Big news stories, like people, leave a lasting impression and the Manson murders are a prime example. There is no shortage of Manson nostalgia as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Tate-LaBinca killings, the notorious serial murders that sent A-list celebrities scrambling to buys guns or get out of town during that sweltering August of 1969. Quentin Tarantino's newly released Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in those Helter Sketler days of yore and Charlie Says, another film based loosely on the Manson myth, is generating similar buzz. In the spin-cycle of popular culture, 2019 is rife with Mansonmania.
Receiving far less attention are books about the phenomena, particularly first-hand accounts. Pop culture is as much echo chamber as spin-cycle and the public narrative about Charlie is set: that of a crazed cult leader who practiced a form of sinister mind control over his followers that made them butcher a rash of victims in a two-night killing spree. It bleeds, leads, is sexy and sells.
Reflexion, the 2018 memoir by longtime Manson confidante Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme, stands in stark contrast to the media narrative. In a compelling and thoughtful narrative that is one of the most intriguing I've ever read, Fromme puts the lie to the Manson mythology in a thoughtful, lucid and vivid retelling of the events we all think we know so well.
Although not personally involved in the Tate-LaBianca killings herself, Lynette Fromme (she no longer answers to 'Squeaky') was among Charles Manson's first friends upon his release from Terminal Island Prison in 1967. She remained by his side, a partner in an open relationship involving several other women, watching the so-called 'Family' grow with the introduction of new members and births of children, visiting him in prison after his conviction and continuing to do so until her own arrest in 1975 for the attempted assassination of then-president Gerald R. Ford in Sacramento. Throughout the journey, Lynette Fromme kept journals and notebooks of her observations as well as collecting letters and writings from fellow Manson family members, many of which are reproduced in the text. This lends Reflexion an authenticity and immediacy absent from other versions, as well as a wildly original perspective. The reader is afforded a fly-on-the-wall view of events leading up to and following the arrest of Charles Manson and members of his 'Family' for conspiracy and murder.
Fromme is a gifted writer. That she has labored to develop her own style is evident immediately upon cracking Reflexion and that she is widely-read is clear within a few pages. She describes meeting Charles Manson during a particularly fraught period in her life, and the appeal of his personality becomes immediately apparent.
He knew something about being trapped, he said, because he’d only recently been released after seven and a half years in prison. Then he revealed to me a glimpse of a life spent in and out of confinement, of the hurt, the anger, and the peace he said finally came with knowing and accepting himself. He was going north to see his mother, he told me, and I could come with him if I wished. I thought about my boyfriend, far from that moment, but this man was a complete stranger.
He glanced down the walk. Apparently, someone was waiting for him. I struggled with the decision. Finally, he said, “I can’t make up your mind for you.” He smiled sympathetically and was on his way. I watched him go half a block before grabbing up my bag of books and running to catch up with him.
Much press about Manson dwells on salacious details regarding sex and drugs. Reflexion describes an innocent and surprisingly wholesome dalliance with free love and mind expansion among the group members not wholly different from the gestalt of the time. Polyamory and experimentation with drugs were par for the course in the 1960s and Fromme's own voyage with psychedelics not only explains the attraction by placing it within the context of the era but also makes for some of the most lyrical and evocative passages in the book.
Fear, born of doubt, brings violent visions rolling down on me like the salty undertow grabs and plunges the panicky swimmer until up and down are indistinguishable.
Experience comes without the buffer of words, in sensations and symbols, the brain code of dreams: I am standing on ridge rocks in the sun, wind-whipped, and mesmerized by a gorge of roiling water below; dank breath rises from the troubled gut. I am padding along the barren shoreline examining curious rock arches and sea sculptures, when the cold chisel bites my feet. I am staring horizon-ward at dusk, seeing restless, white-capped ghosts in the turbulence.
My experience is little. I have paddled southern California waters for most of my life with barely a tug from the undertow or a salty tumble, but this pacific sea can be bitterly cold and hard-handed as it slaps the northern shores. I’ve seen its elegance sliding like liquid glass, its playful gushes in frilly lace to flirt and fuss about the necks of the craggy old rocks. But I am blind.
It is easy to judge others, to use guilt by association to dehumanize and discredit them, condemning their perspective to the outskirts of the cultural discussion. It seems a particular cruelty that the very people most affected by events and best able to comment on them are sidelined while others capitalize: Tarantino's film opens at Cannes, Lynette Fromme's book drops into the pop culture ocean with barely a ripple. This is unjust by any standard but perhaps fitting in its way. Manson, Fromme and company were about a wholesale rejection of the artificial culture that objectifies people and nature, and which purveys 'truth' as a kind of commodity.
Recognition of truth is instant. It may grab you, stun you, inform, or make you laugh. You want to see or hear or read it again. It’s a gift, and you’re grateful. That’s what Charlie was to us. Words were meaningful to him. He once asked me, “Do you know how to keep from breaking promises?” And when I didn’t respond, he said, “Don’t make them.” It was so simple.
Reflexion is a wholly satisfying read. By turns funny and frightening, wry and reflective, hallucinatory and vivid, it offers a rich, satisfying plunge into a community and era fast fading into history. Whatever else she might have done, Lynette Fromme has served her time. With Reflexion, she demonstrates that she has moved on. It is plain that she possesses a wealth of experience, much to say and real talent as an author and raconteur. One hopes that Reflexion is not her last book, but if it must be, then she has left the world a remarkable and moving memoir. For that she deserves our gratitude.