What It Was Like Meeting Charles Manson

Journalist Erik Hedegaard was the last member of the media to see Manson in the flesh, at his last home, Corcoran State Prison, in California

Charles Manson, the notorious criminal who upended the Sixties with the Tate-LaBianca killings, died at age 83 on November 19th, 2017. Credit: Michael Montfort/ZUMA

Take one thing with another, you really haven't lived until in the middle of a cocktail party your phone lights up and you angle the phone so everyone can see who is calling and tonight's caller happens to be Charlie Manson, the hippy-Svengali, buckskin-fringe-wearing mass murderer who is serving seven life sentences for his part in the peace-and-love-era-ending Tate-La Bianca murders of August, 1969, has been called the face of evil second only to Hitler for countless decades, and has whiled away the past 47 years in various of California's maximum security prisons. It's a great call to get. It makes you the life of the party. 

But I won't be getting those calls anymore, because Manson has finally, at the age of 83, gone and done what most people thought would never happen. He's died, taken by the vagaries of a common case of old age, the swastika carved low into his forehead never to be seen pulsing between his bristling madman's eyebrows again.

Certainly, lots of people cheered his demise, but I've found it hard to be among them, if only because in certain ways he changed my life, and he changed it for the better.

This happened about four years ago, when I became the last member of the so-called establishment media to see Manson in the flesh, at his last home, Corcoran State Prison, in California. It took over a year to set the meeting up, with Manson calling me collect whenever the urge struck him. He'd typically start by saying no way would he ever agree to a visit.

"You're a stooge, man," he'd growl. "A flunky. I only meet people like you when I'm going to rob them. I'll take you. Put you in the grave. What're you going to do about that, jitterbug?"

Sometimes he'd slam the phone down on me, then ring me right back and say, "Now was I mad at you or was you mad at me?" Then he'd go on to call me "sweetheart," and "honey" and say stuff like, "Yeah, man, you didn't know you was my wife? Hey, I recognize you." And then, finally, often as not, he'd start ranting about the environment and how we're running out of oxygen and how the only way to conserve oxygen is by killing off our fellow air breathers. "Whoever gets killed, that's the will of God. Without killing, we got no chance." Pause. "You might want to say to yourself, 'How can that work for me?'" After which, he'd start calling me "soldier," like I was a soldier in his army and he wanted me to go out and kill on his behalf, just as Leslie Van Houton, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Tex Watson did back in 1969, which ended with all of them going to prison for life.

By now, the horror of the murders themselves has largely faded from view, the 169 stab wounds inflicted on the seven victims as seen in photographs displayed during the trial replaced by images of crazy-eyed Charlie as featured on t-shirts and in TV shows like South Park, turning him into some kind of twisted semi-cool cult icon and fairly benign cultural reference point. Manson himself has basically stayed occluded since 1994, when the state of California banned the use of recording devices during prisoner interviews, meaning Manson could no longer dance his kooky jagged kung-fu dance for the cameras, which is the only reason he granted many interviews in the first place. And he was determined not to see me, either, until I came to town to talk to his then girlfriend, Afton Burton, 29, who goes by the Manson-given name of Star, and during my last day, with him on the phone, I suggested he act his age, man up and quit being so petulant.

Silence, then: "OK, you can come with Star tomorrow."

And so I did. He arrived in the visiting room pushing a wheel chair in front of him, looking frail, but it was all an act. He was soon hopping around and dancing his dance just like he did in the old days. Plus, right at the start, he bounced a finger off my nose, leaned into me, and said, "If I can touch you, I can kill you." I glanced over at the guards. They were watching TV on a raised platform too far away to do me any good should Manson suddenly turn murderous. I smiled at Manson. He smiled at me. I shrugged. He shrugged. He asked if I wanted to have my picture taken with him. I declined, probably the first person to ever do so, and he looked mildly shocked. But then he smiled and shrugged and started looking for other ways to get one up on me.

We talked about the murders, with Manson bellowing: "I never killed anyone!" And about prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi's theory that Manson ordered the murders to start a race war to be known as Helter Skelter, after the Beatles' song. "Man, that doesn't even make insane sense. Helter Skelter didn't exist in anyone's mind but Bugliosi's." Same for the idea that Manson called his drug-and-sex addled crew the Family. "Man, Bug just made that up!” In brief, Manson saw himself as an innocent felled by an overreaching attorney and a bunch of crazy pals who went on a murder spree for reasons having nothing to do with him, more or less. "The reasons was all kinds of different things that were happening [in] all of our minds together, and there's a lot of different discrepancies in there that don't correlate to be straight. It was a collective idea. It was an episode. A psychotic episode, and you want to blame me for that?"

In Bugliosi's estimation, somebody had to take the blame and why not a career loser like Manson, who since the age of 10 had spent most of his life in institutions anyway? Also, as Bug seemed to realize, Manson wasn't the kind of guy you wanted roaming around free, guilty or not. "He had a quality about him that one thousandth of one percent of people have," he told me a few years before his death in 2015, at the age of 80, cancer. "An aura. 'Vibes,' the kids called it in the Sixties. Wherever he went, kids gravitated toward him. This is not normal."

And so my hours with Manson drifted on. He's a compulsive blabbermouth, so he did most of the talking, while I just sat there scribbling notes with a pen and wondering if Manson ever thought about grabbing that pen and shoving it into my neck. I doubted it. For whatever reason, he and I seemed to get along just fine. Later, when my story about him came out, he called to tell me he liked it, that I did a good job. "Yeah, man," he said, "you got it about right."

But here's the thing about Manson and me and the two of us sitting in that visitors' room, me in my civilian clothes, him in his prison blues. As a rule, due to various snags in my childhood, I've never liked being touched by anybody, man or woman, under any circumstances. It makes my skin ache. But then, at one point, Manson put his hand on my bare arm and began to rub it up and down. I flinched like I normally do, but I didn't pull away. I let him do whatever it was he was doing and for the first time in a long time. I felt no pain. It was the oddest thing. His hand seemed to be leaking the most pleasant kind of warmth. It had a slightly sexual tinge to it, as well, probably because we were talking about the groovy free-love sex scene back at the ranch but maybe not. Maybe I was feeling exactly what everyone else felt when he put his fingers upon them, and I did like it, and I didn't want him to take them away.

But then he withdrew, as he does, with another notion worming its way into his brain and soon he was yelling about how he was "an outlaw, a gangster, a rebel, a desperado, and I don't fire no warning shots," which might have made folks quake back in the day but sounded comical now and reduced the immediate effect of his aura. Even so, four years later, I still don't mind being touched as much as I did before Manson did the touching and brought me around to where it sometimes even feels good. I owe him for that. But I also have to agree with Bugliosi's assessment. His vibe is not normal. Plus, he's too easy to gravitate toward, even when you know exactly how bad a man he is.

At the end of our tenth hour together, we hugged for a brief moment, then Manson got behind his wheelchair again and shuffled off through a door, down a corridor and out of sight.

"Too much freedom is detrimental to the soul," he once said. "I should not have been out there."

No, he shouldn't have been. And now, at long last, he's not anywhere at all.