I’ve read quite a few books about Charles Manson in my time. It’s a grim account that I’ve found quite fascinating (and I’m not alone, given the volume of books and articles written about it). I even went so far as visiting some of the sites on my one and (so far) only trek to L.A. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed, but I’m invested. Up until now, the classic account told in Helter Skelter by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi has been considered the authority on the subject, although The Family by Ed Sanders is pretty damned good, too. And then there are the various accounts as told by members of the Family, differing interpretations by former adherents, each offering their own unique, insider perspectives. All of these have served to flesh out the story in greater detail but still, despite all of the words spent and the time dedicated, we’re not really any closer to answering the fundamental question that haunts this slice of morbid history: how and why did Manson turn a group of seemingly ordinary young adults into rampaging killers? Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill, seeks to finally get to the bottom of that question. And although O’Neill never gives us any kind of irrefutable answer, the journey getting there is bizarre and amazing. We learn that asking the right questions unveils more meaning than the actual answers we get in response.
It started as a magazine article for Premiere, a now defunct entertainment publication. O’Neill was approached by the editor in the late 90s to write something on the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca killings. Wanting to do something original, O’Neill studied the case, rereading Helter Skelter, looking over trial transcripts, and discovering there were a lot of unanswered questions surrounding not only the murders, but the time Charles Manson spent in San Francisco as he was gathering his Family around him. There was also the odd fact that Manson violated his parole time and time again before the murders and was always, always let go, freed with no repercussions. O’Neill began to realize that there was no rational reason for this, that the only people who repeatedly got out of trouble with the law were confidential informants, or regular citizens working for the police or the Feds on the sly. Once he opened this can of worms, he had to dig deeper. And deeper. And deeper. Before he knew it, he was surrounded by CIA mind control experiments (MKULTRA), FBI counterintelligence (COINTELPRO), hypnotism, and the JFK assassination. What was supposed to be a fairly easy assignment turned into a twenty-year obsession, the magazine article falling by the wayside and a book proposal blooming in its stead. All the while, O’Neill kept pulling away layers of the onion, exposing Manson prosecutor Bugliosi as a very troubled man, guilty of obfuscation and making witnesses perjure themselves. He discovers how the CIA might have peripherally been involved with Manson (or maybe more than that; we’ll probably never know) via Dr. Louis Jolyon West. a professor and psychiatrist and CIA asset who was very close to Manson’s circles while he lived in San Francisco. Very close. West worked with returning POW’s from the Korean War who were supposedly brainwashed, helping them return to normal society. West also worked for the CIA on studying how to manipulate and control ordinary people, how to turn them into programmed killers. This same Dr. West also interviewed Jack Ruby before his death and may have been instrumental in making the killer of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mind snap. Oh, and Dr. West once killed an elephant by overdosing it with LSD.
Yes, things get crazy, but compelling. O’Neill walks us through every step of this descent into madness, carefully guiding us along, retelling his own story as he does so. He shows how the evidence he uncovers could have overturned the verdicts on the Manson Family. He gets a retired DA to admit that Manson must have been an informant. He exposes that Dr. West wrote to his CIA handlers that he was able to implant false memories in someone. He explains how the DA’s office conspired with a judge to replace a defense attorney for one of the Family defendants. Even more layers are opened up, not much else quite definitively proven, but lots of smoke where there are lots of fires. Who set the fires? Who manipulated the situation? Was there even any manipulation, or was this all just a series of sad coincidences that together combined to create two nights of utter terror and horror that supposedly ushered in the “End of the Sixties?”
I think that’s the point. O’Neill displays just how layered and complex, how utterly bizarre and strange those times truly were. There were FBI informants, COINTELPRO operatives invading and spreading disinformation amongst various activist groups, the CIA was operating a program they called CHAOS that did much the same thing. On top of this, you’ve got kids dosing themselves with LSD and other drugs like speed and marijuana, gurus forming communes, wild rock music, and this explosion of freedom and sexual liberation. All of this combined created quite a stew, one where Manson and his Family wore born, nurtured, and let loose upon the world. Was it all designed? Was it a CIA plot gone wrong (or right)? Or was it all just happenstance, a series of unfortunate events that worked together to create a terrible tragedy? We’ll probably never know, but one thing is certain: there was something going on under the surface, some manipulations and game-playing, with Manson and his Family given permission to keep doing what they were doing, far longer than any normal or ordinary criminal would have been allowed to do so.
O’Neill shows us that the answers aren’t really as important as the questions. And he brilliantly portrays the chaos and madness of the sixties and the cover-ups and obfuscations since. The mystery of Manson will probably never be solved, but if you ask the right questions, you’ll get a deeper, more resonant picture of a controversial time in American history.
Four Buckets of Blood out of Four
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