“The Jitters Were Setting In”

I presented an excerpt some time back from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion’s great collection of reportage about life in California during the 1960s and 1970s. Now I offer a passage from The White Album, her other incisive non-fiction book about that place and time. From the title piece, this excerpt concerns the Tate-LaBianca murders perpetrated by the Manson Family in 1969, which caused the L.A.’s open minds and open doors to be locked shut. To read Didion tell it, those horrific killings were an almost inevitable shattering of a city of glass. An excerpt:

“We play ‘Lay Lady Lay’ on the record player, and ‘Suzanne.’ We went down to Melrose Avenue to see the Flying Burritos. There was a jasmine vine grown over the verandah of the big house in Franklin Avenue, and in the evenings the smell of jasmine came in through all the open doors and windows. I made a bouillabaisse for people who did not eat meat. I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. The mystical flirtation with the idea of  ‘sin’–this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it–was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips were blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”

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