Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Dark Places of Our Youth

It is time to revisit, for a moment, some of the dark places of our youth, those places we prefer to ignore or pretend didn’t happen. It is important to face them from time to time. I learned long ago that, while the idealism of the 60s and 70s was not a lie, it masked things, and even nurtured things, that are frightening.
Too melodramatic. Let’s start again:

Squeaky Fromme is out of prison.

That’s better. Direct, to the point. Squeaky is out of prison.

Squeaky Fromme was one of Charlie Manson’s Girls. That’s how they were always described. Charlie’s girls. She was one of the first. They were young women who worshiped the ground that he walked on, were seduced into believing that he was some sort of divine spirit. They would do anything for him—including murdering Sharon Tate and eight other people in one of the grizzliest mass murders of all time.
But Squeaky wasn’t involved. She’s sixty years old. To the best of anybody’s knowledge she didn’t kill anybody. When she pointed a .45 caliber pistol at President Ford in 1975, the gun wasn’t even loaded, though at the time there was some debate as to whether or not she knew that. Personally, I think she did know, and she was just doing it for attention. She is not actually a murderer. She deserves her parole. So why do I feel nervous?

Probably it’s because I have seen Squeaky Fromme in the flesh and she was scary. I’d been raised around real hippies in Norhtern California and I liked them. They were interesting and cool and fun. They weren’t square. They were also idealists who believed in a better world than the one we lived in, one in which the old strictures and hierarchies of society could be replaced by a new equality, where greed and materialism could be replaced with love and equality. A nice thought. At the time I also didn’t know the difference between hippies, who wanted to drop out of the world and be left alone, and radicals, who wanted to change the world, often through violence. And I didn’t really know about Charlie.

The idealism of Woodstock gave way to the seventies, with cocaine and AIDS and the Black Panthers and the SLA and the Weather Underground and Jim Jones and Disco. It wasn’t that the sixties were a lie, it’s that the people who believed in love and freedom didn’t foresee that it could lead to violence, overindulgence, death, and disco.

Charlie wasn’t really a product of the sixties, but he was a part of it. He took advantage of the idealism of the Woodstock generation, of their naiveté, and convinced a few of them that they could start a violent revolution if they murdered a bunch of rich people and made it look like black radicals did it. He was, in a way, playing Black Nationalism, Hollywood liberalism, and entrenched American racism off against each other. In the end he was just a crazy man with some whacked out followers hopped up on LSD going on a killing spree (which Manson himself didn’t even take part in). I never met Charlie Manson. My step father encountered him once though, and that is a good family story. I think my step-mother met him once too, when she was a prison psychiatrist. But not me. And I’m glad.

But I did see Squeaky. I grew up in Sacramento and lived there when she pulled the unloaded gun on President Ford. My mom took me out of school and down to the courthouse to attend Squeaky’s trial. Mom thought it would be good for me to see the justice system up close, and probably thought that I’d remember being that close to history for the rest of my life. If so, she was right. I clearly remember Squeaky coming into the courtroom, her head wrapped in a shawl, a blank look on her face. The judge informed her that she had a right to be present during the proceedings. I don’t think she even looked at him. She didn’t say anything. She just paused, then walked back toward her cell. It was as if she was wandering through a dream, barely even taking it in. There was no evidence presented that day. They were arguing over the admissibility of a tape recording of what Squeaky said at the time of her arrest (the trial turned on whether or not she had said “What does it matter, the gun was empty” or “What does it matter, the gun didn’t go off.” There were rounds in the clip but not in the chamber, and whether or not she knew that indicated whether or not she intended to shoot the president.)

And that was it. We left the courthouse when they broke for lunch and went and had Mexican food at Los Aztecas. I went back to school the next day and told all my classmates. But I never forgot it. I never forgot that spooky woman in the head shawl. I seem to recall she had carved a cross in her forehead like Charlie. I think she did. Whatever, she was scary. She was the dark side of sixties idealism, the evil that can so easily take over good intentions. She never really recanted. She remained a loyal follower of Manson’s. And now she’s out. And it’s more than a bit scary.


Anonymous Kathryn Javandel said...

I'm not sure that Disco - bad as it may be - is quite in the same "scary" category as the Manson girls. The BeeGees, for example, sound like perhaps they might be wimpy eunuchs, nonthreatening in the extreme.

7:54 PM  

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