The Legacy of Charles Manson

Manson -.jpg

It comes as no surprise that septuagenarian boomers are pondering the legacy of Charles Manson, who died in prison this month at the age of 83. In August 1969 the Manson Family—a handful of wayward, mostly female teens—slaughtered seven people in two Los Angeles suburbs under Manson's orders. Their sensational 1971 murder trials were pure tabloid fodder, the media latching quickly onto the narrative that Manson's pathological delusions and his cult-like grip on his followers marked the gruesome denouement of the hippy Age of Aquarius. The Family's communal lifestyle included the ritual use of hallucinogenic drugs, promiscuous sex, Satanism, and a shared obsession with Beatles music. When he was not serving time for petty crimes, which was often, Manson worked to become a competent guitarist and cultivated bona fide connections to the California music scene. Had it not been for their murderous rampage, he and the Family would likely be remembered as typical Sixties pop-cultural ephemera, if they were remembered at all.

But what did it all mean? Dr. David Smith, founder of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in 1967, today dismisses Manson as "just another character moving through our scene"—one of many impoverished drug-users in need of medical aid, his Family among the numerous hippy groups making their way from San Francisco into rural communes after the summer of love. Smith is nostalgic for the Sixties counterculture and deeply resentful of Manson and his acolytes, who, he says, "took advantage of this progressive movement to advance their own ideas of death, destruction and a tarnishment of moral principles." Baynard Woods, a progressive Gen-Xer writing in the New York Times, disagrees. Manson owed nothing to the counterculture, he argues. "If anything, he was a backlash against the civil rights movement and a harbinger of white supremacist race warriors like Dylann Roof, the lunatic fringe of the alt-right." Woods goes so far as to compare Manson with Richard Spencer—for fomenting "apocalyptic racism" and for making his dupes do the dirty work in his imagined culture war.

If Woods is right, boomer hippies like Smith, now in the twilight of their lives, can rest easy. Their nemesis is dead, their most sacred mythologies abide.