Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Restless Souls": a review and some thoughts

I just finished reading Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family's Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice (itbooks, and imprint of HarperCollins, 2012; 381 pages), by Alisa Statman with Brie Tate.

I don't know that I can call it a good book. It was put together, apparently, largely from writings about the case by Ms. Tate's mother, father, and one of her sisters, all now deceased. Those writings were, also apparently, not edited at all from the way they were left by their authors. This is understandable but not necessarily wise, as the writing is, in some cases, riddled with cliches and odd word usages that made it difficult reading at times because, for me at least, those platitudes and usages repeatedly jarred me out of the story and made me want to put on my editor's hat and sharpen my red pencil. Still, it was an informative book and a compelling read, and useful as a look into the minds of those whose lives were affected forever afterward by a series of horrible, gruessome and infamous crimes.

It was also a disturbing book.

I wanted to sympathize with Ms. Tate's family. As someone who not only remembers exactly where I was when I first heard radio reports of the crimes (on the pier in Oxnard, California, fishing with my family), as well as someone who lived just a few miles from the Spahn Ranch, where Manson and his followers were living at the time they killed Sharon Tate and her friends and the LaBiancas, and who knew people who had spent time at the ranch, I was horrified at the details of the killings, and once arrests were made and the perpetrators went to trial, at the behavior of the accused, then and in some cases afterward.

By the end of the book, however, I just couldn't say, Yes, that is how I hope to react if ever in the same position. I can understand their hatered for the people who killed their daughter and sister and the others. I have developed, over the years and fairly extensive reading about these crimes, a healthy hatred for Charlie Manson. However, I hope that I wouldn't convert any hatred I would have for anyone who killed someone I loved into the hardened position that the perpetrator or perpetrators of such a crime could never regret the crime, could never come to the understanding that what they did was wrong. And that, as far as I could see in my reading of the book, is the attitude that permeates Sharon Tate's survivors. By the time I got to the end of the book, reading the conclusions of her neice, Brie, that attitude had seemingly hardened into the attitude that anyone who was even at Spahn Ranch at the time of the killings, whether they participated in them, or even knew about them, before or afterward, is guilty of the murders and should be locked up forever.

The two things that seemed to unite the family members were paranoia and entitlement: paranoia that remaining Manson followers were going to come and kill them next, and the feeling that just because their loved one was murdered, that the family is entitled to get whatever they want, whenever they want it. The former attitude is understandable to an extent, if the reader can believe their reports of threats from Manson followers. The latter, I don't believe, is acceptable. Yes, they went through a horrible experience in the murder of their family member. That does not mean that they should be able to call up government officials, record producers and others and be immediately obeyed. That is, I know, a hard judgment to level on them. But it really isn't the way life works.

Who is to say if any of the murderers have really come to an understanding that what they did was wrong? The women involved have all said they have. To my knowledge, neither Charlie nor Tex Watson have, although for years Tex claimed to have gotten religion and functioned as a preacher in prison, implying that this meant he was a changed man. There were statements in the book from various members of the Tate family that they did not believe for a minute that any of the murderers were any less vicious years later than they were on the nights they committed their crimes. Basically, they have taken the position that no one can ever change. Ever. Their conclusion, and their fervent belief, was that the statements from Leslie Van Houten, from Patricia Krenwinkle, from Susan Atkins, were nothing more than coldly calculated attempts to gain parole so that they could go out and commit more murders. Which for all I know, might be the truth. I maintain, however, that those Tate family members cannot know the true minds of those women any more than I or anyone else can, and to maintain that they know that is awfully presumptious of them.

It was interesting to read this book at a time when Charlie was once again denied parole and cannot reapply for fifteen years, when he will be somewhere in his 90s. It was also interesting to read, while I was reading this book, an essay by film director John Waters, in his book Role Models (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), advocating for the fact that she is, in fact, rehabilitated and should be released on parole. Apparently, Waters has become friends with Ms. Van Houten and corresponded with her and visited her in prison many times over the past twenty years or so. Waters makes a good case for his point of view (and is a much better writer than I ever imagined; I'm currently reading the other essays in his book and enjoying them very much). However, it also seems that he might be slightly naive on the subject and so not necessarily unbiased on the subject.

I feel badly that, in reading Restless Souls, I've come to such a harsh judgment about Sharon Tate's family. Surely, they never asked for any of this to come to them. And just as surely, it is not surprising that they reached the positions that they have, after having their family torn apart in many ways by the aftermath of Ms. Tate's murder. However, I found the way in which they seemed to insist that their role as survivors gave them some special knowledge and insight into the minds of the murderers disturbing. I think the worst was the apparent glee that Sharon's niece felt that Susan Atkins was not given a compassionate release when she was dying of brain cancer in 2009.

Not, certainly, as disturbing as the fact that Charlie or someone like him could gain such control over other people that he could convince them to go out and murder for him. I don't know if it frightens me more than someone would attempt to control people like that, or that there are people who are apparently so weak-minded, for whatever reason, that they would allow themselves to be controlled to such an extent that they would kill just because that someone asked them to do so. And maybe, we should all blame Charlie (and the others, but especially Charlie) for the extreme positions that members of the Tate family have taken in the past and, if the statements of Brie Tate are to be taken at face value, continue to take today.

Mrs. French, my third-grade teacher, used to say to us that "Two wrongs don't make a right." She was right, of course. What Manson and his followers did on those two nights in Southern California, and in some other cases that ended in murder, was certainly wrong. But trading hate for hate, as Sharon Tate's family seems to have done, doesn't seem exactly right, either, no matter the extremity of the provocation. It just becomes a vicious cycle, in which hate begets hate begets more hate. And there is already more than enough hate in the world.

I'm not going to say that they should have forgiven, or should ever forgive, Ms. Tate's murderers. That would be presumptuous of me. I do think that it was, and continues to be, presumptuous to maintain that they know what went on, and continues to go on, in the minds of the murderers.

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