In her forthcoming book Yesterday’s Monsters (UC Press, Feb. 2020), my colleague Hadar Aviram examines the members of the Manson family and their journey through and impact on the criminal-justice system. Unlike other books about these infamous individuals, Professor Aviram uses the stories of Charles Manson and his followers as a starting point to study the cultural, legal, and political forces that have shaped the American parole system. Her ethnography of the Manson family’s crimes, their incarceration and parole board hearings, and the public’s reactions provide the backdrop to her overarching critique of the parole system.
I had the privilege to read an advance chapter titled Three Narratives of the Manson Family Murders. Beginning with a first-person narrative description of her visit to the Museum of Death in New Orleans, Professor Aviram draws us into her journey to explore society’s ongoing fascination with Manson and his followers. After an overview of Manson’s background and the crimes committed by his followers, Professor Aviram posits that there are three narratives—demonic, cult, and common-criminal—that have arisen in the true-crime accounts of the Manson family.
Professor Aviram begins with the demonic narrative established by Vince Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Sharon Tate murder, in his bestselling book, Helter Skelter. The demonic narrative ties the Manson family murders to Satanism, apocalyptic warfare, and the occult. In contrast, the cult narrative focuses on Manson’s followers and asserts that they lacked the mens rea, i.e., the free will to commit the crime. Finally, the common-criminal narrative exposes Manson as an ordinary criminal who used his influence over his followers in his attempted cover-up of a botched drug deal and other crimes. Professor Aviram draws these narratives from a broad range of sources, including true-crime accounts by Bugliosi and others, autobiographies and biographies by Manson’s followers and those who have known them, and historical documents from the 1960s and 1970s. She surveys the existing literature with a critical eye, revealing the biases of the writers and the cultural influences that shaped them. She concludes the chapter by showing that these narratives are alive and well, as demonstrated by two recent fictionalized accounts of the Manson family (specifically, Emma Cline’s novel The Girls and NBC’s series Aquarius).
Professor Aviram’s work could not be timelier. One only has to look as far as the New York State Board of Parole’s decision last month to release Herman Bell, a 70-year-old prisoner, and the public backlash over this decision. Bell was a former Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army at the time he was convicted of killing two New York City police officers in 1971. After serving nearly 45 years in prison on a 25 years to life sentence, the parole board determined that Bell had been “corrected” and that he was a low to minimal risk. The decision was stayed this month after the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association filed a lawsuit on behalf of the widow of one of the slain officers.
In sum, this chapter was a fascinating and thought-provoking read. Given her ability to seamlessly tie together the law, society, and popular culture, Professor Aviram’s upcoming book undoubtedly will appeal to a wide audience, whether you are an avid crime buff, a criminal-reform advocate, a lawyer or sociologist, or someone who is just simply intrigued by the Manson family.