What We Talk About When We Talk About Manson’s Girls.

Americans have an ongoing fascination with Charles Manson, his “family,” and the horrific violence they enacted in 1969. While I’m too young to remember the 1960’s as much more than a blend of early childhood experiences, there are residual effects in how I view the world: whether it’s a deep abiding love for Soul Train, Cher, and the Rolling Stones or a distrust of establishment politics and war-mongering, the 1960s were foundational for my own identity and for America’s. I could say I became “punk rock” because of the perception many of my generation had that the 1960s counterculture had “failed.” It’s a ridiculously overly simplistic view of the Sixties but one that led to a rejection by many of us of the image of the American hippie movement. It’s also ridiculously overly simplistic to claim that Altamont and the Manson Family murders “killed” the hippie movement and ended “the Summer of Love.” It’s certainly an easy way to write about what happened in 1969 but it’s also far from accurate. And while the larger hippie culture that existed in the 1970s held little to no appeal for me, I was as interested in the myth of Manson and his “girls” as the rest of America.

The trials of the Manson Family members have been written about ad nauseum: books, academic papers, reenactments in movies and TV series – good and bad – and of course all those bands with songs about Manson, the girls, and the violence. There’s a certain element of media that loves to focus on the dark side of American society and the Manson Family has become a symbol of that darkness: a symbol with a longevity that overshadows the murders and the systemic sexual and emotional abuse Manson enacted on his “girls.” It’s been argued (and I would agree) that it’s a fallacy to suggest Manson provided any kind of alternative to oppressive mainstream patriarchal Sixties social structure for his “girls”: he believed women should be “empty vessels,” and as more than one critic has written, Manson was nothing more than an abusive pimp. Because the humanity and victimization of the women in Manson’s “family” is often overwhelmed (or simply not discussed) in the various media covering or inspired by the murders, they’ve become nameless “girls,” forever linked with the image of the man who abused them. If you do a Google search for “Manson girls,” you’ll quickly discover that people are still searching for “prettiest Manson girl,” as if that should matter. The continued objectification of these individual women as figures for our prurient interest is on full display in John Reed’s disturbing and intelligent Manson Family Dolls (with illustrations by Sungyoon Choi).

The Family Dolls is subtitled “A Manson paper + play book!” and presents several illustrations ready to be cut out and played with including images of Manson and his best-known “girls.” There are characters and clothes and body parts we can cut out and play with. We’re even provided with ready-to-be-cut-out mirrors for us to stare into where we can, if we’re being honest, see our own darkness and our obsessions with and possibility for violence. Of course, that’s part of the ongoing appeal of the Manson family – by continually telling and retelling their narrative of sex and violence, we can tell ourselves that we are not like “them,” that we would never be capable of the violence and murder they enacted. Reed is well aware of this and with his usual skill, employs a textual form that speaks to the pop culture aspect of the Manson narrative while also challenging easy assumptions around how we talk about violence. 

For those of us old enough to remember playing with paper dolls (or those who embraced the current resurgence referenced in Reed’s text), the use of these relatively harmless visual toys contrasts with the violence of the broader narrative: these girls are convicted killers, no matter how “pretty” they may appear or how tragic their personal narratives. That of course, is one of the ongoing aspects of fascination with the Manson narrative: how could such pretty, feminine creatures commit such appalling acts of brutality against other people? Even Reed is guilty of this objectification of the Manson “girls” when he writes about Leslie van Houten next to one of the paper dolls, “I was hoping Sungyoon would make Leslie hotter.” (And yes, I get the inherent critique here but still…). Further, in a brief fictional biography of van Houten, Reed gives us the following: “Leslie had one of those big tooth smiles that makes you want to find a van and coax her in and drive her to the ends of the earth and stay there with her.” Note: there’s no asking for full permission here but instead Leslie needs to be “coaxed.” (And yes, I get the critique here too but let’s also acknowledge the power structure in this fantasy.)

