Do you know Andrew Gross? We won't even talk about his cool and exciting past (you know about it, right?) because his future is so exciting. This week there was a full color ad in the New York Times about his newest book. EYES WIDE OPEN. How cool is that? He's a terrific and generous guy, and wonderful writer, and life with Andy is never a dull moment.
But in his latest novel, he explores new and sensitve territory. personal territory, that some authors would not be brave enough to tackle. And now on Jungle Red, describes meeting someone most of us will only encounter in nighmares.
On Jungle Red's Writer Wednesday, a chat with Andrew Gross.
EYES WIDE OPEN is a totally different kind of tale for me, and one that has been inside me a long time. More like a family memoir chocked with chills, it goes back to two real-life occurrences from my own past: the suicide of my twenty-one year old nephew last year; who was found at the bottom of a famous cliff in Morro Bay, California; and a chance encounter forty-two years ago with none other than Charles Manson. My nephew Alex was a severely troubled kid, who suffered from bipolarity and bouts of s chizophrenia, as did his dad, my old brother, Michael.
Like Charlie in the book, Mike was a wayward child of the Sixties, who bounced around the country, living in communes and on the street, wherever there was drugs and music, trying to live out his rock star fantasies. More than once he found himself tossed in jail for possession or vagrancy, or into the mental wing of various hospitals.
By the late Sixties he’d found his way out to Southern California, and ended up at a hippie commune under the sway of a dark, but charismatic figure who was trying to push his music himself. That commune was the Spahn Ranch outside of LA, and the person leading Michael was, of course, was Charlie Manson.
I met him when he came with up with my brother to our father’s house atop Benedict Canyon. Mike and my father had about the most tempestuous relationship a father and son could possibly have. My father was absentee, divorced several times, and Michael blamed him for much of what was wrong in his own life. And there was always a lot of accusations, finger pointing, profanity, competing for the same women, even physical fights.
I was fifteen that day, and visiting from New York. No one knew who the gaunt, scruffy, dark-eyed caftan-clothed hippie who came in with Michael was, along with a loquatious, over-selling sidekick who called himself a rock producer and may well have been Terry Melcher. Only that within minutes they were totally rejected and humiliated by my dad and a friend he had up there with him— and then left shouting, finger-pointing, my brother spitting out four-letter words and vows of revenge.
The scene is described in the book, and in real life, I remember Manson restrained, almost eerily-polite, holding Michael back, going on about “how you have to respect your fathers,” and thanking us all for our time “to let them talk for a while.” So polite, they almost seemed laced with a threat.
A year later, Sharon Tate and four others were brutally murdered on Ciello Drive, and my father, who never backed away from a tale he could tell over a few Rob Roys. claimed the group had somehow gotten lost in the hills above LA, and had been actually heading for him! My brother, in truth, was long gone by then, having left the ranch shortly after that, and was in Boulder at the time of the murders.
While you have to remember, Manson wasn’t Manson when I met him, and no one knew at that time who he was or what he would become; he was just another long-haired drifter Michael had connected with.
But I never forgot the look, nor did my sister who was there too—the kind of intense, spine-tingling aura that came from him, magnified by his later deeds. And those smiling, slate-colored eyes. I never had to conjure very hard to draw the creepy image to mind while writing the book.
In the end, Mike went back to California after his music career never blossomed. He met a gal in AA; married; settled in a sleepy Central Coast town, and lived out a secluded and highly medicated life, on welfare, as a ward of the state. And he had a son, and though Alex seemed spectacularly gifted in many ways—precociously smart and enough of a basketball whiz to attract college scouts- he inherited much of what made my brother’s life a failed one— the shifting bouts of charm and violence, anger and euphoria; a deep sense of blame amid the depressions and delusions of grandeur.
After he went out and purchased a firearm, which scared Michael and his wife Suzanne to death, they called the police to their home—one of many such times—and Alex was taken away in restraints, thrown in a hospital in San Luis Obispo, medically subdued, examined, assessed, but because he was over twenty-one, and, somehow deemed to be no danger to himself or others, he was released into the care of an unrestrictive halfway house in Morro Bay, a place completely unsuited for Alex and his state of mind.
On the second day, he said he was going out for a walk and never returned, and the next morning, was found on the jagged sea rocks at the bottom of the Morro Bay Rock, a breathtaking 600 foot mound of granite that rises above the harbor there, and ruled a suicide.
It was a poignant and sad end to a troubled, abbreviated life; in fact, it took many sad lives, as my brother’s and sister-in-law lives pretty much ended that day as well.
As writers, what do we have except to build a story out of life, and while EYES WIDE OPEN is not exactly Alex’s story, or Mike’s, or even the creepy, malevolent figure controlling things from jail on a thirty year vendetta, this book is my testament to him and I hope in the end bestows him, the way I told it, with a sheen of dignity and honor. EYES WIDE OPEN mixes in the themes of sons who collide with their fathers; mental illness; the LA music scene in the Sixties; a bit of lore from the garment business, and ultimately, a ruthless, jailed cult killer, whose evil runs as freely now, and as chillingly, as it did back then.
HANK: Thanks, Andy. That's--incredible. And we'll give away a signed copy of your book to a lucky commenter.
Find more out about EYES WIDE OPEN on andrewgrossbooks.com, and be sure follow me on facebook (Andrew Gross author) and twitter (The__ Andrew Gross.)