eading through Jeffrey Melnick’s appalling Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America's Most Infamous Family I was reminded of a Benny Hill joke. Playing an avant garde filmmaker, Hill informed an interviewer that he just completed a film that made Genghis Khan look sympathetic by showing Khan petting a dog—after massacring an entire village.
Melnick, Professor of American Studies at Boston University, attempts the same thing with the Manson family, sans the saving grace of humor. Such a Hill-like attempt would fail, for there was nothing funny about this murderous group. The aftermath of their massacre was not sympathetic but macabre; with the pregnant body of Sharon Tate not even cold they ate in her kitchen.
Melnick’s goal is to show, contrary to popular belief, that Manson's murders did not end the ‘60s by revealing the era’s dark side. But his deeper purpose is to show that there was much to admire in the Manson "Family." Manson, according to Melnick, offered a way out of the patriarchal family structure of establishment America by giving runaway girls a sense of community and autonomy.
Melnick is unconvincing that the Manson murders were neither the death knell of the ‘60s nor even a part of it. The turn to nihilistic violence preceded the Tate murders by at least two years, as the once idealistic New Left—pledged to free speech for all and ending racial apartheid in the South—turned murderous. Students for a Democratic Society’s Tom Hayden went from calling for withdrawal from Vietnam to hoping America would be obliterated by the Vietcong. Tired of sit-ins, by 1967 Hayden was toting a rifle and calling for an American Vietcong to make the streets run red with "establishment" politicians and citizens. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s non-violence was overtaken by the homicidal Black Panthers, who admired the Holocaust and pledged to do the same to American Jews.
Many on the New Left admired what the Mansons had done to Tate. Bernadine Dorhn, who shouldered a rifle with the Weathermen, laughed about how the “Family” stuck a fork in Tate’s belly and ate in her kitchen. Clearly “kill the pig” involved more than Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon.
But the most obscene part of Melnick’s book is his argument that the Manson collective provided a better example of family than the traditional one in Nixon’s America. It is difficult to fathom how he arrives at this point, for the Manson family was hyper-patriarchal. Manson ruled over the women who flocked to him, using them for sex and beating them. Masochistically, they worshipped him all the more.
Melnick avoids the fact that Manson regarded himself as Satan, and his "flock" as "witches." To do so would cast the Manson family in a much more sinister light even before the Tate murders. After all, "witches" are defined as women who have sex with Satan. And many of these girls went into these relationships well knowing that Manson regarded himself as the Anti-Christ.
Melnick is sadly all-too-typical of leftist academics and cultural provocateurs today, who admire the anti-Americanism of terrorists (such as Oliver Stone, perhaps the most blatant "Blame America First" figure Hollywood today, praised Bin Laden in the aftermath of 9-11). But he is also a throwback to the nihilistic ‘60s, when Hitler was admired by the Black Panthers and women shaved their heads and drew swastikas on them.
Reviewing Salvador Dali’s biography in 1944, George Orwell proclaimed it a “book that stank.” So too is Melnick’s.