Currently serving one of the longest sentences of anyone convicted of murder in California, Leslie is the “poster girl” for the Manson “girl” narrative: elected prom queen twice, pretty in a traditional feminine way, if we look at her only from the outside, there’s an assumption that she should not be capable of murder. But this is a false narrative: not only can you not judge a woman’s character or capacity for violence by their physical appearance, these young women (and children) were runaways – not just in search of “the counterculture” but running from more mainstream violence both personal and institutional. The Sixties in general was not a great place for girls or women. This is why there was a Women’s Liberation Movement, NOW, and the rise of Black Feminism: neither mainstream America or the counterculture offered bodily autonomy or respect for women.

By using paper dolls, Reed ties the Manson narrative into a broader critique of American culture, particularly American pop culture. Most aspects of pop culture in the Sixties and Seventies taught us how to be in the world: for girls, paper dolls were part of that acculturation (a/k/a oppression). I had a Barbie paper doll book that showed Barbie doing various things (none career-related or that might challenge the status quo). On offer were various outfits for her to wear, culminating in a full wedding gown with veil for her to wear with her paper partner Ken in his tuxedo. The message was clear to me even then: the goal was to marry and marry someone like Ken. Thankfully, I had other influences beyond what paper dolls or mainstream American pop culture offered up. Reed’s paper dolls can be seen as parody or critique of these Barbie paper dolls but critique or no, there is still something “sexy” about the illustrations of the Manson girls. They have great bodies by Sixties standards: long, shapely legs, not too skinny, not too fat – the perfect objects for male fantasies. They’re not shown as they were: violent but also victims of abuse (mental, sexual, physical). There’s nothing sexy about that. And again, that could be a nod toward the way the Manson girls appear often in television and film: sexy and dangerous and rewriting the image of the submissive female – although, of course, they were all ultimately submissive to Manson and other men in their “family.”

Interspersed throughout Family Dolls are randomly numbered lists of events and/or facts. For a section titled “1968, June + July,” we are told about Andy Warhol’s shooting, the 1968 student protests, Johnny Cash, James Earl Ray, the release of Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” Susan “Sadie” Atkins arrest for narcotics, protests and marches by civil rights groups, and the publication of Beverly Jones’ and Judith Brown’s “Toward a Female Liberation Movement” (including a brief quote). The cumulative effect of these numbered lists is a curated version of American cultural history. Of course, the omissions, editorializing, and lack of source references is both frustrating to a cultural historian (like me) and illustrative of the way American history – including Mason family history – is often written. Who gets to be in this list? Lots of men, and even there, Donald Trump gets several more lines than say, Abbie Hoffman or Bobbie Kennedy. AIM (American Indian Movement) gets a small sentence but not founders Dennis Banks, Clyde Belelcourt,  George Mitchell, and the Ojibwe. We’re told that Warhol is shot but not that self-described radical feminist Valerie Solanas did the shooting – which could have been interesting as she provides an alternative version of women-with-guns. If we want to make our own lists of historical events, we can mention the Hong Kong Flu (a global pandemic that killed between 1 and 4 million people) or the opening of the Alaskan North Slope to oil drilling (a major step in the destruction of the permafrost and the planet), or that, in the wake of the MLK and RFK assassinations, LBJ and Congress were grappling with gun control legislation (including registration and licensing), along with the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (aimed more for making streets safe for white-not-poor Americans).

In “1968, October, November + December,” we have another somewhat random list including the publication of a critique of Playboy, anti-student-protestor violence in Mexico City, a protest by Yippie Jerry Rubin, a film, a play, and several lines on Abbie Hoffman including this key quote, “The Beatles are a new family group. They are organized around the way they create. They are communal art. They…form a family unit that is horizontal rather than vertical.” This is, we are told, a popular assessment (by whom?) and this quote is immediately followed by a Manson quote about MLK – subtly (or not-so) connecting Hoffman’s suggestion of a new “family” formation with Manson’s own. In this section, there are more references to Manson-related violence and (should we read as a suggestion?) a film, Pretty Poison, starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld “as an ex-convict and high school cheerleader who commit a series of crimes.” Meanwhile, we are told, the Family are in a school bus headed for Death Valley. There’s mention of the publication of “The Women’s Liberation Front” (Jo Freeman) in The Moderator but by excluding random months we don’t learn about the Miss America protest (September 1968) that brought worldwide attention to the Women’s Liberation Movement. Nor do we learn about the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago (August 1968), major wins by women with the EEOC (August), and with The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, acting on an appeal filed by NOW attorneys Marguerite Rawalt and Phineas Indritz, voiding the state’s Muncy Law, which required longer prison sentences for women than for men convicted of the same crime. (July 1968) The presence of the Manson Family in this second list of facts (events? Suggestive summaries?) is much larger and includes Tex Watson and Charlie hearing The White Album and Charlie’s Death Valley “sermon” on the coming of “Helter Skelter.”

