When my compassion for a difficult person begins to run low, I allow myself to wonder what he or she was like as a child. I try to picture them at the age an unknown trauma may have occurred, and ask myself how it may have contributed to the behaviors that make our interactions challenging now. Then I try to respond as if I’m talking to that child, hurt, angry, and confused, rather than the belligerent, defensive adult standing in front of me.
I’ve spent the past week in graduate school focused on trauma-related mental health disorders, particularly those affecting children. By the end of the week I need to finish reading a book on the failings of the current mental health system and the double-edged sword of deinstitutionalization. And in my long drives from one client to another, I’ve been listening to Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, in which the title essay dissects 1960s counter culture in Haight Ashbury.
These were the concepts occupying space in my head when I woke up this morning and my phone greeted me with a news alert about the death of Charles Manson. The article included a biographical summary - of a man who had no family, who committed his first dangerous acts by the age of eight, who begged, as an adult, not to be released from prison because he didn’t know where to go.
Granted, Charles Manson has always been peripheral to me, the murders a thing that happened a long time ago. I am of the generation for whom Manson was a twisted historical figure, not a courtroom news story; the first reference I ever knew to Haight Ashbury was in the form of a Nirvana song. I have never experienced the visceral reaction a baby boomer would have to the story of the Manson murders. When I first learned of them, I found them nauseating and unsettling, but they did not rattle my worldview.
By the time I learned of the Manson murders, violence was familiar.
Likewise, I had heard before of Manson’s bizarre court testimony, but never read it: “These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them; I didn’t teach them.” Horrifying, yes? Let’s strike that from the record please. Keep these irrational thoughts to yourself, Mr. Manson. Nobody wants to be implicated in your bloodbath. No, dude, you’re just crazy. Shut up.
Except . . . there’s that nagging fear that he might be right.
80 years ago, Charles Manson was a three-year-old boy whom nobody protected. Blame my coursework, blame my bleeding heart, blame my obsessive need to make sense of the tragic and nonsensical, but I cannot write off that crazy unstable man’s accusations. These children were our children. They were teenage runaways - from good families, yes, sure, as far as we know. They were children, many of them privileged, who grew up in a society in which some people were disposable - including the fatherless son of a prostitute whose early years indicated a slew of behavioral problems, but nobody stepped in.
When Liam was four he asked me, “Does God make the bad guys?”
I answered, as any good recovering evangelical would, that there aren’t really good guys and bad guys. That we’re all people, with some good and some bad in each of us. That God loves each of us, when we’re good and when we’re bad, and knowing just how much God loves us makes us want to be good like God.
What I did not say at the time - and maybe I just didn’t want to believe it - is that sometimes, we help make the bad guys.
That every person must choose for him or herself which direction to go.
That ultimately we all have the capacity, hidden beneath our fears, our anger, and our selfishness, to choose what’s right and connects us with the divine.
But that when we cast aside a three-year-old boy as unimportant, as a drain on society, as a person who shouldn’t exist, as unworthy of our care, we make his choice to do evil a much easier one.
And so I’d like to humbly suggest, as we attempt to mitigate our holiday spending with a couple of cans to the food pantry, as we think maybe we’ll serve at a soup kitchen for a couple hours Thursday morning so we can enjoy our Thursday afternoon excesses guilt-free, that we sit with this one for a minute. That before we celebrate the death of a terrifying, volatile, evil cult leader, we mourn the life of a little boy protected and loved by no one.
Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to think about this. I want to clean out the crock pot and thaw the cranberries and mutter about someone using up the nutmeg and complain about the crowds at Market Basket. I want to sit down with my family this week and agree not to discuss healthcare or gun control and just all celebrate and be nice and grateful for what we have. I want to eat pie. And honestly, I am going to do all those things, and I am going to enjoy every minute of it.
This is what we all want, right? To relish the fleeting holiday feeling of safe and cozy love, to pour a warm drink and plug in the twinkly lights that push back the darkness, at least a little.
Because to do otherwise is uncomfortable. Like any other privileged middle class white woman, I would much rather focus on the pretty twinkling lights than think about the darkness persisting beyond their reach. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it - until the lights stay warm and cozy in our own homes, and let those in the darkness outside fend for themselves.
Charles Manson, before the swastika on his forehead, before the batshit crazy helter skelter terror, was a little boy left in that darkness. We left him there.