Rick Moody on the Case of the Cursed Charles Manson Autograph
A Very Unlucky Postcard
If I were to pick an emblem, an objective correlative for the year 2013, it was a Charles Manson autograph.
The story comes from the writing world, at least initially, and it starts like this. I knew this literary fellow who was doing some hard time. I think a number of writers knew him. Another writer told me that this guy, doing the hard time, wanted to write to me, and would I write back? I had no objection to writing back, because my own behavior had always made me sympathize with people given to the occasional horrible decision. I felt sympathy for the victims of crimes, of course, but I also felt great waves of compassion for the men and women who somehow seemed to do a poor job of living their own lives, and who then wound up in the penal system. I wrote back to the guy doing the hard time, and we wrote back and forth throughout the rest of his interval inside, and later when he was living as an ex-con in Ohio. I helped him name his dog. We talked about contemporary literature, of which he knew a lot. I think he knew Allen Ginsberg personally, and maybe William S. Burroughs. Often the guys living on the edge of the law know and admire the Beats, have you noticed?
Some time later, when this guy, who insisted that he had not committed the crime for which he was incarcerated (I have no reason to disbelieve him), was just another person on the margins of the literary world, I had occasion to review a certain book that I much esteemed. The book was Building Stories, by the graphic novelist Chris Ware. I ordered the book, and then I also got a free copy from the organ for which I was reviewing, and then suddenly I had two copies. This is not the strangest thing in my life, but it happened to coincide with my partner, Laurel, telling me about a certain conceptual art project named One Red Paperclip. I think the blogger who undertook this work is called Kyle MacDonald. And MacDonald, through a series of fourteen trades, managed to turn a single red paperclip into a farmhouse in Saskatchewan. I think probably MacDonald was an unusually shrewd negotiator, and he had some very excellent allies in his project, or (and this part is undeniable) he got a lot of very good publicity for his project, and this enabled trades that anyone would admire or find exceedingly creative.
I had been looking around to try something similar, because it sounded like so much fun, and I decided that I would trade my second copy of Building Stories to whomever offered me something really incredible for it, after which I would try to trade that item to someone else, and so on.
This proposition, the bartering of the extra copy of Ware’s book, generated a fair amount of discussion on Facebook at one point, and I believe one guy did invite me to stay for a week in Italy, or maybe Greece, but because I am shy and can’t really stand being anyone’s guest for very long, I did not take the week in Greece. How foolish! I think there were some other interesting offers too. But I decided that the best offer, for no reason that I can re-create now, was the postcard signed by Charles Manson.
Of course, it came from the guy I knew who was staying in the federal penitentiary. Apparently, he had not only been corresponding with literary writers in those years, but also with some more hard-core criminal types. I don’t know the extent of it. But somehow he had found himself attempting to correspond with Charles Manson. If you are my age, you perhaps, like I do, associate Charles Manson with a certain kind of California—with LSD, and the out-of-control period of the Beach Boys, with deranged interpretations of Beatles songs, with the Summer of Love and its philosophies converted all at once into the obverse, malevolent and incoherent evil. You associate Charles Manson with that book Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, and with the photos of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme in the police cruiser relieved of her firearm, after her attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Maybe the younger persons turning these pages don’t know as much about Manson and his band of followers, or associate him primarily with any list of dangerous and legendary serial killers that includes Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, et al., all available on the internet. But the psychedelic California, the bad acid California of that lost time, that’s how I think of him.
I can’t say exactly why my friend thought procuring and storing up the Manson postcard was a good idea, and perhaps it was simply that he was killing time in prison and wanted some memorabilia associated with his residence. I can’t say exactly why I thought it was a good trade either, except that perhaps it would be easy to trade to someone else. I think I still felt bad about my friend’s incarceration (he was soon released, and is on firm footing these days), and so I wanted to help him out. Apparently, I couldn’t see the obvious menace of the object.
My friend’s cover letter, which followed with the postcard, said:
Here’s Charlie, hope he arrived intact. The poem on the back is not by Manson, but by his “prison secretary.” Signature on front is Charlie’s (signed MacManson). Note the swastika through his last name. What a guy, that Manson.