According to The Family Dolls, “The Family talked a lot about how they were just a reflection, a mirror image, of American and all the things that were wrong, here and in Vietnam and all over the world.” Because so much of the narrative around Manson and his Family is based on the book Helter Skelter by (former prosecutor) Vincent Bugliosi, it’s difficult to find a narrative that moves out of editorializing, hearsay, and myth-making. And because Reed doesn’t provide footnotes (or a bibliography) in his text, I found myself constantly asking where the various narratives derived. Quotations are attributed but are they from interviews, biographies, memoirs? And perhaps that’s another theme Reed’s playing with – the impossibility of discovering “the truth” in the Manson Family narrative – every story builds or refutes on others that came before. The Leslie that Reed presents, sexy and smart and rebellious, isn’t the Leslie that Bugliosi or those who fight against her parole present. Next to a paper doll of Tex Watson is a caption, “This is Tex. I had Sungyoon make him large because he really was way bigger than Charlie and the women. He almost single-handedly did the actual killings.” This last statement is one of the “facts” of the Manson murders that’s been circulated (for example, see “Why Don’t We Call them the Tex Watson Murders?” Medium Jan 8, 2021). But again, the veracity of this narrative depends on whose version you accept as the truth. Shifting the blame away from “the girls” on Tex is easier for everyone – after all, girls don’t kill. 

Writing about Manson and the young women he brutalized isn’t easy – it took more than a few attempts for me to find a way through and past my own revulsion: of the brutal humor and critique involved in creating a book of paper dolls, at the ongoing narrative, and at my own relationship with this narrative of “sexy” horror.  On a recent plane trip, I decided to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and while I don’t want to sidetrack into a discussion of this film, I think it’s important for me to try to understand my reaction to the film’s ending. Each time I saw the character framed as Sharon Tate on screen – innocently gorgeous, just going about the day in the beginning of her adult life – I felt overwhelming dread: here was an innocent young woman who was going to die at the end. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the film: she doesn’t die. In fact, she lives because the Manson “girls” go to the wrong house and end up dying incredibly violently, Tarantino-style violently. And inwardly I cheered: the bad girls die, the good guys (and girl) win. It’s a very sexy and appealing rewriting of a terrible moment in our collective history. And yet, I question my own positive response: it’s simplistic to paint the Manson girls as evil (as Tarantino does and as other narratives do). They killed people (even if we try to blame everything on Tex and Charlie). They participated in a violent, criminal community that victimized outsiders and each other. But they were also victims: victims of Manson’s violence, the violence of the men in their lives at so many levels, and the women who procured them, participated in and/or stood by and witnessed their victimization, and the society that continually fails to nurture and respect young women. More than anything, the story of Manson’s girls (can we call them women? Or do they need to be forever “girls” for the story to work?), is about the deeply ingrained misogyny that lies at the very foundations of American culture. The counterculture didn’t create a path away from it for most girls and women. Is it any wonder that some girls went mad and become weapons of Manson’s own bizarre fantasies? 

Perhaps repositioning the narrative into a format as outwardly harmless as a book of paper dolls can soften the narrative or perhaps it can serve as a doorway (gateway drug?) into a much-needed investigation of our cultural history and how the violence of that time is a continuation of the foundational violence of this country and the ongoing violence we enact against our women, girls, and so many others. Perhaps it’s this sharp-edged and sometimes darkly humorous critique Reed presents that made it so difficult for me to write this piece: there is something sexy about murderous girls/women: just sit down and watch the video for Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ‘69” or Russ Myer’s “Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!” if you don’t believe me. And when you’re done, ask yourself, what part do you play in the violence that is so intertwined with American culture: and which Manson girl do you think is hottest?







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: