Manson in His Own Words
Destroying a Myth: The True Confessions of Charles Mansonby Nuel Emmons
“A glimpse of part of the American experience that is rarely described from the inside . . . It compels both interest and horror.” –The Washington Post
“A glimpse of part of the American experience that is rarely described from the inside . . . It compels both interest and horror.” –The Washington Post
We have called him a devil and quarantined him behind such labels as “the most dangerous man alive.” But Charles Manson remains a shocking reminder of our own humanity gone awry. This astonishing book lays bare the life and the mind of a man whose acts have left us horrified. His story provides an enormous amount of new information about his life and how it led to the Tate-LaBianca murders, and reminds us of the complexity of the human condition.
Born in the middle of the Depression to an unmarried fifteen-year-old, Manson lived through a bewildering succession of changing homes and substitute parents, until his mother finally asked the state authorities to assume his care when he was twelve. Regimented and often brutalized in juvenile homes, Manson became immersed in a life of petty theft, pimping, jail terms, and court appearances that culminated in seven years of prison. Released in 1967, he suddenly found himself in the world of hippies and flower children, a world that not only accepted him, but even glorified his anti-establishment values. It was a combination that led, for reasons only Charles Manson can fully explain, to tragedy.
Manson’s story, distilled from seven years of interviews and examinations of his correspondence, provides sobering insight into the making of a criminal mind, and a fascinating picture of the last years of the sixties. No one who wants to understand that time, and the man who helped to bring it to a horrifying conclusion, can miss reading this book.
“The shocking confessions of “the most dangerous man alive.” –Rolling Stone
“Compelling and chilling.” –Baltimore Evening Sun
“I couldn’t put it down.” –Liz Smith
“Disturbingly hypnotic.” –Vogue
“Compulsively readable. . . . Manson can’t ever succeed in being paroled out of that cell, not as long as people with any sense at all can read this book.” –William S. Burroughs
“A glimpse of part of the American experience that is rarely described from the inside. . . . It compels both interest and horror.” –The Washington Post
“Gives us a portrait close to the truth.” –The New York Times Book Review
“The book finally diminishes the Manson mystique. For that, credit goes to the co-author Nuel Emmons, [who] gives Manson room to reveal himself without voodoo hype. The result is an explanation of Manson’s crimes that, for the first time, feels convincing.” –San Francisco Bay Guardian
“Provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a truly dangerous human being.” –Los Angeles Herald Examiner
“Reads like a sordid but often gripping picaresque noel.” –Louisville Courier–Journal
“These “words” are the essence behind the horror of the tragedy: cold, calculated, hard facts told exactly the way it was from the beginning. . . . Effectively captures the disturbed mind of Manson and gives us a better understanding of the complexity of a violent criminal.” –Rave Reviews
ON April 19, 1971, in Los Angeles, California, Charles Milles Manson heard Superior Court Judge Charles H. Older say, “It is my considered judgment that not only is the death penalty appropriate, but it is almost compelled by the circumstances. I must agree with the prosecutor that if this is not a proper case for the death penalty, what should be? The Department of Corrections is ordered to deliver you to the custody of the Warden of the State Prison of the State of California at San Quentin to be by him put to death in the manner prescribed by law of the State of California. ”
In the courtroom with Manson were three co-defendants, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel. On March 29, 1971, a jury had found them guilty of the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, fay Sebring, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca and Rosemary LaBianca. At a later date, Manson received the same sentence for two additional murders, as did four more co-defendants: Robert Beausoleil, Charles Watson, Bruce Davis and Steve Grogan.
Beausoleil was convicted for the murder of Gary Hinman, Davis and Grogan for their participation in the death of Donald (Shorty) Shea. Watson was a member of the group that did the Tate-LaBianca slayings.
JAILS, COURTROOMS AND PRISONS had been my life since I was twelve years old. By the time I was sixteen, I had lost all fear of anything the administration of the prison system could dish out. But convicts, being unpredictable, made it a real possibility that dying in prison would be my fate, especially when the prosecuting attorney, the media and some department of corrections officials planted seeds in the minds of other convicts by statements such as, “Due to the nature of Manson’s crimes he will be a marked man for other convicts seeking attention and notoriety.” In hearing Older pronounce the death sentence, I realized he was doing so with the full authority of the California Judicial System, yet I knew I would never be executed by the State of California. Die in prison, perhaps. But executed by the State, no!
