Reflections on Charles Manson and Saint Herman of Alaska
Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
It was forty-five years ago today - August 8, 1969 - that some of the most horrific and heinous crimes in American history were committed in California. These were the so-called "Manson murders" in which seven people were brutally killed in the seemingly safe haven of their homes by the drug-induced followers of the cult leader Charles Manson, a self-styled "modern-day messiah." (Actually, two of the killings occurred two days after the initial five on August 8). Unfortunately, the name of Charles Manson remains well-known to this day within the ranks of the infamous and defamed characters of American crime history - especially among those who were alive and old enough to grasp the gruesome nature of those murders forty-five years ago. I belong to that group as I was sixteen years old at the time, and I remember fairly-well the shock that these murders evoked in the entire nation. The murders, the arrests, the bizarre antics at the trial of the "Manson family" and the unfolding of the details of this sordid case became something of a fixation for the entire nation up to the time of the sentencing of the killers. The inevitable book to follow, Helter Skelter, was a huge best-seller for years and I believe still remains in print. These murders brought to a sober and even stunning end the fantasy-like idealization that had accompanied the "hippie movement" of the 60's.
"My Life After Manson."
This was an event of the past tucked away in the far recesses of my memory, I can assure everyone. I am not writing this with any continuing fascination with the case. However, I happened to come across a short ten-minute video-documentary while reading the New York Times on the internet the other day entitled "My Life After Manson." This was an interview with one of Manson's cult followers, Patricia Krenwinkel. Incarcerated for forty-five years now, she is the longest-serving woman within the California penal system. She was initially on death-row, but that sentence was commuted. The interview is of a woman who must now be about sixty-five years old, alone in the frame against a stark black background. By appearance and dress (she is not wearing a prison uniform) she could be anyone's grandmother. I found this to be an arresting piece based upon what Patricia Krenwinkel had to say of her past and the tremendous effort she has made through the years to come to terms with that past in order to be the woman she is today.
Recognizing herself as a "different person" today, she openly called herself a "coward" for participating in a "situation" that she could only describe as "disastrous, horrendous and abominable." She briefly described an unhappy childhood and adolescence during which she "never fitted in" with her surrounding world, and following an older and equally unhappy step-sister, she "dropped out" by eighteen and began a life of self-destruction fueled by alcohol and drugs. Inevitably, she encountered the Manson circle and "initially accepted everything that that man told me." She was obsessed with "wanting to please," "feel safe," and have someone "care for me," for she had "never felt that" previously in her life. In the process she now realizes that she "gave up the person I could have been," and that she was "throwing away the rest of my life." Perhaps the most telling and even poignant remark she made was that she only "wanted to be loved," but that she had a "skewed definition of love," and that eventually it "only ended up wrong." (I often think to myself just how many hardened criminals are now in prison because they never experienced anything even resembling love in their lives. That is not a sentimental dismissal of their crimes, for which they deserve punishment, but simply a recognition of how a "loveless life" is so much more prone to choose the "road to perdition"). Thus, she found herself "broken beyond repair" on death-row by the time she was twenty-three years old, and during which she spent twenty-three hours in the day in a small cell.
She basically describes an experience of deep repentance — in rather raw terms — of facing up to a past filled with unimaginable sin and evil.
How could this possibly happen? It seems that Patricia Krenwinkel has been spending the better part of her forty-five years in prison in a quest for self-knowledge and self-understanding. She claims that she reached a point where she had to "make the decision of my life," recognizing that "everything that I had ever believed was wrong," in the process "pulling apart the enmeshed garbage" that she sank her life into. And this, she further adds, was the "most difficult thing" imaginable. Her comments from this point on were quite intriguing because she basically describes an experience of deep repentance, though that word or any mention of God or the "spiritual" never enters into her chosen vocabulary. What she described was therefore a kind of secular repentance, fueled by what seemed to be a deep remorse. In this quest for self-knowledge, she spoke in terms that could best be described as a "confession" that she was "responsible for the damage, wreckage and horror" that destroyed so many lives forty-five years ago. She claims to take on that sense of responsibility every day of her life. Yet this has given her the freedom to recreate her life, and to embrace, in her words, "my beliefs" and "my choices." What must she think of Charles Manson today? In other words, Patricia Krenwinkle now admits that she has learned about choice "at a most horrific cost." All in all, this short documentary was a moving piece in which a human person openly speaks - in rather raw terms - of facing up to a past filled with unimaginable sin and evil. Living with that self-knowledge must now be an unimaginable burden. Only God knows how this all works itself out.
With St. Herman we encounter an "angel in the flesh" and with Charles Manson we encounter a "demon in the flesh." The one embodies the "mystery of holiness" and the other the "mystery of evil." The saint was deified and the sinner was dehumanized...
Tomorrow — August 9 — we commemorate St. Herman of Alaska. On the one hand, there is St. Herman; and on the other hand there is Charles Manson. What an abyss lies between the two! What a stark contrast between light and darkness! Or between the beauty of the image enhanced by choosing the good and the deformed ugliness of choosing evil. With St. Herman we encounter an "angel in the flesh" and with Charles Manson we encounter a "demon in the flesh." The one embodies the "mystery of holiness" and the other the "mystery of evil." The saint was deifed and the sinner was dehumanized. This brings to mind the memorable words of one of Dostoevsky's most memorable characters, Dmitri Karamazov. In grappling with the "mystery of beauty" that can deflect one from the "ideal of the Madonna" to the "ideal of Sodom," Dmitri articulates his perplexity with the following words:
No, man is broad, even too broad, I would narrow him down. Devil knows even what to make of him, that's the thing! What's shame for the mind is beauty all over for the heart. Can there be beauty in Sodom? Believe me, for the vast majority of people, that's just where beauty lies - did you know that secret? The terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart. (The Brothers Karamazov, Bk. 3, Ch. 3)
This is not the usual material that I choose for these "Fragments for Friday," but this particular story was a reminder of how the heart can wander into very dark territory. We need our own vigilance so that the "ideal of the Madonna" always prevails over the "ideal of Sodom." May God protect us!