the jargon of wound ballistics and spatter patterns—is part of the post-traumatic legacy of anyone who lived in or near L.A. during the Summer of Hate.
Of course it takes more than out-of-focus childhood memories to explain why I worry, most nights, that I forgot to lock a door or latch a window, a fear that tickles me until I double-check every lock and latch—a ritual that might seem obsessive-compulsive but is, in truth, an atheist’s way of crossing himself. Or why I sometimes find myself awake in the night, holding my breath, listening, listening as if my life depended on it. Or why, when I come home to an empty house, I’ve been known to pull the big, Norman Bates Signature Model chef’s knife from the knife block in the kitchen and creep from room to room, flinging open closet doors, peering under beds. I scan the beds and bureaus, not wanting to miss the telling detail, anything out of place. “Someone is coming in our house while we’re away,” one of the Manson Family victims, Rosemary LaBianca, had said. “Things have been gone through and the dogs are outside the house when they should be inside.”
The story I tell myself about my vulnerability, how fragile our jerry-built bulwarks against the random and the senseless really are—little more than lucky charms, if you think about it—is a gothic fiction with many authors: Manson, yes, but Didion no less, and Bugliosi’s 1974 account of the killings, and the 1976 made-for-TV movie Helter Skelter. Then, too, the isolation and alienation of the California suburbs played no small part in scripting my bad dreams, the worst of which always involve strangers who know how easy it is, on a hot summer night, to slit a screen and slip noiselessly in. (We had one of those silly sliding screens for a patio door, a rickety, unconvincing thing, just like the ones that yielded obligingly to Charlie.)
But it may have been In Cold Blood, all the more mythic for being true, that tripped the alarm in my unconscious. Unimaginably awful in its tawdry details, the slaughter of the Clutter family sewed the fear of home invasion in the American imagination. “The door was unlocked,” one of the killers, Perry Smith, told investigators. “A side door. It took us into Mr. Clutter’s office. Then we waited in the dark. Listening. But the only sound was the wind.”
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” is “The White Album”’s oracular opening line, written to be quoted. Didion elaborates: “We look…for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five,” five being the body count at the Tate-Polanski mansion that night. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
In the years just before her mind subsided into the murk of Alzheimer’s, my mother, who studied at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1962, started insisting she’d had a close encounter with the Boston Strangler. He’d killed someone in the very building where she shared an apartment with another girl, she claimed, a fellow art student named Lydia. No, no, he’d knocked on the door one night while she and Lydia waited, unmoving, unbreathing, their ears aching with the sound of him standing just outside the door until, at last, his footsteps creaked down the hall. With each re-telling, the Strangler came a little closer. In her last reworking of the theme before my mother’s mind sank into the weed-choked mire of dementia, the Strangler was throttling Lydia with her nylons while my mother hid, mad with terror, under her bed.
Did she build her fever dreams on even a fragment of fact? Did the Strangler strike somewhere nearby, if not in her building? Or was my mother’s fearful, coat-clutching insistence that Death had knocked on her door, then passed on, an intimation of mortality, or maybe a premonition of the onrushing darkness of Alzheimer’s? Or was it just one of those bottle rockets the mind sends up, a neurochemical farewell to the memories that make us who we are?
For whatever reason, it was a story she needed to tell herself.
We are the unreliable narrators of our lives.