I was right: within a year after being placed on Death Row, the existing capital punishment law was abolished in the state of California. All those awaiting execution were automatically given life terms. For most of those on the Row, it was a new lease on life. For me there was no particular elation, only the thought of, “Now what will I have to contend with?”
My paranoia has been well-founded, for due to the nature of the crimes, the amount of publicity about my arrest and the lengthy court proceedings, the name of Charles Manson has become the most hated and feared epithet of the current generation; a cross I have had to bear since my arrest in 1969. Because of the heavy security and my isolation from the general convict population, the time spent on Death Roy was the most comfortable and relaxed I have spent in the last seventeen years. But since then I have been a special case in the California penal system, and because of that I’ve spent my ordinary confinement dodging spears, knives and death threats from other convicts as well as having to watch every guard who gets hear me.
The latest, most newsworthy threat to my life happened in the arts and crafts room at the California Medical Facility. I was sitting on a stool facing a table, working on a clay sculpture. It was one of my first efforts at any form of sculpture and I was totally engrossed with the project–so engrossed it was one of the few times since being locked up that I relaxed my constant vigil on everything that was going on around me. I didn’t hear footsteps, nor was I conscious of anyone being near me until a cold liquid was poured over my head, soaking my hair, face and most of my clothing. Startled, I leaped to my feet and faced the direction from which the liquid came. My eyes were already burning from the substance (a highly inflammable paint thinner), so it was with blurred sight that I saw the assailant, a long-haired, bearded Krishna bastard, throw a burning match at my face. My hands weren’t quick enough to prevent the flame from making contact with the thinner, and like a bomb exploding, I was instantly a human torch. My hair, face and clothing on fire, I lunged toward my assailant. He eluded me. Pain from the flames and instinct for self-preservation didn’t allow me to continue pursuing him.
I hit the floor and pulled my burning jacket over my head in an effort to smother the ignited paint thinner. Though there was a guard and several inmates in the room, I had long ago learned not to expect help or sympathy from anyone. Not that I was thinking about what others might be doing, for at the moment my head was buzzing with what to do to extinguish the flames. I realized how vulnerable I was if the Krishna bastard decided to attack me again. But first things first, I had to get the fire out. Fortunately the guy didn’t come at me but just stood back and watched me struggle. I was aflame for forty-five seconds to a minute, long enough to have all the hair burned from my head and face. My scalp, face, neck, left shoulder, arm and hand suffered third-degree burns. I spent a few days in the hospital, a couple of them on the critical list.
The attack had nothing to do with who I am or what I am accused of. It was the result of a discussion on religion that took place the day before I became a human torch. The guy who threw the match is as flaky and disoriented about the laws of society as most people believe I am. Yet he, like myself, doesn’t see himself as some freak with a demented personality, but as a person who was dealt a hand that couldn’t be played by the rules and values of your society.
My name is Charles Milles Manson. At this writing I am fifty-one years old. If I stretch to my fullest height and cheat a little by slightly lifting my heels from the floor, I can achieve a height of five-foot-five. I think at one time I weighed a healthy hundred forty pounds, but a time or two during my confinement I have dropped as low as one-fifteen. A bulky bruising hulk I am not. But my voice can be as big and loud as the largest of men. In 1970, prior to and during the court proceedings that resulted in my conviction, I made more magazine covers and news headlines than Coca-Cola has advertisements. Most of the stories and articles written painted me as having fangs and horns from birth. They say my mother was a whore, my nose was snotty from birth and my diapers, when I had any on, were full of shit which was often seen running down my dirty legs. They would have one believe that before I was five I was a beggar on the streets, scrounging for food to feed my dirty face and fill my empty stomach. By the time I was seven, my first followers were stealing and bringing me the spoils. Before reaching nine, I had a gun in my hand and was robbing the old and feeble. Still under the age of twelve, I had raped the preacher’s daughter and choked her little brother to keep him from snitching on me. At thirteen, I had a police record that would qualify me to be on Nixon’s staff or head the Mafia. The dope I distributed had the choir boys strung out and stealing from the collection plate. In my string of brainwashed broads were the ten-and twelve-year-old girls of the neighborhood. To prove their love for me, they brought me the money they earned from turning tricks and making porno movies.
