All You Need: The Summer of Love and the Manson Family Murders

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The Summer of Love makes me queasy. I’m stuck on the swastika-ed Manson girls singing psalms on the LA courthouse steps while the press, the pigs, and Mainstream America everywhere sighs in ecstatic horror at these small-town girls on the TV news—how it stuns and knots my errant heart.

Not that I’m an expert on why the Summer of Love ended or anything. I’ve learned everything I know about that time from Tibetan trinket shops and Jerry Garcia ties. I’m just struck by the faith that says, the object of my love is divine, and I’m enforced and emboldened to protect my tribe: I shalt not kill except for those I love.

And I can’t stop thinking about the murderers on the way to their trial—braless, arms linked and heads thrust high to better belt out lullabies, their pig-tailed hair and girl-next-door-eyes shocking the squares. Three girls whose complete devotion exposed what the folks at home suspected about the free-love mouthwash all along. Those three who stepped into blood, death, and knives for the man who picked them up from the lost highways of their youth, held them tight in front of a mirror, and said, “See yourselves as I see you…”

Put your head into his lap, wash his feet with your hair; we all know that dark kernels grow in the pit of love, and that soon enough we’ll feel the undertow tug when we gaze into our lover’s eyes.

Back before the ’60s, it took diamond promises to unlock the chambers of the heart, and I want to believe in the logic that says war is over, and that it would do more for your fellow man to give a little bit of your heart than direct them to the open arms of the machine. I want to believe that only the weak and troubled among us follow love to where it should not lead, and that we can safely lock away the Manson Family. But no matter which guru you tend, there will come a day where you will find yourself on your hands and knees on the wrong side of the line, bent against the pull of love’s insanity, even if you try to be someone that loves like a pat on the back, protected from the edges by a stalwart compass, shining silver bright against the evil eye.

 

Like the girl that popped up thirty years later, still defending him. Although she was not a girl by then, with her graying curls and fleece sweater that made her look like she could blend into living-room furniture. The TV man who took her call did not know who she was or what she had been and hung up on her when she would not stop interrupting him.

“I am standing for what we all believed,” she said. “The whole reality of what happened has been covered up for twenty-five years with lies.”

Imagine her, Manson’s last disciple proselytizing myths that the rest of the Family abandoned decades earlier. This matron cloaked in late middle-aged invisibility who would have been left behind with all the other mothers in the ‘60s, whom Manson would have never cared about then or seen, even if she had shouted into his ear, “Charlie, it’s me!”

How that sends me scrabbling after blind spots that I cannot see. For who hasn’t pursued the wrong dreams, laid the bricks of their identity with memory, caulked the gaps with fantasy?

Blue, Manson called her. For the sky, for stormy weather, for the color most sought after.

Blue, who clutched at happiness though it was a wound that blistered and bled. Blue, who worshiped at the altar of her image in another’s eye until life left her afloat in an era that did not care and in an America that would not call her back as she begged anyone to believe in the stories of her youth. Blue: once found, forever discarded.

Maybe there are just some among us who should not be loved. They simply can’t be trusted with it. They’re too desperate for love, too lamblike for love, too lonely for love. They will shave their heads for it, defecate on apartment building steps for it, stab a woman’s womb for it. They will leave their family behind for it, forget their friends for it, change their hopes and dreams for it. They will mistake their loved ones for saviors and find salvation in their smiles.

Love? Keep Blue away from it until she can pass the test: do you like who you are?

But of course she would never pass. Neither would you, or me.

 

Not that I don’t get it; at six I began to believe there would be a man at the end of every storyline. Until he found me I dreamed about him, about the spark of eye contact that would mute a crowded room, the touch on the wrist that would make a packed subway fade. Embraces that would blot out the sun. Dreams of annihilation, the world cast into darkness by the illumination of our love.

A schoolgirl’s daydreams, I know. But then on a summer eve I followed one of those songs that play at the beginning of peace, love, and rock and roll documentaries to a campfire beneath giant trees. A man sat among the chorus with his head bowed to the flames. When he looked at me, I felt the flint of an arrow’s tip dig into my chest and I knew it was he—the man I would spend years trying to forget, though we hadn’t even met.

Close your eyes to others needs, escape into his sovereignty. Let the rest of the world recede, become the sound of the sea pulsing beneath your heartbeats. For we all know that separation is the consequence of unity, division the fallout of love.

I was lucky: all he ever asked was for me to fall at his feet, to offer him my heart cupped in the palms of my hands.

 

But back to Blue. Blue and her dark knight of the ‘60s. I keep thinking how lucky it was for her that he was incarcerated, enshrined behind bars and barbed wire. Her love for him was not eroded by reality, subjected to the daily wear and tear of bumping up against another human being’s mundanity. She could keep Charlie preserved as she wanted him to be, in a locket that thumped against her heart continuously.

And, of course, I think how lucky she was to not be there the night when his other devotees proved themselves to him. She didn’t have to listen to someone beg her for a mercy she would not give; she didn’t have to witness the moment when the person she was killing realized no one was coming to help or save them; she didn’t destroy something that was not hers to break. She did not dip her fingers in blood and misspell nonsense upon a wall and then have to stare at the words every night of every year that followed with an ever-tightening awareness that they were her only accurate reflection, the only true mirror to her soul.

But I bet Blue wishes she had been there. This girl of idle fancies, this woman with her Disney princess dreams. I bet as she sits alone before the flicker of the TV some part of her dreams that she walked with them those August nights, or that she had been in the car, a Spartan following her man into battle instead of the sad, run-down Penelope she came to be.

