Untitled, by Raymond Pettibon and Aïda Ruilova. Pencil, acrylic, and oil on paper
The recent acknowledgement by the Mormon Church that its revered founder, Joseph Smith, had as many as 40 wives, including teenage girls, oddly intersected with the news that the geriatric but still notorious and imprisoned Charlie Manson would marry a much younger woman. These stories became an instant topic of discussion between myself and one of my favorite writers, a fan of all things dark and damaged, Alissa Bennett. We met on a Sunday afternoon, the Lord's day of rest, to delve into our many mutual obsessions.
Bob Nickas: Among Joseph Smith's 40 wives there are women who were already married, some to close associates, a 14-year-old girl, and another he wed just a day after her 17th birthday. The church long held to the complete fiction that Smith had only ever been married once, to his wife Emma. There's a statue of the couple in the center of Temple Square in Salt Lake City. I guess they'll have to make room for a much bigger memorial. And now that the cats—and the kittens—are out of the bag, they've tried to soften the impact of a very belated admission. They claim that Smith struggled against polygamy, that he didn't want to take plural wives, and assented only after an angel confronted him "with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully." Yet he certainly aimed to ennoble the practice, referring to it as "celestial marriage." Where were the parents of that just-turned 17-year-old? The mother had passed away and Joseph sent her father off for two years on a church mission. Apparently that angel, sent from heaven above, had also commanded Smith to rob the proverbial cradle.
Alissa Bennett: The fact that marriages between adults and children have historically been sanctioned within the Mormon Church, particularly by fundamentalists, is directly connected to an imperative. Men should maximize their reproductive potential, and girls should be immediately sequestered by domesticity to keep them docile and willing. The government tried to intervene in the early 1950s when the National Guard stormed an FLDS enclave in Short Creek, Arizona, arresting 122 adults and placing the children into foster care, attempting to publicly penalize polygamist behavior, an act that was ultimately a failure.
BN: FLDS—the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
AB: But it wasn't until the raid in Texas in 2008, with the arrest and imprisonment of child rapist and FLDS leader Warren Jeffs that the group faced any serious legal condemnation. I remember watching the ATF incinerate the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on live television in 1993, and I remember the rhetoric that suggested they were a cult posing as a religious order. The obvious corollaries got me thinking: How different is Warren Jeffs from David Koresh or Charles Manson?
(L-R) Jeffs, Koresh, Manson, Smith
BN: Any number of cults cast themselves as religions, which exempts them from paying taxes, and allows them to claim "religious persecution" when they come under scrutiny or official investigation. It makes them appear more respectable within straight society—as if the roots of so many churches weren't riddled with con men and charlatans. Don't forget that cult is another term for church. What Manson and Koresh had in common was a need to be on stage and worshipped. They both sought but were denied rock stardom. Are you aware of the long-running rumor that Manson tried out for a part on the TV show The Monkees ?
AB: I'd never heard that.
BN: It's untrue, but still believable. Manson never tried out for the show—he was in jail at the time. The rumor was started by Davey Jones, who was one of the Monkees. He owned up to it many years later, but by then it had been repeated so widely that people fell for it, and still do.
Well, it seems totally plausible given that the Tate/LaBianca murders were so thoroughly entrenched in Hollywood mythology. I remember that Manson had flirted with Scientology at one point. It seems logical that he would have auditioned for the original boy band.
