At the end of the documentary Manson: The Lost Tapes, Bobby BeauSoleil, a former member of theManson family, attempts to pierce the illusion of Charles Manson as a messianic figure, suggesting that Manson was not “a master” and had no plan, and rather that the murders were beyond his control. As ultimately pathetic as Manson is generally understood to be, with a former cellmate describing him as a “guy to make fun of” in the documentary, he was able to form and hold power over his cult thanks to the virulent misogyny of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.Manson, who was described as someone that would “do anything to survive,”gained a following through preying on young and vulnerable girls, who he manipulated through sexual abuse and rampant drug usage.
Manson:The Lost Tapes illustrates this through unused footage from Robert Hendrickson’s 1973 Oscar nominated documentary Manson, as well as present day interviews held with two former members of the cult, Catherine Share and Diane Lake. Both women had in common with each other a troubled home life, with Share being a Holocaust survivor whose adopted mother committed suicide, while Lake, who joined the cult when she was only 14 years old, admits to having parents that were not the “warm, fuzzy, hugging variety.” They describe having found an approximation of the affection that they craved on Spahn Ranch, the abandoned movie set turned horse rental business that the Manson family made their base. While the public’s sympathy for the so-called “Manson girls” has understandably been limited, the documentary draws attention to the plight of teenage girls by contextualising the actions of the women who joined Manson’s cult within a culture that had alienated them.
The documentary shows how intimacy was mimicked by Manson through his liberal approach to sexuality, which, far from challenging patriarchy, actually created a culture of male entitlement to women’s bodies. Members of the cult were encouraged by Manson to frequently engage in sexual activities, supposedly in order to lose their inhibitions.However, Share’s description of the sexual abuse committed by Manson suggests that his attitude towards sex was born less out of an inclination to free the girls from their own societal norms but rather to maintain control over them and gain a sense of power. While the free love movement did rightfully encourage women to embrace their sexuality, and is often remembered for doing so, this was often without a critical consideration about why or why not they might make the choices they do, leaving them vulnerable to predation.
Archival footage gives us a sense of what life on Spahn Ranch was like, emblematic of the counter culture movement in the frequent experimentation with drugs, the rejection of authority and prevailing social norms and the uninhibited approach to sexuality. Share reminisced on her fonder memories of her time within the family, stating that she did not “see the dust,” only the quaintness, while Lake observed that the“total reliance on each other” and the “idea of family” present within the cult created the perfect grounds to spread Manson’s philosophy. This idyllic view may be shared by modern viewers, as the 60s have become immortalised within pop culture as a time of hippies, bell bottoms and weed.
However, it is undercut by the interwoven recounting of Windy Bucklee, a worker at Spahn Ranch while Manson’s cult was present, who only ever saw the family as “trashy people,” describingManson as a “predator.” Indeed, both Lake and Share describe how it felt to come to this realisation themselves as the effect of Manson’s spell eventually wore off, which they both refer to as a feeling of being conned. Perhaps they, and countless other women, had not only been conned by Manson, but also by a movement that promised them freedom, but gave them the opposite. Manson: The Lost Tapes serves not to exonerate the members of the Manson family from the horrific crimes they committed, but to explain how they came to exist in their own words, and in doing so, sheds a light on the darker, often forgotten side of the counterculture movement.
Text by Madhu Manivannan
Picture research by Anna Irina; featured image from people.howstuffworks.com.