Sunday, August 9, 2009

Quote of the Day (Joan Didion, on the Manson Murders and Evil)


“This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’—this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969…The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remembered all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”—Joan Didion, The White Album (1979)

When did “The Sixties” end? Dotson Rader, in an Esquire essay nearly 30 years ago, believed it came during an antiwar event at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in December 1971. Yesterday, I heard WNYC-FM deejay Jonathan Schwartz point to the year 1976. I’ve heard others say 1980—the year that Reagan was first elected President and that John Lennon was murdered.

Joan Didion’s title essay in The White Album looked within the decade proper: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969”—the day of the murders of Sharon Tate, wife of film director Roman Polanski, along with four friends in their home and, across town, near Griffith Park, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. The seven deaths resulted from a conspiracy hatched in the morally malignant brain of Charles Manson.

Normally on Sundays, I try to offer spiritual uplift for the week ahead—strength for the journey, if you will. But a contrary force exists in the world that the modern age—which prides itself on being tolerant but is really, increasingly, only secular (not at all the same thing)—prefers to ignore or ascribe to something else.

I’m talking here about radical evil--"sin," in Didion's bald summation--seldom exemplified more nakedly than in the case of Manson.

In an interview with Newsweek for its cover story this past week on “true crime,” Vincent Bugliosi—the prosecutor who won convictions of Manson and his accomplices, then wrote about it with Curt Gentry in the bestseller Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders—describes the factors that made the case so unique in the annals of crime and law enforcement. (I didn’t realize that it was the longest, most expensive trial in American history up to that point, nor that so many of Manson’s minions came from such comparatively privileged backgrounds).

Yet, for all his immersion in the trial and his ability to masterfully explicate one aspect of Manson’s twisted psyche (the manner in which he induced others to carry out his crimes rather than himself), I think even Bugliosi failed to identify one element of the case that tapped into an enduring human fear.

In the late summer of 1969, Manson stained the American psyche as surely as a pool of blood. Didion heard about the crimes as an early middle-aged woman living in the heart of L.A.’s film colony with her husband, novelist-screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, and their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo. She renders the tension and wave of fear among her fellow inhabitants that day with unforgettable brittleness and verisimilitude.

As a nine-year-old vacationing with my family in East Durham, an enclave for working-class Irish-American families like mine, in the Catskill Mountains, I read about the Bel Air horrors in The New York Daily News, which splashed the events and personalities from the crime scene all through its front pages. I read the tabloid during that week with the same fascination that, I suspect, Alfred Hitchcock did with the penny-dreadfuls of his childhood in Edwardian London.

For someone so small and quiet, Didion has created in her essays a persona as unforgettable as those loud males, Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. Much of that fascination comes from this particular piece, in which she links her own anomie to the free-floating tension of the late Sixties.

Not everyone bought this, especially the late fearless iconoclast Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, who subjected Didion’s persona to devastating critical analysis in a review in her collection Off Center.
One point where Harrison gains the most traction on her subject, it seems to me, comes when Didion confesses to averting her eyes from a framed verse in the home of her mother-in-law in Connecticut. The sentiments of the house blessing were familiar to thousands of middle-class Irish-American homes of the past century: “God bless the corners of this house,/And be the lintel blest…./And bless the windowplane that lets the sunlight in,/And bless each door that opens wide, to stranger as to kin.”

Though born Episcopalian, Didion appears, at least at the time of this piece, to be untouched by religious sentiment. By the turn of the millennium, in Political Fictions, she would even the insertion into politics of any faith- or moral-based claims as “perilous.” (Using similar logic, abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. could be regarded as threats to the republic as Manson.)

All of this is ironic, because, as she announces in the very first sentence of “The White Album,” “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Among the most powerful sets of stories are the Old and New Testament.

Had she plumbed the first of these in particular, Didion would not have regarded, as some newfound horror loosed upon the age, the fear of strangers bred by Manson and by Paul and Tommy Scott Ferguson, the male hustlers who murdered silent-film star Ramon Novarro the prior year.

Take Genesis, for example, and especially the case of Lot. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is relevant to the Manson case in ways that few people, from what I can tell, have ever remarked upon.

Nowadays, fundamentalist preachers cite the threats made to two messengers of the Lord by homosexuals as eliciting divine retribution against the cities. Yet something basic, something now buried in the subtext of the biblical verses, like artifacts hidden under layers of Mideast sand, is far more likely to be relevant here.

Abraham and his kin were nomads. Their survival across vast, largely unpopulated deserts depended very much on, to employ the Tennessee Williams phrase, “the kindness of strangers.”

The rape threats to the messengers of the Lord in the house of Abraham’s nephew Lot broke the informal but real compact that allowed these strangers in a strange land not merely to live in harmony, but to live at all.

By the 1960s, California had become the 20th century’s version of these nomads, a vast state of transplants gathered at the edge of the continental U.S. The Tate-LaBianca massacres occurred in the entertainment heart of this land of dreams.

“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five,” Didion wrote toward the beginning of her famous essay. Manson spread fear not just because of the free-floating anxiety that afflicted Didion during this time, nor even because of the fear that finally, going “too far” had led to a denouement more gruesome than Euripedes' The Bacchae.

No, Manson created terror by violating the ability to trust—as necessary for the survival of the species in the Sixties and afterward as it was in biblical times—that lay at the heart of the Eden known as California 40 years ago.

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