Going Over the Mountain with Charles Manson OR Why We Love Reading About Evil

April 29, 2014

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So, the other morning I was driving over Mont-Royal – going to get my morning coffee – noticing the budding, traumatized leaves trying to push their way through after this difficult winter – and it was beautiful.

And I was listening to: Charles Manson.

Well, actually, I was listening to Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air talk to author Jeff Guinn talk about his new biography of the infamous murderer.

When Gross asked Guinn why he was giving so much space to a known psychopath who seems to thrive on public consumption of his own image – Guinn gave a remarkable answer: he explained how when society experiences a huge counter-cultural movement (as it did in the ‘60s) there are the highest, most uplifting points of said movement (the war protestors) and then, inevitably, there’s the other side of the coin – the downfall of said movement – the dark side of any counter-culture.

Guinn doesn’t see how it could get any darker than Charles Manson: drugs, free love, music, all used in the name of good in the hands of some – were used as a justification by Manson to brainwash and murder.

Many people had a problem with Guinn writing the book. They wrote to him to tell him so.

I don’t. I don’t think that Guinn exonerates Manson in any way.

People read biographies about Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, all of the time.

And we watch Dexter, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos (just read Difficult Men by Brett Martin – great read).

And we love it.

Humans are tantalized by evil. This is not to say that Hitler is equal to Manson who is equal to Walter White.

Not at all.

Simply put, we are riveted by tales of humans behaving badly – just look at the Greek gods – and the worse they act, the better for us.

How else would TMZ stay in business?

Just because some of us read a book about Manson in no ways means we condone his behaviour –we just want to try and understand it (an understanding, which – to most – is elusive at best).

Because we will never understand. And so we continue to read.

And it scares us.

So if Guinn writes an eye-opening biography into one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century – why begrudge him?

He’s not acting irresponsibly – he’s a journalist trying to get to the bottom of our fascination with evil.

I will say that during tomorrow’s drive, I will be listening to Slate’s Culture Gabfest discuss Stephen Colbert’s move to late night television.

There’s only so much darkness one can take. 


  1. When I was fifteen I snuck into a drive-in movie showing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original) and I remember watching it and wishing I hadn’t. Since that time, I have always found it difficult reading about torture, cruelty and the terrorization of others. Although I loved the series, I did not enjoy those types of scenes within the Sopranos and B.B (Jesse in the end episodes). TV shows are made up stories – they do not hold the same intense grip on my mind. I could not read about Manson but I like that there is freedom to write it. I guess it’s personal. I hate knowing, as a father of three, that real monsters really do exist.

  2. Happy First Anniversary, love the blog especially when you mention places in Montreal. It sure brings back fond memories, since I only visit Montreal and no longer live there. Great city, great people and you are just an example of that.

    • Fantastic, Dale – thank you for the wonderful message. Montreal is a little worse off for having lost you 🙂

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