So, I’ve debated writing this, and I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve typed this out before writing and then posting something. Writing helps me to organize my thoughts, and make something permanent about something I’ve been thinking about.
So, for some background, I do a lot of work within mental healthcare and in 2003, my best friend was murdered. He was stabbed to death in what was later to sensationalize the local papers as an “MSN Messenger lover’s triangle”. Why I’m telling you this is so that you can begin to understand where I’m coming from, and also get some insight – though I don’t expect anyone to really listen to me / give a shit.
So, on November 19, 2017 – old Charles Manson bought the farm. He was 83.
And a funny thing happened along with his passing – along with the well meaning but immature comments on facebook about how he’s going to “hell” or going to “fry” in whatever made up bad guy’s pizza oven downstairs, many comments began leaking into my Facebook news feed that were.. uh.. on the opposite end of the spectrum – ranging from fond remembrances and tributes, to individuals being genuinely sad regarding his passing. And there seemed to be quite a bit of surprise as well, which is confusing as hell, so lemme break this down for you with some science.
Charles Manson was 83 when he died. He is documented to have spent less than 20 years of his life outside of a prison system, meaning, he spent 63+ years behind bars. The average male life expectancy of a white guy in the jolly old USA is 76.4 years old. Old Charlie beat that by 7 years or so. A study on the life expectancy of inmates documented that for every year served in prison, two (2!) years of life could be shaved off the average life expectancy of said inmate. Old Chuckie would have oh 126 years lost off his life expectancy, which is crazy to think about, and even so he managed to life fairly well in prison despite his also well documented health problems. He did alright for an old mental patient incarcerated in the United States, so I’m not too sure where any surprise is coming from that isn’t – “holy shit, Charles Manson lived to be 83…” Which, let’s get serious, is really about all the whole thing deserves, but more on this to follow.
So, look, I get it. The horror and heavy metal scenes are inextricably linked in a weird perverse love for serial killers. If we are going to be truthful – most of the general population who aren’t murderers (or mentally unwell), and are being completely honest, are fascinated by the mind of someone who could be motivated to take the life of another. There’s a lot of psychology behind it, a lot of it rooted in how seriously we take our desire for escapism, for fantasy. We escape into media where we don’t have to be present in the often dreary hub-bub of our lives. We pretend we are ninjas in video games, knights in Game of Thrones, the final girl in a slasher flick, or even, in some cases, someone who finally broke free of the chains of civility and modernity and became animal and rendered apart the body of another to take out all of our pent up rage, frustration, and loathing. The killing of another – to be complicit in the death of a being that is and isn’t you, is profound. There is such beauty and horror in the concept of a killer, a criminal. To be fair, Manson didn’t kill anyone – he just motivated others to kill, and somehow, this is so much more frightening.
Who’s more dangerous, the man who wields the knife, or the man who can get others to do it for him? I say the latter. Any idiot can haul off and stab someone in a coked up knife brawl outside a TGI-Fridays. However, it was through sheer dumb luck that Manson was able to do what he did. Manson existed with a spectrum of time when a steady diet of LSD mixed with a touch of charisma found antithesis in a group of disaffected youngsters searching for meaning and love, and the perfect storm of variables collided into what would become the swansong of the 1960s and the free love movement.
And while I will not argue that he has and will remain an icon of madness, depravity, violence, he wasn’t a hero. He was a failed singer with a slightly above average IQ, though he intially scored on the lower end of normal on previous IQ tests. He wasn’t a genius. He was also mentally ill, diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, a disorder of the mind common amongst criminals and incarcerated (quelle surprise!).
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which is a guidebook used in the diagnosis of mental illness and disorders lists the to be as follows:
1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
2. deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others
6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
B. The individual is at least age 18 years.
C. There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.
I’m using the DSM-IV for these criteria simply because the DSM-V is too long to paste and fuck it. Anyways. If this isn’t Manson to about a perfect T, then I don’t know what is.
Somehow, some of the magic of him is lost when you see that this charm and pizzaz and infamy can be boiled down to a sticky shit smelling diagnosis from a clinician’s handbook, and the fact that LSD is a powerful drug well associated with its ability to leave people in suggestible states. Ever heard of MK-Ultra? Ever wondered why any asshole who’s been to Burning Man and wears quartz crystal points around their neck are also highly highly likely to become swept up by cults of personality – like Manson, like Scientology, like Freelee the Banana Girl, like anything.
