Today will mark the 43rd birthday Charles Manson (now 79) has spent in prison. In this Zola interview, Jeff Guinn, author of Manson, discusses why readers are still fascinated with the criminal mastermind and whether or not he believes that human beings are born inherently good or evil.
Zola: When Charlie began gathering his followers in San Francisco, he was competing against dozens of other would-be gurus. What did this scrawny, uneducated felon have that other leaders lacked?
Jeff Guinn: Manson was a human chameleon who bragged that he was “the man of 1,000 hats” and was able to change his apparent personality at will to fit whoever he was talking to. Unlike the other would-be gurus, he cobbled together his sermons from enough different sources (Dale Carnegie, Scientology, fundamentalist Christianity, popular song lyrics) to have wider appeal. There was bound to be something in what he said to appeal to almost anyone.
Zola: It’s one thing Charlie managed to seduce a few troubled youths in the 60s, but how would you explain people’s enduring fascination with him more than four decades later? How does he play into current culture?
JG: Charlie’s embedded in our culture thanks to Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, Squeaky’s failed attempt to assassinate Gerald Ford, and the fact that Charlie’s lived this long and carried on his very effective act. There will always be alienated people, especially young people, who want to make a statement by embracing someone or something that “Straights” find abhorrent. And Manson knows how to work through current trends and means of communication. His followers have a website, they’ve just established a Facebook account. He’s with us whether we like it or not. I hope my book, the first with all the facts about him and his life, helps keep him in better perspective.
Zola: Several members of Charlie’s family and “Family,” as well as his connections in the music industry, had refused to cooperate with reporters before you came along. How did you get them to finally open up?
JG: It’s a matter of making people feel comfortable; I took the time to explain the type of book I wanted to write, and emphasized that Charlie’s lies would continue to be accepted unless the real facts were made available.
Zola: How have your two years of meticulous research into the life and psyche of a criminal mastermind affected you emotionally? Was it hard to remain objective throughout the process?
JG: These have been tough years. I’ve always believed that no human being is beyond redemption, that no child is simply born bad. Now, I’m not sure. If the reverse is true, then Charlie Manson is Exhibit A.
JG: What I’m interested in is eras in American history, and the threads of culture and individual experience than come together and result in iconic events and individuals. More than anything, Manson is about America in the late 1960s. I think I want to explore the 1970s next, and see how the country changed and the people or events that in some sense represent that.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.