This spring I ended up reading two books on eerily similar topics. Well, the fact that the subject matter — accounts of spectacular criminal trials — overlapped is not that much of a surprise, since I love true crime. Both proceedings, 40 years apart, garnered excessive media attention because of the suggestion of sex-fueled ritual murder.
Recommended by a friend of a friend, Helter Skelter is the story of what has come to be known as the Manson Family murders. The title refers to the Beatles song from which cult leader Charles Manson derived the harrowing philosophy of racial warfare that led him to order the killing of at least 11 people in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 1969.
The book was penned by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who managed to get Manson convicted of all of the murders committed by Manson’s cult — even though he wasn’t present at any of them. Bugliosi indicted Manson on charges of conspiracy, a legal technicality that allows for co-defendants to be convicted of crimes that any of the group did; he just had to convince a jury that Manson had control of his disciples.
That turned out to be easier than you might think, because Manson wasn’t reticent about the power he cultivated and wielded. He never admitted outright the command to kill, but he told Bugliosi plenty about his “Family,” the term Manson used for the followers that he assembled, lived with, and directed in orgies at a ranch in the hills west of Los Angeles. And the Family members were equally frank about their slavish loyalty to the man they considered “G-d,” or “Jesus Christ.”
Bugliosi didn’t take any chances, though, and he tells with fastidious, fascinating detail how he shaped the case that put Charles Manson behind bars, where he remains to this day. The thoroughly compelling account is only slightly marred by the fact that Bugliosi writes himself as the only competent character on both sides of the legal team; the LAPD detectives in particular come across as buffoons, while Bugliosi saves the day (by doing their work as well as his).
Overall, though the book is great, one of the best non-fiction accounts I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it — though perhaps not, as I read a good deal of it, alone, late at night, in a house that backs up to a wooded expanse. The Manson Family, as it turns out, selected their victims pretty much at random, and I was irrationally sure I was next.
The other book I tackled was not of the same quality. But that wasn’t really the point: As soon as I heard the release date for Amanda Knox’s book (April 30, timed to coincide with her first post-prison interview), I went to the Brookline Public Library’s online catalog and requested a copy. I got it on May 7, and I had read it by May 9. Like many, I followed the infamous case — the four-year journey of a murder conviction that was ultimately overturned — partly because it was portrayed as so lurid, and partly because I just love the genre.
Waiting to Be Heard is not great literature, but it is a good read. In November 2007, 20-year-old Amanda Knox had been in Perugia, Italy, for just five weeks when her British roommate was found brutally killed in the villa that the two shared with two other Italian women. Knox and her boyfriend of one week were later arrested, tried, and convicted of the murder — which conviction was overturned in 2011, leading to their release. The book is the story, told with help from a ghostwriter in a voice that I can only imagine actually approximates Amanda’s own, of those years.
The narrative is marked from the beginning by her defensiveness about almost every action that led to her arrest, somewhat understandably since they were all, to a one, used against her in the trial. And they were the actions of an immature young woman, just barely not a teenager anymore. Knox is as staggeringly naive as Manson was creepily controlling. I can understand a college student with no conception of police tactics or criminal investigations, leading to wince-inducing efforts to cooperate with an increasingly hostile prosecutor. However, Knox also expresses shock — shock! — that the family of her murdered roommate seems angry at her when she first encounters them in a courtroom after her arrest. The police, the media, fine — but the victim’s family thinks I’m guilty, too? And it’s not entirely clear that her years in prison did much to disabuse her of that naiveté. But maybe that’s a blessing. I was genuinely disturbed, when, before the verdict her retrial, she wrote a list of things to do if she received a life sentence: stop writing letters home, ask family and friends to forget me, suicide? But the end of book makes clear that Amanda Knox will find her way again.
Since I always do in my true crime stories, I’ll weigh in here, too. Manson: guilty; Knox: not guilty. Manson in all likelihood was precisely the monster he was made out to be, while Knox simply couldn’t have been the sex-and-drug-addicted femme fatale as she was portrayed.