Why you should care

Because everyone should have at least one pen pal.

On July 20, 1984, I received a letter. Typewritten. Until its conclusion, you might have thought it was a catch-me-up from Uncle Joe: polite, curious, full of the author’s interests.

The signature — with a swastika emblazoned between the writer’s first and last name — indicated that this was not from Uncle Joe or Cousin Frank or anyone else who might ever eat at my dinner table. The letter was from Charles. Charles Manson.

This was back when I was with my very first publishing venture, The Birth of Tragedy Magazine (circulation 2,000). Granted, we the editorial staff lived in vans and in condemned, abandoned beer vats. We lived in trailers. It was the 1980s. But we were a legit outfit, publishing themed issues with an ever-shifting and unlikely cast of characters, serving up an antidote to the endless smile of an America in the grips of the faux feel-goodism of the Reagan years. And not much was trickling down our way.

I was putting together our second issue — theme, FEAR — and scuffling with a colleague over my choice of Manson as cover subject. “He’s done absolutely nothing of any great significance.” The colleague stood, my editorial schedule for the second issue clenched in his fists. “He made headlines. And I can’t think of anybody better to put on the cover of the FEAR issue,” I’d replied. There was a silence and he walked off, shaking his head, the message coming across quite clear: You’re on your own with this one.

So I wrote Manson, in Vacaville, in care of the prison there, the California Medical Facility. I explained that we were Stanford alumni, that we were publishing an arts and culture magazine, that we’d be interested in having him appear in our second issue. I finally also made mention of the fact that we had been tracking down folks from the Process Church of the Final Judgment, a quasi-satanic offshoot of Scientology that he had claimed as an influence, as well, and we’d be very interested in chatting with him.

Photo of Charles Manson  Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Charles Manson sits in the courtroom during his murder trial in 1970 in Los Angeles, California.

Source Michael Ochs/Getty

Manson sits in a courtroom during his 1970 murder trial in in Los Angeles.

It was dog-whistle perfect. Arts. Culture. Stanford. Process Church and a real interview. Not a Geraldo interview, either. But a serious inquiry into the philosophical underpinnings of what constituted the thought process that brought him to our notice in the first place. And about 10 days later, I got that first letter. He indicated that while an interview was not out of the question, his real interest was not in rehashing old news but rather in his present and lasting interest in ATWA, or Air, Trees, Water and Animals. Or: the future.

I wrote back and we were off to the races. And coincident to this, interesting things had started to happen. I started getting mail from another inmate, Brother Greyhound, who when asked what crime had incarcerated him, responded that on a visit to Sacramento for a mushroom festival, he’d “had to shoot my way out.” Between the ellipses lived worlds of explanations. Greyhound, another con named Icepick, guys with time on their hands — they started writing to me because of Charlie, which is what they called him. Never Charles.

The Family wanted. And they wanted things I did not have.

I started getting concerned that Manson’s letters were not really written by Manson. Call it journalistic paranoia, but I pushed for a meeting at the prison, and his paranoia pushed back. The letters between Manson and me ceased, but the contact via Manson associates continued. Specifically, the Family.

Unknown in number and origin, the Family had gathered outside of Big Bear, California, and started to put the touch on me. Manson wouldn’t agree to the interview, but he had agreed to contribute to a record the magazine was doing: a spoken-word recording featuring people who had appeared in the magazine — Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anton LaVey from the Church of Satan, Lydia Lunch, Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys and more — who’d all be singing or ranting about anything that touched their fancy.

But the Family wanted money. The Family wanted audio equipment. The Family wanted. And they wanted things I did not have. But what I did have at the time was a record store. So a deal was struck, 90-day consignment, I’d sell their own records — most notably one that featured a song that later led to a collaboration with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, whose soured relationship with Manson may have ultimately resulted in Sharon Tate’s murder — and send them cash for what had sold. In 90 days.

A collection of images given to reporter Eugene Robinson by the lawyer of Charles Manson in the late 1980s.

A collection of images given to reporter Eugene Robinson by Charles Manson’s lawyer in the late 1980s.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

A collection of images given to OZY author Eugene S. Robinson by Manson’s lawyer in the late 1980s.

Charlie in the meanwhile had gotten me two songs, recorded in his jail cell and delivered by his attorney, wherein he sings about us needing to “love each other.” But 10 days after putting The Family, his family’s records on the shelves, they started dunning me. Threatening me. Creepy-crawly style. Up to and including getting me on the phone. Fear issue, indeed.

My response? “Get a pen. And a piece of paper.” At which point I gave them all of my information. Where I lived. What I drove. Where I’d be and what times I’d be there, with a final proviso: If you’re coming, well come on, but it won’t be easy. It wasn’t bravado. It was lunatic fuel. I was 25, weighed 265, was fearless and already lived in what had statistically been determined would be, in a few years, the Murder Capital of America.

They backed off, in 90 days I paid them, returned the unsold portion, put out the spoken-word record, The Birth of Tragedy’s Fear Power God Compilation, and found my association with Manson drawing to a not-quite-so-comfortable close.

“Historical bag-men but afford the users of our mental substance a soft spread on their subliminal sandwiches,” Manson said. However, “the allure of our cryptic crap no doubt equals yours. But we’ve all been broken before. We’re insistent upon having peace. Are you spreading the right ingredients?”

Manson — now almost 80, still making headlines — uses words like seasoning as he plays out his few remaining years in soft hustles. A few months after my relationship with the Family had come to its unpleasant head, he wrote me one more time: “Send $500.00 to me in care of the Department of Corrections at this address. Put the money on the books or don’t write back!”

And that was the last we heard from him.

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