In August 1969 Charles Manson had maybe 100 followers. A handful of them were convicted of following his orders to kill six people, including Valley of the Dolls actress Sharon Tate, hairdresser-to-the-stars Jay Sebring and, the next night, grocery chain owner Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary.
Today, thanks to a purloined cell phone and a Twitter account, Manson, 77, who is serving a life sentence at Corcoran Prison in California, has more than 6,000 followers, including Manson Family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, convicted for the 1975 attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford.
Manson’s ongoing reach and the fact he and the surviving Tate-LaBianca killers have parole hearings on a regular basis is one reason Tate family friend Alisa Statman and Brie Tate, Sharon’s niece, wrote Restless Souls.
There are more than 1,100 books on Amazon.com about Manson and the murders, many of them exploitative. The authors’ aim in this worthwhile if problematic addition to the growing library was to complete the memoirs of Tate’s late parents Doris and Paul (P.J.) and their daughter, Patti. They wanted to write about the effect the murders had on the Tates and to shift attention to the victims. Restless Souls is at its best when they stick to the plan. The book contains 47 family album photos and, unlike the others, not one features Manson or the killers.
Heartbreaking in its moving depiction of familial love and loss and unfortunately sometimes too strident for its own good, Restless Souls focuses on Doris Tate and daughter Patti, who was 11 when her eight-months’ pregnant sister Sharon, 26, was murdered inside her Benedict Canyon home. Mother and daughter reluctantly became nationally prominent advocates of victims’ rights before each lost their lives to cancer.
Initially, we learn that Doris clashed with her retired army intelligence officer husband when he began visiting the hippie hangouts of the era to ferret out the killers. Once they were apprehended, he became a fixture at their trial. “I don’t need to be there to prove I love Sharon. It’s in God’s hands to take care of those monsters,” Doris Tate cried during one argument in 1970.
In his 1974 best-seller Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote of Col. Tate’s months-long private investigation: “(D)espite his diligence, he had not come up with anything that was of use to us.”
Not surprisingly, Restless Souls suggests otherwise, insisting that P.J. was instrumental in finding the killers before the Los Angeles Police Department did thanks to his discovery of Spahn’s Movie Ranch, the camouflaged encampment of the Manson Family.
The book’s first half and its effective storytelling that traces the psychological impact the slayings and trial had on the Tates prove the most riveting, devastating and compulsively readable sections. None of the previous works on the subject — not Bugliosi’s masterful Helter Skelter (still the definitive examination of the crimes) nor Ed Sanders’ 1971 take The Family — recorded such wrenching, emotional detail on the aftermath.
Patti Tate, then 11 and still dazed, recalls gathering at a famed Hollywood producer’s house immediately after the Tate-Sebring funerals. A glimpse at forbidden television, a repeat of Bewitched playing inside a screening room a few yards away from where the adults mourned, caught and held her attention. “What better way to forget my troubles than to watch a show, that with a twitch of the nose anything could change.”
Nice detail. Yet a self-righteous tone overtakes Restless Souls‘ latter half when the narrative shifts to Doris Tate, who proved influential in the amendment of California laws relating to victims of violent crime. She was honored by President George H.W. Bush as one of his “thousand points of light” shortly before her death in 1992. She attended the parole hearings and reacted with anger upon learning that her daughter’s killer, Charles “Tex” Watson, had a cushy arrangement in prison and had earned the forgiveness of Rosemary LaBianca’s daughter, who found her mother’s body in the house riddled with 41 stab wounds.
Restless Souls offers a few tantalizing revelations, the biggest involving a curious plan by Watson to trick Sharon Tate’s sister into testifying in his defense at his parole hearing. But the book comes up short in its construction. Statman and Tate shift voices and time so often a reader can easily become confused. The writing lacks polish, too. Bugliosi, by comparison, chillingly set the stage in the first paragraph of Helter Skelter by showing, not telling: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.”
Statman and Tate occasionally lapse into cliché “a palace fit for any fairy-tale princess” and cancer “is a thief in the night” or such clunky prose as: “My inflamed opinion may have a biased tone, but the hippie trend is not my favorite culture.”
Toward the end, Statman and Brie Tate violate one of their objectives. One glaring passage, which seems to come out of nowhere, luridly lingers over the murder night, imagining dialogue between killers and victims and offers the exact post-mortem dimensions of the stab wounds. Perhaps the authors felt that shoehorning this last bit of emphasis of the killers’ savagery and cruelty would be crucial to ensuring readers’ empathy, but it was unnecessary. The powerful highlights of Restless Souls are so moving and detailed, the authors make their point without grandstanding or cheap theatrics.
One bit of noteworthy aftermath: Amid the publicity surrounding the book’s release, Manson’s Twitter posts have come to a halt. Type his name into Twitter’s TweetDeck application, and you are greeted with the message: “Oh dear, user has been suspended.” Doris and Patti Tate would approve.