Going Inside the Big Tent with Charlie Manson

Going Inside the Big Tent with Charlie Manson

I clearly remember buying Vincent Bugliosi’s now legendary book Helter Skelter in paperback from my local grocery store when I was about twelve years old (I’m forty-one now, if you must know). I spent a good many hot summer days in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, spread out on my comfortable bed in my air conditioned room, captivated by Bugliosi’s story. It wasn’t too long before the made-for-TV movie would make it’s occasional airing, and then I saw that, too.

I guess this was the beginning of my sociological imagination. I have always wondered, What can make a little kid grow up and commit murder? And in the case of the Manson Family, what can make little kids grow up, become obsessed with a crazed madman, and then commit such unspeakable acts of violence and torture?  Following those questions, one more followed: what can make a little boy grow up into a crazed madman with such hatred and paranoia and mental instabilities that he would recruit young followers and then convince them to willfully carry out his apocalyptic biddings?

I remember pondering all these things at that young age, and I remember asking, Is there anything keeping me from falling into such traps? After all some of Manson’s “family” were good school kids, middle-class kids, even church kids . . .  Then I also began looking around at some people I knew at school and in the neighborhood – and, they weren’t very different than some of the family members who had a rough life growing up and found somebody who would take them in unconditionally . . .

I guess what I am getting at is that I am a murderer, too. That’s hard for me to say, because I have never stabbed anybody, shot anybody, poisoned anybody; nor have I ever tried.  I’m actually a bit of an easy-going pacifist, truth-be-told.

But I have really, really been filled with hatred towards a person or two before. I have really, really wished I could turn into the Hulk and beat somebody to a pulp who was bullying me.  I have imagined how much nicer the world would be if a few people just didn’t exist anymore.

And I’ve heard Jesus say to me, then, that I have committed murder in my heart; so who am I to judge?

Not long ago I saw the latest publicized mugshot of Charles Manson at CNN.com. Even in not-too-long ago prison mug-shots, Manson still gave off really bad vibes – he continued to convey hatred, venom, almost pure evil in his stare . . .  but this one is different. Oh, the swastika is still permanently scarring his forehead, but apart from that, he’s an old, old, sad-looking man.

I still hurt for the many families who have been forever tortured by Manson’s actions and his memory; those of the victims’ families, of course. And I also hurt for the families who had to endure the news that a child they loved, a son, daughter, brother, sister, cousin, nephew or niece, had committed heinous crimes and would spend the rest of their lives in jail.

But, for the first time ever, I felt pity for Manson when I saw this picture. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help it. Because underneath that swastika, and underneath the twisted paranoid hallucinations, and beneath the hatred  . . . before there was a madman with a messianic complex; before there was a violent adult seducing young hippies with lots of drugs and sex; before there was a frustrated singer who couldn’t get a record deal; years and years before all of those things, there was a little boy and an angry world around him. And now, there’s an old pathetic, pitiful man, and a still angry world around him.

I kind of felt like he’s that sorry, old uncle we all have – you know, the mean drunk that most people despised and nobody in the family could tolerate much – though occasionally we might recall a glimpse of goodness in his heart.

I remember hearing a preacher ask a long time ago, “If God is love, and grace is real, then what about somebody like Charles Manson?”

And for the first time, I think I understand what that preacher was trying to say; and I think it has something to do with God’s grace being an enormous, always expanding tent …

© Bert Montgomery, August 10, 2010

Learn more about Big Tent Christianity and their upcoming conference.

Bert Montgomery is an author/speaker/pastor/teacher living in Starkville, MS. A slightly different version of this blog will be featured in his second book,  Psychic Pancakes and Communion Pizza: Further Mutterings from a Church Misfit, due out from Smyth & Helwys Publishing in early 2011.


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