Harold Jaffe’s “docufiction” Jesus Coyote is (as pointed out by Maya Yin in an Amazon review) a Rashomon-like presentation of the August 1969 Manson murders. It uses fictional newspaper clips, police memos, and interviews with the Manson character (“Jesus Coyote”), members of his Family (“the Tribe”), and the Family’s victims (dead and alive) to explore the myth-making process at both the personal and societal levels.
It’s about the purpose a figure like Manson serves in society. It reminds me of Larry Fondation’s examination of the role of the homeless in the U.S. economic ecosystem (see my review of Fish, Soap and Bonds).
Jaffe’s book opens with a Walter Benjamin quote: “The decisive blows are always struck left-handed.” The question is whether Manson, or the Manson murders, struck a decisive blow against mainstream society, or whether the mainstream society that produced Manson (with its prison system) used their product (Manson) to strike a decisive blow against the counterculture.
Charles Manson was born in 1934 in Cincinnati. In 1940 his mother went to prison for “strong armed robbery”—she helped her brother rob a West Virginia gas station. Manson stayed with various nutcase relatives (including a religious fanatic with a sadist husband) until his mother got out of prison in 1942, but when her boyfriend didn’t like the kid she tried but failed to ditch him in foster care.
Manson’s way out of the nightmare with his mother was taking up theft and landing in the Gibault Home for Boys in Indiana. He was then in and out of reform school and prison until 1958, when he got out and spent two years as a Hollywood pimp before getting arrested for crossing state lines for the purpose of prostitution. He went back to prison until March 1967, when he was released again, emerging from his prolonged childhood education in criminality planning to resume his career as a pimp.
He headed for the Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, where he quickly adapted to local styles and mores to become a sappy folksinger with a Ken Kesey-like bus. I don’t think it’s unlikely that he was truly, to some extent, hoping for some kind of revolution, as many people were at that time, and as many people are still. In any case, he immediately started accumulating girls.
Jaffe has Manson/Coyote say: “Older con that ran wit’ Bonnie and Clyde—he told me once there was nothing like turning a fem out. He was on the money. Deep down every fem wants to be a ho. I was real good at seeing they got what they wanted. And it bought me time to set around, get stoned, do my music.”
Manson has written similar things to correspondents such as Paul Krassner.
Manson worked his way into Hollywood (Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys was a patron, among others) by providing beautiful young boys and girls for orgies in return for money and other forms of financial support. He was skilled at manipulating people—meaning giving them what they wanted (whether orgies or meaning in life) in order to get what he wanted (money, food, shelter, sex, a shot at the big time), like any good hustler in a capitalist society.
Leaving aside for the moment Manson’s psychopathic tendencies (a big leave-aside, I admit, but stay with me here, people), you could make a case that his big mistake—what caused him to self-destruct, taking down Sharon Tate and her house guests with him—was that he expanded too rapidly. His Family got bigger than the demand for orgies among the Hollywood elite. He got in over his head with expenses before he could grow the income he needed. Many a small business has gone down this road. It was when Manson starting running out of money and soft touches that the horror started.
I remember very clearly after the murders how the mainstream authorities and media were beside themselves with glee to have something violent to pin on the counterculture, which was above all a peace movement, following the example set by Martin Luther King, Jr. No one in the counterculture had carried guns. Hippies refused to go to war and kill.
As Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (author of Helter Skelter, the best-selling crime book of all time) said in a 2009 interview in Time, “Before the murders, no one associated hippies with violence and murder, just drugs, peace, free love…”
When Charles Starkweather killed 11 people in two months in late 1957 through early 1958, was it an indictment of rural Great Plains culture? Were the Gacy murders an indictment of the middle-class residents of the Northwest Side of Chicago? No. But after the Manson murders, the mainstream authorities successfully positioned themselves as the only thing protecting society from hippie mayhem. Jaffe presents this changed point of view in an interview with his stand-in for Roman Polanski (“Jaroslav Hora”), in which the character says:
Until Joya Grove both Naomi [Jaffe’s Sharon Tate character] and I felt well disposed to the so-called counterculture. We approved of young people trying to get close to nature, loving each other, experimenting with psychoactive drugs, shunning material ambitions. Since Coyote and his communal cult, I see that I was wrong. As Hobbes and others have argued, humans in their natural state tend to do evil and are fundamentally corrupt. They need the chains and restraints that official culture imposes on them to be forcibly separated from their brutal selves.
Even now, nearly twenty years later, when I see a kid with moony eyes and filthy hair aping the maroon style [note: “maroon” is Coyote’s term for hippie], my mind is jolted back to those images of Coyote and his cult, and I feel the bile mount to my throat.
Jaffe skillfully brings the Viet Nam war and the other political forces of the time into the picture with incidents such as having an interviewer ask Coyote about his favorite mass murderer other than himself. Coyote names Kissinger. Jaffe points out the similarities in the desires and lifestyles of the rich victims of Manson (both those who were murdered and those who were merely ripped off) and Manson himself. And Jaffe explores the individual motives of the Family members in creating a God-like symbol out of Charlie, with passages like this:
Hedda [Squeaky Fromme]: How much will does a shackled prisoner have? How much will does a leopard in a cage have?
LuAnn: How much will does a homeless person have? You know how many homeless there are in this country, counselor?
Hedda: How much will does a polluted birch tree have? More than you can imagine.
Jaffe’s lawyers and cops and reporters are smug in their certainty that they’ve regained control over the counterculture after Coyote’s life imprisonment. In the final chapter of the book, a long interview with Coyote where he reasserts a feeling of revolution: “See, what you and your kind are is just what we was fightin’ ‘gainst back then. Rid the fuckin’ earth of yawl,” the interviewer responds “You lost that fight.”
Coyote replies: “Wrong again. What you all think is lost has just gone underground. Like a desert plant, you dig? Could take another 10, 20 years for the right conditions then it will rise again faster than you can believe, all strong and prickly.”
The hippie counterculture was probably not sustainable in its 1960s form—again, Manson himself, it could be argued, ran into the limits of how many people you can feed and provide with shelter and drugs if all you’re doing is having sex and getting high all day.
But by forcing the counterculture into strategic retreat, it could be argued that its energies have been successfully channeled into more useful purposes. Since the 60s the counterculture has helped to elect the first African-American president and the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin), as well as take the first steps toward ending a decades-long drug war used specifically by mainstream authority for the destruction of young black men. The counterculture also lives on in the anti-poverty movement, the environmental movement, and especially the free speech movement (just look at the Internet).
Jaffe’s book is a gripping and seductive read, and a densely packed 144 pages—it’s impossible to take in all the nuance in a single trip through, especially since Jaffe resists easy proselytizing, as if he were letting his characters (and readers) fight it out over the novel’s ultimate meaning. Read this one for a provocative story that makes you reexamine how you’ve come to know whatever it is you think you know.
Get Jesus Coyote at Amazon