Isn’t that the way you have me framed in your thoughts? Haven’t the famed prosecuting attorney, the judges, my alleged followers, and the news media given you that picture?
Would it change things to say I had no choice in selecting my mother? Or that, being a bastard child, I was an outlaw from birth? That during those so-called formative years, I was not in control of my life? Hey listen, by the time I was old enough to think or remember, I had been shoved around and left with people who were strangers even to those I knew. Rejection, more than love and acceptance, has been a part of my life since birth. Can you relate to that? I doubt it. And this late in life, I could”nt care less! But I’ve been asked where my philosophy, bitterness, and anti-social behavior came from. So without searching to change public opinion, I’ll relate some of my life as I lived and remember it through the guy who is writing this book. You’ve read everyone else’s “Charlie’s this, Manson’s that,” and their version of the Family’s history, but nobody is ever totally all that is said or believed about him.
Books have been written, more are being written; movies made, and, undoubtedly, more in the making. The media have had a puppet to dangle and a dummy in which to plunge their swords. All have taken my words and thoughts, rephrased them, and published them with twisted meaning. Distortion, sensationalism and fabricated quotes were printed daily–so much so that life on earth no longer held valid meaning for me. Nor does it now. My body remains trapped and imprisoned by a society that creates people like me, but my mind has entered a chamber of thought that is not of this earth. I have learned that to be one’s self, one must never utter a word, make a sound or motion, or even bat an eye, for by doing so in the presence of another, an opinion will be formed. A self-styled psychologist will analyze you and describe you to others so that you become something other than what you are.
As I said, the media have had their day. Nobodies have become rich and influential. So-called “Manson Family” members have purged and turned, testifying for the State, lying in the courts. They have written books and sold interviews playing down their role, putting it all on Charlie. Lawyers on both sides of the fence have made fortunes through their association with the “Manson Family” trials. My feeling is, I’ve been raped and ravaged by society. Fucked by attorney and friends. Sucked dry by the courts. Beaten by the guards and exhibited by the prisons. Yet my words have never been printed or presented as they were said. So at this point, I have nothing to gain, or lose, by telling it the way I feel it was.
To date, thirty-seven of my fifty-one years of life have been spent in reformatories, foster homes or prisons. For the past seventeen years I have been living like a caged animal in a zoo. The cage is very much the same, concrete and steel. I am fed just as the animals are, through the bars and on schedule. I have guards patrolling my cage, making certain it is still locked and that I still live. People come to visit the institution and no matter what their other interest, all want to know, “Where is Charles Manson kept? Can we go by his cell?” And like good zoo attendants, the guards accommodate. Seeing Charles Manson in his cage, like seeing the rarest of wild animals, has made their visit complete. To satisfy my personal curiosity, I look into a mirror to see if perhaps horns are growing from my head or fangs protruding from my mouth. Unless the mirror lies, I see no horns or fangs. I check the rest of my body to see how it differs from those who stop and stare. With eyes that see, blink and stare like those who have just stopped to view, I see a body, two arms, hands and feet, and a head that grows hair in the customary places, complete with eyes, nose, ears and mouth. I’m no different from those who stopped by to give me their hated glare. Or you, who are interested in what I have to say. If writers and other media people had stuck to the facts as disclosed by investigating law officers from the beginning, Charles Manson would not have been remembered. But with each writer, each book, or each television personality exaggerating, fabricating, reaching for sensationalism and adding hostilities of their own, myself and those who lived with me became more than what we were. Or had ever intended to be.
