I did not try to cut out the artwork in John Reed’s The Family Dolls, released in book form in July by Outpost19. I am not saying it can’t be done, for I admit to being reticent with scissors due to a lack of dexterity which, among other things, makes it impossible for me to play video games. While I missed out on dressing Leslie Van Houten, the book fortunately lends itself well to an alternative form of superimposition. An earlier version of the text appeared in Guernica in 2016 followed by an installment the next year featuring art by Sungyoon Choi. Her drawings comprise one of the three aspects of the print edition which interact with one another, mix-and-match style, to create the paper doll play promised on the cover, play that takes place in the mind, though potentially cuts as well.
Another of the three aspects takes the form of a long nonfiction account of the Manson murders. I read Helter Skelter in high school and have had to live with all the Manson mythology cluttering my mental files. If you happen to know very little about the whole dreadful patch of history, you can read Reed and become familiar without winding up like me. His synopsis includes a timeline constructed of historical and cultural landmarks as a kind of scaffolding supporting the narrative. Against that backdrop, Leslie functions as a helpful focal point as we follow the family through turbulence toward disaster. Reed admits he has a crush on Leslie which is as good as any reason to center the story around her. He goes on to acknowledge without endorsing the conspiracy theories which have become popular of late, ones that tend to hinge on the drug and sexual proclivities of the victims—tawdry dross if you ask me, but part of the cultural evolution of the record, nonetheless.
The third aspect of the book appears in the form of a meditative essay emerging from the fault line between art and history where popular culture grinds against human suffering, the asperity being the book itself. Because, if I haven’t made it clear yet, The Family Dolls features actual paper dolls—i.e., regardless of skill with scissors, the implication remains that we are to dress up and play games with cutouts representing a cult who slaughtered seven people and probably countless others. Imagine if Nabokov had put a note at the end of Lolita explaining not only why he wrote a book about a child rapist but why we read the damn thing, and that about captures the nature of Reed’s mission in the book’s final pages, a daunting one.
My first glimpse of The Family Dolls entailed a reprise of the flash of nausea that hit me when I heard Quentin Tarantino was making a film about the murders. Reed seems to know I felt this way. “That is the fear, isn’t it,” he writes, “when we come up with these questionable things? Like a Manson Paper and Play Book! Print and Color Yourself? That we’re mocking the tragedies of others.” That initial reticence can, on the other hand, factor into the overall aesthetic impact of the work if the artist has the gifts and is lucky enough to be given a chance. In Tarantino’s case, it helped when I learned that Sharon Tate’s sister Debra read the script and thought it was all right. In a similar vein, Reed’s string of highly regarded novels seemed reassurance that what he was up to in The Family Dolls was more than mere ghoulishness, however much ghoulishness plays a role.
For unlike Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood which allows art to intervene in history, in The Family Dolls, Reed confronts head on how history has become “a story that has gone out of control, that has become a burlesque, a parody, and that has rendered us a helpless, captive audience.” Reed refuses to dispense with the brutal facts and instead uses them. He explains, “This is a book full of names and dates, yes, but more fundamentally, it is a book full of puppets. There is history on the back of every page of paper dolls: to use the dolls, a reader must cut up the history.”
As has been established, my copy of The Family Dolls remains intact, showing only typical wear from reading. For me, the whole cut-and-play thing exists as a metaphor. I can dress one of Choi’s figures in facts from the timeline then use Reed’s analysis to see through it like a spectre. In truth, I have spent too many a late evening doing so. I have rungs of that timeline climbing my walls, clipart of killers pushed out of sight beneath back issues of TV Guide, and passages of Reed’s prose reprinted on my mental files. I cling to two facts: Sharon Tate is an angel, and Lulu is John Reed’s girlfriend.
The Family Dolls: A Manson Paper + Play Book! by John Reed with illustrations by Sungyoon Choi. Outpost19, July 2021. $25.00, paper.
Paul Dee Fecteau founded Hieroglyphica Research Consultants to create a void in military-industrial-entertainment complex and so far nothing has come of it.