There’s nothing like the impact of hearing an outrageous story from someone who experienced it firsthand. That’s why Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain wanted to publish an oral history of the Manson Family murders and the late Sixties. “It’s people making bad decisions in real time,” McNeil says. For more than 20 years, the duo has been working on 69, the follow-up to Please Kill Me, their 1996 definitive history of the New York punk scene. They’re almost done, they swear.
Fifty years ago, followers of hippie cult leader Charles Manson shot, bludgeoned and stabbed to death five people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, in a seemingly random home invasion in the Hollywood Hills. A second night of murders followed.
The theory that Manson had orchestrated the murders to incite a race war based off hidden messages in the Beatles’ White Album became the prevailing narrative. The story was detailed in Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, the best-selling true crime book of all time. Since then, that interpretation of events has been credibly questioned.
McNeil and McCain say the story they’ve found challenges this prevailing mythology of Manson as a criminal mastermind and his followers as bloodthirsty murderers — the interviews they’ve done reveal Manson to be more of a loser who made a series of fatal decisions. And according to the authors, some of the Manson followers in prison for one of American history’s most brutal and notorious series of murders deserve to be released. “They’re political prisoners,” McNeil says.
Please Kill Me’s writers have interviewed more than 150 people involved in the murders, from cab drivers to entertainment executives. Bobby Beausoleil, the Manson Family associate serving a life sentence for the murder of music teacher Gary Hinman, calls McNeil and McCain regularly from prison in Oregon. They talked to actor Ed Begley, Jr., who once smoked a joint with Manson. “That was shocking!” says McCain.
McNeil and McCain spoke with Rolling Stone about the lonely process of reporting on creepy subject matter, why the “Helter Skelter” theory is (mostly) bullshit, and how if you give someone enough acid you can make them believe anything you want.
You said you were hesitant to work on this book. Why’s that?
McNeil: Well, because it is so big and we didn’t think people would talk to us. Plus, going back and talking to everybody seemed like a very daunting project. And it proved to be that!
McCain: Yes, it has. I mean, there are still some people we want to interview. We’re just trying to get the first draft done.
How did you come to this story?
McNeil: Because there were too many holes in it, and we wanted to know how [Manson] went from being a hippie and a love child to being a murderer. We wanted to explain it to the reader and to put it in the context of the time and rock & roll.
What narratives were you not buying?
McCain: Well, Helter Skelter is a great book, but it’s Bugliosi’s — he’s making himself look big.
McNeil: And also in order to get a conviction, Bugliosi had to prove [the] Helter Skelter [murder theory] which was kind of lame: that they were all on drugs and controlled by Charlie. But they weren’t on drugs the night of the murders.
McCain: [He had to prove] that they were brainwashed, but they would’ve killed anyway.
McNeil: We wanted to do a corrective.
Why was oral history the right way to tell this story?
McCain: Nobody has told the story through the people’s voices
McNeil: It’s so immediate, and it puts you in the time and the place. It’s people making bad decisions in real time.
Who was the first person you reached out to?
McCain: Barbara Hoyt, a member of the Family. She didn’t do any crimes, but she was a pivotal character in the trial because one of the other Manson Family members had dosed her hamburger with LSD in order to get her not to testify. She had never spoken to any [reporters], and she was a born-again Christian and a nurse [when we interviewed her]. We thought it was not a very good interview, but looking back at it, it was really excellent.
What was it like talking to Bobby Beausoleil?
McNeil: We just talked to him an hour ago! He calls all the time.
McCain: We couldn’t interview him in jail, but knowing that we were going to be spending a lot of time with him interviewing him on the phone, I thought it was good to do a meet-and-greet. So I went to the penitentiary in Oregon and visited him for two or three hours and just liked him immediately. I’d say we’ve done about 50 hours of interview with him. He just got paroled, abut they’re not letting him out. The governor overturned it.
I’ve heard you felt strongly about Leslie Van Houten.
McNeil: We think Leslie [Van Houten] should be paroled, we think Bruce Davis should be paroled, and we think Bobby should be paroled.
McCain: And [Patricia] Krenwinkle. It’s 50 years; they’ve done enough time.
McNeil: And they were [young]. I mean if you take someone and give them lots of acid [and] isolate them in a community, you can get people to do anything.
Why do you think they haven’t been released?
McNeil: Because no governor wants to be known as the governor who paroled the Manson Family. Even though Clem [Steve “Clem” Grogan, who participated in the murder of movie stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea a few weeks later] has been out since the 80s, and he’s lived an upstanding life. It just goes to prove they’re political prisoners.
How has your understanding of the Manson family changed?
McNeil: We didn’t know what the story was. We had to go to primary subjects: people who were in the room when shit happened. And we had to talk to them, because there’s so much mythology about it.