BN: Manson had musical aspirations. He hoped to get a record released with the help of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, to whom he had attached himself, like a barnacle at the bottom of a sailboat. Manson had an overblown sense of his meager talents and believed that he would be bigger than the Beatles. John Lennon once said that as far as young people were concerned, the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, to whom Manson, having assembled his devout Family, was sometimes compared. In his delusions of grandeur, Manson would be bigger than both the Beatles and Jesus. One of his songs, "Cease to Exist," was actually recorded by the Beach Boys in '68, although the title was changed—it became "Never Learn Not to Love"—and the phrase was altered to the more palatable "Cease to Resist." When Manson found out that his lyrics had been re-written and the song was credited solely to Wilson, he threatened to kill him. That was pretty much the end of Manson's time in the music industry, and possibly the beginning of his deadly equation: if you can't be famous, kill famous. When you say that the murders were entrenched in the Hollywood myth, I'm reminded that Manson, had he not been caught, might have orchestrated even more gruesome mayhem—drenched in celebrity blood. If you can believe the jailbird singing of Susan Atkins, there was a movie star "death list" that included Frank Sinatra, who was to have been skinned alive while his own songs played in the background. Take your pick: "Witchcraft," "That Old Black Magic," "Strangers in the Night." And if you can even begin to fathom the horrifying second act, "The Family would then make purses out of his skin and sell them in hippie shops." 1
AB: "Strangers In the Night," for sure. Who else was on the "death list"?
BN: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Steve McQueen, who carried a gun for protection, and even had it on him at Sharon Tate's funeral. Now, had Manson and Koresh achieved any acclaim for their music, a lot of people might be alive today. Sharon Tate's baby would now be 45, and it's possible that Roman Polanski wouldn't be a wanted fugitive from American justice. For Manson and Koresh, if they couldn't be rock stars, they would be gods of another kind. Adoring fans can be manufactured. You assemble and brainwash your fan club, a cult, and settle for being their hero. You rule a little world of your own, and everyone does what they're told.
(L) David Koresh playing guitar, (R) Behold Thy Mother, a book by Lois Roden
In this respect it's worth going back in time to Joseph Smith. You can connect Manson to an age-old American tradition of systematically using and abusing the so-called second sex, turning them into pliable groupies, a harem that's subservient to its lord and master. Joseph Smith was born a dozen years after the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , a book I'm sure he never read. For the Smiths and the Mansons of this world, women have no rights. Even their children are the property of the father. And although cults are usually run by men, when Koresh first joined the Davidians in the early 80s, they were led by Lois Roden.
AB: What's interesting is that Roden had a pretty progressive organization going for a while. Her ministry was oriented around the belief that the Holy Spirit was a feminine presence. She was in her mid 70s when Koresh announced that God had sent him a message that he and Roden were meant to produce a child who would ultimately be "the chosen one." He was able to convince her to cede control to him with this insane fallacy! It reminds me of Thomas Mann's book The Black Swan, with the idea that a woman's sense of her ultimate value is linked to her reproductive capabilities. This relates to groupies and the kind of power connected to ruling a stable of attentive, obedient women—via ministry, fan club, and so on—and the pervasive notion that posits the female body as the ultimate vessel of immortality. Logically, this should lend itself to a theology that valorizes women, but that's never what happens. Did Manson have any children? I'm waiting for an E! True Hollywood Where Are They Now? special. Where the fuck are they now?
BN: Well, he had a son with his first wife, Rosalie, whom he married when she was 15. The boy, born in 1956, Charles Manson Jr., later changed his name to Jay White, and ended up taking his own life in '93, possibly the result of marriage trouble, a separation, or divorce. Manson had another son in 1963 with his second wife, Leona Rae, named Charles Luther Manson, who all but disappeared from view—and can you blame him? Leona Rae had worked the streets for Charlie, and he only married her after being arrested for transporting women over state lines for the purpose of prostitution. As his wife, she couldn't testify against him. But you're probably wondering, as most do, about any children Manson may have fathered within the Family prior to the murders. That would be his son Valentine Michael Manson, born in 1968, and known in his infancy as Pooh Bear. His mother, Mary Brunner, was Manson's first and possibly most devoted follower. He named the baby after the character in the novel Stranger in a Strange Land , one of his favorite books. That character is a human raised by Martians, which may have parallels with a child raised by hippies on LSD who are alienated both psychologically and physically from society. There was no stranger land than America at the end of the 60s, which Manson fully exploited to his advantage. Here, I'm reminded of a particularly Mansonian line from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: "If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!"