I have a theory, and some of you might not like it. Cult leaders really aren’t anything special. It takes having some minor charisma, a basic knowledge of psychology, and the personality affect of being totally selfish. People are pretty easy to manipulate, sorry sheeple. While you might not see yourself aligned with people who would join a cult and commit murder, for anyone who’s ever wandered down an anti-vaccine rabbit hole, delved too far into conspiracy, listened to anything Jenny McCarthy has to say, or believed any of the pseudoscience out there on the internet – it’s all the same mindset. Facts are boring – magical thinking and personal anecdotes are much more fun and exciting and this is exactly what Manson tapped into. All the disaffected kids of the 1950s already preternaturally bored with the nuclear family, white picket fence lives their parents were living post-war, grew up to become youths searching for some kind of meaning to it all. Similarly to how we don’t want to die in cubicles working the 9-5, married with 2.5 kids and a shitty ass border collie, the kids of the 1960s didn’t want that either. When rock and roll, drugs, and free sex, came rolling by, boy was everyone keen to hop on board. Beats the hell out of Conservative white America, amirite?
People love charlatans, and Charlie just happened to be the right kind of salesman for this particular vaccuum, and found the right customers in disenfranchised youth. There’s really not much more to it than that.
If you’ve ever taken LSD, you know how intense a trip can be, and how many days it can take to fully get back to any kind of baseline. Now, consider how much acid the Family did. Days of it. Full days. Huge doses. Never really coming down. All that stuff about LSD being perfect for mind control is extremely true. Picture an acid trip that lasted weeks, months, interspersed with isolation, mandatory orgies, and a crazed madman ranting constantly about the impeding racial apocalypse somehow predicted through the fucking Beatles (who were as high as The Family, let’s get serious).
This brings me to my next point. I’ve worked in mental health for a long while now, and all tumblr romanticizing of mental illness aside, it’s not cool. It’s not romantic or awesome. It’s depressing and awful. Some bored social worker sitting in his office trying to figure out your life for you isn’t the epitome of cool, it’s honestly just sad and weird, and this is what really kinda gets me butthurt about the whole thing because – why the fuck would you want that? I see mentally ill people everyday and they aren’t having fun. I could relay to you some anecdotes about how patient X believes the TV is talking to him and telling him to put meatloaf in his shoes and from the outside it seems kind of hilarious – another way for someone to walk away from the shackles of regular existences, but if you examine it from where I’m standing, it’s torture. It tortures the people who suffer, and it tortures their families. In Manson’s case, the torturing of the family was more literal than anything else, and the torturing extended to innocent bystanders who just happened to be staying at the wrong address.
We idolize mental illness when we examine it from a safe vantage point where we see only the bright positives – beautiful paintings by Van Gogh, the tortured writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin.. whatever. The reality behind the veneer is dark and ugly and it consumes and destroys. Idolizing mental illness is fundamentally sick, and also, in a way, it’s stigmatizing to those who suffer everyday and would give anything to not have to endure the suffering. People get all hoo-rah about packaging they find attractive and don’t realize that what’s inside the box is something far more sinister than Gwenyth Paltrow’s head – it’s emptiness. And I think that’s what really scares all of us – that abyss. Knowing that there is no riddle to solve, no enigma, no missing puzzle piece. Mental illness simply is. It’s just a malfunction of chemicals that is so fucking fascinating. I’m a person of science. All I see is a chemical imbalance, maladative coping mechanisms, genetics to some degree, and most often a shitload of trauma, and then boom – you’ve got the recipe for a mental illness.
Further to all of this still, Charles Manson was also a convicted rapist who raped a male prisoner while detained at 17, and raped many of his followers, some as young as 14 (which can be defined to be pedophilia depending on the state, but I’m not even going to get into this), and even fathered a look a like son through one such rape.
Many of the people who spoke about the passing of Charles Manson with sadness, had previously shared social justice motivated posts regarding the #MeToo movement and the prevlance of rape and sexual assault scandals that have come to light lately, only to share condolences for a literal convicted rapist a few days later.
