Review- O’Neill, “Chaos”

Tom O’Neill, “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties” (2019) (narrated by Kevin Stillwell) – I picked this book up because I had heard it proffers a new idea of the Manson murders. As it happens, (former) entertainment reporter Tom O’Neill is quite careful not to advance a thesis on what happened those days in the summer of 1969 or why. Instead, he blows holes in the established story, presents circumstantial evidence pointing to other potential stories, and most of all tells the story of his investigation. What started as a five-thousand word assignment for a now vanished entertainment magazine in the late nineties became a twenty year obsession for O’Neill, and eventually, this book.

I don’t know when exactly I learned of the Manson murders, sometime as a child. Like I’ve said in this space before, one thing my sisters and I agreed upon as kids was that cults were fascinating, and we all heard sixties stories from our parents (neither of whom were hippies or anywhere near California at the time). Truth be told they interest me more as a cultural phenomenon than as a set of murders as such. Maybe Manson is more interesting to me than most serial killers because he’s not really a serial killer- arguably, he was the commanding officer of a very peculiar death squad. War always interested me more than murder and the Family had in mind something like war, according to the official narrative.

For those who have not made the choice to know about Manson, that official narrative, set in place by Manson’s prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, in his case against The Family and in his crime classic “Helter Skelter,” goes like this: foiled in his attempts to become a rock star, Charles Manson became obsessed with the idea that The Beatles were communicating with him via “The White Album.” Convinced the song “Helter Skelter” (one of my favorite Beatles tunes) predicted a race war that Manson and his group of acid-casualty followers, “The Family,” would profit from somehow, Manson had his followers commit two house invasion murder sprees with knives. They were instructed to make the crimes messy, and to daub messages on the walls of the houses in blood to implicate the Black Panthers, thereby initiating a race war. The Family would then stand back, let society collapse, and allow Charles Manson to emerge from the wreckage as king. This convinced a jury to convict Manson for murder, despite his not having killed anyone at either house, and generations of true crime fans.

Manson and his followers always insisted the “Helter Skelter” motivation was bullshit, but then, they seldom said much coherent except that they disapproved of society as such. According to his account, O’Neill didn’t think much of it either way. He makes clear from the beginning, in the somewhat panicked tone of a man trying to convince someone of something they’re worried won’t be believed, that he does not believe that Manson and the Family are innocent. They murdered those people in those houses and others. But O’Neill comes to dismiss the “Helter Skelter” theory, and that’s probably his biggest achievement in this book.

There’s too many twists and turns and nooks and crannies both in the angles on the case O’Neill found and in O’Neill’s story to relate them all here. There are also some blind alleys in the book. O’Neill reports how his early investigations led him to the criminal milieu that hung around Cielo Drive, the posh house where the first and most celebrated Family mass-slaying occurred. Rather than innocent actress Sharon Tate lounging around in her underwear massively pregnant, waiting for husband Roman Polanski to come home but getting The Family instead, we get a whole lot of drug dealers and violence around the house, some of it Polanski’s directed at Tate. They don’t really enter into O’Neill’s larger thesis, though, except in two related ways: they first bring in the hints of military, intelligence, and organized crime involvement in the story, and they basically begin O’Neill’s descent into something like madness.

The two biggest holes in the establishment “Helter Skelter” story seem to be these: that key witness Terry Melcher, a record producer who angered Manson by refusing to sign him, severely understated his relationship to Manson, before and after the murders that happened at Melcher’s former address; and the way the cops could have locked up Manson, a parolee from the federal prison system, any time. They, especially the LA County Sheriff’s Office, knew he was dealing drugs, stealing cars, having sex with underage girls, etc. Why didn’t they bust him back? Or at least suspect him sooner for the crimes? The Family was free for weeks while the LAPD and LASO bungled, and it was only Family member Sadie Atkins bragging about murdering Tate while in jail for some other crime that sent the cops out to pick up The Family in their post-race-war-hideout in the Arizona desert.

The LA cops treating Manson with kid gloves is only the most spectacular and surface-level peculiarity of Manson’s dealings with authorities after he was paroled in the early sixties. There was also the fact that his parole officer, Roger Smith, had precisely one parolee, Manson, while the rest of the federal POs in California had dozens. Manson spent a year or so in San Francisco, just after the famed “Summer of Love,” and this is where he started The Family, but Bugliosi barely refers to it in “Helter Skelter.” O’Neill looked into it and found that Manson and his early girls (like “Sexy Sadie” Atkins, who had connections with the Church of Satan) spent a lot of time at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. HAFMC, in turn, was host to people who basically saw hippie-fied San Francisco as a great big social science laboratory. This included Louis “Jolly” West, known for his experimenting on unwitting people with amphetamines, LSD, and more (not just people, either- he fed a fully-grown elephant LSD until it died, for science, supposedly). As meth hit the Haight and the Summer of Love turned into a spiral of violence and madness (even Manson felt compelled to leave, though presumably there was also a pull factor to LA, Manson’s dreams of stardom), guys like West just sat back and watched, or tried stuff out, with the HAFMC as something of a base.

Jolly West was a certified sociopathic creep and almost certainly connected to the CIA’s MKUltra experimentation program. Motivated by (racialized, mostly bullshit) accounts of Chinese “brainwashing” of UN prisoners during the Korean War, the CIA decided it would be cool to figure out how to do brainwashing of their own, including for the purpose of creating untraceable assassins. Why this supposed “intelligence agency” couldn’t just hire local thugs to do stuff like that is a mystery to me and probably catnip to conspiracists- you’re not gonna get a local thug to kill a US President, for instance. In any event, for at least a decade, the CIA got scientists to seriously fuck with people with drugs, including the recently-discovered LSD, to learn how to “reprogram” people. This isn’t conspiracy theory- this is public record, stuff the CIA admitted to during that brief window in the seventies when Congress tried to reign them in.