Most stories depicted me and those arrested with me as dopecrazed sickies. A June, 1970, issue of Rolling Stone captioned an article “A Special Report: Charles Manson–the incredible story of the most dangerous man alive.” However, there were publications that speculated that the crimes weren’t without underlying principles. For example, a February 1970 issue of Tuesday’s Child said I might be more of a revolutionary martyr than a callous killer. Naturally I, and some who shared in the madness, were quick to pick up on anything that was even remotely sympathetic.
I didn’t read either of the articles at the time although I heard much about them, but since late 1969 I have been reading similar headlines and seeing pictures of myself almost daily. All refer to me as the “hippie cult leader who programmed people to kill for him–the man responsible for the Tate-LaBianca slayings.” They established me as some kind of mystical super-being that could look into the eyes of another and make him or her carry out my every whim. I was portrayed as a regular Pied Piper who lured kids into crime and violence.
Knowing what I am, how I was raised, and all that I’ve ever been, I see those stories as ridiculous. I am dismayed at the readers who lap up the lies and believe them like the Bible, but I have to hand it to the guys who created the image–the skillful writers who can suck the most out of anything and build mountains from mole hills. I really shouldn’t blame the readers “cause I kind of get caught up in the stories myself. But when I start believing I might really possess all the powers attributed to me and I try to work a whammy on my prison guard–he or she shuts the prison door in my face. Back to reality. I realize I am only what I’ve always been, “a half-assed nothing.”
The reason for this book is not to fight the case of “the most dangerous man alive,” if I am that (or was), but just to give the other side of an individual that has been compared with the Devil. And even the Devil, if there is a Devil, had a beginning.
I can’t remember ever hearing about old Lucifer’s mother, so I don’t know if he was born or just created as a means of putting fear in the lives of children. If he did have a mother, we have two things in common. If not, our link is that we are both used to put fear in kids’ minds. Anyway, I had a mother.
Her name was Kathleen Maddox, born in Ashland, Kentucky, and the youngest of three children from the marriage of Nancy and Charles Maddox. Mom’s parents loved her and meant well by her, but they were fanatical in their religious beliefs. Especially Grandma, who dominated the household. She was stern and unwavering in her interpretation of God’s Will, and demanded that those within her home abide by her views of God’s wishes.
According to Grandma, the display of an ankle or even an over-friendly smile to one of the opposite sex was sinful. Drinking and smoking were forbidden. Make-up was evil and only used by women of the streets. Cursing would put you in hell as quickly as stealing or committing adultery.
My grandfather worked for the B&O Railroad. He worked long hard hours, a dedicated slave to the company and his bosses. He, like Grandma, lived and preached the word of God. He was not the disciplinarian Grandma was, but, like his children, he was under his wife’s thumb. If he tried to comfort Mom with a display of affection, such as a pat on the knee or an arm around her shoulder, Grandma was quick to insinuate he was vulgar. To keep harmony between them, Grandpa let his wife rule their home. Poor man. In later years he was taken away from the home he supported and died in an asylum.
For Mom life was filled with a never-ending list of denials. From awakening in the morning until going to bed at night it was, “No Kathleen, that dress is too short. Braid your hair, don’t comb it like some hussy. Come directly home from school, don’t let me catch you talking to any boys. No, you can’t go to the school dance, we are going to church. Kathleen, you say grace. Don’t forget to say your prayers before going to bed and ask forgiveness for your sins.”
In 1933, at age fifteen, my mother ran away from home. “Was driven” might be a better description.
Other writers have portrayed Mom as a teenage whore. Because she happened to be the mother of Charles Manson, she is downgraded. I prefer to think of her as a flower-child of the 30s, thirty years ahead of the times. Her reasons for leaving home were no different than those of the kids I became involved with in the 60s. And like those kids, she chose to be homeless on the streets instead of catering to the one-sided demands of parents who view things only as they believe they should be. Some day parents will wake up. Children are not dummies; a home life is a multi-directioned street, and all ways of life should be considered and understood. As for Mom being a whore, those early teachings at home prevented her from selling her body. She did have the vanity of a whore, though, and while she was never a raging beauty, she was a pretty girl–her red hair and fair complexion made her noticed in most any surrounding. She was barely five feet in height and would consider herself fat if she got over a hundred pounds. Yet despite her vanity, physical attractiveness and display of confidence, Mom was searching for her own identity and for acceptance by others. In her search for acceptance she may have fallen in love too easily and too often, but a whore at that time? No!
