What Would Charlie Do? Part 6: A Feral Child in a Philosophy Store

This series looks at the origins of American counterculture through the lens of Charles Manson and the murders credited to his name.

One of humanity’s great mysteries is the nature of human consciousness and our mental origins. On the most elemental level, very little is truly known about what makes the human and the human mind unique. We know to a very reasonable degree that humans evolved in response to environmental factors, and even the most religiously faithful can accept the easy evolution that comes from say, a better food supply or a backward evolution in periods of great scarcity. Physical evolution explians humans getting taller or shorter, and it explains things like skin tone.

Less well understood than our biological evolution is our mental evolution. There is precious little consensus on what constitutes the mind and the brain, and if they are the same thing. What is the unconscious and why does it exist? If we knew that, would we be able to explain the conscious mind? Which mind is more important? Do animals have a conscience and a subconscious mind? 

The world’s deepest thinkers struggled over the millennia with these highly abstract philosophical questions, and for many millions, Christianity provided answers. Rightly or wrongly, the Christian worldview not only provided answers to the easy questions about where we came from and where we’re going, but it also offered meaning and even redemption.

And further, if one was so inclined, the Christians developed deeper philosophies and theories that held the doubts at bay. Hundreds of generations, as far back as the poor Romans living in the Roman empire, took the Christian message to heart and lived by it. It was the Christian God that replaced the old Roman gods and goddesses.

Charles Manson surely met his first philosophical teachers somewhere in the Christian fold. He was born in Cincinnati, a town named after a Roman statesman and philosopher named Cincinnatus. Manson’s mother was surely troubled, and as a child, he was passed around for a while, mostly in West Virginia. By the time he was nine, he was in a boy’s institution where he was also exposed to Christianity. When he was 13, he was placed in a boy’s home run by Catholic priests. For the long period of imprisonment during the rest of his youth, Charles Manson was in regular contact with Christian religious authorities.

There is no reason to believe that he had any interest in other traditional religions. However, through another inmate, he began to study Scientology, which had an appeal to him. In 1961, he listed his religion as ‘Scientologist’ on prison paperwork and it was here that he started to create the toxic gumbo of his philosophies that he was able to sell so very well.

When he was released from prison in 1967, he began to add all the snippets of the counterculture to his already hodgepodge religious beliefs. The accretions built from there. The base was formed by various flavors of Christianity as passed down by his odd and dysfunctional family, Catholic priests at reform school, and whatever other prison officials he met. On this base, he layered Scientology, and then he began to add on the hippie ethos about the environment, the evils of capitalist enterprise, the freedom of sexual liberation, the beauty of the music of the period, especially the Beatles, who he said really ‘spoke’ to him. 

He further added to this mix a cocktail of experimental drugs and hedonistic pre-Christian views about sex, families, and marriage. His relationships were tribal, with himself as the king. He was not altruistic in any normal Christian way, even though sometimes he’d made a great show of giving things away. He was known to quote the apocalyptic Book of Revelation from the Bible, but he was also said to be illiterate so he may have only heard stories from the Bible and not read the book himself. And he encouraged people to think that he was a ‘guru’ which is taken from Hinduism and Buddhism and further that he was Jesus Christ returned.  

In this way, Charles Manson was a perfect spiritual con artist who appealed to the lost and spiritually bereft youth, mostly women. Submission to him, he figured out, could be made a sort of religious act. He had enough information on his various influences to parrot back some pieces of these philosophies when put on the spot, and yet carry on in a predatory manner hidden by his hippie guru peace and love cover.

No one that knew better would fall for his act, but many people did not know better, and many powerful people were into the same things he was such as pop culture, new age religion, buffet Christianity, and of course, Scientology.  

The timing was everything for Charlie. He left prison with just enough information to know where to add the next pieces of his philosopher act. The culture of openness to ‘new ideas’ allowed him to slip through and capitalize on the oldest and most venal ideas. He was a genius in that way, but mostly he was lucky, and he knew his limitations. He seemed to have answers to spiritual questions, but he trod the same ground spiritual con artists through the millennia trod.

There aren’t stories of Charlie ever seeking to convert a healthy fully formed adult to his way of thinking. There were weak and disturbed young women, drug-addled celebrities, and a few criminally minded men. He gave them all just enough spirituality to make it all sound legit, even when it was crazed and headed for disaster. His tired routine led to death and prison for many weak but otherwise innocent people, and he followed them to jail and then to the grave.  

Sic omnibus sacerdotibus – Thus to all priests

Next – Part 7: Pagan Environmentalism 

Back – Part 5: Controlling the Men

The vigils for Charlie began early, and they shaved their heads when he did, such was the cultish devotion to him

Some of Charlie’s Girls maintaining a vigil for him during the trial in 1970