AB: Mary Shelley, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who died just days after giving birth to her.
(L) Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, published by Simon & Schuster. (R) Charles Manson, age 5
BN: I've seen an interview with Michael Brunner when he was in his mid 20s, and he seems relatively well-adjusted, having been raised by his maternal grandparents in a stable home environment. What underlies your question is a suspicion that Manson's offspring may conform to our notion of "the bad seed," a child innately born bad. But it's Manson who was the monster—born to a delinquent teenage mother who was criminally-minded, abandoned by the child's biological father, almost indifferent to her own baby. Manson claims that she once traded him for a pitcher of beer. Now before you start feeling sorry for his child self, keep in mind that Manson was a sociopath from a young age. Everything that made him the devil that he became was firmly in place by the time he entered school. According to Jeff Guinn, who wrote Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson , six-year-old Charlie had been bullied by a boy at school, and somehow convinced a group of girls to beat him up. When this was discovered and Charlie was called into the principal's office, he insisted that the girls had done what they wanted, that he hadn't told them to do anything. Sounds eerily similar to what would happen 30 years later.
AB: What an incredibly prescient detail. A Child Army, Crusaders for The Family! It dovetails nicely with something you brought up earlier, which is that there is a profound difference in how Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten are remembered for their roles in the Tate/LaBianca murders and how Manson is. A lot of this stems from the fact that violence committed by women is often positioned as being borne of errant, and often romantic, devotion.
BN: In this culture, murderous women are, to apply Wollstonecraft's equation, "objects of pity bordering on contempt," yet it's contempt that prevails. Perhaps the greatest punishment for the Manson girls is the charade of continuously bringing them before parole boards who would never in a million years release them. For these women, an extreme fidelity to Manson—being under his control and doing whatever they were told—and the endless prison sentences it brought them, can be summed up in the age-old vow: "Til death do us part."
(L) W.I.T.C.H. Bridal Fair poster, (R) S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanis
AB: The romantic view posits a woman's actions as being a matter of hysteria or psychosis or weakness of will rather than choice, a classic hangover from the 19th century. I'm reminded of W.I.T.C.H.—the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell. They staged a number of theatrical public interventions that incorporated witch costumes and the chanting of hexes, playing on the popular belief that women who engage in political activity are inherently crazy and sexless. They were primarily active in '68 and '69, long after the Summer of Love had grown cold.
BN: When I think of protestors as crazy and sexless, I see those dumpy, bloated guys who are on the front lines of anti-abortion rallies. I mean, who wants to have a child with one of them? Maybe they go to these rallies to meet women? My favorite protest by W.I.T.C.H. was the one in New York in '69, when they descended upon a bridal fair to "confront the whoremakers." They wore black veils and chanted, "Here come the slaves, off to their graves." Of course if you're talking about whoremakers, look no further than Joseph Smith and Charlie Manson. Both believed that women were to be completely subservient to men. But Manson, the one-time petty pimp, routinely turned girls out from The Family to make money, to manipulate producers into offering a record contract, to win over bikers. For Manson, the sexual liberation of the '60s allowed him to con women into carnal exploitation. Support the power of pussy? Charlie's unspoken motto was exploit the power of pussy. I'm reminded of a contemporary to Manson and W.I.T.C.H.—Valerie Solanas—who claimed that a man will "swim a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there'll be a friendly pussy awaiting him." Manson would have readily agreed with her. This comes from Solanas's S.C.U.M. Manifesto of 1967. The Society For Cutting Up Men. Too bad she couldn't have rallied a few hardcore recruits and headed west. Today we might alternately decode S.C.U.M. as The Society For Cutting Up Manson.
AB: In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir very convincingly argues that masculine anxiety is largely rooted in a fear of female biological activity—menstruation, lactation, and ovulation—all bound linguistically to the idea of a Dionysian swamp, a hidden recess of fluids that, if women's bodies are not carefully policed, threatens to take down the whole system. It's interesting that Solanas upended this by co-opting that fear and representing it as legitimately threatening in a totally animal way.