In later years, because of hard knocks and tough times, she may have sold her body some. I am not about to knock her. Knowing the things I know now, I wish my mother had been smart enough to start out as a prostitute. You can sit back and say, “A statement like that is about what is expected out of Manson’s mouth,” but to me a class whore is about as honest a person as there is on earth. She has a commodity that is hers alone. She asks a price for it. If the price is agreeable, the customer is happy, the girl has her rent and grocery money and the little teenager down the street hasn’t been raped by a stiff dick without a conscience. The teenager’s parents don’t have a molested child going through life trying to live down a traumatic experience. The police don’t have a case, and the taxpayers aren’t supporting some guy in prison for umpteen years. Yes, an honest prostitute does more than help herself. She is good for the community.
On November 12, 1934, while living in Cincinnati, Ohio, unwed and only sixteen, my mother gave birth to a bastard son. Hospital records list the child as “no name Maddox.” The child–me, Charles Milles Manson–was an outlaw from birth. The guy who planted the seed was a young drugstore cowboy who called himself Colonel Scott. He was a transient laborer working on a nearby dam project, and he didn’t stick around long enough to even watch the belly rise. Father, my ass! I saw the man once or twice, so I’m told, but don’t remember his face.
The name Manson came from William Manson, a fellow Mom lived with shortly after my birth. William was considerably older than Mom, and because of his persistence they eventually got married. I don’t know if it was his way of trying to lock Mom down or if it was a moral thing because there was a kid in the house. So through him I got the name Manson. But a father–no! The marriage wasn’t one of those long-term things and I don’t remember him. Whether the divorce was his fault or Mom’s, I never did know. Probably Mom’s, she was always a pretty promiscuous little broad.
When Mom ran away from a home that had completely dominated her, she exploded into a newfound freedom. She drank a lot, loved freely, answered to no one and gave life her best shot. When I was born she had not experienced enough of life–or that newfound freedom–to take on the responsibilities of being a mother. I won’t say I was an unwanted child, but it was long before “the pill” and, like many young mothers, she was not ready to make the sacrifices required to raise a child. With or without me, Mom still had some living to do. I would be left with a relative or a hired sitter, and if things got good for her, she wouldn’t return to pick me up. Often my grandparents or other family members would have to rescue the sitter until Mom showed up. Naturally I don’t remember a lot of these things, but you know how it is; even in a family if there is something disagreeable about someone it always gets told. One of Mom’s relatives delighted in telling the story of how my mother once sold me for a pitcher of beer. Mom was in a caf” one afternoon with me in her lap. The waitress, a would-be mother without a child of her own, jokingly told my Mom she’d buy me from her. Mom replied, “A pitcher of beer and he’s yours.” The waitress set up the beer, Mom stuck around long enough to finish it off and left the place without me. Several days later my uncle had to search the town for the waitress and take me home.
In saying these things about my mother, I may sound as though I am selling her short, and by society’s standards her measurements aren’t up to par. But hey, I liked my mom, loved her, and if I could have picked her, I would have. She was perfect! In doing nothing for me, she made me do things for myself.
When I was about six years old my mom had dropped me off by my grandparents for what was supposed to be just a day or two. Several days later, I remember my grandfather asking me to go for a walk with him. Once outside the house, he became softspoken and kinder than I had ever remembered. As we walked we played games and ran races, and he would let me outrun him. He put me up on his shoulders and carried me while I pretended I was a giant and taller than anyone alive. After a while we sat down to rest. He put his arms around me and, fighting back tears, told me, “Your mother won’t be coming home for a long time.” I don’t know if the lump came in my throat because my grandfather had begun to cry or if it was because I realized what he was telling me.
My mother and her brother Luther had attempted to rob a service station in Charleston, West Virginia. The story goes that they had used a coke bottle as a weapon to knock the attendant unconscious. They were caught and sentenced to five years in the Moundsville State Prison.
