I’ve been obsessed with Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders since the age of 11, when I wrote a sixth-grade book report about “Helter Skelter” — much to my teacher’s dismay. Over the years, I’ve become fairly well-versed with the details of the story, seeking out different perspectives in books like Ed Sanders’ “The Family.” Manson’s attempt to immerse himself into L.A.’s music scene in the late 1960s has been of particular interest.
I devoured media coverage of each subsequent anniversary of the murders, but they often contained little more than the same old details from the same old sources.
When I was asked to help with a series of stories tied to the 50th anniversary of the murders, I started looking under rocks that were still unturned, hoping to find storylines that would be of interest to me. Certainly, it was important to cover the basics of Manson’s story, his followers, the murders and the trial, but I zeroed in on Manson’s evolving role in popular culture since his conviction. The fascination with this man has never abated, and he came to represent different things to different generations. While doing this research, I encountered a surprisingly large network of what I’ll call contrarians, those who didn’t buy into Vincent Bugliosi’s “White Album”-driven apocalypse theory that was at the heart of his prosecution.
I was curious about those on the edges of the Manson saga — the musicians who covered Charlie’s songs, the macabre entrepreneurs who released his smuggled recordings from prison, the authors of occasionally far-fetched theories about the murders, the people who befriended Manson while he was in prison. Some saw Manson as John Waters-esque camp. Others found some kind of truth in his crazed rants. Although I don’t necessarily agree with many of these points of view, I was intrigued by their efforts to humanize someone who’s almost universally reviled.
More than one member of this contrarian community offered up other possible sources to talk about Manson. One of those sources was Michael Brunner, Manson’s son, born Valentine Michael Manson. He was the son of Manson “family” member No. 1, Mary Brunner. After being adopted as a young child by his maternal grandparents, he’d somehow managed to fly under the Manson-crazed radar for decades, living a relatively normal life in the rural Midwest. In fact, he’d given only one other major interview – and that was more than two decades ago. After a few phone and text conversations, he was willing to speak to us.
This regular guy never knew his dad. And they couldn’t be any more different. Unlike the dark, stage-crafted menace of his father, Brunner is fair, chill, quick to laugh. Since his father died in 2017, he’s been a curious son, trying to wade through the media construct to make up his own mind about Charles Manson, to come to terms with him.
Brunner doesn’t want attention, but he does want us to know this: He believes his father was a bad guy, a criminal. But he doesn’t believe his father was a monster.