Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill

This book comes with a story. The author got an assignment from an entertainment magazine to write about the effect of the Manson Family murders on Hollywood. It was to be published in 1999, to mark the thirty-year anniversary of the horrible events of August 1969.ย  The magazine went out of business before he finished the article. In fact, he never finished the article. He finished this book instead. Chaos was published this year, in time to mark the fiftiethย anniversary of the murders. He found the subject so complex and so mysterious, he did so much research, he conducted so many interviews, that it took him twenty years to finally publish something (with the help of another writer). The story of how the book got written is part of the book.

I bought Chaos after reading a briefย interview with the author in the New York Times. Having grown up in Southern California and being old enough to remember 1969, I wasย  interested in the topic, not especially in Manson or his followers, but in the setting, the investigation and prosecution, and one of the people involved, Dennis Wilson.

The book’s subtitle refers to the “secret history” of the Sixties. Some of the history the author recounts isn’t that secret. It’s been known for years that police departments, the FBI and the CIA engaged in questionable, even illegal, practices in the Sixties, trying to fight or take advantage of the counterculture.

The real secrets the author uncovers pertain to relationships between Manson and various organs of the state, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the office of the L.A. County District Attorney, Manson’s parole officers, scientists on the government payroll and shadowy figures apparently associated with the FBI or CIA. He doesn’t figure out that someone else committed the crimes, but he does cast a lot of doubt on the famous “Helter Skelter” explanation for what happened, i.e. that Manson wanted to start a race war and thought killing innocent people who lived in nice houses would do the trick.

O’Neill lists some of his accomplishments:

I’d discovered [what] no one else had, what I knew I had to share with the world. Like: Stephen Kay [a Manson prosecutor] telling me that my findings were important enough to overturn the verdicts. Lewis Watnick, the retired DA, saying that Manson had to be an informant. [Researcher] Jolly West writing to his CIA handlers to announce that he’d implanted a false memory in someone….The DA’s office conspiring with a judge to replace a defense attorney. Charlie Guenther fighting back tears to tell me about the wiretap he’d heard [which suggested the murders were committed to help jailed Family member Bobby Beausoleil look innocent]. [425-426]

But way too many mysteries remained:

The evidence I’d amassed against the official version of the Manson murders was so voluminous, from so many angles, that it was overdetermined. I could poke a thousand holes in the story, but I couldn’t say what really happened. In fact, the major arms of my research were often in contradiction with one another. It couldn’t be the case that the truth involved a drug burn gone wrong [revenge for being sold poor quality drugs], orgies with Hollywood elite, a counter-insurgency trained CIA infiltrator in the Family, a series of unusually lax sheriff’s deputies and district attorneys and judges and parole officers, an FBI plot to smear leftists and Black Panthers, an effort to see if research on drugged mice applied to hippies, and LSD mind-control experiments tested in the field … could it? There was no way. [394-395]

The two tantalizing theories I came away with were (1) that Manson was a government informant, which explains why he was able to get away with so much obvious criminal behavior without being tossed back in prison for violating his parole, and (2) that an uneducated ex-con like him was able to convince a group of hippies to commit terrible crimes because somebody who had researched the question taught him how to use acid and speed to screw with impressionable people’s minds. Whether either of those theories have any truth to them, you’ll come away from Chaos convinced that there is more to the story than what was reported over and over fifty years ago and has been repeated ever since.