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Helter Skelter, Redux

By Tom Nattell

The Family
By Ed Sanders
Thunderís Mouth Press, 540 pages, $17.95

Ed Sanders has been working on The Family for more than 30 years. The Woodstock poet and member of the legendary folk-rock band the Fugs started gathering data about Charlie Manson and his murderous followers back in 1970. During the 33 years since, Sanders has produced three iterations of the book.

The new version is the second updating of the 1971 book originally put out in hardcover by Dutton. It is a further update of Sandersí 1990 Signet paperback, which, with its mass-market distribution, even made its way to local supermarket checkout aisles. Time has unveiled new history and additional details about the late-í60s murders by Manson and his ďfamily,Ē and Sandersí latest further fleshes out and extends the chronology for the Tate- LaBianca murders and the lives of those responsible.

In 1969, a series of what appeared to be ritualistic murders that shook the nation took place around Hollywood. Among those murdered were actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski, and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. At first, evidence left behind indicated the possible involvement of radical blacks in the murder spree. At one murder scene, a panther was painted on a wall with the victimís blood, seeming to implicate the Black Panthers, a radical political organization that was strong in Southern California at the time.

But the trail of gruesome murders would not lead to a heavily armed gang of black revolutionaries. It would lead instead to a band of crazed lily-white hippies under the leadership of a self-proclaimed savior who had a penchant for stealing cars, slitting throats, sexually assaulting women and prophesying a race war.

Drugs, orgies, Satanism, bloody rituals and serial killings all titillated the American publicís interest. Suddenly the long-haired, peace-love hippiedom of the late í60s was presented with the dark cloud of a band of marauding murderers. A shudder convulsed through what remained of the wilting Flower Power era.

In 1971, Sandersí first version of The Family, subtitled The Story of Charles Mansonís Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, was published soon after most of the Manson gangís murder trials had concluded. This original version of The Family took the story up to the point where Manson had been captured in his desert hideaway and charged with murder. Many facts about the case were revealed at the murder trials, which Sanders attended as part of a reporting gig heíd landed with the L.A. Free Press.

Sanders also did extensive research outside the courtroom, spending time visiting the remote mining camps in the desert outside of Los Angeles where the murderous band once hid out. Interviewing group stragglers who remained free at the time helped Sanders put together a picture of life during Mansonís reign of fear over the band and of the bizarre cosmological predictions he espoused. Interestingly, the range of investigative skills Sanders honed on this case would later influence his approach to poetry.

By the time the 1971 version of The Family was completed, Manson and a number of his followers had been sentenced to death in the California gas chamber. Their death sentences later became life in prison when the stateís death penalty was found unconstitutional.

It was not until Sandersí first revision of the book in 1989 that the trial, along with events of the subsequent 20 years, were added. This second version was a major expansion of the book that also presented updates on the lives of Manson, his followers and others affected by the murders.

Sanders once noted that this is ďthe case that wonít go away.Ē It certainly hasnít for Sanders, as attested to by this latest rendition of The Family. The new book takes more time to tell the parallel story of how Sanders got involved in investigating the case. There are additional pictures and some new chapters and edits of past materials, but much of the text remains the same as that found in the 1989 revision.

One noticeable change in this new book is the chapter format. It appears to be influenced by the short chapter structure Sanders has incorporated into his long chronological poems like America: A History in Verse. While the previous iteration of The Family included 28 chapters generally running between 20 and 30 pages, the latest version includes 116 chapters of one to 10 pages. This formatting actually organizes the book into crisper chronological chunks, with chapter headings that help to focus the readerís attention.

The book concludes with a chapter that updates people and events from 1990 through 2002. Manson is still a resident of the California prison system and periodically comes up for a parole hearing, which heís ceased attending. It is not expected that he will ever be released. Sanders notes that in 1993 the group Guns Ní Roses recorded one of Mansonís songs, which was followed by a successful court action against the record company responsible by a son of one of the murder victims. He also explains how Manson is reportedly bringing in big bucks through Internet-based enterprises enabled by followers on the outside. In this chapter Sanders adds updates about former Family members, family members of victims and the attorneys and investigators who worked on the case.

The Family provides a detailed and well-researched description of Mansonís family and the Tate-LaBianca murders. The book also brings the reader into the investigative world of the author as he describes the research skills brought to bear and the risky situations encountered in order to gather information and lay out the story. If youíve read the previous version of the book, you will not find much new here. If you havenít, you will find a well-told story that, unfortunately, is not fiction.

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