When a crime achieves a kind of mythic status, it’s because it’s exceptional in one of three ways: victim, perpetrator, or method. The murders committed by Charles Manson’s “Family” cult in 1969 excelled in all three ways. The number of victims would have been sensational alone; the fact that one of them was actress Sharon Tate gave the killings a borrowed celebrity. The extremity of the violence was outstanding and the addition of the Family’s peculiar hippie symbolism to the crime scenes only made them more compelling. And had they been committed, like most violent crimes, by men, this would have been enough; but most of the Family were young women, making them irresistibly atypical killers.
There will be blood and plenty of it by the end of Emma Cline’s California-set debut, which is loosely based on the Manson “family” and their crimes. But first, ketchup. The linguist Deborah Cameron tells a story in The Myth of Mars and Venus about a family dinner. When the daughter says to the mother, “Is there any ketchup?”, the mother replies, “Yes, it’s in the cupboard.” But when the father says to the mother, “Is there any ketchup?”, the mother gets up and fetches it for him. It’s a scene that’s less about condiments than it is about power, and who is entitled to ask for what of whom. Both father and daughter make demands of the mother, but only the father gets his met.
Such interactions can easily be overlooked or ignored, but they’re the essence of social control. In order to build the case against Charles Manson (who was not present at the killing of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger), prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi had to form a picture of Manson’s domination over his followers, introducing testimony about dozens of incidents demonstrating that, whatever Manson said, his followers intuited his designs and saw them through. Commissioning a mass murder was as simple and subtle for Manson as requesting a bottle of sauce.