Do you feel like you’ve got the story now?
McNeil: Oh yeah.
Will it shock people?
McNeil: It’s gonna shock people, because it’s very human. It’s about people who didn’t have any other options. You don’t end up [being] Charlie’s girls with other options.
What did the musicians, poets and other cultural figures you interviewed bring to the story?
McNeil:We spent a lot of time with Peter Coyote, who was in the Diggers [an anarchist collective and offshoot of the San Francisco Mime Troupe], and a lot of people around San Francisco and the Haight, Carl Franzoni [performers and fixtures of the LA hippie freak scene], and the Byrds and Love.
Is there anyone who stands out as a surprising interview?
McCain: Did you know Ed Begley Jr. smoked a joint with Charlie? That was shocking!
What do you think people will learn from your book?
McCain: Have more empathy. Is that a stupid thing to say?
McNeil: No, no. The Manson trial went down, and they looked like monsters, which they weren’t. They were just so spaced out on so many drugs. I mean, you take belladonna for a year, you’re gonna be whacked out of your skull, too.
It couldn’t have been just the drugs, though. What other factors do you think led them to follow Manson without questioning him?
McNeil: Once you isolate people and convince them the world’s coming to an end, they’re not getting any outside information.
The classic cult move.
McNeil: Exactly. You deprive them of sleep, everybody works all the time.
McCain: You’re eating from garbage cans.
McNeil: You’re living like animals. What no one realizes is Charlie got out of prison in March of 1967. It wasn’t until January of ’69 that Helter Skelter came into play.
McCain: Pretty much up until that it was a real family commune. And it wasn’t a big sex thing. It was mainly the women had [such deep] friendships.
McNeil: I think the women stuck around more for the other women. There wasn’t any women’s movement until the Seventies. We talked to a lot of female journalists who covered this story and asked them [if they covered] RFK’s assassination. They said no, because in 1968 female journalists couldn’t cover stories after dark, which we found shocking. So it’s also very much a woman’s story, you know?
What about your impressions of Manson himself?
McCain: To me, he was always the least interesting part of the story
McNeil: Kind of a big loser, you know?
McCain: We’re trying to debunk the myth that he was some criminal mastermind, because it was kind a of domino effect of stupid decisions on Charlie’s part.
McNeil: And his paranoia and his delusions got stronger with every disappointment.
So you think his charisma and ability to control people was the only thing he had going for him?
McNeil: I do think he was very charismatic, and if you take 16, 17, 18-year-old kids and you give them a lot of acid, you can convince them of anything.
McCain: I think he was a good musician.
McNeil: The problem with Charlie was he had every chance in the world to prove himself, and he didn’t. Like, when the engineer said, “Hey, move the microphone closer,” he’d take that as an insult. There’s an interesting tape where they go, “OK, we’re ready,” and Charlie sounds nervous. It’s interesting — it’s one of the first times I felt any sympathy for him because he just sounded so lost in the studio. If Charlie had had some lessons and been civilized, he could’ve made it.
In music, you mean?
McNeil: Yes. Everyone else’s demos were as shitty as Charlie’s. It’s not just the band — it’s the producer and the record company that makes you great, you know?
Do you think they were trying to send producer Terry Melcher a message when they committed the Tate murders?
McNeil: I don’t think it really mattered who was there. Charlie was just getting so frustrated and so unhappy, he just wanted people to go out and kill people.
McCain: I don’t think he thought Terry still lived there, but he sure would send a scare to Terry.
McNeil: I think it worked.
Can you share anyone who you haven’t been able to get in touch with but would really like to?
McNeil: Leslie Van Houten.
McCain: I’d love to interview Patricia Krenwinkel. We’ve interviewed a lot of the girls but not all of them. We have been denied a lot of interviews. Much more than we were for Please Kill Me.
How else has the process differed from Please Kill Me?
McNeil: We couldn’t talk about it to anyone. It destroyed a lot of relationships.
What do you mean you couldn’t talk about it?
McNeil: You mention Charlie Manson in a restaurant and everybody turns around and stares at you like you’re an idiot or a murderer. We didn’t tell anyone we were working on this as hard as we were. We’d just say we’re doing a book on the Sixties.
How will you know you’re done?
McNeil: Well we’ve got our ending now, so now we’ve just gotta put it together.
McCain: We’ve got a lot of interviews to revisit because we’ve been doing them over 20 years, so it’s a lot of going back.
How does it feel to be almost finished with the book?
McCain: We’re really excited; it’s been a long time since Please Kill Me.
McNeil: We just wanna get the fucking thing done — we’ve lived in Manson world for much too long. We’ll probably [be done in January] 2020. And we’re excited about 69 because it’s as good as Please Kill Me. Actually, it’s better.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.