Also in the public record we find the FBI’s COINTELPRO program and the CIA’s Chaos project, both of which were aimed at disrupting political dissidents, overwhelmingly on the left. COINTELPRO set up Fred Hampton for assassination, tried to get MLK Jr. to commit suicide (and might have greenlit his assassination), used violence to sew discord in militant groups, and that’s just what we know about (thanks largely to an analog wikileaking by a group of brave militants who burgled an FBI field office). Chaos was in much the same vein but even more illegal- the CIA is not supposed to do clandestine operations in the US. A fair amount of the book “Chaos” is dedicated to O’Neill relating the facts about MKUltra, COINTELPRO, and Chaos to his presumed true-crime readership, all with the caveats that O’Neill was learning this as an entertainment writer now way, way past deadline for his thirty-year anniversary of the Manson murders piece.

Ultimately, we’re left with more tantalizing questions than answers. Could Manson have been a product of MKUltra-style experiments run out of the Haight? We know MKUltra experimented on federal prisoners around that time and earlier. Whitey Bulger spent his time on Alcatraz being dosed with LSD and reading Machiavelli. Could Manson have learned a crude version of CIA brainwashing techniques and used them on The Family to turn more-or-less normal kids into killers? Could the LA authorities have been warned away from Manson because someone in a high place wanted to see what Manson and The Family would do? Could the Tate/LaBianca killings have nothing to do with “Helter Skelter,” but have been a hit, aimed at countercultural Hollywood and its support for left/liberal causes? Surely, the Manson murders “ended ‘The Sixties,’” as writers from Joan Didion on down have insisted so often it’s become a cliche.

O’Neill, ever-worried about becoming a conspiracy theorist, does not answer in the affirmative for any of these. His book ends with dangling questions, a few additional questions thrown in (did Manson or The Family kill a young drifter in the Arizona desert before getting arrested? Are the cops covering it up?), and a call for the truth. Talking to Manson briefly on the phone from jail didn’t help. And neither did Vincent Bugliosi, who proves to be a first-class weirdo and martinet, not the calm, thoughtful guide through the muck, blood, and chaos he presents himself as in “Helter Skelter.” Bugliosi, in O’Neill’s account, repeatedly threatened and harangued them in tones both ridiculous and ominous, especially as O’Neill dug up fairly compelling evidence that Bugliosi suborned perjury during the Manson trial. It’s also on public record that Bugliosi is a woman beater, attacking his mistress after she refused to get an abortion, something that probably helped scotch his political career but didn’t stop the crime networks from putting Bugliosi on tv until he died a few years before “Chaos” came out.

What do I think? Well, there’s definitely something fishy about the way the authorities treated Manson pre-murders. Ethically speaking, there is literally nothing I would put past the CIA, then or now. Admittedly, hitting at the counterculture when you’re aiming at “the left” doesn’t make much sense to me — if anything, hippie shit was an impediment to doing real organizing — but it’d probably make perfect sense to the idiots at Langley or to J. Edgar Hoover. The closest thing I could see them quailing from would be murdering Sharon Tate, the pregnant daughter of an Army Intelligence colonel, not quite a “made guy” in their mafia but close. There’s no way to prove any of this and probably won’t be- the thing that made much of this possible was O’Neill finding Jolly West’s papers at UCLA, untouched. That’s the kind of thing you’d figure a big conspiracy wouldn’t let happen, but in this Coen Brothers movie we live in, who knows… for my money, I can buy Manson was fucked with by MKUltra types, and in his imitative way, could’ve tried it on with the girls. I really can’t get around LASO not bouncing him back to the fed pen numerous times, which does indicate protection… but protection from some Jolly West figure who just wanted to see what they’d do — for science, of course — seems more likely to me than a master plan to kill various Hollywood types and through them, the general Sixties vibe. Fuck knows, though.

Why this angle on Manson, why now? That’s an interesting question to me as someone more interested in the phenomena around the murder than the murder itself. Well, O’Neill worked on it since we thought Al Gore might be President, so presumably, he didn’t have a current-zeitgeisty reason behind it. I do think it has been assimilated to a wave of pop-left conspiracy theory backed by podcasts like “TrueAnon,” seizing on the traditional right-wing terrain of conspiracies. The stern intellectual leftist in me disapproves. The somewhat less stern historian knows that the left was never immune: for every antisemitic theory running around nineteenth century France, for instance, there seems to have been an equal-but-opposite Jacobin-left theory that everything that went wrong was down to the Jesuits. This could all be a sign that the left is reaching more people, including people given to this kind of thinking? The very real existence of certain conspiracies doesn’t help. I don’t know. “Stick to the documented,” I punt.

Experientially, listening to this book is pretty fun. You have to figure O’Neill “leaned in” a little to the naif-investigator angle in terms of his personal story, but it works. There’s a lot of baroque detail about Tate and Polanski’s Hollywood scene, which is fun if you like that kind of thing, and about the dirty details of MKUltra/COINTELPRO/Chaos style shenanigans. The freaks — the Hollywood “live freaky, die freaky” types and the even freakier freaks in white coats and ties like Jolly West — truly come out and alive throughout the text. I don’t usually say much about the narrators of audiobooks but actor Kevin Stillwell does a wonderful job conveying O’Neill’s curiosity, skepticism, and dawning realizations. All in all, I can by saying of “Chaos” that “it’s a real trip, man,” both in the sense of being interesting and informative and in the sense that a somewhat cliche sixties saying from a known square is an appropriate end point to a discussion of this fascinating and at times frustrating book. ****’

Review- O’Neill, “Chaos”

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