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On the night of August 8, three beautiful flower-power girls and one boy entered a villa in the suburbs of Los Angeles, stabbed pregnant actress Sharon Tate sixteen times and butchered four of her friends. On the walls, in the blood of the victims, they daubed “Death to Pigs” and “Helter Skelter”. The world was two years into the Indian Summer of Love. It was six days to Woodstock, 1969.
Simon Liberati’s French novel California Girls examines 36 hours in the lives of Charles Manson’s “Family”. It opens with Sadie (Susan Atkins) and Leslie (Van Houten) laughing about how Sadie tried to stick Gary Hinman’s ear back together with toothpaste prior to his murder. They are excited by the deeds they have committed, proud of the homemade patchworks they have fringed with human hair.
The disjunction between the sweet-sixteen nonchalance of these young women and the horrific brutality of their actions is what motivated Liberati to write his account of the story that put paid to the American hippy dream.
Liberati was only nine years old when the murders occurred, but the young women have obsessed him ever since: “I wrote this story as simply as possible to exorcise my childhood terrors.” In an interview with Le Monde, the author compares what he calls the “discordant smile” of the girls to the grin on Malcolm McDowell’s face in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released two years after the Tate-LaBianca murders.
What is perhaps more unsettling and mystifying is that some of the film stills available show the girls smiling in a way that reveals no obvious hint of sadism at all. At least one of them looks like the kind of young woman you would cheerfully pay to babysit your children: Manson himself actually did some babysitting for actor Al Lewis before turning to less life-enhancing pursuits.
As an exercise in instructive exorcism, California Girls works well for the reader too. Most people who haven’t read Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (2001) will have a murky idea of the Manson conundrum as an unfathomable mystery. Liberati sheds light on this true crime story in a way that rivals Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), offering the reader a blow-by-blow account of a killing spree in a manner that, to my mind, avoids the voyeuristic pitfalls of what Tom Wolfe called “pornoviolence”, despite the fact that he recounts an attack that lasted thirty minutes in over seventy pages.
Although the stabbings are described in hyperrealistic, near-microscopic detail, Liberati accomplishes the strange feat of making them feel less inhuman than they are usually painted. He softens the blows by providing the reader with unrestricted access to one of the marauders’ thoughts.
Liberati has argued that few novels succeed in evoking what it is really like to take a human life, allowing us to experience the psychological difficulty of crossing over the line into the inhuman. Although they are on LSD, steeped in Manson’s apocalypticism day and night, lulled into moral sleep by his songs and under the delusion that they are freeing their victims by killing them, even Sadie, the most hardened of the girls, is ultimately unable to stick her knife into the eight-months-pregnant actress.
For the reader not cognizant with every detail of the case, the dynamo of suspense spins at full throttle in the final confrontation with the actress after the others have been dispatched. Through subtle, un-Manichaean touches, Liberati makes the victim embody the last bastion of innocence and forbearance: with her curvaceous maternal beauty and unassuming gentleness, Tate becomes a traditional emblem of the female sublime, sweet and soulful. There’s a zest of Mariolatry in this tale of milk and knives. It’s a pity that the low-angle picture on the jacket cover makes Tate look like one of the killers instead of the gentle person she was.
The saving grace of childbirth is a novelistic resolution that Margaret Atwood once called “Baby Ex Machina”. In Liberati’s book, your eagerness to flip the pages is impelled by the clinging hope that the killers will not stab the actress in the belly.
Another paradox which makes the slaughter seem less inhuman is that Sadie wishes to kill Tate because the actress’s imploring cries for her absent mother have become unspeakably hard to bear. Although the last words Sharon Tate hears before she dies are “I have no mercy for you, bitch”, the reader who has been immersed in Sadie’s thoughts has witnessed less of her callousness than her dogged struggle to suppress compassion. Even the fact that Sadie later drinks a little of Tate’s blood when she goes back without the others to look for her knife feels disquietingly more Eucharistic than animalistic. Although we are not told explicitly by the unobtrusive narrator, it is implied that Sadie has been moved by the spectacle of the sacramental sweetness she has herself lost.
Sadie’s tasting of the blood is a tragically belated (and transient) symbolic transfer of allegiance from Manson to Tate. The extent of her identification with Tate is intimated by Liberati, who intersperses the narrative with flash-forwarding snippets, when he observes that Sadie claimed at her trial that it was not Tate she was killing but herself.
Although Sadie is not schizophrenic, Liberati makes her hear Manson’s voice during the murder scene, allowing us to glimpse the allure that he had for his hippy harem. Manson’s insidious magnetism was such that he was able to make his followers believe he was a cross between Satan and Jesus Christ and that he possessed powers of ubiquity. When Sadie hears the absent Manson speaking to her from inside Sharon Tate’s uterus, we are given to see a conflation of the two opposites that Manson wished to project. The devil as a baby is also the author’s nod to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the film Polanski released a year before his wife was murdered.
The inner voice that makes Sadie intermittently perceive Tate as “the fat plastic sow” translates the drug-and-brainwashing mechanism that allows a human mind to dehumanize another. Footage of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a member of the Family not present at the Tate-LaBianca murders, shows her saying something similar when interviewed about her later attempt to kill President Gerald Ford: he seemed to be made of “cardboard”.
Another unsettling feature of the Tate murder scene in California Girls is that the actress is made to seem increasingly less human, a regression which feels realistic in the circumstances. Liberati’s use of free indirect speech creates an uneasy identificatory blur. In Sadie’s author-tinted words, Tate’s voice is “like an IBM computer”. Her “pre-recorded supplications” inevitably distance us to a degree from her suffering, but this rheostatic lowering of the reader’s emotional temperature is in tune with Liberati’s decision to numb Tate’s own feelings about herself, a defence mechanism which makes horror more bearable.
Liberati’s narrative slips from one focal consciousness to another but is reluctant to settle in the minds of some. Tex Watson’s ruthlessness, for instance, is left entirely unplumbed. In his bid to recuperate his childhood vision of girls as harmless and innocent, Liberati relocates masculine evil in the slightly two-dimensional figures of Manson and Watson.
The novel is nevertheless commendable in its subtle portrayal of the ranch on which the Manson commune resided. We are party to its promiscuous couplings and details such as the fact that Manson snipped the umbilical cords of his offspring with a guitar string. Many of the children died of malnutrition, cold and neglect and were buried like kittens.
The political backdrop to Manson’s psychotic fantasies is also introduced subtly. The nominally anti-white words “Death to Pigs” were programmed by Manson who wanted to accentuate racial tension in America. Manson’s plan was to frame the Black Panther Party so that a civil war between blacks and whites would ensue.
Although Manson remains for the most part a spidery background figure in the novel, enough of him is revealed to quench the reader’s thirst for understanding. What Liberati calls Manson’s “negative utopia” was a contradictory mixture of Buddhist self-effacement and deranged egomania. He is repeatedly likened to Hitler, another vegetarian, animal-loving psychotic with artistic yearnings. Manson comes across as an eco-freak so far sunk into deep ecology that he values tarantulas above human beings, the product of a time in which anything goes and it was forbidden to forbid.
In his historical novel The Kingdom of the Wicked (1985), Anthony Burgess memorably says that Petronius and Nero came to regard “what ordinary humanity calls cruelty as a morally neutral means of procuring new aesthetic transports”. There is something of this in the Manson Family, but Liberati also lifts the veil to reveal the banality of evil: when Manson created his psychotic pseudo-family, he was an embittered, prison-damaged, spine-broken street urchin who needed others to pay for the ordeals and disappointments he had been forced to endure.
The French-language novel California Girls is published by Éditions Grasset.