(Published in Red Herrings magazine)
Neil Root looks at the possible reality of the Manson Family’s true motivations for the brutal murders of the Tate/La Bianca murders fifty years ago, alluded to in the hit Netflix series Mindhunter, and how Truman Capote exposed this truth way back in 1973.
August 2019 saw the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous, end-of-the 60s defining slayings of the actress Sharon Tate Polanski, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steven Earl Parent at 10050 Cielo Drive on the edge of Beverley Hills and the killings of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca at 3301 Waverly Drive in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles.
The lead-up to and motivations for these barbaric homicides are currently being documented in popular culture in the Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the series Mindhunter, at a time when the true crime genre is dominating film and television.
The season of Mindhunter, directed by David Fincher, deftly researched and superbly written and acted, has thrown up a crucial theory regarding the real reason for what are known as the ‘Manson Murders’, one that is not widely known by most people, one first revealed by Truman Capote in a piece he wrote just four years after the murders, which shows that the Tate-La Bianca murders were copycat-killings, carried out by the Family to save one of their own.
Mindhunter is loosely based on the career of the legendary FBI criminal behaviour profiler John Douglas, who published the true crime classic book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit with co-author Mark Olshaker in 1996. Douglas is a consultant on the 1970’s-80s set drama series, in which Holden Ford, a character inspired by him played by Jonathan Groff, and Bill Tench, based on Robert Ressler- another real-life FBI profiler, who coined the term ‘serial killer’- is brought to life by Holt McCallany.
In the series, Ford and Tench, just like the real team at the fledgling Behavorial Science Unit, are based at the FBI’s law enforcement training and research centre in Quantico, Virginia, which opened in 1972. They interview some of the worst serial killers in US history, including so far Ed Kemper, Jerry Brudos, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) and Charles Manson.
Manson, who died in 2017, is convincingly played by Damon Herriman, who also takes the same role in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in a strange, but eerily effective televisual-filmic cosmos consistency.
In Mindhunter, Manson raves at Ford and Tench who are interviewing and taping him, protesting, “Listen man, Bobby Beausoleil was sitting in jail for murder, you dig? Sexy Sadie came to me and said ‘Let’s do some copycat killings to get him off….These kids were looking at me with hard eyes… Tex Watson, the all-American boy, the pride of Coalville, Texas, I have better sense than to disagree with him…I did not direct anyone to do anything they did not want to do…”
This is a script, written with real insights, presumably from John Douglas, for dramatic purposes, but those who know the case will realise that there is a ring of truth to it. The mention of ‘Sexy Sadie’ refers to Susan Atkins, a member of the Manson Family, aged twenty-one at the time of the murders. Her nickname was taken from a song on The Beatles’ White Album, released a year earlier in 1968 and a favourite of Manson and the family, another song on which, the heavy rock Helter Skelter, was said to have inspired Manson to instruct his followers to incite a race war.
Manson was undoubtedly highly manipulative, who at the very least had severe personality disorders, but could one man truly brainwash those young people to do what they did to start a white-on-black race war leading to a drug-infused revolution?
Brainwashing has of course been used before in cults, Jim Jones is perhaps the most infamous example, whose manipulation led to the mass suicide of 918 people in 1978. Like Manson and his ‘Family’ in their base on the Spahn Ranch, Jim Jones had isolated his victims, first in America and then in his colony in Guyana. Jones was ultra-calculating and meticulously organized, as well as being mentally unbalanced, but was Manson so in control of himself?
And did Manson truly have the level of control over his victims as Jones? Manson and the Family were certainly prolific users of drugs, which could have aided father-figure/mentor Manson’s control, or addled his brain to reduce his ability to coerce. But is the race war theory truly plausible, with Manson orchestrating the murders to start a revolution?
This is the widely accepted theory espoused by Vincent Bugliosi, the man who prosecuted Manson and Family members Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten. All five were convicted- the four Family members were undoubtedly the killers- another Family member Linda Kasabian had remained waiting by the car outside 10050 Cielo Drive as Tate and four others were murdered, and as she had not participated in the killings, she became Vincent Bugliosi’s chief prosecution witness.
In 1974, Bugliosi published Helter Skelter, with Curt Gentry, the insider’s account of the crimes, which is the best-selling true crime book of all time, with sales approaching eight million copies in 2019.
The conviction of Manson was a legal coup, as he had never actually killed anyone himself- the whole case against him was one of coercion of his followers to kill. Unlike the ex-convict Manson who had had a terrible childhood, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten were all from respectable middle-class families, but had dropped out and run-away.