At Moundsville she lived in the women’s ward of the prison, but her work assignment was near Death Row. It was her job to clean an area that included the scaffold (West Virginia was a hanging state). Mom tells a story that one day as she worked, she saw the guards escorting a man to the scaffold. Normally, on a hanging day no one but the officials and the person to be executed are supposed to be in the area. By accident or oversight, they forgot to inform Mom a hanging was to take place that day. Afraid she would be in trouble for being there, she hid in a broom closet by the scaffold. When the trap sprung, the velocity and the guy’s weight caused the rope to sever his head, and as Mom peeked out the door for a firsthand view of the hanging, the head rolled right to her hiding place. She swears the eyes were still wide open and that death literally stared her right in the face.
Twenty-seven years later, when I was first placed on Death Row in San Quentin, I looked at the gas chamber. The room’s two viewing windows looked like two huge eyes of death. Instantly my mind flashed to my mother, and I had a vision of her looking into the eyes of death. During that moment, I understood more about my mom than at any other time in my life.
While Mom was doing time at Moundsville it kind of fell on my grandmother to take care of me, want to or not. So there I was in the same household that my mom had run away from six years earlier. Strict discipline, grace before each meal and long prayer sessions before going to bed at night. Don’t fight, don’t steal, and turn the other cheek. I believed and practiced all that my grandmother taught. So much so that I became the sissy of the neighborhood.
After a few weeks at Grandma’s, it was decided that I would live with Mom’s sister Joanne and her husband Bill, in McMechen, West Virginia. My uncle Bill had opinions about how young boys were supposed to act, and being a sissy and afraid of everyone in the neighborhood wasn’t his ideal of a male youth. I remember him telling me to stop crying at everything and start acting like a man or he was going to start dressing me and treating me like a little girl. I guess my behavior really didn’t improve that much. Right now I can’t remember what particular thing made him do it, but on my first day in school, Bill dressed me in girl’s clothing. I was embarrassed and ashamed. The other kids teased me so much I went into a rage and started fighting everyone. Turning the other cheek, as Grandma had always wanted me to do, was forgotten. I took my lumps and shed a little blood, but in that school I became the fightin”est little bastard they ever saw. It must have pleased Uncle Bill, because from then on I wore boy’s clothing.
Joanne and Bill were good people and tried to do right by me. In their home I lived what you might call a normal life, but it’s hard to describe where my head was emotionally with Mom in jail and me living with a couple I didn’t belong to. Hell, I don’t know what kind of thoughts were going through my head then. Their treatment of me was fine. I got my ass-kickings when I deserved them and my rewards when I did something right. I was trained in proper manners and taught to wash my face, comb my hair, brush my teeth and believe in and respect God–like any other kid. But if you don’t belong, things just aren’t the same.
I can still remember hearing grownups refer to me as “the little bastard” and the kids I played with telling me, “Your mother’s no good; she’s a jail bird. Ha ha ha.”
One year shortly after Christmas, I got even with some of those kids who were laughing at me. I had spent Christmas with my grandparents. My only present for the year was a hairbrush. A Superman hairbrush. As I opened the present, my grandmother said, “If you brush your hair with it, you will be able to fly like Superman.” Young fool that I was, I carried that brush around with me for days and was constantly brushing my hair. I’d jump off porches, anything with a little elevation, and really expected to soar in the air like Superman. I never did fly and to this day that was the only lie that my grandmother ever told me.
The kids in the neighborhood rubbed things in even more by showing me all their presents. They had toys of all kinds: wagons, trains, cowboy hats and chaps. Even now, I’m not sure if I just resented being laughed at or if I was jealous of what they had and I didn’t, but one day I rounded up all of their toys I could find and carted them home with me. I stacked up some wood and threw the toys on top and started a fire. The kids were mad–some cried, others threatened me, and their parents called the sheriff. And though I wasn’t taken to jail, it was my first encounter with the police. I was seven years old.
