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Serial Kidders

[whitespace] Manson Family
Rick Downe

No Picnic: A cheerful double take on the Manson Family.

Color the 'Manson Family' for fun

By David Templeton

RETIRED NAVY PETTY Officer Rick Downey of Santa Rosa was relaxing and camping by the side of a turtle-filled lake about 10 years ago when he was befriended by a congenial group of people who had staked out a nearby site. They seemed nice, offering to share their food and recreational pharmaceuticals. Downey felt fortunate to have made the acquaintance of such generous, free-spirited souls.

They partied all weekend and then parted ways.

It wasn't until three years later that Downey--while channel-surfing on the tube--happened upon a Geraldo Rivera show about convicted murder-conspiracist Charles Manson. Geraldo was grilling a group of smiling, sincere-looking hippies.

Their faces seemed familiar.

Suddenly, Downey recognized them as the very same folks he'd once so memorably picnicked with, yet they were now proudly identifying themselves as being longtime members of Manson's still-existent "Family."

"I'd say that was a pivotal moment in my life," laughs Downey. "For the first time I was able to get a fresh perspective on the Manson thing, to get beyond the old stereotypes of the Mansons being nothing but insane murderers! Sure, the people who went to jail in the '60s [for the multiple Manson-engineered murder of Sharon Tate and others] were not very nice people. But the ones I met," he insists, "were very nice people. Really!"

Maybe so. At any rate, the story served Downey well for years, as he retold it in order to entertain and (often, he admits) to irritate co-workers.

There is now the possibility that Downey will be able to irritate thousands of strangers as well.

He has just published Manson Family Picnic (Playroom Press; $6.50), an adaptation of the strange event, here envisioned as a children's coloring book, in which the Manson Family is depicted as friendly turtles, with Huey, Eldridge, and Bobby turning up in the form of three black bears who tear up campgrounds as a political act. Co-written with Santa Rosa musician Garth Powell and capably illustrated by Downey, who had never drawn before, the 44-page book is available only through online orders. And despite a glowing review from none other than Zippy the Pinhead's Bill Griffith, who called the book "funny, wacky stuff!," Downey has been unable to persuade any bookstore to place the book on public shelves.

"Maybe the mainstream public isn't ready for it yet," he gamely allows.

THE MANSON FAMILY Picnic would be little more than an audaciously bizarre prank were it not for the fact that Downey and Powell have managed to co-opt the unwitting assistance of both Vincent Bugliosi--the former Los Angeles district attorney who prosecuted the Manson case--and of Charles Manson himself.

Bugliosi's contribution is an undeniably amusing letter--reprinted as the book's foreword-- that begins, "I can't comment on what you sent me because it doesn't appear to be a book and I really don't understand what you sent me. But I wish you the best with whatever it is."

Manson, now serving his life sentence at Pelican Bay State Prison, has ended up contributing the afterword in the form of a demented, three-page-long, rhyme-loaded missive, written in a freaky chicken-scratch of longhand gibberish, photocopied as is onto the final pages of the book. It was apparently Manson's response to being sent the galleys of the volume.

"It's a newspaper face, gesture race, tokens broken, word said yet unspoken," Manson earnestly scribbles. "Spain Change, toe kwan do whip-per-snap-per--Golden midnight, non sans dreact pere-pere plus trying to prove nothings to prove bottom line mind . . ."

One thing is for sure: it's a perversely fascinating read.

"He seems to be changing his thought pattern every three words or so in that letter," Downey says, appreciatively.

"I dearly love that letter," adds Powell, a drummer and poet who has actually performed the letter on stage. "It's a very powerful piece. Let's face it, Manson's entire existence in jail has been 30 years of performance art."

Hold it a minute.

It's all well and good to try and see beyond stereotypes, but the guy being celebrated is responsible for one of the most horrifying crimes of the 20th century.

"Well, I wasn't trying to glamorize Manson," Downey replies, a tad taken back. "I was really just trying to have fun."

"Oh, you couldn't create more celebrity for that guy if you tried," Powell says. "Manson is an icon, like it or not. And if you read the books on the subject, you have to conclude that Manson was only a low-rent nut case, but was somehow whipped up into looking like one of the great monsters of the era. Let's face it, if the Manson Family didn't just happen to have murdered a bunch of rich white people, no one would have cared nearly as much.

"But we are a monster-making culture," he adds. "And Manson gets to play one of our monsters right now."

"My experience with the Manson Family was so different than what you would expect when you hear the phrase 'Manson Family,'" continues Downey. "It was kind of eye-opening. According to Bugliosi, there were over 100 members of the Family at one time, and only eight were involved in the murders. That leaves a lot of others who were not necessarily bad people.

"But if everyone else in society wants to believe that all of Manson's followers were evil and should go to Hell, well, that's their business."

In spite of his defense of those particularly Mansonites, Downey insists he does not revere Manson. In fact, he's even gone so far as to, well, tease him.

"Yeah, I took one of his letters to me," he explains, "and I cut all the words apart, rearranged them into all new sentences, and mailed it back to him. I don't think he liked it very much. I got another letter, politely asking me to stop writing.

"I think I'll leave the guy alone from now on."

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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