Re-Reading Mindhunter: John Douglas’s Peculiar Manson Family Theory

In the fifth episode of Netflix’s Mindhunter (season two), agents from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit get a long-anticipated chance to interview Charles Manson in San Quentin. They don’t learn a lot from him, because he lays down his usual scattershot faux-hippie nonsense about loving the children that America forgot, doing everything out of love, yadda yadda.

But they hit paydirt when they interview Tex Watson, the actual lead killer in the Tate-Labianca homicides. Watson tells Holden Ford (the character very loosely based on John Douglas) that Manson turned his family into killers using murder drills, “creepy crawling”, groupthink and fevered talk of a bloody apocalypse. Watson tells Ford that the directions to kill the seven Tate-Labianca victims came directly from Manson, which is the generally accepted view of what went down on those two nights in August of 1969.

Douglas developed a different theory. In real life, he didn’t interview Watson nor any of the other accused killers and accomplices (he did interview Lynette Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, two of Manson’s most devoted Family members). After reviewing case materials, however, Douglas decided that Manson didn’t order the murders. Rather, Watson made a daring bid to wrest control of the Family away from Manson by planning and directing the Tate murders and carrying them out without Manson’s knowledge.

Once Manson became aware of what had happened on Cielo Drive, he couldn’t bring himself to admit to anyone that Watson had been the real mastermind, so he let the world live with the illusion that he had ordered the murders. Then he orchestrated the Labianca murders to regain control of the situation.

In the book Mindhunter, Douglas posits that Watson’s choice of victims was “arbitrary”, with the Polanski-Tate residence being targeted only because one of the Manson women had once been to the house. I find this hard to swallow. Polanski was subleasing the house from Terry Melcher, and Manson had a bone to pick with Melcher – Melcher had the potential to produce his music and turn him into a star, but instead had distanced himself from the Family and failed to do anything for Manson’s career. What better way to terrify Melcher than to slaughter the occupants of his house?

There really isn’t any solid evidence to support Douglas’s interpretation of events. Watson was a strong character, but he was as fully under Manson’s spell as the women. All of the women, after they stopped cooperating with Manson, insisted that Manson commanded them to kill – as did Watson. No one involved with the Family has ever implied that Watson planned out the murders on his own.

However, the ostensible motive of launching a race war known as Helter Skelter has been called into question by at least one Family member. In her first memoir, Child of Satan, Child of God, the late Susan Atkins maintained that Manson ordered the murders not to scapegoat African-American activists like the Black Panthers, but to create murder scenes so similar to the Gary Hinman murder that authorities would realize that Hinman’s killers were still on the loose and overturn the conviction of Family associate Bobby Beausoleil. It is Atkins’s contention that Helter Skelter, while part of the Family’s belief system, was never a motive for the murders.

If Atkins was being straightforward, the plot failed on every possible level. The separate teams of detectives who worked the Tate and Labianca homicides didn’t acknowledge a connection between the two until months after the murders, and when the Mansonsites were rounded up by police on unrelated criminal charges that autumn, Beausoleil’s underage girlfriend (Kitty Lutesinger) immediately spilled Family secrets to detectives, telling them that both Bobby and Sadie (Atkins) had been at the scene of Hinman’s murder.

Mistakenly believing that Beausoleil had give her up to police, Atkins admitted she had been in Hinman’s home when he died, but pinned theĀ  murder entirely on Bobby. So, in essence, the Family killed seven other people for absolutely no reason at all. In the end, Atkins clearly decided that Beausoleil wasn’t worth saving. He remains in prison for killing Gary Hinman.

The Manson Family’s first known victim, music teacher Gary Hinman

What was it about Manson that led Douglas to believe he wasn’t fully in command of the Family, and that Watson had tried to stage a sort of coup against him? Douglas doesn’t go into any detail about how he reached his conclusions. Based on how he has responded to other killers, including Wayne Williams, I would guess that Douglas simply didn’t believe that Manson – a short, physically unimposing man with a long prison record and little else – was capable of controlling a young, powerful former athlete like Tex Watson. Douglas believes that most (if not all) of the serial killers he has interviewed over the years were “losers”; ineffectual underachievers with low self-esteem. Manson, charismatic as he was, was just another loser. Watson, a high school track star and businessman with more traditionally attractive qualities than Manson, clearly had to be the real superstar of Spahn Ranch.

It’s a strange theory for a strange case. I see no reason to believe it. Manson may have been small and seedy, but he was persuasive. He somehow convinced Beausoleil, a free-spirited musician/actor who wasn’t even a full-fledged member of the Family, to kill Hinman for him. He persuaded Watson – a “mod” wig salesman – to drop out of society and live in a filthy commune. He talked his way into the lives and homes of Dennis Wilson and several of Wilson’s closest friends, including Melcher. All he had to do was “rap” about love, the unity of all things and total freedom from the sickness of society.

Never underestimate the power of bullshit.