BN: She also insisted that to call man an animal was insulting—to animals.
AB: It strangely reminds me of a tract allegedly written by Joseph Smith himself, called The Peace Maker. It's not particularly long, but it works exclusively to extoll the virtues of polygamist living with a strangely carnal bend. One memorable line states: "Here, the wife is pronounced the husband's property, as much so as his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, or his horse." Have you ever looked at the family trees of people in the FLDS? It's like tracing the patri-lineage in puppy-mill animal husbandry. This reference to farm animals suggests a call to enforce that bizarrely Christian paradigm of woman as a fucking and lactating sow. There is a strong commonality between Manson and Smith where belief and sex coincide and cannot be separated. Mormons literally think that God wants as much reproduction as possible, not only to multiply and replenish the Earth, but believing that if they're righteous enough they will create and populate their own worlds, with Adams and Eves on all of them. This concept is exaggerated within the fundamentalist arm of the religion, wherein disgraced or excommunicated men are subject to having their wives and children removed as property, and then re-designated to the household of another man.
BN: The author of The Peace Maker was Udney Hay Jacob, and its publisher was Joseph Smith. In the book Under the Banner of Heaven, John Krakauer affirms that it was conceived and set into motion by Smith. This gave him an opportunity he had long waited for—to bring the notion of polygamy before his followers and see how it might be accepted. Unfortunately, it went down very badly, forcing Smith to claim that he hadn't been aware of its content—an absolutely baldfaced lie. It was published in 1842, and by then he had secretly been taking plural wives for almost ten years. What's really incredible is that shortly before Joseph Smith was killed, his wife Emma confronted him with his ongoing infidelity, insisting that if he didn't give up these women she was entitled to another husband. This defiance took a lot of nerve on her part, and you can imagine it was the last thing he expected to hear. Smith's so-called, self-serving revelation, dictated by him word-for-word, at one point states: "And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore he is justified …" Not only does Smith want women plural and with total immunity, he wants virgins, which suggests young girls, pure and ripe for the picking. If only every run-of-the-mill cheater might blessedly receive a commandment from God, that he was bound to take plural wives and their daughters, granddaughters, and the babysitter …
AB: Take the baby too!
BN: … but no, a mere mortal has to stick his tail between his legs and more or less behave. The divining rod of a self-proclaimed Prophet lets him follow the scent in every direction. That title, The Peace Maker, it's not about sowing the seeds of harmony.
(L) Vincent Price as Joseph Smith, in Brigham Young (1940), (R) Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)
AB: You know that I'm an avid consumer of crime programs like Dateline, 48 Hours, and 20/20. These shows often report on FLDS runaways and the systems that are in place to help them assimilate into 21st century American society, a kind of underground railroad for religiously oppressed white people. When you listen to these young women describe their lives within the confines of the church, there is nothing that could be remotely considered harmonious. They talk about rape and incest and the complete absence of agency, the absolute fear of domestic bondage that they feel from early adolescence, and abuse not only at the hands of their father-husbands, but by other wives in the household who are not their mothers. I recently saw one that dealt with secret prescription drug abuse among Mormon women, which is becoming rapidly more prevalent. They talked a lot about how exhausting it is to "keep sweet," how difficult it is having to pretend all the time. It's just another type of violence.
BN: The meaning of "keep sweet" has changed over time. For Rulon Jeffs, the father of Warren Jeffs, it meant that "the Holy Spirit of the Lord … must be a permanent thing in our very nature, and a part of our character." For his son, "If you are keeping sweet no matter what, you are a person ready to give up your own will and just obey the priesthood over you." The original message is clearly directed at all followers, but it later becomes a warning to women and girls, and not to "keep sweet" so much as to keep silent.