But again, the horror and heavy metal communities have not often been known for either tact, humility, or anything else that could be expected in situations like these. Viciousness gets pared down to a type of heavy metal boys club, and when real life horror mimics the films we all love to watch, people barely bat an eyelash. And I’m not really here to tell you that you should. We can’t cry for every dead person, or every murder, because we’d be well out of tears right now, and would have cried ourselves into little husks.
Maybe I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I don’t think we should mourn the loss of Charles Manson. He kinda sucked, and he was a shiester and a conman. He took some drugs, made some morons think his shit didn’t stink, and tried on crazy only to have it become the only permanent fixture in his wardrobe. It’s not cool. Beyond a fascination around the psychology of criminals, there really isn’t much to Manson for me. He was never any Messiah, but then again, I wouldn’t have ever been one of his girls (and I’ve taken a lot of LSD).
This whole thing has had me thinking about my murdered friend. The grainy black and white surveillance footage that depicted him stumbling backwards onto a checkered floor while holding his chest plays over and over in my mind on days like this. As blood pours down the front of his shirt, and his eyes go wide with horror, the deepest most animal fear we all have flits across his face. He knew he was going to die. And he did die. At the jury trial for the murderer, the security footage played over and over, the lo-fi grain bore a sharp contrast to the crime scene photos that made his spilled blood like the outside of a candy apple, so fresh and so weirdly pure, something so perfect laid over the filthy floors of an establishment that was tread on by many dirty feet.
Most of the people who I see mourning weren’t alive in 1969, weren’t even dreams in the proverbial witch houses of their parents underpants. Not yet. I think the disconnection of time allows us to see only the bright pieces, and ignore the shit and ruin. Time exists to rip context away from events. If someone were to google the murder of my friend, you’d find very sensational court documents, images of the murderer, dressed in black, lots of complicated feelings in his head, romance, intrigue. What you wouldn’t find in those googlings is all the shit that came afterwards. You don’t see broken families, open caskets, grief so powerful that all you can do is drink straight from a bottle of 151 proof in an attempt to not only kill what you are feeling, but to ensure you don’t feel anything. When you grieve a loss that has happened through murder, feeling anything feels perverse. Being alive seems like a sin, and survivor’s guilt overcomes even the strongest of resolve and resiliency.
These things aren’t cool. They aren’t sexy. Grief can be turned into art, but it doesn’t have the sexy sensuous allure that madness, drugs, and devil worship offer. No one wants their escapism to be an escape into grief – unless of course you’re the very spoopiest of goths, and even then.
Grief tastes like ashes and it sucks you dry. And though it comes steadily up to 15 years since my friend’s murder, I feel bone dry still. And maybe it connects to my saltiness over the past few days of posts since old Chuckie bought the farm. I just don’t care. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
I think now about how it would feel in 20 years to see some edgelords idolizing the murderer of my best friend, and more than anything else, I would just feel sad for them. Sad that the escapism from reality leads you to idolize something so rooted in the grief and oppression of another. What a sad commentary on the world we live in, and what a powerless existence we must all have.
I wish we lived in a culture that remembered victims and not those who victimize. We all know Robert Pickton, but how many of you could relate to me the street worn face of Sereena Abotsway? We all know Karla Homolka and Paul Bernado, but how many of you have stared long and hard at the photos of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, or thought about what it would be like for parents to watch their school aged daughters raped and sodomized over and over again in all the resplendent horror of a film made on a 1990s camcorder.
This stuff isn’t cool, so we don’t think about it. But despite all this, people still send letters to murderers, and this post will be nothing more than an ill wrought attempt to share something complicated.
I absolutely do not shame the artists who are pictured in screen grabs in this post. You do you, my guys. I just don’t get it. And maybe this is a sign that my teenage goth phase is finally ending. I don’t root for the bad guys anymore, I’m not Dani Filth.
But maybe that’s just me. Working in mental health and along real life and death for long enough, and the titillation just isn’t present. I prefer my escapism to be in fiction, because real life is just too fucking gruesome sometimes.
I choose to remember those who went before:
Rest in peace to those who saw their lives ended in violence.
You can find the old goat ruining your good time on twitter.