A Fork in the Road: Jim Jones or Charles Manson

When we started writing our book, Sixty-Nine: The Uncensored Oral History of the American Family, we had no idea what the story was going to be. The only thing we knew for certain was that the true story of Charles Manson and the Family had never been told. There were just too many questions left unanswered, and too many lies perpetrated by the sensationalism of the media and various writers, especially Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, the authors of Helter Skelter, the best-selling crime book of all time. They knew that after one of the longest and most bizarre trials in our nation’s history – in which Bugliosi was one of the prosecutors – Charlie was just too good of a boogie man to leave in the shadows of prison obscurity. And now that they’re out of the courtroom, they don’t have to worry about pesky things like “facts” getting in the way of a good story.

If you doubt this, count the number of times Manson appears on your TV set during decades of “sweeps weeks,” those yearly time periods when television executives collect data on how many Americans are watching their shows in order to calculate advertising revenue. In their efforts to increase their ratings, the networks feature a Charlie Manson interview every year – Tom Snyder and Geraldo Rivera being the most infamous – so you too can watch the bogeyman make weird faces and say crazy things.  And Charlie always played along, giving a command performance, insuring that he would remain the most famous criminal ever. (And if you doubt Charlie ever achieved this status, consider the fact that he received five thousand letters a week in prison. A week!)

Even though he became a media darling, much of his history – and the history of his followers – remained a mystery, shrouded in the drugged-out haze that has been referred to as the 60’s.

In defense of most writers who’ve tried to tackle the true story, the tale is sprawling and complicated, because it’s really a story of what happened to America during that decade.

And what about when you begin to see strange connections?

Charlie and his family can be connected to such bands as the Beach Boys, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Byrds, Love, and the Doors; to various denizens of the Sunset Strip music scene; to several members of the recording industry; and to luminaries, large and small, in the film industry, from Old Hollywood stars like Doris Day and Angela Lansbury, starlets like Joanna Pettit, young film directors like Roman Polanski, and legendary cinematographer Billy Fracker. They also dipped into the fashion scene (the number of seamstresses that connect to this story is mind-boggling), plus biker gangs, LSD kingpins, forgers, sideshow midgets, miners, loggers, mental health care workers (well, that’s not much of a surprise), local teenagers (again, not a huge surprise), Ozzie and Harriet extras, surfers, cowboys… the list goes on.

But there was one huge connection that we could never have predicted.

After Charlie was released from the latest of his prison terms in March 1967, and after experimenting with LSD in Haight Ashbury (and picking up some girls along the way), he became acquainted with a middle-class American family in San Jose, California. They gave Charlie a piano, which he traded for a VW bus, and in return, Charlie turned the dad – a preacher – onto LSD, deflowered the fifteen-year-old daughter, and chased Mom away.

Even in the early days, Charlie was a force to be reckoned with.

The VW bus gave Charlie the wheels for his journey to gather more followers. In the meantime, the San Jose family left the Bay Area, moving first to Leggett, a redwood logging town north of Ukiah, and then to the tiny hamlet of Hale’s Grove, where they joined an acid commune.

And that’s where the story gets really interesting…

Imagine that you’re a teenage girl, abandoned by her parents, and forced to sleep with her 42-year-old neighbor for protection. Imagine also that the middle-aged neighbor is the guy who’s been feeding his kids LSD since they were six years old, having sex with his underage daughter, and driving the local school bus. Realizing that’s not the wisest choice for a protector, our teenage girl escapes by falling in love with a 15-year-old boy. Eventually, she moves in with him and his ultra-liberal parents in Redwood Valley.

As it turns out, the 15-year old boy has two sisters, one of whom is integral to our story: if you were a teenage girl living near Ukiah in 1967, you could take night classes with a charismatic minister who teaches racial and social equality, and who drops names like Angela Davis and Huey Newton. You might even be impressed.

And if your father and mother were estranged, and your father’s new young and beautiful girlfriend was singing the preacher’s praises, you might really start paying attention.

And if your father – with whom you always had a cantankerous relationship – goes to jail for providing pot to minors, and your mother is living you’re-not-sure-where, and your father’s now-ex-girlfriend is your closest friend, and if that preacher knows how to prey upon the insecurities of his would-be followers, and begins to become a father figure for you, well, maybe it’s time to go back to your family house, pack up your things, take your pictures of you, and go live with people who – like you – are devoted to fighting for racial equality.

Meanwhile, the daughter of the former San Jose family returns to her acid head father, who is now in Los Angeles, and hooks up with Charlie Manson, first at the Pacific Palisades house of Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson, and then at Spahn’s Movie Ranch in Chatsworth. When the father again abandons the young girl, she turns to a substitute: a new father figure, her lover, Charles Manson. After all, wasn’t he all about love, and didn’t he have many other women followers, who all became like sisters?

Sometimes joining Jim Jones and Peoples Temple – or even the Manson Family – is a step up, especially when there’s no other place to go. 

Oftentimes the true story of the monsters among us are so lurid and shocking that we forget that, sometimes, our nightmares started out as beautiful dreams.

From what we’ve been told by former members, Jim Jones’ followers were idealistic, optimistic, and eager to make a better world. They felt capable and confident that their individual endeavors would make a difference in the overall scheme of things. They may not have been huge differences, but they were differences nonetheless, made with the knowledge that if each of us makes a small difference, it can turn into a big difference. The kids from Park Lane High School, the #me too movement, Black Lives Matter, they all know this. One voice. Two voices. Small voice. Louder voice. More voices, getting louder, getting big.

Unfortunately, cults evolve in a similar fashion. There’s one person’s voice, and then there’s a listener who thinks, that guy knows what he’s talking about. And he tells two friends, and she tells two more friends. We are not trying to make light of this. But this, in our experience, is how it happens.

Besides, no cult begins with talks of mass suicide and murdering sprees. It usually starts with talks of love. Some use the word peace too, but Charlie didn’t. His message was more along the lines of “you-are-me-and-I-am-you-and-we-are-all-love,” a message which became his cult’s secret better-than-thou mantra. You know, “us and them.” And “we know, and they don’t.” And anyone outside of “us” becomes “they.”

Does mean that Jim Jones and Charlie Manson were in the same town, at the same period of time, coming into contact with the same people?

While it’s doubtful Jim Jones and Charlie Manson ever met face-to-face in Mendocino County, their influences had far-reaching consequences. The word “cult” had entered the nation’s vocabulary, and each of them, in his own way, achieved what the CIA had failed at for two decades: mind control.

Getting someone to kill themselves, or to kill other people, on your orders, certainly qualifies as mind control in our book, no matter how much ambitious prosecutors want to deny it.

As it happened, the ultra-liberal Redwood Valley family lost a daughter, Christine, and the father’s ex-girlfriend, Karen, in Jonestown, along with hundreds of others from Northern California.

And the daughter of the San Jose family, luckily did not participate in any of the so-called “Manson murders,” but rather went on to have a career and a family of her own.

We hope we succeed in bringing this whole giant web together in our narrative oral history, Sixty-Nine, from the voices of the people who were there, uncensored, including members of Peoples Temple, the San Jose daughter, the Redwood Valley family, and even the pedophile bus driver.

(Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain are the co-authors of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose. The authors can be reached at legsmcn@aol.com.)