Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, The

by Ed Sanders
   This true-crime classic, republished as The Family (Thunder’s Mouth Press 2002), rivals Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974), the number one true crime best-seller of all time. Thomas Myers writes, “The fact that The Family is part information overload, part hard-boiled detective novel, part hip jeremiad, and part schlock monster movie only makes it more intriguing as moral statement.” While Bugliosi’s excellent account of the Tate–LaBianca murders of August 1969 comes from the perspective of the prosecuting attorney who was able to convince the jury to give the death penalty to all those prosecuted for the murders (later commuted to life sentences after the death penalty was revoked in California), Sanders’s book reveals more of the complexities of the case, including detailed connections between the Manson Family and the counterculture, biker gangs, other unsolved murders, and satanic groups.
   In August 1969, Sharon Tate (wife of director Roman Polanski), Jay Sebring (hairdresser to many movie stars and jim morrison), Abigail Folger (heiress to the Folger coffee fortune), Woytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca, and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered on two consecutive nights by Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten, members of Charles Manson’s cult known as The Family. Some people viewed these murders and the ensuing trial of Manson and his female followers as the death of the 1960s. “And no detached reporter has Sanders within his data,” writes Myers, “for in his subject he seemed to have found his own version of Poe’s William Wilson, his counterculture doppelganger who was the antithesis of ethical principle and moral conscience—the gestating beast in the belly of peace and love.” Disturbingly, Manson has even called himself a beatnik.
   Bugliosi argues that the murders were committed to start a race war, “Helter Skelter,” that was partially conceived by Manson after hearing The Beatles’ “White Album.” Sanders does not buy this explanation, nor the popular theory that the murders were committed to resemble the Gary Hinman murder committed by The Family member Bobby Beausoleil to help Beausoleil beat his case. The murders, originally thought to be connected to drug trafficking, baffled detectives. At first, Sanders thought The Family might have been set up by the police because they were a countercultural organization. After spending time reporting on Manson’s trial and researching the case for the Los Angeles Free Press, Sanders came to see The Family as more diabolical than he could have ever imagined: The more I dug into this case the more upset I became over what these people and their connective groups had done and were still doing. I was revolted by some things I learned while researching this book. I realized that during my years in the counterculture I had sometimes behaved imperfectly, and had strayed from portions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which I was raised. But what I came across seemed to me to be evil, and you don’t have to be perfect—in fact you can be quite imperfect—to be revolted by practitioners of deliberate evil.
   Though Sanders does not provide a clear explanation for what he thinks are the true motives behind the Manson murders, he does suggest it has much to do with the group’s involvement with Satanism. For a year and a half Sanders studied The Family, even spending time with many of the members and sleeping at their compound. This experience led to an aesthetic insight:
   As I wrote hundreds upon hundreds of pages of notes, I began writing them in verselike, indented clusters. Thus, say, when I described an encounter with a member of the Family, I jotted it down with line breaks! I supposed at the time it was in honor of my mentor, the bard charles olson, who had passed away in early 1970. Olson’s work combining poetry and history, and his friendship, had thrilled my early years. All of my note pages written in open field verse clusters (which, of course, I transformed into lines of prose) would lead in a few years to my manifesto called Investigative Poetry.
   This poetic theory led to Sanders’s book-length poems Chekhov, 1968: A History in Verse, The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg, and the multivolume America: A History in Verse. Sanders writes: My mentor, the great bard Charles Olson, had written about a “Saturation Job,” as a rite of passage for a writer of substance. In a Saturation Job, Olson pointed out, you studied one subject, whether a place or a person or persons, “until you yourself know more about that than is possible to any other man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it. And then U KNOW everything very fast: one saturation job (it might take fourteen years). And you’re in, forever.”
   For me, researching the Manson group was my “Saturation Job.”
   Sanders credits detectives Charles Guenther and Paul Whiteley, who were investigating the Hinman murder for eventually breaking the Tate–LaBianca case.
   Ultimately, Sanders’s book exposes more questions than it answers. The author continues to work and think about The Family, and it is quite possible that he will have more to say about them in the future.
■ Myers, Thomas. “Rerunning the Creepy-Crawl: Ed Sanders and Charles Manson.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 81–90.
   Kurt Hemmer

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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