AB: Silence is an edict built into Mormonism from its inception. Insulation is the primary mechanism of all cults, right? But Mormonism is such a specifically American religion, and given the romanticization of what this country was founded on—insurrection and individualism—it's relatively easy to construct a series of Us-versus-Them binaries that ultimately serve a separatist sub-narrative in ways that are profoundly political. This explains the sort of dropout culture that Warren Jeffs has taken to its absolute limits. He continues to issue increasingly insane religious premonitions and edicts from his jail cell. In 2012, he received a message from "God" that only 15 men in the Boulder City FLDS enclave would be allowed to have sex with the women of the group. Sex could only be for the purpose of procreation, and the act must be witnessed, start to finish, by two other men.
BN: Anyone listening in now is likely wondering, what exactly are the links between Manson and the Mormons? And what are these two tripping out on? Well, back when little Charlie was being taken care of by his grandmother, she tried to set him on the right path, which included dragging him along to the church of the Nazarenes in McMechen, West Virginia. They were fundamentalists, and believed that women are intended to serve and be subservient to men. This was ingrained in Manson from an early age. Now, children can be very adept at getting parents and guardians—and other children—to do what they want, but Manson made a lifetime career out of it. He was a user and a master manipulator. When he was in prison at Terminal Island outside of L.A. he learned how to control women from older inmates who had been pimps. You alternately dole out love and beatings, adoration and degradation, and you turn them out to earn money, never allowing them to have any. This limits their means of escape. Within the Family, Manson held onto the IDs and driver's licenses of his followers, lest they try to run away. The Mormon "keep sweet" can be translated into the criminal/Manson everyday in no uncertain terms: "Do as you're told. Or else." You don't need to alienate the rights of women if those rights are nearly non-existent. When one of the craziest of the Manson girls, Susan Atkins, was briefly talked into cutting a deal to save her own skin, she spoke of Manson's hold on the Family, and claimed, "We belong to him, not to ourselves." And don't forget that central line in "Cease to Exist," when Manson sang, "Submission is a gift, give it to your brother."
Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff in Bride Of Frankenstein, 1935. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)
AB: "Here come the slaves …"
BN: Enter the brides of Frankenstein, stage left.
AB: Interesting how in both of these instances sex is turned into a mechanism of capital and volume: women's bodies are expected to be fruitful, to generate material goods, be those goods monetary revenue or enough offspring to populate a private planet. Belong to Manson and you will fuck for life. Belong to FLDS and you will fuck for the afterlife.
BN: There's a big difference between Mormons and fundamentalists, and yet they share the same fundamental philosophy in terms of their history, and that history is violent. Blood Atonement—the sacred oath of vengeance. Manson would have understood that all too well. And appearances can be deceiving. After he got out of prison and encountered the hippies, Manson grew his hair long and seemed to be one of them. He didn't hide the fact that he served time. This gave him even more credibility as someone who had stood up to "the man." With the Mormons, the squeaky clean image that many of us have, particularly since Mitt Romney ran for president and they were more visible and under scrutiny, is like much of reality in this country, a surface that reveals very little of its interior drive and its ulterior motives. Imagine if Romney had ever crossed paths with Squeaky Fromme. It's worth noting as well that Utah, basically a Mormon state, has the most subscribers of paid internet porn, and the highest incidence of fraud and white collar crime in the country.
AB: Smith got his taste for leading people on when he became involved in what was then referred to as "money digging"—hunting for buried treasure. He would put a stone into a hat and stare at it until he received a vision that told him where to dig, a practice he was eventually prosecuted for because he conned a lot of people out of their money even though he never unearthed any. After his visitations from the prophet Moroni—which, not coincidentally, involved the discovery and subsequent loss of a religious text engraved on gold plates—he was able to play off the economic desperation of the times and establish a following. He began moving Westward as the gold rush was getting underway. Both Manson and Smith were very lucky in their timing. Periods of national violence and spiritual longing compel people to seek a community in which they can participate and feel safe.
BN: By the late 1840s Smith had been killed and Brigham Young was leading the Mormons, and he didn't want his followers running off to prospect. Many did anyway, and they were referred to as Gold Missionaries. As the Mormons relentlessly go out in search of new converts to expand and enrich their church, this is exactly what they are today.
