I’m primarily a fiction reader. Once in a while, I will pick up a nonfiction book, but they are generally historical or funny (à la Augusten Burroughs or Tina Fey). I’ve never read a true crime book. Until now.
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi is the true story of the Manson murders and trial. For those of you not familiar with Charles Manson, he was the leader of a quasi-commune, called the Manson Family, in Southern California during the 1960s. He and several of his Family members famously murdered actress Sharon Tate (wife of Roman Polanski), three of her friends, a teenager who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Leno LaBianca, a grocery executive, and his wife Rosemary over a two-night killing spree in August 1969. There is also evidence that the Manson Family, under orders from Manson, killed an additional thirty-five to forty people (including one of the defense attorneys). His case was one of the most famous in American history (even President Nixon commented on it during the trial), not only because of the horrific murders they committed, but because of the Family’s bizarre courtroom antics and an even more bizarre motive.
Bugliosi was actually the prosecutor during the case. In his book, he goes into a lot of detail about the case, his interviews with witnesses, and his conversations with Manson himself. Frustrated with the LAPD, Bugliosi also conducted some of the investigation himself, and recounts the interesting process of uncovering information on this case. He successfully sought the death penalty against Manson and four of his accomplices (later overturned by the State of California), based on a motive he worried no one would believe. Helter Skelter.
Manson was reportedly obsessed with the Beatles, specifically their White Album, and used the lyrics of songs like “Helter Skelter”, “Blackbird”, “Revolution 1”, and “Revolution 9” to prove to his followers that the Beatles were communicating to him through their music and telling him that a race war was coming. Bugliosi suggests that because Manson thought the blacks were too stupid to start the war, which he called Helter Skelter, on their own, he had to start it for them by killing white “pigs” and pinning it on them. Then he and his followers would hide out in a bottomless pit in the desert while the blacks obliterated the rest of the white race. Manson would then return to rule the world. Apparently, he was also influenced by Hitler.
I found Helter Skelter extremely interesting. Like I said, this is the first true crime book I’ve read, so I don’t have much to compare it to. The case itself is fascinating and frightening. I live very close to LA, and I probably would have been scared shitless if I were alive in 1969. The book itself is worth reading not just for the case details, but because Bugliosi attempts to get into Manson’s head, to really uncover the true motive behind the murders.
I will admit that there were times I had to force myself to keep reading (it is a nearly 700-page book full of facts and courtroom transcripts), but I’m glad I did. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes true crime (it is the #1 bestselling true crime book of all time), crazy true stories in general, or even writers looking for inspiration with a unique twist.
If you’ve read Helter Skelter, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!