Frigyes Karinthy originated the idea of six degrees of separation in his 1929 short story, “Chains.” One of the characters in the story bet his friends that “using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact [any person in the world] using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.”
I had a six-degrees-like experience while reading Jeff Guinn’s excellent new biography of Charles Manson. (I don’t normally read biographies of serial killers, but I highly recommend this one.) I was sitting in the reception area of an auto repair shop waiting for my wife’s car to be fixed, and I mentioned to the receptionist that I was reading the book. She told me that she had a personal interest in the story, as her brother had dated Sharon Tate’s sister, Patti. I live in rural Missouri, but that conversation bridged 40+ years and 1600+ miles in an instant.
Whether or not you’ve had a similar six-degrees experience, you know Charles Manson. The Tate-LaBianca murders of August 9–10, 1969, are engraved in America’s public memory, shaped our perception of the 60s and 70s, and influenced our behavior. Growing up in southern California in the early 70s, for example, I remember my mom assiduously closing windows, locking doors, and exhorting my sister and me never to open the front door when she and my dad weren’t home or to answer the phone unless it had rung 10 times (this was the era before answering machines became ubiquitous). This despite the fact that she had grown up in rural Alabama, where windows were usually open and doors rarely locked. No one would “creepy crawl” in our house, as the Manson Family had done in others people’s houses. In such quotidian ways, this man left his infamous mark.
But how did he become evil in the first place? Reading Guinn’s biography of him, arm-chair sociologists can check off a long list of correlates pointing to future bad behavior. Teenage mom who conceived her child out of wedlock? Check. Fatherless family? Check. Mom who served prison time? Check. Bad relationship with mom’s new husband? Check. Learning and behavioral problems at school? Check. Bullied and sexually abused? Check. Early criminality? Check. Long time spent in reform school and later prison? Check. Recidivism? Check.
On top of these correlates, American culture was changing. It is difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the period in which Charles Manson came of age to understand the seismic forces shaking and reshaping American society. The Civil Rights Movement highlighted the inequities and injustices underlying much of American society. Opposition to the burgeoning war in Vietnam challenged the goodness of American foreign policy and institutions. The slow pace of change frustrated radicals and convinced some of them that only revolutionary violence would bring real change. Hippies promoted peace, love, and better living through chemistry. In different ways, these movements challenged the status quo and hoped and worked for a very different American than the one that currently existed.
Put together the sociological correlates and the cultural changes, and you still don’t get Charles Manson, however. Most people with bad upbringings don’t become notorious criminals. Millions survived the 60s (relatively) unscathed; most even thrived. At the end of the day, what caused Charles Manson was not his upbringing or social environment alone. What caused Charles Manson was…Charles Manson. In the final paragraph of his biography of Manson, Jeff Guinn describes him as “an opportunistic sociopath.” “By the time the 1960s arrived,” he writes, “Charles Manson was already a lifelong social predator.” He concludes: “The unsettling 1960s didn’t create Charlie, but they made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower. In every sense, Charles Manson was always the wrong man in the right place at the right time.”
That last sentence is an apt summary of a notorious life. It is also an exhortation to caution. Opportunistic sociopaths will always be with us. But we can mitigate the damage they do to us by paying attention to who we’re with, and when, and where.
And, of course, by remembering to close your windows and lock your doors.
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.