January 7, 2009
Our Savage God Revisited: The Face of Manson
— Brian Collins
The year that just came to its close marked the 40th anniversary of the murders committed by Charles Manson's "Family," and three related events renewed interest in the crimes and the figure behind them. In November a 41-year-old Los Angeles man made news when he learned that Manson was his biological father. In September former Family member Susan Atkins died of brain cancer in prison after being denied a compassionate release. And in March the latest incarnation of Manson's shape-shifting face was revealed when a new file photo of the 74-year-old prisoner was released to the public.
In the guise he adopted during 1967's "Summer of Love," Manson closely resembled 60s icons like Jim Morrison and Jerry Garcia, but he has always denied any connection to the hippy scene, quipping to Geraldo Rivera in 1989, "I’m a Bing Crosby fan, not a Beatles fan." Throughout his trial and in subsequent interviews, Manson's refrain has been that he is only a passive observer of the coming apocalypse, signs of which he saw in the music of The Beatles and the Watts riots. "All I ever did [with] any other human being," he said when he took the stand, "was reflect him back on himself."
Manson and The Family's emptiness and detachment fascinated noted Oxford scholar R.C. Zaehner, who did a series of interviews with Manson in prison. These interviews became the basis of 1974's Our Savage God, a book Zaehner's former student Wendy Doniger calls a "theology of Manson." In what we might call the exoteric version of this theology, preached to the courtroom and the media, Manson’s claim of detachment amounted to a denial of culpability for anything The Family did. But in the esoteric version "Charlie" reportedly gave his followers, detachment meant getting beyond all distinctions, mostly sexual, through orgies and the regular ingestion of LSD and marijuana. Then things took a turn and "death was Charlie's trip," as former Family member Paul Watkins put it.
A student of Marx, Manson saw the historical dialectic soon resolving into a race war in which the oppressed black race would wipe out the whites. But then, because of their genetic inferiority, they would seek out a new ruling class and Charlie and his Family would fill the void. It was to instigate this cataclysmic war that the Family murdered wealthy white "pigs" and painted what looked like militant black slogans on the walls in their blood. For Zaehner, Manson embodied the violent potential of a doctrine of detachment like the one revealed by the Hindu god Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. But for his followers, Manson was a messianic figure of absolute love and his trial was the crucifixion all over again.
For the trial, Manson dropped his hippy guise. He shaved his head and his female followers shaved theirs; he carved an "X" into his forehead and they did likewise. They may have called him Jesus Christ, but the Manson girls' relationship to Charlie was closer to the cowherd girls' erotic longing for Krishna in the sacred love poetry of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu sect. Their theatrical courtroom displays of anguish find an analogue in the Sanskrit term vipralambha, "love in separation," a mystical state in which one experiences the bliss of purest devotion. Herein lies a point of comparison between Manson and Krishna that Zaehner did not explore.
By the time he famously changed the "X" on his forehead into a tattooed swastika, Manson's face had become unmistakable in the public eye. To use the language of Roland Barthes, it had moved from Idea to Event – it had ceased being a representation of the hippy to become the single most recognizable symbol of the rupture of 1969, when instead of Woodstock, peace, and love, the country got The Rolling Stones' disastrous and deadly concert at Altamont and the grisly crimes of The Family.
Forty years later, the Manson events still exert a fascination for the public, but the source of that fascination is no longer his protean face, transforming before the public’s eyes from hippy to monster, though the penetrating stare remained constant. For decades it was precisely Manson’s stare, made famous on the cover of Life magazine, that made him instantly recognizable. But in the recently-released 2009 mug shot, the swastika tattooed on his forehead is the only identifiable characteristic left. "Charles Manson's wild-eyed stare is gone, as is most of his hair," writes CNN.com's Ted Rowlands. "Except for the swastika he carved into his brow during his murder trial, he could be any gray-bearded senior citizen."
So what is left of the theology of Manson now that the supernatural stare has left his face? Zaehner might say that it is the ever-present seductive unreason of a truth that transcends morality. But Charlie might just repeat what he told Geraldo 20 years ago: "I quit thinking in 1952."
To view the Manson photographs, then and now:
Brian Collins is a former Marty Center Junior Fellow and a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, writing a dissertation on the Indian epic hero Parashurama.