As Mindhunter makes clear, it was easier for the prosecution to make Manson the all-evil psychopath, controlling every move the family made, than have to sell the fact that middle-class people in their early twenties could commit such terrible murders to a middle-class jury. Could they have carried out the murders without being under Manson’s total control to start that revolution?
The answer perhaps lies in the murder of Gary Hinman, killed just under two weeks before the Tate-La Bianca slayings, at his home at 964 Old Topanga Canyon Road, Los Angeles. Hinman was a music teacher and PhD student. Manson was present, just as he was at the La Bianca murders (he was not there when Tate and the others were killed), along with Bobby Beausoleil (a musician and the ‘star’ of Kenneth Anger’s 1967 film Lucifer Rising), Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner.
Hinman was held hostage and tortured for two days, with Manson himself cutting Hinman’s face with a samurai sword he had brought with him. But it was 21-year-old Beausoleil, a friend of Hinman’s who had once lived with him at that same house, who stabbed Hinman multiple times, and then with Atkins and Brunner allegedly smothered him with a pillow. Beausoleil then wrote ‘Political Piggy’ in Hinman’s blood on a wall and left a bloody ‘paw-print’ on the fridge, which was meant to implicate the radical Black Power movement. Apparently, this attempt to blame black militants and divert attention from themselves was ordered by Manson.
Beausoleil was caught on 6 August 1969, while asleep by the side of a road in Hinman’s car. He would later claim that he had gone to Hinman’s house to get some money he owed a biker gang due to some ‘bad acid’ he had supplied to them through Hinman- the gang wanted its money back. The prosecution claimed that Manson, Beausoleil and the two young women had gone there to retrieve ‘property’ belonging to the Family. Mary Brunner, who gave evidence for the prosecution at Beausoleil’s trial, claimed that he had killed Hinman as Hinman had refused to join a band that Manson was putting together.
Whatever the true reason for Hinman’s murder, two days after Beausoleil’s arrest, Family members carried out the murders of Sharon Tate and four others at 10050 Cielo Drive and those of the La Bianca’s the following day, and on both occasions, words such as ‘Pig’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ were found daubed in the victims’ blood, an clear echo of the Hinman homicide.
Beausoleil would be found guilty and sentenced to death on 18 April 1970, but this was commuted to life imprisonment in 1972. In fact, the actor Holt McCallany, who plays the FBI agent Bill Tench in Mindhunter, visited Beausoleil in prison to help prepare for the second season of the show, and recently said in an interview that he thought that Beausoleil should be released after almost fifty years in prison, as he no longer posed a danger to society.
A year after Beausoleil escaped the death penalty, in 1973, he had a visit in San Quentin from Truman Capote, the hugely famous author of many books, including the genre-defining 1966 In Cold Blood, the second bestselling true crime book of all time, after Helter Skelter.
Capote, the veracity of whose true crime reporting was incidentally first called into question by the journalists Peter and Leni Gillman in the Sunday Times Magazine in the feature article Hoax in 1992, was there that day to interview Beausoleil, and this time his reporting is entirely factual and offers a unique insight into the motivations for the crimes of the Manson family.
Written up by Capote with the title ‘Then it all Came Down’, an expression used by Hinman during the interview to describe the explosions into violence that had occurred, it was published in a magazine and then collected in his 1980 book Music for Chameleons.
Capote wrote: ‘Robert Beausoleil, who is now thirty-one, is the real mystery figure of the Charles Manson cult; more to the point and and it’s a point that has never been clearly brought forth in accounts of that tribe- he is the key to the mystery of the homicidal escapades of the so-called Manson family, notably the Sharon Tate-La Bianca murders.”
In the interview, Capote put it to Beausoleil that the Tate-La Bianca murders were committed to protect him, that they were ‘imitations of the Hinman murder-to prove that you couldn’t have killed Hinman. And thereby get you out of jail’.
Beausoleil’s response is oddly very plausible. ‘To get me out of jail…None of that came out at any of the trials. The girls got on the stand and tried to really tell how it all came down, but nobody would listen. People couldn’t believe anything except what the media said. The media had them programmed to believe it all happened because we were out to start a race war.’
Which is exactly the motivation put forward by Manson’s character in the second season of Mindhunter, almost fifty years later, a television drama perhaps exposing the real, more prosaic truth about real life dramas.
It’s little wonder that the prosecution’s reasoning for the motivation of the murders is the received version believed by almost everybody, especially as Bugliosi and Gentry's book Helter Skelter has had such a wide readership and become the standard view of the case.
But as Mindhunter points out, there is a very believable alternative narrative, one uncovered by Truman Capote almost half a century ago.