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Lumpenhippies and Their Guru

The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion
By Ed Sanders
412 pp., E.P. Dutton & Co., $6.95

The Family is the first complete, authoritative account of the career of Charles Manson. A small-time thief, forger and pimp who was paroled after seven years in prison at the dawn of San Francisco's 1967 Summer of Love, Manson, hirsute and acid-eyed, was charged with the Tate-LaBianca murders less than three years later. In January, 1971, he was convicted of these seven murders. He must still stand trial for two others--one of them, according to author Ed Sanders, is a hideous torture experiment--and is implicated in many more.

The Family tells how an ambitious petty criminal focused some cunning amateur psychology on particularly vulnerable examples of the mass alienation of California's youth Bohemnia, and created a "family" of disciples bound together by a macabre synthesis of antisocial pathology and communal ideals. Combining calculated alterations of tenderness and violence with awesome sexual stamina and a line of pseudo-guru babble, he attracted a following of pathetic young women whose sexual favors helped him move his band of lumpenhippies through various crash scenes. He used drugs and sex for blackmail and mind control, developed a doom philosophy influenced by the satanist cults that flourish around Los Angeles, and prepared his disciples for racial Armageddon, which they all believed was imminent, with a battalion of stolen dune buggies equipped with booty acquired on stolen credit cards. The murders that resulted from this runaway obsession with violence seem inevitable in retrospect.

The outline of this story has been known for quite a while--sometimes reliably, sometimes not. Ed Sanders has solidified it, filling in particulars and verifying rumors. Manson's close relationship with hip Hollywooders like record and television producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boy rock star Dennis Wilson, now minimized by the principals, is fully described. His occult connections are detailed. The crimes and their solutions are recounted with great care for sequence and consistency. Sanders's research occupied a year and a half of his life; tens of thousands of pages of data were organized into some 50 subject files and dozens of chronological files. All the allegations he reports have been checked against known facts, and for the most part he refused to use any information that didn't come from at least two separate individuals. This work was extraordinarily difficult, requiring auxiliary investigators and even disguises. Since most of Manson's associates are partisans of violence, it was also dangerous.

So why did Sanders bother? The money accrued is certain to be matched by the pain, and Sanders is by profession a poet, not a reporter. The answer is that, despite his taste for what he calls "a quiet life of poetry and peace," Sanders has found himself impelled, by esthetic and ethical commitments that are often indistinguishable, into a series of progressively more public manifestations. In 1961 he was one of the pacifists who attempted to board a nuclear submarine in a seminal act of passive resistance that seemed aberrant at the time. In 1962 he founded "A Magazine of the Arts" whose title could not even be reproduced in a newspaper. But he ended up on the cover of one of Life's hippie issues in 1967, the leader of a successful and influential rock group called the Fugs. The Fugs gave way almost imperceptibly to active support of the pop-hip politics of Yippie and Chicago 1968, which Sanders immortalized last year in a mock-heroic novel, Shards of God.

It was a natural step for Sanders to concern himself with Manson, one of the culminations of America's public romance with the hippies. Like Manson, Sanders was into sex, dope, the occult and the downfall of straight society. Both his Fugs monologues and Shards of God were full of references to jelly orgies, titanic mindwarps and arcane rituals. Of course, many of these references were ironic, overstated metaphors that weren't intended literally. But metaphors have content--Sanders really does believe in expanded sexuality, sacramental and recreational psychedelics, and non-rationalistic modes of knowing--and irony is a sophisticated tool. What could Sanders do when a would-be groupie actually brought a jar of jelly to a Fugs concert--send her back for the Skippy? Such misunderstandings are inevitable when avant-gardism is transformed into a mass movement. This is a liability that long-haired criminals like Charlie Manson and who knows how many other punk charismatics can exploit.

In the age of the new togetherness, it isn't just the good guys who get together. In The Family, Sanders states this problem once and never makes the point again: "the flower movement was like a valley of thousands of plump white rabbits surrounded by wounded coyotes. Sure, the 'leaders' were tough, some of them geniuses and great poets. But the acid-dropping middle-class children from Des Moines were rabbits."

Sanders doesn't dwell on this idea because his narrative is almost compulsively free of what in a more literal context he refers to as "horse dooky." He refuses to philosophize, psychoanalyze or make excuses. The Family is nothing more than a chronological arrangement of all those facts, apparently written direct from the files, rapidly. True, the diction is characteristic Sanders Americanese--in all his work he has a way of coming up with hyphenated coinages like "bunch-punching," "murder-fated" and "hell-creep," and he is fond of words like "tycoon" and "sleuth"--and he will occasionally add a jarring note of boyish sarcasm to some especially grisly disclosure by ending the paragraph with a brief "far out" or "oo-ee-oo." But the book is determinedly non-written. There is no theorizing, and no new journalism either--no fabricated immediacy, no reconstructed dialogue, no arty pace.

This data-mania is itself an anti-middlebrow avant-garde ploy. Sanders is quite capable of normal prose and fictional technique, and had he deemed the effort worthy he probably could have made The Family into something like In Cold Blood or even The Boston Strangler, but he represents a sensibility that has pretty much rejected such devices and his book is truer and more exciting for it. His terse notebook style, avoiding comment and ignoring conventional standards of rhetoric, functions as a deliberate artistic choice. Although he may mention in passing that arrests for possessing a harmless euphoriant or for "felonious breast-feeding" can be expected to spark dangerous resentment, he clearly feels that the facts about Manson and his followers speak for themselves, and that they are horrible beyond explanation.

The intensity of this feeling, which reflects Sanders's commitment to nonviolence, is the greatest virtue of an excellent book. The Manson case engendered much confusion in the ranks of hip. A distressing minority--represented at its most extreme by Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn (who cited the murders as revolutionary acts before going underground) and, more reasonably, by those who suspect a frame-up--were unwilling to believe that a long-haired minstrel could also be a racist and male supremacist who used dope and orgasm and even some variety of love to perpetuate his own murderous sadism. In his coverage of the trial for the Los Angeles Free Press, Sanders did his best to protect Manson's presumption of innocence, and he was severely critical of anti-hippie hysteria among straight journalists, but his own research convinced him who was how guilty and ought to convince anybody.

Guilt is definitely the word. Sanders believes that, for whatever reason, the plump white rabbits in Manson's entourage have become "crazed with the willingness to murder" and must be separated from society. His portrayal of Sharon Tate and associates, on the other hand, while tinged with deep disdain of a genuine psychic voyager for ruling-class dabblers, is temperate. He doesn't conceal their connections with big-time dope and with the occult, but he does withhold damaging but irrelevant information "in respect for the memory of the innocent slain."

The murderers are guilty and their victims were innocent--after years of rationalization and hip irony, such a formulation has a refreshing moral directness. Let others fulminate over co-optation by rich straights. Sanders knows that for the most part the co-opters are only contemptible, and he will return to oppose the death-creeps who rule this society some other time. For now, he is horrified by the satanist coyotes who battle the forces of Yippie for the soul of the disaffected young--the sexist bikers, the cults that traffic in animal and (it would appear) human sacrifice. In order to say this, Sanders has done nothing less than risk his own life, for that's how serious he believes the enemy within to be, and who knows enough to gainsay him? It is only fitting that such a risk should produce such a terrifying book.

The New York Times, Oct. 31, 1971