blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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She carved an X into her forehead. She really did. She did it to identify with Charles Manson and his “family” members. I saw it when it was still fresh. I think her name was Brenda.

Still fresh: Red and meaty-looking; slightly bulging; capable of causing alarm.


She carved the X (hereafter, “her X”) into her forehead in 1977, Springfield, Massachusetts. I saw her downtown, waiting for a South End bus, the neighborhood we shared but only in the loosest sense of the word.

Loosest sense: Minimal, fraught contact among three groups of people comprising the neighborhood:

(1) The longtime residents, mostly second-generation Italian Americans, except for my family.

Angry black-marker assertion of Irish sucks on the side of our porch. Irish people? There goes the neighborhood.

But they couldn’t really mean that, right, since we’ve all been here for a while and we all hang out together, right?


(2) The newer Puerto Rican residents. Very much disliked by the Italians. There goes the neighborhood.

Newspaper archives: tensions, and riots, and unrest. Apparent racial disturbances, Puerto Rican families filtering into the neighborhood.

Filtering in?

(3) The poor(er) families, and the one-offs and loners and misfits like her; the people living in the new housing projects (the projects) at the end of our street or in the apartments on and off of Main Street.

She was eighteen or so, maybe older, but who could tell? So empty, so druggie-looking, she shuffled when she walked. Jeans and sandals or boots, flowing shirts, didn’t seem to go to school. Her last name was Italian. But, still, she wasn’t one of “us,” right?

There goes the neighborhood, right?


I place the carving of her X in 1977 because of that day in Casual Corner, and because of Stevie Wonder.

Casual Corner: Small store downtown, across from new mall, our first skyscraper, Baystate West, to be called Baystate Waste once urban decay fully took hold. Bargain backroom, WAQY 102 piped in (mix of rock, pop, soul, and later disco), air is hot, smells like a bathroom, like wet wool. No money to buy anything, breathing through my mouth, I should go outside.

But wait. What’s that song I hear? It’s a new song, I’ve never heard it. It must be new because I listen to the radio any chance I get. Wait. I know that voice; it’s Stevie Wonder, singing about someone so lovely, so wonderful, someone made-from-love, a baby, his baby maybe?

Definitely a baby; there’s one shrieking as the song ends, shrieking with joy, bath water splashing, must be his baby, his daughter.

Song stays in my head, it’s there in line at Orange Julius, isn’t she lovely?, still there when walking toward bus stop, made-from-love. It’s cool and touching and even profound, I think. Did he say life and love are the same?

And then a sound, another sound, like brakes screaming on a bus, but it’s not from a bus, it’s in my head, because holy shit!

There she is waiting, just standing there, calm as can be, the druggie look, and the jeans frayed at the bottom, and the beat-up boots.

And her freshly carved X.


I can’t say for sure she carved her X in 1977 because there’s no historical record, at least that I can find.

Historical record: Something other than that which lives inside my head, something that other people will trust; you know how Anne can be, she gets herself all worked up, she’s always spazzing out.

Such as (1): Eyewitness corroboration. Mary is my best shot, sister closest in age. Doesn’t remember. But I was at Casual Corner with her. I was thirteen, she was sixteen. She had money to buy clothes because she worked at the rectory, answering phones, printing bulletins for Sunday mass, serving dinner to the priests: big meat and potato dinners cooked by hired help, plenty of wine, the sound of rats scratching in the walls. My third sister to have this job, $1.25 an hour, never a raise, never minimum wage, never a mention of that. Job not offered to me once Mary moved on. Possible reason why: she’s a troublemaker, that one, youngest of Ed and Lil’s eight. Possible reasons why: She has a mouth on her, she speaks her mind, she’s got a problem with authority.

Such as (2): Newspaper archive. “South End” search for 1976 and 1977 yields mostly mentions of racial tensions, clergy appeals for peace, city leaders appealing to South End residents to live in harmony.

Such as (3): Successful Google search. Search terms: “Brenda [what I think her last name was], South End, Springfield, Charles Manson.”

Yields a hit that stops my breath for a minute, about family member Susan Atkins. The one they called Sexy Sadie, who laughed in court. Convicted of several of the murders, including that of the very pregnant Sharon Tate.

Manson Family Atkins Susan, Manson Charles Milles . . . when I ran out of money went down to Amy Smith’s apartment on the South End of Springfield mass.

I want to read more, because even though everyone alive then remembers the murders, not everybody had one of the murderers visit their neighborhood.

And I want to read more because I know she can’t do any more harm. She never left prison after 1969; she died there.

But I don’t want to read more because no date is given, and I was probably just a baby at the time, and the hit comes from a website for those wishing to correspond with convicts, and I do not have that wish.

Nor do I wish to spend much more time thinking about Susan Atkins being in my neighborhood, out of money, in one of those apartments, maybe just down the street.

Brenda’s X was bad enough.


If I’m right that she carved her X in 1977, why did she do something like this after so many years, several years, in fact, after Manson carved his own X?

Beginning of trial, 1970, considered inadequate and incompetent to represent himself, Manson had X-ed himself out of the power structure, out of the establishment.

1970: He was thirty-six; Brenda was eleven maybe; I was seven, most of my siblings still at home.

1970: What did I know of him, the murders, the establishment? What had entered my consciousness?

1970: What had come in through the papers, different editions morning and evening; through WAQY 102, between “I’ll Be There" and “Let It Be”; between “Everything Is Beautiful” and “Make It With You”?

What had come in through family dinners? Or through the television set, still black and white for us then, between mentions of Vietnam, Viet Cong, Nixon? What had come in through David Brinkley, between ads for Geritol, Maalox, Excedrin; father in recliner after taxpayer assistance job, mother doing dishes, never asking for help?

What had filtered in?

Possible motive: She had just read Helter Skelter, just as I had, in 1976, two years after it was published. She was obsessed with this True Story of the Manson Murders, just as I was, only more so.

Possible motive: She was a troublemaker, just like me.

Possible motive: She wanted to be a troublemaker just like Manson.

Possible motive: Manson, the family, the trials were still news, after all this time since the murders. The True Story never seemed to end. More trials, and Squeaky Fromme trying to assassinate Ford, 1975; color TV now, Alice’s uniform at the Brady house and Dorothy’s dress in Oz were blue now, no longer just gray.


Why did she do something like this, something so big, like a scream people can see?

Possible motive: She lived in a neighborhood where nobody knew her or cared; she stopped going to school and nobody noticed.

Possible motive: She needed a family.

Possible motive: She was still a child in 1970, but was something much different seven years later.

Didion says the Manson murders ended the sixties. Did they end something for Brenda? Did she ever get to be a child? Didion also says we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Did Brenda tell herself stories? Did Brenda carve her X in order to keep living?

As in, if I hurt myself, they’ll have to pay attention.

As in, if I hurt myself, I will feel real.

As in, if I hurt myself, I will have some power.

As in, you think I’m a troublemaker now? Watch this.

Her X scared the crap out of me. It all did.

Scaring the crap out of (1): Fueling a fascination; providing motivation for thinking about something all day, even in sleep.

I read the book in eighth grade, my brother Joe’s copy, St. Michael’s Cathedral Elementary School. I wasn’t supposed to read the book, wasn’t supposed to bring it to school. They would take it away; another call to my parents, wall phone ringing again, right around suppertime.

I had some sway over my classmates. Sometimes I could make them listen to my obsessions. Encyclopedia Brown, Harlem Globetrotters, then sharks. Then starvation and satanic possession; Patty Hearst, brain diseases, and anatomical disfigurations.

And Manson. The person, the murders, the family, the trial.

Sneaking the book in added to my clout. In class one day, Sr. Theresa says helter skelter. Says it innocently, as in keep your science notes neat and tidy, not all helter-skelter, this will help you in high school.

It rolls off her tongue easily, just as if she was saying willy-nilly or hocus-pocus or loosey-goosey or touchy-feely.

And then all eyes are on me, all my classmates are looking at me. I am known for something, other than being a crybaby, a wiseass, a troublemaker. I am known for my knowing; I am known for my obsessions.

Scaring the crap out of (2): Reducing appetite; stealing sleep; intensifying vigilance; invading the bubble in which one lives in order to live in the world.

The names scared me, all of them: Manson, Krenwinkle, Kasabian, Van Houten. Tex Watson.

Their robes scared me; their Xs; their eyes.

Their penetrating, sometimes-mocking, sometimes-psychotic, intense, unsettling eyes.

Scaring the crap out of (3): Working its way into the unconscious; establishing itself in long-term memory.

I don’t own a copy of Helter Skelter; never have, but I remember:

That someone said stabbing a person felt like stabbing a pillow.

That they all lived together, in a commune, on a ranch, in those robes.

That Manson fucked some of the women. That one of them said he told her to imagine she was making love to her father, and that she did, and that it was beautiful.

That Bugliosi, prosecutor then author, wrote about the beginning of the trial, when his watch stopped out of nowhere, and exactly when his watch stopped he looked up and saw Manson staring at him, intensely, those eyes.

That I took that detail to mean, Look at me. Look at my power. With these eyes I can make your watch stop. Look at what I’ve already done. Imagine what else I can do.

That I took that detail to mean, Imagine where else I can go, even from prison, I can go anywhere and cause unrest and tension and disturbances.


Her X changed everything.

Changing everything: Capable of confiscating innocence; capable of removing power.

I lived in two places. I lived in my neighborhood, and I lived inside my head. And her X changed both places. Her X changed both places without my permission.

When I lived inside my head, I could do whatever I wanted. I could think whatever I wanted. I could imagine all kinds of things: my own mauling by a shark, my own starvation, my own kidnapping, my own satanic possession.

I could scare the crap out of myself.

You tell yourself all kinds of stories, my mother would say.

You get yourself all worked up.

But she never saw how I could calm myself down. She never saw my power.

When I lived in my neighborhood, I also had some power. Even though I was not fully accepted, even though I was Irish and nobody tolerated my obsessions the way the kids at school did, I always had someone to play with; I always had things to do. And even with the unrest and the racial disturbances, I still had some power.

I could choose not to run to the playground fence and tell the Italian kids that the cops were coming. I could choose not to swear in Spanish to the Puerto Rican woman sitting in the apartment window, just because I knew besa mi culo. I could choose to listen to my parents for once in my life when they said taking sides is tricky, because the people you know best might be the bad guys.

But here’s the thing. I only had power over the things in my head when they stayed there, and I only had power inside my neighborhood when there was little overlap, or no overlap, with the things in my head.

I had no power—no control, no options, no anything—when the things inside my head leaked out and were standing right the fuck in front of me, right there at the bus stop, outside of Baystate West, where all I was trying to do was go home, feeling like I was being carried there by a song and not by a bus, a brand new song, one I could hear again and again on the radio, a song about someone so lovely, so wonderful, so made-from-love, a baby who could shriek with joy in the bathtub, a whole unscarred life ahead of her.  

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