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Diane Dimond: Lessons from Charles Manson, and the Circumstances That Helped Spawn Him

This is not another column meant to revive the nation’s long fascination with Charles Manson. Countless articles have appeared about the evil mastermind and the seven murders most associated with his name. This column is written to remind society what can create such a monster.

You have likely read about Manson’s uncaring teenage mother and how, at a very young age, he was bounced around from inattentive relatives to Boys Town in Nebraska to juvenile detention centers. One story about his horrid childhood had his mother selling him to a childless woman for a pitcher of beer.

By 14, young Manson was living on his own, surviving as a petty thief. Wherever he went, he was described as a discipline problem, charming in his own way but trouble with a capital T.

1970s America did not become captivated with Manson because he was a cold-blooded killer. In fact, there is no proof he ever murdered anyone.

It was the power he held over his ragtag followers and his ability to get them to kill for him — at two separate Los Angeles homes on two consecutive evenings in August 1969 — that mesmerized the nation.

Manson and his bandmates looked like every other peace-loving hippie of the time, but once arrested and paraded in front of the media, the ugly reality set in. After the bloody facts of the Manson Family killing sprees became known, something visceral happened. America got scared.

Gun sales soared in and around the Los Angeles crime scenes. Security guards and home alarms were in big demand. Author Joan Didion wrote that she believed “the ’60s ended abruptly on Aug 9, 1969, at the exact moment when the word of the murders ... traveled like brushfire through the community.”

A short time after the Manson Family’s seven-month trial, the FBI began to notice a frightening trend. It discovered that seemingly random murders shared specific characteristics. Young co-eds in locations across the country were being killed. Young boys were disappearing in Cook County, Ill., and presumed dead. And bodies began to turn up in a riverbed in Rochester, N.Y.

To the bureau’s horror, there were multiple active serial killers at large. Among the names the FBI’s newly formed Behavioral Science Unit would later attach to the crimes were Ted Bundy (the “Campus Killer” with at least 30 victims), John Wayne Gacy (the “Killer Clown” with 33 victims) and Arthur Shawcross (the “Genesee River Killer” with 14 victims).

By some estimates, there were hundreds of active serial killers prowling for prey across America in the 1970s and ’80s.

Did these men begin to kill so that, like Manson, they could bask in massive media attention? Or had they been so damaged by the difficult and abusive childhoods they were reported to have had that, like Manson, they developed into full blown, blood-lusting psychopaths?

I’d go with the latter explanation, but it could be a combination of the two.

There’s a considerable amount of information about the childhoods of some of America’s most notorious serial killers. Bundy was always told that his grandparents were his parents, and when he finally learned his “sister” was really his mother, he came to despise her and, apparently, all women. As a boy, Gacy was routinely beaten and humiliated by his alcoholic father. Shawcross was a young victim of torturous incest at the hands of his mother and sister.

The point, of course, is that the more society neglects its children, the more they could grow to become criminal predators. There are volumes of research on how neglected and abused children can develop into damaged adults who are violent and deadly to others — just like Manson, Bundy, Gacy, Shawcross and countless others.

Statistics from the prestigious Radford University Serial Killer Database show that since the glut of serial killers and their victims in the ’70s and ’80s, the numbers first increased, but they have consistently gone down.

Could this be due in part to our deeper understanding of childhood development and the need for positive nurturing early on?

Maybe the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, that promotes better nutrition and health for the underprivileged had something to do with the decrease. By 1974, the WIC was fully established in 45 states and helping to feed the bodies and minds of the most vulnerable.

Maybe it has to do with the rise in household income over the years, the increase in the number of college graduates or the lower birth rate.

I don’t know the answer to these questions or what has caused the numbers of serial killers and their victims to go down over the decades. But I do know we still have a crime problem in this country. The FBI reports there were an estimated 17,250 murders last year, as well as 95,730 rapes and 1.2 million violent crimes.

The passing of Manson makes me wonder whether we’re doing all we can to eradicate miserable childhoods, gang activity and the frightening increase in the murder rate we see in many American cities these days.

I’m afraid the answer is no.

Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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