Charles Manson has been a household name since the summer of 1969 when he and his followers were arrested for a series of gruesome murders that gained national attention. As someone who knew very few details about what came to be known as the Manson murders, I found “Hunting Charles Manson” to be a harrowing read that shed light on the events leading up to the murders as well as what happened after. Lis Wiehl, with the help of Caitlin Rother, takes countless hours of research and weaves it into a book that manages to capture both the senselessness of the tragedies as well as the madness that allowed them to occur.
“Hunting Charles Manson” opens in the late 1960’s after Charles Manson was released from prison and immediately began influencing young girls who seemed to be helplessly attracted to him. These girls were impressionable, unsure of themselves, and yearning to make a connection with someone they could depend on and follow. They were eager to leave their old lives behind to pick up the nomadic and chaotic lifestyle of Manson. By the time of the murders, Charles Manson and his ever-increasing number of followers were known as “The Family” and they resided at Spahn Ranch in California. The members of the Family were passionate about their beliefs, or at least about the beliefs that Manson held. Manson often preached about the end of days, or “Helter Skelter,” a race war that would bring about the end of the world. The Family was so accustomed to following whatever direction he gave that many of them didn’t even blink an eye when his instructions escalated to murder. Manson convinced his Family that these people needed to die, either to protect the Family or to stir up unrest first in the community and then eventually across the country. At the end of that 1969 summer, 9 innocent people were dead and the country had been catapulted into a paranoid frenzy as everyone speculated about what had happened.
After providing a detailed account of the crimes, “Hunting Charles Manson” doubles back to shed light on how and why Charles Manson became the man he was. Highlighting a lonely childhood addled with violence and turbulence at home, Wiehl and Rother provide insight into what kind of neglect and abuse can warp a person’s mind like this infamous killer. Following in his mother’s footsteps, Manson was living a life of crime by the time he reached adulthood. He was released back into society after two stints in jail and went on to evade the attention of law enforcement. Instead of monitoring his every move as they should have, his parole officers were lulled into a false sense of security by Charles Manson’s charismatic personality and manipulation. Manson was allowed to go wherever he pleased, with whoever he wanted, and to do whatever he pleased. While the book does a great job of outlining the trauma Manson experienced in childhood, it does not make these events seem like an excuse for his actions. On the contrary, it brings to light all of the times Charles Manson was offered help in rehabilitating and becoming a contributing member of society but chose to stay on the path he had started down as a child.
The final part of “Hunting Charles Manson” deals with the trials of Manson and his followers who were directly involved in the murders. Lis Wiehl, a former federal prosecutor, uses her experience with the legal system to commit these trials to page. Without becoming too legally technical, she manages to capture the chaos that often plagued the courtrooms. Between the blatant disrespect, blackmail, death threats, and lies, the trials stretched on for months. The specifics of the murders were uncovered slowly, especially as Family members changed their stories and some dealt with the effects of long-term psychedelic drug use on memory. By the time the trials finally ended, Manson and 4 of his most faithful followers were sentenced to life in prison after the death penalty was abolished in California.
At times “Hunting Charles Manson” can come across as hard to follow as the Family members and their associates flow in and out of the story. This is compounded by the fact that many of these people went by different names throughout their lives and are referred to by these different names interchangeably. By the end of the book I was still having a hard time remember who was who and what parts they played in the events. Thankfully, I discovered quickly that there is a section in the back of the book devoted to breaking down the “cast of characters” such as Family members, murder victims, law enforcement, etc. I found myself referring to this list frequently during the trial portion of the book. As someone who is a visual learner, I also appreciated the photos in the middle of the book as they helped me put faces to some of the more prominent people.
In under 300 pages, Lis Wiehl and Caitlin Rother manage to span over 7 decades history that make up a story all of America has heard of. Not only does it serves as a history lesson, but also as a cautionary tale. Readers are left with the knowledge that “History can repeat itself.” Our society is not much difference than the society that Charles Manson lived in. There will always be people like him who are masters at manipulation and controlling those around him. With the introduction of the internet, ideologies like Manson’s are shared more easily than ever. By the end of the book, readers are reminded that we need to work together and stay vigilant if we want to prevent another tragedy like the Manson murders.
If you’re looking for a fast paced, non-fiction crime thriller, “Hunting Charles Manson” is the book for you. It finds a good balance between historical facts and the emotions that influenced them. It is also just the first in Lis Wiehl’s new Hunting series. Keep an eye out for the next book in her series at her website!
Hunting Charles Manson
Lis Wiehl with Caitlin Rother
Smith Publicity, Inc
A copy of the book can be found at Penn Book Center!