Real Crime Blog

What Was Charles Manson's Childhood Like? 'Young Charlie' Explores the Early Life of the Killer and Cult Leader

Three days before he ran away from Boy's Town, a juvenile facility in Omaha, Nebraska, Charles Manson poses in a suit and tie. Photo: Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Infamous cult leader and self-proclaimed “devil” Charles Manson—who died on November 19, 2017 at age 83—was more than just a deranged power-tripper with a penchant for swastikas and young female followers. He was the mastermind behind 1969’s history-shifting murder spree of 8-months-pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others at the home Tate shared with director Roman Polanski. Manson’s followers in his commune, known as the “Family,” tortured and killed two more people the following night: a couple named Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Though Charles Manson didn’t kill any of these victims himself—he asked his followers to commit the murders on his behalf as part of a plot to incite a race war—he was convicted of seven counts of first-degree murder and spent the rest of his life behind bars. (He and Susan Atkins, then 22; Patricia Krenwinkel, 23; Leslie Van Houten, 21, and Charles “Tex” Watson were originally sentenced to death, but their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment after the death penalty was abolished in California.)

With Manson’s recent death, the timing of the new podcast “Young Charlie” feels apt. The series, an offshoot of the popular “Hollywood & Crime” podcast, was written by Larry Brand, scribe of hit Hollywood films like Girl on the Train and Halloween: Resurrection. The podcast has been a repeat contender in the No.1 spot on Apple Podcasts, and reveals new information about Manson’s childhood, home life and psychology. A&E Real Crime talks to Brand about misconceptions about Manson’s early years.

How do you feel about Manson’s passing?
I feel the same way that most people do. He was [almost] 50 years on from the crime and he had become kind of an irrelevancy. His crimes will live on, but he was almost beside the point. He’s not a sympathetic figure. I’m not a proponent of the death penalty, and I think he got what he deserved [in prison].

Why do you think Manson has been a figure of such enduring public interest for nearly 50 years?
I think the reason he captured the imagination of so many people is that his followers seemed indistinguishable from any of the thousands of other hippies in San Francisco in 1967. It was not so much that he was a sociopath, but the fact that he could infect these minds to the point where they would commit murder in the most vile, brutal, sadistic [way].

My job [on the podcast] was to [translate his psychology] for those who find it inexplicable. By the end, I think I got into his head sufficiently and understood his ability to manipulate others and [suck] them into his web. This was something he was doing at 5 years old; he had this ability to use words to ensnare people.

You’re primarily a film director and writer. Why do a podcast on Manson?
My producing partners, Rebecca Reynolds and Jim Carpenter, had a series on Wondery called “Hollywood & Crime.”  [We decided] to do a [special series] focused on Manson, and the idea of “Young Charlie” just popped into my brain. I thought, why not come at this from a different perspective? How about not just retelling the Helter Skelter story, but also focusing on what got him to that point?

The series has two timelines: One begins on the morning that the bodies are discovered, and the other…begins when he’s 5 and ends the night he sends his followers out to commit those murders. I [wanted to explore] how this 5-year-old kid grew into this monster that has haunted our national psyche for almost 50 years.

What were some of his foundational childhood experiences?
When we’re introduced to him [on the show], he’s 4 or 5 years old and watching his mom get carted off to prison for armed robbery. His mother, Kathleen, and his Uncle Luther had stuck up a guy with a ketchup bottle, pretending it was a gun.

He was not raised in optimal circumstances. But unlike what Manson claimed, his mother was not a prostitute; she was an unwed teenage mother and she got married to give him a name. That [robbery] was a one-off event she was essentially talked into by her older brother. Charlie had a rough childhood, but he grew up in the Depression. There were millions of people that grew up under the same, if not worse, circumstances.

Although Manson wasn’t technically a serial killer—he was a spree killer—is there anything from his early years that we could compare to what we know are typical childhood traits for serial killers?
Interestingly, Charlie had an affection for animals. He worked in a stable for a while and loved the horses. He would rather kill a person than kill an animal. who takes pleasure in other people’s misery.

There’s certainly a sadistic component to Charlie, and he would often beat his followers, but he doesn’t really qualify as a sexual sadist. He did not torture or murder women as a sexual exercise. He was more of a pure sociopath. He did not have a moral compass. All that mattered was Charlie.

There is one instance when he was an adolescent due out on parole [from a reformatory]. It was in his interest to behave. But he saw this vulnerable young kid and he subdued him and raped him, with a razor held to the kid’s throat.

You mentioned earlier that he lied about his mom being a prostitute. Why?
If a lie would get him what he wanted, he would lie. It was all about the moment. There was also a continuing center of self-pity. He was the center of the world, the child of sorrow. So he would elaborate and make everything his own hardship. This is very typical of sociopaths. They don’t feel your pain. They feel their own. Whether it is lying as a 10 year old, or murdering as a 35-year-old—everything comes from this little ball of ego, desire and sense of victimhood.

Did you learn anything during your research that surprised you?
I didn’t know he considered himself a Scientologist. I don’t think the Scientologists would consider him a Scientologist, though, if for no other reason than he couldn’t afford the program.

He was also very influenced by Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which I think has almost a darkly comical aspect to it. One of the principles of Carnegie’s book is…to make the other guy believe the idea is his, and Charlie really had that ability. For 50 years he’s been claiming he was innocent because he…wasn’t physically present for the murders. He actually was there and tied up the LaBiancas, but…I [believe] he thought he was wrongly convicted.

Any misconceptions you see out there about Manson?
There’s this notion I hear a lot: ‘Well, we don’t know what we would’ve done if we were there,’ like you don’t know what you would have done if you’d been in Hitler Germany or in Stalinist Russia.

[For the Manson case], there’s this sense that were it for time and place, almost any hippie could have been vulnerable to his con. I think that’s profoundly wrong. There were people who ran as soon as they heard he was talking about initiating Helter Skelter. There were kids who grew disaffected and escaped. There were kids who were there but refused to participate, like Linda Kasabian. What’s entered the national psyche is this kind of generic feeling of ‘Oh my god, look what people are capable of.’ I think the answer is to look at what some people are capable of.

—Laura Barcella

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