In the summer of 1969, seven people in L.A. were murdered by people tied to Charles Manson. Manson was a wannabe singer and leader of a cult-like group. In 1974, Vincent Bugliosi’s (with help from Curt Gentry) account of the events, Helter Skelter, was published. When she was twelve, Micol Ostow’s father gave her a copy of the book and it is clearly the inspiration for her YA novel Family.
Family is the story of seventeen-year-old Melinda Jensen. She’s run away from home, leaving behind an emotionally distant mother and a sexually abusive “uncle jack.”
now meant “uncle jack” and whiskey breath and roaming hands and squeaking bedsprings.
it meant mother, treading water, understanding that jack was not your uncle, not your father, not your family. mother, watching you drown, doing nothing as you drifted, as the current pulled you to a place where whiskey breath and roaming hands couldn’t reach.
Melinda doesn’t use capitals for anything, unless she’s talking about Henry. He finds Melinda, “a heap of bones, a tangle of stringy hair, collapsed on a sticky park bench” and offers her what she seems to desperately need. He scoops Melinda up and whisks her back to the ranch, where he lives with a bunch of other misfits. The rules are simple: “everything belongs to everyone. there are no parents, no ownership, no ego. no “i”.”
For a time, Melinda finds relief from her life at the ranch. It’s all free love and shared meals and music. To be in Henry’s orbit is to be chosen, doused in his special light. Until, of course, it’s not. Until she is called upon to participate in a horrific crime.
Family is written in verse and this might, perhaps, be one of its problems. It’s a bit repetitive. I loved the idea of the book and anyone familiar with Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders will certainly recognize the parallels. I wanted to empathize with Melinda, clearly she’s had a rough go, but it was hard to really care about any of these characters given that the prose was so fragmented. I have read other novels-in-verse and have found them satisfying, but this one just didn’t pack the emotional punch I was expecting. I think if you are at all interested in Manson, you should definitely give Helter Skelter a go. Like Ostow, I read it as a teenager and it really is quintessential true crime.