Chaos: Charles Manson the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. John
O’Neill and Dan Piepenbring (New York: Little Brown, 2019).
It took me three weeks to read Chaos:Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. Although fascinating, with its detailed analysis of the true motives for the Manson crimes in Los Angeles, 1969, the prose was dense and a chore to finish. There are so many figures involved in the story, most of whom were connected in some way to the “Crime of the Century,” that it is difficult to remember who is whom. It would have been helpful for readers if O’Neill had included a character chart to keep everyone straight in the story, starting with Manson as the central figure.
Tom O’Neill began his journey down the Manson road with a phone call from his former editor at Us magazine, Leslie Van Buskirk. Now employed by Premiere, a film magazine, Van Buskirk asked O’Neill if he would be interested in writing an article about how “Old Guard” Hollywood remembered the details of the horrific crimes committed thirty years before. Did the bloody murders resonate with modern Hollywood? O’Neill was given carte blanche to take whatever angle that he chose in defining what he would include in his investigation. Little did he suspect that what he should have completed in a week or two would take him twenty years to finish.
O’Neill started his research on the Manson family with Vincent Bugliosi’s famous book, Helter Skelter. Having never read the book, written by the prosecutor in the Manson case, O’Neill describes Bugliosi’s book as “forceful absorbing book,” which it is. In fact, Helter Skelter is a compelling read.
Several questions niggled O’Neill when he finished Bugliosi’s tome, questions that he felt compelled to probe. “I made notes and lists of potential interviews, trying to find an angle that hadn’t been worked on,” he states. The more that O’Neill dug in, the more investigative reporting he was obliged to do. He informed his editors at Premiere that the article would not be finished by their deadline of the anniversary of the crimes.
What O’Neill did not accept was the elaborate motive that Bugliosi created to convict the defendants. Bugliosi claimed that the term “Helter Skelter,” taken from a Beatles song, represented the chaos that the Manson Family believed was coming to destroy the world. “Helter Skelter” as Manson taught his disciples was to be a race war where the blacks in this country would kill all of the whites. His devotees, and he would survive by living underground until the cataclysmic event was over, and then they would emerge from their bunker and control of the world.
As O’Neill makes one connection to another in his research, he uncovers information from documents never seen before by the public. He finds out that the police had lagged in arresting Manson and company, that Manson may have been enlisted by the CIA to conduct a study on the effects of LSD on a person’s psyche, and that there are things that Charlie was permitted to get away with by law enforcement that made no sense.
When I began reading the book, I thought a lot of what O’Neill purported in the story was ridiculous, like a connection between Manson and the CIA. However, O’Neill’s research is so thorough, and he offers up so much convincing evidence that when I concluded reading Chaos, I had a different feeling about the case Bugliosi presented in Helter Skelter, a book that is used frequently in criminal justice classes. From this point on, readers should pair a study of Bugliosi’s account with Chaos:Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.
Although the prose is dense, the information that O’Neill presents is fascinating and gives a unique perspective on the Manson slayings. I do recommend Chaos to those who love the genre of true crime.