How do we assess Manson? If early reports are any indication, it is with the same lack of nuance, the same hyperbole on which we've long relied. The Associated Press described him on Thursday as "a demonic presence," "the living embodiment of evil" and quoted former special correspondent Linda Deutsch, who covered his trial: "In addition to killing seven people, he killed a whole counterculture."
The temptation to see Manson in apocalyptic terms is understandable. In her 1978 essay "The White Album," Joan Didion wrote, "On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law's swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a phone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski's house on Cielo Drive. … There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed."
In a nation now grappling with mass killings one after another, the actual number of Manson's victims seems almost minimal, even quaint. But it's worth remembering the terror stirred by the murders, the chaos they implied. Tate was 8½ months pregnant when she died; the killers wrote "Pig" across the front door in her blood. The following night, the Manson family killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca at their home in Los Feliz, scrawling "Healter Skelter" (sic) on the refrigerator, also using the victims' blood.
I was a child on the other side of the country, and I recall my own fear in the wake of the killings, the disturbing satanic details, the violation of the safety of home. That my children now take such realities for granted suggests something of how desensitized we as a culture have become.
Manson, though, was no devil but a human being, as his death makes clear. I don't say that to soften or absolve him. But I don't believe in demons; people are frightening enough. Indeed, to accept Manson as a person, to see him through the filter of his humanity, is to acknowledge what we resist: that he was perhaps not so utterly different from the rest of us.
Manson's history was horrific; his mother did time in prison for armed robbery when he was young and he lived with relatives who tormented him in the name of making him tough. In the 2013 biography "Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson," Jeff Guinn traced one such incident, in which his uncle made him go to first grade in a dress as punishment for having cried in class.
A quarter-century later, after his release from the federal penitentiary at Terminal Island in San Pedro, Manson moved to San Francisco and began to collect the drifters and young women who would become his so-called family.
One of Manson's inspirations was Dale Carnegie, whose 1936 book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" offered him tips on manipulating others to his ends. Among his successful strategies? Convincing his acolytes to commit the murders he planned, then claiming innocence since he did not actually kill anyone.
This is, of course, horrific, venal — and recognizably human at the same time. Just look at the news; evasion of responsibility is our new national pastime. You might say Manson was ahead of his time, spinning out a series of false narratives about race war and his own messianic status that ensnared his followers.
Although much has been made of his efforts to join the Southern California music scene (he befriended Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, among others), it's a stretch to suggest Manson's turn to murder was a reaction to his failed rock star fantasies.
And those who blame it all on the counterculture are equally misguided. The hippies had their dark side — just look at all the people who got lost in drugs and dissolution — but Manson did not so much reflect that as prey upon it. All he really had in common with the "peace and love" ethos were its trappings: sex, drugs, long hair and an obsessive fascination with the Beatles, whose lyrics he interpreted as a series of coded messages.
For those who have faith in an afterlife, I suppose there's some solace in imagining he will get his karmic comeuppance. But it makes more sense to me to see him as an agent of the hells we create on Earth.
Manson was a killer, yes, and he was a psychopath, but he was never otherworldly. The violence and the hatred he embodied may be his most human attribute.
David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.