Marilyn Manson Told Us Who He Was

The rock star abused women for years—but we were so used to pop-culture misogyny that we didn’t notice

Marilyn Manson and Rose McGowan, 1998. Photo: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

When I was growing up in the 1990s, it was a sign of sophistication to like Marilyn Manson. He was the go-to signifier of edginess for suburban white kids, a man who embodied all that was ugliest in the world, but who did it, like, ironically. He sang songs from the perspective of abortion clinic shooters and the Antichrist. He used unredacted n-words and endorsed fascism in his biggest singles. For his fans — and I was very much among them — taking all that in stride, without getting offended, was a way to prove our own cool. Manson was a performance artist, we told ourselves, whose act highlighted the most unsavory corners of society. We were too smart to take his music at face value, let alone be shocked.

But Marilyn Manson was also, by his own account, an abuser of women. In his memoir, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, Manson tells the story of getting rid of a troublesome ex-girlfriend named Nancy by calling her up and telling her “if you don’t leave town, I’m going to have you killed.” In his own words, “I wasn’t exaggerating… I began mapping out different ways I could carry out my threat to Nancy with the least possible risk to myself.” The murder was planned out meticulously, down to body disposal methods. While he eventually decided against killing her, he did permit his new girlfriend to beat Nancy up the next time they ran into her, “fucking her up so badly I’d be surprised if she didn’t have permanent damage.”

For Manson’s millions of fans, it was easier to see all this as social commentary, or sexual liberation, or simply stupid adolescent titillation, than it was to believe he was abusive.

On Monday, Evan Rachel Wood came forward on Instagram to confirm the rumors that Manson (whose real name is Brian Warner) had abused her. Wood had previously given a horrific testimony about the abuse in 2018, but she chose at that time to keep Manson’s identity anonymous. In her 2018 testimony, she described her experiences being threatened and gaslit, and “waking up to the man that claimed to love me raping what he believed to be my unconscious body.” Fear overtook Wood: “I was too afraid to fight back, he had threatened to kill me before.”

Since Wood confirmed Manson’s identity, at least four other women have since come forward with similar allegations. Manson has been dropped by his label and cut from a forthcoming AMC television series. Manson has denied the allegations, calling all his relationships “consensual.” You can believe that, or you can believe the words from his own memoir, in which he assures us he wasn’t exaggerating.

Details about Manson’s abusive tendencies have been so public, for so many years, with so many of them voluntarily shared by Manson himself, that it’s hard to believe the day of reckoning was so long coming. In one 2009 interview, he claimed that he called Wood 157 times in one day, and that he harbored “fantasies every day about smashing her skull in with a sledgehammer.” And even if you leave out Nancy, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell is full of other stories about terrorizing women. Manson says that he used to flirt with a girl he had a crush on by placing anonymous phone calls threatening to rape her, shares a “trick I’ve become quite famous for” which involves tricking women into drinking a full glass of tequila so that they’ll pass out, and alleges that he and Trent Reznor tied up a woman in a hotel room and set fire to her pubic hair.

Yet, for Manson’s millions of fans — and even many of his detractors — it was easier to see all this as social commentary, or sexual liberation, or simply stupid adolescent titillation, than it was to believe he was abusive.

Even if we did believe, it was easy to look the other way. Horrific as it is, Manson’s self-confessed behavior is not wildly out of line with what we expect from rock stars. Jimmy Page kidnapped a 14-year-old groupie, Ted Nugent became his 17-year-old girlfriend’s legal guardian in lieu of marrying her, and Steven Tyler adopted a 16-year-old so that he could have sex with her, then coerced her into getting an abortion. Manson rose to fame in the same decade as R. Kelly, who was caught on tape urinating on a 14-year-old girl and still enjoyed a commercially successful career. Trent Reznor is implicated in at least one of Manson’s stories about abusing a woman, and his reputation has so far not been damaged. We would rather keep these famous men in the canon, with a few euphemistic caveats about their “flaws,” than hold them accountable and risk having to abandon our heroes. Women’s lives are less important than our right to listen to our high school record collections without feeling guilty.

Manson’s art glorified violence against women and he had an obsession with women’s dead and mutilated bodies that now seems chilling. He wrote multiple songs from the perspective of men who killed their girlfriends, created paintings of the Black Dahlia murder, and staged photographs of his then-girlfriend Dita Von Teese naked and covered in fake blood.

But even this didn’t make him unique — not in a pop-culture climate where comedians cling to rape jokes as the last bastion of free speech, and gritty prestige dramas use graphic rape and sexual torture as a sign of serious artistic intent. Manson’s successor in the suburban-teen-shock canon was Eminem aka Marshall Mathers. Mathers threatened to murder his ex-wife Kim Mathers in several of his biggest hits, and his live shows sometimes included strangling a blow-up doll made to look like her. After witnessing one of those performances, Kim Mathers was so distraught that she attempted suicide. How, in this context, was Manson supposed to stand out as a threat?

Women’s lives are less important than our right to listen to our high school record collections without feeling guilty.

He wasn’t. Despite his pretensions to “edginess,” Manson only ever did exactly what he could get away with, and in a climate of overarching cultural misogyny, he could get away with a lot. As a fan, I blame myself for being taken in, but that’s the point: It’s often impossible to tell an “ironic” abuser from a real one until you’re alone with him. I wanted to be in on the joke. I wanted to believe this guy was smarter than he looked. The alternative was that a man could confess to abusing women on a national stage, and no one would care. That was a lot more frightening than a few songs about the devil.

Yet that is the truth. Violent hatred of women is very deeply embedded in our culture, and men can not only get away with it, they can ride it to fame and fortune. It happens all the time. Those who express normal human amounts of fear or outrage are called humorless and told not to take it so seriously. It’s all fun and games and fake autopsy photos of your girlfriend until a woman comes forward to claim that you actually raped, tortured, and threatened to kill her. Marilyn Manson is only the latest in a long line of men who were more sincere than they seemed. He promised to embody the worst of society, to point out its hypocrisy. He told the truth there, too. That is precisely what he’s done.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Seen at Elle, In These Times & all across the Internet.

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