Mom was released from Moundsville when I was about eight. The day she came home is still one of the happiest days of my life. I think she missed me as much as I missed her. For the next few days we were inseparable. I was her son and she was my mom and we were both proud of each other. I loved it! I guess my mom did, too. But a twenty-three-year-old girl needs more than an eight-year-old son to complete her world. If Mom had some catching up in her life to do before she went to prison, she was really behind now. It’s a lifetime too late to think about it, but things might have been a lot different if Mom had gone her way and left me with the aunt and uncle. She didn’t–and I was glad.
It was some trip living with Mom. We moved around a lot and I missed a lot of school and blew a lot of what my aunt and uncle had been trying to teach me. Mom and I definitely did not live a routine life, yet I dug every minute of it. I only wished I knew if the next day was going to find me with her or pawned off on someone else.
If I couldn’t be with Mom in the city, my next favorite place was at Uncle Jess’s in Moorehead, Kentucky. My stays with Uncle Jess would vary. Sometimes I’d just be there for a week or two, other times I might stay for a couple of months or more. Uncle Jess lived in a log cabin elevated several feet off the ground by poles. Jess was hillbilly from his heart, with beard, bare feet, bib overalls, moonshine, hound dogs and coon hunting. Family could do no wrong, and Jess would protect them no matter what. But if one of the family gave him any back talk it was their ass, because he was king.
He had four daughters. They were pretty things as mountain girls go; I saw Jess bring out the shotgun more than once to send guys running down the road. The girls might sneak around, but when Jess was there to say something, they jumped. I found out why they were so willing to mind when one day I pushed one of Jess’s dogs off the porch. ‘son,” he told me, “that hound wasn’t bothering you. You got no right pushin” it around. Don’t mistreat no animals.” That said, he proceeded to give me a beating I’ve never forgotten. He wasn’t much of a talker, but when he spoke, people paid attention. He sometimes warned people, ‘don’t take them kids off the land.” He was right, for almost everyone who left the land lived to regret it or died because of it. Uncle Jess himself died on his land rather than let someone take him away from it. The law came down on Jess and his moonshine still, but Jess foxed their asses. He blew up the still–and himself.
To return to the story, before being sentenced to Moundsville, Mom had become a pretty street-wise girl, but she really learned all the ropes doing her time. She even added a new dimension to her sex life. I didn’t learn about it until years later, but while she was at Moundsville some of the older dykes showed her that sexual pleasure didn’t only happen between men and women. Of course, back then gays were still in the closet so Mom was pretty discreet when it came to making it with another broad. Dummy that I was at that age, I didn’t mind sleeping in the other room if she had another female spending a few days with us.
With her gameness and prison education, she had all the answers and could hustle with the best of them. Trouble was, she was a fiery little broad who liked her booze and wouldn’t take any shit from anyone. Consequently, we might leave a place in a hurry. I remember one night Mom came running into our little old one-room apartment and jerked me out of bed, saying, “Come on, Charlie, get up! Help me get our things packed. We gotta get outta here.” She had been working as a cocktail waitress at the Blue Moon Caf” in McMechen. One guy wouldn’t keep his hands off of her. Mom told him to cool it a couple of times. When he didn’t, she grabbed a fifth of booze and busted the bottle over his head. He was still on the floor when she left. “Hurry up, Charlie! I just flattened one of the Zambini brothers an” I ain’t waiting around to see if he’s dead or alive. Either way, I’m in trouble.” The Zambini brothers were two of the town hoods and everyone was afraid of them, including Mom. We’d moved around some, but that is about the fastest we ever left a place.
The next couple of years saw us in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and probably a couple more states and who knows how many cities. By the time I was twelve I’d missed a lot of school, seen a few juvenile homes, and no longer believed all my mom’s lovers were “uncles.” In general, I was cramping Mom’s style. Some of the “uncles’ liked me and others didn’t. But the feeling was more than mutual–I didn’t like any of them. I guess my jealousy and resentment of those “uncles’ sleeping with my mom was pretty close to the surface, and it began causing trouble between us. When I was twelve, my mom’s current lover brought things to a head. Unlike Mom’s usual two- or three-day romances, this guy had been around for a few weeks. One night I was awakened by the sound of their booze-leadened voices arguing. The words I remember most were his: “I’m telling you, I’m moving on. You and I could make it just fine, but I can’t stand that sneaky kid of yours.” And then Mom’s voice: ‘don’t leave, be patient. I love you and we’ll work something out.”
