Grace in the Helter Skelter
September 25, 2009 § 1 Comment
There are certain events that connect entire lifetimes, and one of those occurred this week. Susan Atkins, a participant in one of the most gruesome murders on US soil, died of brain cancer while incarcerated in California. She was arrested and tried in 1969 and had been imprisoned since 1970. Her part in the Sharon Tate slaying (among others), as a member of the Charles Manson gang, was firsthand. Her cold-hearted courthouse testimony of the murder was chilling, and sealed her as one of the most violent and heartless killers of all time.
Atkins was a lost soul before the events that led to her lifelong imprisonment. Her mother died of cancer when she was a child and her father, an alcoholic, farmed her out to family members. As a young teenager she ran away, entered into the drug scene and became a topless dancer in San Francisco to finance her addiction by the time Charles Manson (who remains in prison) stepped into her life and integrated her into his sex-crazed, drug-infested, violent commune.
This is the story we know – one of those parallel narratives that has accompanied my entire life and anyone who grew up in the same era. We grew up watching documentaries, reading headlines and being mesmerized by a made-for-TV movie entitled, Helter Skelter.
The temptation (and it is a subtle one) is to file Atkins under some kind of ‘beyond hope,’ or ‘not worth saving’ category, as we might some other notorious personality. We make such determinations based on our own social instincts, I think. In other words, as Christ-followers we are no less susceptible to the tendency to prioritize sin and sinners – and to be sure, there are some actions that defy all common humanness.
But, as often is the case, there is more to the story. While incarcerated Atkins met Jesus and became a Christ-follower. In the waning days of her life she and her husband, also a believer, attempted to have her released to die at home. The prosecuting attorney at the time, Vincent Bugliosi, argued on her behalf. During that recent parole hearing, she slipped in and out of consciousness, having endured brain surgery, relegated to a gurney, with one leg amputated, and too weak to argue her case.
After her conversion Atkins publicly repented of her sin and acknowledged that there could be no earthly repayment for what she had done against her victims. Her last words, spoken in unison with her husband, were, ‘My God is an amazing God.’ She had discovered that she was freer as an incapacitated, incarcerated, dying woman – in Christ – than she was in the ‘Free Speech,’ ‘Free Love,’ Tune In, Turn On & Drop Out movement.
What we do with this has more to do with our faith than it does hers. We can never know if any confession is the real deal, except for our own. The real question is whether or not we believe God can rescue the most heinous of sinners and redeem their broken lives. If we believe that, then we only need to look in the mirror and discover that He already has.
Friends, this is good news…