The Manson Girls

Janet McAdams

No one thought about the girls for years. And then one evening, decades later, Barbara Walters brought them to our living rooms. She seemed to say, Look! They are not so different. Not, she meant, from our children, but from us. Middle-aged women, they’d grown gray in prison, while we were in law school or else buying houses. The one we never saw is the one

who found Jesus, who most loved killing:
Stabbing a body is like stabbing air. She was
the pretty one, Susan Atkins, the one they called
Sadie. She told her first cellmate: You have to have
a great love for people, to kill them like that.
Her parents were the only parents who refused
to attend the trial. The others thought the jury
would find themselves in murky, impossible waters—
how could girls of such mothers and fathers
write in blood, hunt down pregnant women, go back
for more? How could they convict?

I’ve read the book a dozen times: I’ve seen
the shaved-head photos, the picture of the righteous
Bugliosi, who called his strongest witness
“that little hippie girl.” Her only child,
a daughter, was lost inside the Family for months,
when she agreed to testify. My real father,
she told Charlie at the trial, her index finger
raised to point toward heaven.
The media loved this moment best.

I am not anyone’s father or mother.
As far as killing goes, I do not know of what
I’m capable. The one time that I tried to poison
my ex-husband, my sister (who may have had her own
murderous instincts) grew suspicious and washed
the silver goblets I so generously gave him

in the settlement. It wasn’t over things, my anger,
unless a face’s a thing, my face I mean, more a thing
when it is slapped or hit. And a body is not unlike
a chair, when it is held down, used for comfort,
you might call it, though I would never call it comfort.

The Manson Girls were used like that. The papers said:
The Manson Girls are so alike. You cannot tell
one shaved head from another.
In the early days,
Charlie would instruct the whole family to gather,
as man by man, they raped them from behind.
This is what it means, he explained, to live in one
body
. They lived on nothing in those days.

The girls prowled dumpsters for the outer leaves
of cabbage, potatoes white-eyed and branching into antlers.
They waited patiently to go to Charlie’s Golden City.
A tree there bears twelve kinds of fruit. The walls
glow so that you don’t need light, and people wait there,
white people, beside a river of milk and honey.

I’m too young to remember what it was really like.
Charlie was just a story. Polanski’s Macbeth
came out a few years later, a brilliant, violent film,
you’d have to say. This was before he fled the country
and the story of a fourteen year old, whose ears,
according to police reports, were full of semen. The Family
went on. As Squeaky Fromme cried out when she shot at Ford:
“Earth, Fire, Water, Manson!”

I take my life in hand to write this poem.
This was, after all, the seventies. The war was over,
more or less. My mother threw away her book,
How to Keep Your Son out of Vietnam. I’m sure
the clutch of fear my mother felt at David’s
18th birthday was real enough. And different from the fear
the vain stars felt who wouldn’t go to Sharon’s funeral.
They stayed in their walled canyon homes and watched
the news and trembled.

It’s raining here as I write this,
meditation or clumsy poem, you take your pick.
It’s just my version of the story. Me, I do my killing
secondhand, through books like Helter Skelter, on TV
when I watch the beautiful precise bombs explode
the crowded cities of Iraq. Or bomb a bomb
shelter near Beirut. They do it on my dime.

But that’s not killing after all. Not like the Family,
who lived on garbage, whose children had so many
fathers, beside the one true father. Charlie, I mean.
I wonder what it means to kill like that, to really kill.
It seems like nothing now that children shoot each other
nightly, after Gacy, newsreels, America’s Most Wanted.

After we learned to live by TV. In airports
and the doctor’s office, you have to crane your neck
to look away. TV brought us these two Manson Women: Krenwinkel
and Van Houten. One a former Bluebird, whose only sister
needled herself into a silent death. Who bragged:
We would run through the woods to Charlie’s flute
.
Van Houten spent eight months as a nun, then answered
the personals until Charlie found her.

The strangest story, though, is Gypsy’s,
the violin virtuoso who didn’t kill or go on trial.
Her parents spent the years of World War II fighting
for the underground in France. After, they couldn’t live
with all the death they’d seen. They killed themselves
and Gypsy grew up in a different family, safe
from all that history. Safe is just another version
of this story. No one is ever safe from either side of it.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The Kenyon Review and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

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