AB: It's the fastest growing religion in the world.
Mountain Meadows Massacre, from The Life and Confession of John D. Lee, Barclay & Co. published 1877
BN: Another commonality between Manson and the Mormon church is that they brought their followers out to the desert, to get beyond the reach of the federal government and law enforcement. Manson and the Mormons both considered blacks to be inferior. It's quite possible that Mormons believed that everyone was inferior to them. Do they still believe this? After all, they are the Saints. Manson wanted to start a race war and have it blamed on the Black Panthers. When Mormons slaughtered an estimated 120 people traveling through Utah by wagon train in 1857, including scores of women and children—the infamous Mountain Meadow massacre—they laid the blame on the Piute indians. Not only had they lured the Piutes into joining them in their dirty work, some of the Mormons who led the attack were disguised as indians. Here I can't help but picture Manson dressed in his buckskin outfit. In 1969 it was "blame the Panthers." In 1857, in a scheme worthy of Manson himself, it was blame the Piutes.
AB: This feeds right back into Otherness: do not trust the other, because whether they are black men or a country full of heathens they will lead us down the path to ruin. Manson and Joseph Smith assembled their ministries from a cast of misfits who related deeply to having been disenfranchised. We know that Manson looked for runaways and outcasts with tenuous family anchors, people with a profound desire to be included in something—anything—that made them feel socially and emotionally unified. Manson himself had this need.
(L) How to Win Friends and Influence People, (R) Tex Watson's map of the Spahn Ranch
BN: When he was in prison, the only time Charlie made any effort to better himself was when he took the Dale Carnegie course based on the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People . With good-time Charlie Manson this might have been re-written as How to Kill Friends and Manipulate Your Flock. His followers were under the influence—in more ways than one.
AB: The idea of appearance as a malleable asset reminds me of theater, in the way that an audience is able to buy into and commit to a fiction because in the dark we're more easily convinced that what we're seeing on stage is real. Reality within the worlds of both Manson and Mormonism only remains intact if the fourth wall isn't breached. Once again, the importance of separation and isolation for cults. Particularly interesting when you think about the fact that Spahn Ranch, where the Manson Family lived, was an old movie lot. There were horses and a barn, a bunkhouse, a saloon, even a killer named Tex.
BN: Almost everyone in the Family was given a stage name. They were characters, they had parts to play. LSD amplified a kind of method acting—a method to their madness. And the movie in which they were trapped was, of course, a Western.
AB: And the sunset they were riding into was blood red.
Illustration by Norman Sanders, 1958
BN: Here in the present, the theater/fiction you imagine actually exists. There's a rather successful play called The Book of Mormon. But something tells me that it doesn't include a scene of the Mountain Meadow massacre. All singing, all dancing, all slaughter! The horrible description of the killing of the women and children that you'll find in the book Under the Banner of Heaven almost sounds like the Tate murders: "Painted Saints and Piutes rushed upon these victims with guns and knives and began shooting and bludgeoning them to death and slashing their throats." From eyewitness accounts, the Mormons were even more savage than the indians. The frenzy of Blood Atonement must be equivalent to a few tabs of acid and a line of speed. Maybe Manson's story will make it onto the stage one day.
AB: There are still people shaving their heads and carving Xs into their foreheads. Incarceration be damned, the beat goes on.
BN: Even though California abolished the death penalty after Manson was convicted, they might have made an exception in his case. He should have been the last one sent to the gas chamber. How symbolic that would have been. But no, he keeps on living as some sort of endless act of spite. And the Manson musical gets a perfectly scripted happy ending. Manson, who at 80 years old is doing life in prison, marries one last time, and gets another little stab at happiness. But at 26, isn't she a little old for him?
AB: Trust me, at 80, beggars can't be choosers.
1. "Charles Manson and the Manson Family," Marilyn Bardsley, on Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods, http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/notorio…