Poor Mom, we’d long ago worn out our welcome with the relatives and friends who were willing to keep me for any length of time. I’d become spoiled and was accustomed to doing pretty much as I pleased. I’d been tried in a couple of foster homes but I just wasn’t the image those parents felt like being responsible for.
A few days after I’d overheard the argument, my mom and I were standing in front of a judge. My mother, in one of her finer performances, was pleading hardship. She told the judge what a struggle life was and that she was unable to afford a proper home for me. The judge said, “Until there is capable earning power by the mother and a decent stable home for Charles to return to, I am making him a ward of the court and placing him in a boys’ home.” At that moment, the words didn’t mean anything to me. I was angry at Mom and didn’t want to live with her and her friend. I wasn’t depressed or disturbed. The shock was still a day away.
The court placed me in a religious-oriented school, the Gibault Home for Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana. I felt all right while being registered in the school office, but when all the papers were completed things started going wacky in my head and stomach. By the time I was escorted to the dormitory I would live in for the next ten months, I felt sick. I couldn’t breathe. Tears ran down my cheeks, my legs were so rubbery I could hardly walk. Some invisible force was crushing my chest and stealing my life away from me. I loved my mother! I wanted her! “Why, Mom? Why is it this way? Come and get me, just let me live with you. I won’t be in your way!” I was lonely, lonelier than I had ever been in my life. I have never felt that lonely since. I wasn’t angry at her anymore. I just wanted to be with her, live with her, under any conditions. Not in some school locked away from everything.
After the initial shock, the following days weren’t too bad. The Catholic brothers who ran the school were good enough to me, but they were stern in their discipline. The answer to any infraction of the rules was a leather strap, or wood paddle, and lost privileges. Since I had a problem with wetting the bed, it seemed like I was getting more than my share of whippings for something I had no control over.
At twelve I wasn’t the youngest boy there, but being under five feet tall and weighing less than sixty-five pounds, I was one of the smallest. I was easy pickings for those who were inclined to be bullies. Gibault was not considered a reform school, but aside from the religious teachings it operated in a similar manner. And though guys there were not necessarily juvenile delinquents, they did share the same resentments against parents, the law and confinement as those in reform schools. I was exposed to a lot of things the average kid doesn’t experience until a much older age. It never happened to me there, but I saw kids forced into homosexual acts. I was told about all kinds of ways to beat the law, and I learned how to keep my feelings to myself, because if you care too much about a part of your life and personal habits, others will take advantage of it and ridicule you. Gibault taught me friends can be cruel and enemies dangerous.
Mom would come to see me sometimes, but not all that often. If she said she’d see me next week, I’d be lucky if she showed up in the next couple of months. When she did come, she’d tell me, “It won’t be long before I have a steady job and a nice place to live. Then I’ll come and get you and take you home with me.” We’d talk about how nice it was going to be when we were back together. I was starting to grow and was definitely older in mind. I felt I could be a big help to her if she would take me home. It all sounded great and I was eager to start living the life we talked about. She’d leave and I’d run back to my friends, telling them, “Pretty soon I’ll be going home. My mom said so.” The next visit would be the same. “Pretty soon, Charlie,” were my mother’s words. I waited and waited. It didn’t happen.
Sick of Gibault and tired of waiting, I ran away. Naturally I went straight to Mom’s. I thought I could show her how grown up I was and how I could help her. There was no guilt trip in my mind about running away; I was sure my mom would throw her arms around me, as glad to see me as I was to be there with her. She’d take me down to the judge and tell him she was in a position to take care of us. Everything would be all right. God, was I dreaming! She turned me in and the next day I was back at the Home for Boys. But I didn’t feel like a boy any longer. There were no tears. At least, none that ran down my cheeks. I didn’t feel weak or sick, but I also knew I could no longer smile or be happy. I was bitter and I knew real hate.
The trip back to Gibault was a waste of gas and time. I split the very first chance I got. Goodbye Gibault. Goodbye Mom.
©1986 by Nuel Emmons. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.