Then my friend wrote a few pleasantries, and concluded with: “Ah the curse is lifted (just kidding) (maybe).” The Manson signature is on the front of an old-fashioned picture postcard. Laterally across a photograph of a squirrel standing in a posture that I suppose I would describe as fully erect, sort of waving at the camera with one hand, from his perch atop a stump. The inscription, in blue ballpoint, does, in fact, say “Charles MacManson.” And there is a sort of a swastika. The poem, on the reverse, goes as follows:
Lend me your ears,
All knowledge is moonshine
We are here and it is now
The Little Zen For Charlie
Let’s review the lamentable facts. I wrote a book review of a book I really loved (the first sentence of the review was “This book is a masterpiece”), and then I decided to trade my extra copy of that book, hoping that I could, through some conceptual art smarts, convert that book, ultimately, into a house in Nova Scotia, or maybe Newfoundland. And somehow I determined that the first thing I should trade for was a postcard signed by a guy with a swastika carved into his head, who was responsible for the murder of seven people. It is true that when I was an undergraduate at Brown University, there was a professor in the film department who had once made it his business to publish a chapbook of Manson’s remarks from his sentencing hearing in 1971, and in the giddy, sometimes repellant political environment of Brown, circa 1983, this publication was considered genuinely revolutionary.
However, I have also read comments by Sharon Tate’s sister, that is, the sister of one of Manson’s victims, and I found them heartrending and persuasive; I can only say that I felt that the Manson signature, which I imagine is one of many circulating out in the world (items signed by Manson start at $100 and go up from there on various true crime collectible sites), would be valuable for my bartering project.
You would have thought that the appended note at the bottom of the covering letter, “Ah the curse is lifted,” would have been the sign, or that I would have felt a slight chill at reading the poem by Manson’s “prison secretary,” with its ominous and Eastern, “All wisdom is moonshine / We are here and it is now.” Sort of reminds you of that koan that suggests that if you meet the Buddha in the road you should kill him. And yet: much of the contemporary outsider language orbiting around Charles Manson tends to overlook the horror done by him, and so I can only say that I did what many others have done, which is to say I neglected the facts for a moment. I averted my gaze, and allowed the Charles Manson signature into my apartment in Brooklyn, where it sat in my drawer.
The trouble began almost immediately.
It would be too obvious, and the mechanism too transparent, if I were to tell you that the death and destruction that subsequently visited themselves upon my life, and the lives of my wife, Laurel, and my daughter, among which were suicide, dementia, repeated pregnancy loss, and grand larceny, were somehow caused by Manson. And so let me reassure you that it is not that obvious. The Manson curse is simply a slow-acting metaphor. Not immediately identifiable. Mostly at the beginning of 2013, I was trying to finish a novel that I had told my publishers I was writing for almost four years, and of which I had written 250 pages without conviction of any kind.
It was somewhere in this becoming of autumn in 2014 that I decided I had to sell the Charles Manson autograph. Or get rid of it somehow. Whatever it took. It is true that I never totally believed the Charles Manson autograph was cursed, because what kind of curse is transmissible from party to party? You could make an argument that anyone who was stupid enough to keep a Charles Manson autograph in the house deserves to be cursed, and there may be validity to this point of view. I suppose I don’t believe in curses at all, excepting the completely literary sort that you see in the Gothic novel. Those seem like oneiric representations of a feeling that a person might have about her or his life, that life is a sequence of bad luck events. In literature, time will do all of these horrible things to you, because time is no respecter of individualism, or even human subjectivity.
But the whole punitive concept of a curse related to the Manson autograph wouldn’t keep me from getting rid of it. I was, because I had obtained the Manson autograph in a trade, intending to trade it to someone else, perhaps someone who would appreciate it. And so there was a week of perusing these websites that are set up and maintained by people who collect autographs of mass murderers and serial killers, in an attempt to ascertain the market for my autograph. And it seemed there were a lot of his autographs floating around out there. Maybe it’s a prison thing, and maybe he obtained some advantage in the interior of his prison space, for doling out a certain number of autographs annually. Whatever the reason for the proliferation of Manson autographs online, the fact was that my Manson autograph was not worth that much, and I would really need to find just the right collector in order to get a reasonable return.
I could have just thrown it out, of course, and then in this chapter I could have reflected upon just the right place to throw it out.
But it seemed more sporting, given how I obtained the autograph in the first place, to try to find someone else who wanted it. That would thrust me out into the world of people trying to own paintings of Twisty the Clown.
However, Laurel, my wife, did have a friend who worked at Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, possibly the best record store in America, and this friend, who knew everything about music, seemed to want the Charles Manson autograph. He was a collector of serial killer memorabilia. I don’t know how the subject came up, but this friend did want to get just the right piece of vinyl for me from Amoeba Records in return for surrendering my Charles Manson autograph, and eventually what he came up with was a comedy recording from the beatnik period called How to Speak Hip. The album is pretty rare, despite being important to Brian Wilson, who gave the album a shout-out during the Pet Sounds sessions. It’s a comedy album about beatniks, really. The copy I got was missing the inner sleeve, I think, and was lightly foxed, as the book collectors say. But what I got for it was the privilege of ridding myself of Charles Manson and his autograph.
From The Long Accomplishment by Rick Moody. Used with the permission of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2019 by Rick Moody.