Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry

Helter Skelter was an interesting change of pace from the novels and film we’ve had so far. At this point, I’m not quite sure I enjoyed reading it as much as the novels. Most of it is because I’m not a nonfiction reader and this kind of felt like the “other” textbook in our course. However, I will say that it isn’t necessarily written like a textbook. It’s written in a very novel-esque format (hence the “true crime” genre label), I suppose, ending up something like the movie version of a true event.

I’ve been saying for the whole of this course that I scare easily and my nerves are shot, and this book wasn’t any different, but I’ve now discovered how I separate fiction and nonfiction. I love the thrill and morbid curiosity that comes with psychological thrillers, but the moment I find out that the story was true, something changes. Suddenly, it’s not so exciting or enthralling anymore. It’s doesn’t feel right to get that strange enjoyment from the story. This summer I watched the TV premier of Girl in a Box. It was a Lifetime movie based on the kidnapping of Colleen Stan and titled as such because her captors–a married couple–whenever they weren’t torturing or raping her, kept her locked in a box underneath their bed. The story was chilling enough, but to see the “where are they now” segment at the end of the movie and know that people actually did all that to a 22-year-old girl (the exact age I am right now) made me feel guilty for watching it–guilty for being interested in it. I mean, yes, she escaped and, yes, the husband is still in prison, though the wife was able to get immunity for testifying against the husband, so she’s still out there. But, basically everything ended up best-case scenario.

Yeah, that’s not what happened in Helter Skelter. So many real people were horrifically murdered. I would often catch myself forgetting this was a true story and reading it as a novel. There were times when I actually laughed–Susan Atkins?–because the murderers were just so…psycho. I mean, it didn’t seem to be real. But it was. When I read novels nowadays, it’s not uncommon for me to read something and then imagine how I would rewrite it differently (aka supposedly “better”. Cringe/eye-roll at my errant thoughts.) I felt like I couldn’t do that with this book because no one made it up. There were only so many details that could be expanded upon. Grant it, Bugliosi was probably one of the best people to author this book being prosecuting attorney of the Manson trial and all.

Which then brings me to the writing. I don’t have any quibbles with the writing, I did feel it got dry and technical at times, but, again, there’s only so much room for creative liberty here. However, it had a lot of pertinent information regarding how the system works. So often in novels technicalities are glossed over. Oh, the cop has a “friend who owes him/her a favor in the forensics lab and can rush the tests.” Or, “it’s super rare for anyone to acquire this very specific type of poison, but not for this antagonist!” In Helter Skelter we got the shot-by-shot rundown of the questioning, gathering evidence, and dwindling down of suspects. Was it a little monotonous? For me, yes, at times. But, was it one of the most helpful things I’ve read so far? Oh, yes. When an author flubs the details so obviously because he/she could get away without doing anymore research than needed, nothing irritates me more. Do they even care about their readers? Are they that selfish and/or arrogant they think they don’t have to do research? Helter Skelter, despite not being my favorite reading this semester, gave me the facts in a story format. I think I could open up this book at any point and find something of use. There weren’t any filler conversations or insta-romance just for kicks, but a real story told, most likely, as eloquently as it possibly could have been given the nature of its contents.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Katie, I know exactly what you mean about the lines between what was real and what felt like fiction for this book. It was just so strange to read about and have to keep reminding myself that it was in fact real. I think we all get that sense of morbid curiousity in cases like this. Maybe for some readers it’s easier to think of this type of book as a novel than something that actually happened because it’s easier to think of as something made up than believe people could do this sort of thing. But the writing itself definately gave me a more novel feel between those bouts of pure fact. The whole book was a fascinating read.

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  2. Chad pritt says:

    Katie, this is definitely not one of those books you have a grand time reading. It’s not an adventure or some twisted tale to both delight and terrify the innocent mind. No, this is a factual telling of some pretty horrific crimes. I’m not big on nonfiction books myself, but I found this one both entertaining and educational. Not entertaining because it was fun, but because it piqued my interest in the way police work was done in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was fascinating to learn how somebody can rise to the level Manson did with his followers. And it was saddening to read of his childhood.

    I think whenever I read of a fictional psycho, I’ll compare it to Charlie Manson. He will forever be my litmus test for believability.

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  3. kloft1993 says:

    I think there were many good thoughts in this post. What I agree with most is that though this may not have been an “on the edge of your seat” read, there are many things we can study and take from it as writers. It gives insight into the timing and care put into actual investigations, and how all factors must add up. It inspires writers to, as you said, do the actual research to make their story better, even if it is fictional.

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