“He said, are you crazy enough to believe in me? And I said yes,” said Leslie Van Houten of the night she committed murder to her parole board after her forty-sixth year in prison.

“He said I was so damn ugly that no one else would ever love me,” said Patricia Krenwinkel in a report read aloud during her fourteenth parole hearing.

“He said, ‘You have made no mistakes. The only mistakes you have made are the mistakes you thought you made. They were not mistakes,’“ said Susan Atkins about her first meeting with Charles Manson during her 1969 grand jury testimony.

Obviously we don’t have any record from the victims on the matter. They didn’t know the name of the man who issued their deaths, and the last words we have from them are given to us by the people who killed them.

 

Who hasn’t had someone say to them, “I’d kill for you, I’d die for you,” as if it was romantic? It’s almost an expected check-mark of devotion on the path to newlywed commitment. As if love requires testimony and death is our most convincing argument: if push comes to shove I will choose you, baby, I will choose love.

The knight bows before his Lady’s knee, the apostle drinks from his Savior’s cup—give a gift to get a gift; the anointed are declared transformed, blessed by the hands of their beloved. Love makes us so smug, as if we suddenly have reason to believe that we are better than anyone.

Like the media’s favorite, Squeaky, who organized Manson family interviews and tours of the Spahn Ranch saloon. Her elfin eyes always found the camera and she smiled as if she was hippie royalty and fame was her destiny. She would look deep into America’s eyes and beckon to whoever was watching: follow me and you will see. As if the murders let everyone in on the truth that she had long believed: the Family could guide the nation through its trials and tribulations.

All the Manson girls had that initiate’s glow. Take that photograph of them arranged behind Squeaky on the porch steps of Spahn Ranch, childish faces lifted to the heavens. They were bathed in the light their prophet gave them, safe within the line he drew around them—outside they may have been nothing, but inside they were chosen. They had new names and new origin stories and were suddenly significant, and they smiled up at the cameramen with beatific grins even though it was 1970 by then and their love-child group was almost at its end.

But erase what you do not want to see, give the story a new meaning; we all want to believe that love can rewrite our history and make us who we thought we should be.

“He is the one who will set all the love free,” Squeaky wrote to a girl who sent fan mail to Manson while he was in prison during the summer of 1970. “It’s very funny that so few people can accept love,” she added.

If only they were just a bunch of girls living for today and dreaming about the world as one. If only they stayed as they were in the beginning, when they first met and nothing bad had happened yet, and if only those days remained unchanged, a series of sunrises and sunsets where they travelled up and down the Golden Coast, strung hammocks and lines of laundry between California’s giant Cypress trees, dropped acid, tended to their broken wings, and learned to fly.

If only they were innocent.

I want to believe that it could have ended differently, that comedies aren’t just the preambles to tragedies and that sorrow is not the point of everything. I want to believe that the Summer of Love could have continued indefinitely, our hands clasped together as we sing hosannas and braid flowers into each other’s hair; that life is not a circus where we stand up just to fall, a kaleidoscopic whirl where one woman’s smile shatters into another woman’s tears; that the cycle can be broken, and that one day when the clock strikes midnight we will have nothing to fear.

If only when the moment came for the Manson girls to double-down or stray, love had led them elsewhere, love had found them sanctuary far away.

 

“Considering who was chosen, he sent out the expendables,” Ouisch, one of his younger followers, said about the women Charlie sent to kill for him.

I wonder if they knew they were the least wanted. This carload of women on the skids driving through the curves of Benedict Canyon, their headlights picking out houses that held the lives of other people in the dark. Pressed tight to one another, elbows against ribs, their last few minutes spent as not-murderers coming to an end. I wonder if they looked at the gravel-lined driveways, the blossoming jacaranda and agave, the valley lights spread out below and the crescent moon above, and thought it was time to set the night on fire. I bet, rather, that they wrapped their fists around the bowie knives they carried, bowed their heads, and whispered one final prayer for themselves: for their lord to continue to find them worthy, and for love.

How they make me want to beg forgiveness at the feet of all those I’ve hurt in the pursuit of my own mythology. But I know how much “I’m sorry” sounds like yet another plea: please, never stop loving me.

Need is blind and will not see. Though cracks appear in the man you thought he would be, though splinters of humiliation score your skin and the miracle is not how you envisioned it.

Forgive, ignore, repeat. Forgive, ignore, repeat. Forgive, ignore, repeat, until there is nothing in your life that is not him and to leave you must abandon everything: your home, your identity, any pretense of stability. He will take you with him if you let him. He will lead you onto a highwire above a canyon of smoke and ash and tell you to not look down or back. If you did, you might see it: the long years edged with agony, the time behind you rotting, withered, spent.

There will be only one choice then: to follow the man who holds the shreds of your fondest delusions in his pockets, or realize the foundations of your life are fraudulent. If you choose the latter course you will surely fall, and who knows if someone will catch you, or what grace to you is left.

“You’re twenty-six years old. Do you feel like your life has been wasted at all?” a reporter asked Mary Brunner, the very first Manson girl, as she was escorted to prison.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she replied, and left.

You know what you must do. Clasp your hands to your heart. Close your eyes. Begin to sing. Quietly at first, letting the words swell inside of you. And then louder, and louder, until everyone can hear.

All you need is love, you sing. Love is all you need.

***

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Claire Dodd has a Bachelors in English from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and is a student in the Bay Area Writer's Studio workshop. She currently lives in San Francisco, with her partner, Michael. More from this author →