A number of 40-year commemorations of the Manson Family murders have brought these gruesome events of my childhood years back to memory. I was really too young to understand what all the fuss was about then, and now that I am old enough, I’m not sure I want to. Nevertheless, I have committed myself to exploring sects and violence in a religious setting, and the Manson murders have prongs of both phenomena. While recently refreshing my memory on these horrific events on a gray and rainy day, I noticed something I had not seen before.
Charles Manson was (probably still is) a believer in hidden codes. He allegedly cracked a code in the Beatles’ White Album that led him to the belief in an apocalyptic battle that he was determined to begin. I wondered why the Manson Family tends not to be listed among other apocalyptic groups such as the Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate. They all share several traits, and although Manson’s revelations came from the Fab Four rather than the Holy Trinity, a revelation from on high spurred him into actions that had a tragic outcome, just as David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite.
The whole Helter Skelter code also reminded me of another, equally bogus pawning of randomness as divine messages: Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code. When I read this bestselling bit of intellectual dry rot a few years ago, I was amazed that anyone could possibly take it seriously. God writing hidden messages in a holy book like some hormone enraged high schooler? And figuring out that a singular genius would figure it out just before the apocalyptic end without realizing that it is possible to read messages back into any media after they occur? It seemed all too much for a rational mind to take. In one of my courses at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I gave students the option of reading it for a secondary project. To my chagrin, when I had the papers in one particularly tear-stained paper wailed (seriously) that the writer wished she had been warned sooner! This book changed her life! Everyone must know! Unfortunately I left Oshkosh without finding out what became of her.
I felt bad for introducing an undergrad to such “academic” sleight of hand; some college students just haven’t developed the critical facilities to see through the remarks of Balaam’s various sidekicks. Come to think of it, Manson’s followers accepted his revelations uncritically as well. Maybe the real lesson in all of this is that we must examine very closely those who claim special revelation, whether it be from Lenin, McCarthy, Starr, and Harrington, or just from God Almighty.