A Family Affair

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties BY Tom O'Neill. edited by Dan Piepenbring. New York: Little, Brown. 528 pages. $30.

The cover of Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties

IN 1975, THE WASHINGTON POST interviewed JFK assassination researcher Harold Weisberg, who’d spent twelve years working eighteen-hour days to disprove the Warren Report. Sitting in the cluttered Maryland ranch house from which he self-published his findings, Weisberg confided a fear that history “might judge me a goddamn fool or Don Quixote.”

Obsession and fear also torment author Tom O’Neill throughout the journalistic epic chronicled in Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. What begins as a routine assignment for Premiere magazine—a thirtieth-anniversary story about the murder of Sharon Tate—goes cockeyed when research starts pointing to cover-ups. Deadlines come and go, Premiere kills the story, and the once prolific journalist sets out on a compulsive quest to understand the discrepancies in the investigation and trial of the Manson Family.

As the months turn to years, O’Neill’s career is sidelined. He attempts to wrestle his research into a book proposal, all too aware that he’s risking his credibility with his accumulating speculations, and “swimming deeper into the waters of conspiracy, where, as near as I could tell, only the real nut jobs had wandered before me.”

Raymond Pettibon, Untitled (Did I do...), 1987, pen and ink on paper, 14 × 11".
Raymond Pettibon, Untitled (Did I do...), 1987, pen and ink on paper, 14 × 11". © Raymond Pettibon, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

The official story is itself quite nutty: On July 25, 1969, Manson ordered three of his followers—Bobby Beausoleil, Mary Brunner, and Susan Atkins—to rob music teacher Gary Hinman. They tortured him for two days, at which point Manson instructed them by telephone: “You know what to do.” Beausoleil stabbed Hinman multiple times, and Atkins and Brunner smothered him with a pillow. Manson told them to leave signs implicating the Black Panthers, so they used Hinman’s blood to paint a wall with the words “political piggy.”

On August 8, Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian, and Charles “Tex” Watson left the Manson commune at the Spahn Ranch, drove southeast for forty minutes, and murdered five people at the Benedict Canyon home of actress Sharon Tate. The word “pig” was written on the front door. On August 9, that group, joined by three other members of the Manson Family, went to the Los Feliz home of grocery owner Leno LaBianca and his wife, and killed them. The words “death to pigs” were written on a wall.

The August murders went unsolved until November; the case broke when Atkins, in jail on charges for the Hinman murder, boasted to her cellmate. Vincent Bugliosi, assigned as prosecutor, went to work.

O’Neill’s major foil throughout Chaos is Bugliosi, who further canonized his own trial arguments in the 1974 book Helter Skelter. (“The story you are about to read will scare the hell out of you,” promised the opening page, signaling a devotion to thrills that helped make it the best-selling true-crime book of all time.) Bugliosi never had much use for those with dissenting theories; they “are as kooky as a three-dollar bill in their beliefs and paranoia,” he wrote in Reclaiming History, his 1,600-page attack on Warren Commission critics. To Bugliosi, conspiracy-minded authors were the worst of them all: “The majority of them knowingly mislead their readers by lies, omissions, and deliberately distorting the official record.”

Of course, Manson was convicted on conspiracy charges, with a supposed motive that couldn’t be much kookier: In Bugliosi’s telling, the engine that drove the murders was a plot to ignite a race war, after which Manson would emerge from a bunker and control the black population.

While the official narrative of JFK’s death is that it was brought about by a lone assassin, for the Tate-LaBianca murders, it’s that a team of assassins were ordered by a lone orchestrator. The question, then, is not who committed the crime, but why? Chaos doesn’t contest the charges against the Manson Family members, and O’Neill is deliberate in his investigations. Early on, he skeptically adds names to his whiteboard, “one more in the jumble of cops and Hollywood has-beens, witnesses reliable and unreliable, with fading memories and ulterior motives.” Although the tendrils of the Manson story reach into countless sensational realms—Hollywood, rock ’n’ roll, drugs, cults, etc.—some of the wildest possibilities are dispensed with efficiently. O’Neill tracks down principals of a supposedly involved MDA distribution ring, senses dead ends, and moves on. (Absent entirely are the connections that Ed Sanders traced to Scientology and the Process Church, before removing them from later editions of his The Family.)

But uncovering documents and talking to more people leads O’Neill to a litany of discoveries that can’t be ignored. Shahrokh Hatami, Tate’s personal photographer, admits to O’Neill that he learned of the murders by telephone, from an intelligence agent named Reeve Whitson, ninety minutes before the police were even called to the scene. Whitson and Bugliosi then coerced Hatami’s testimony by threatening him with deportation. A deputy DA discloses that he had orders from above to keep Manson’s name out of Beausoleil’s trial—a month before Manson was charged. O’Neill finds sheriff interviews with witnesses that were withheld from the defense team, and detectives who insist that important evidence was destroyed by their superiors. He even learns of a taped confession describing murders that were never discovered. But the LA district attorney’s office seizes the tape before he can hear it.

At what point does governmental incompetence strain credulity? In Helter Skelter, Bugliosi maintained that a misdated warrant prevented an August raid on the Spahn Ranch from yielding indictments. But O’Neill finds the warrant to be impeccably written—and also to reveal that police had an informant at the ranch, and had carried out reconnaissance flights beforehand. Although the raid—the largest in California history at that point—yielded seven stolen cars, a mini-arsenal, and four credit cards that dropped out of Manson’s own pockets, no one even contacted his parole officer. A week later, after yet another arrest, Manson was charged with marijuana possession and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. When O’Neill finds the deputy DA who signed the order dropping that charge, the guy denies involvement and hangs up.

The most unsettling implications, though, precede the crimes. In 1967, Manson’s San Francisco parole officer was Roger Smith, a criminology Ph.D. whose parolee responsibilities suddenly dropped from forty clients to just one—Manson. Although Manson was repeatedly arrested, Smith never revoked his parole. In mid-1968, after one arrest made the newspapers, Smith’s supervisor tried to step in—but was overruled by the head office in Washington, DC. Subsequently, Manson—and his followers—often visited Smith at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, where Smith was running something called the Amphetamine Research Project, a study of the role that drugs played in psychotic violence. Also there was Dr. Louis Jolyon “Jolly” West, a former MK-Ultra researcher who specialized in hypnosis and implanting false memories. (West, O’Neill learns, was the doctor attending to Jack Ruby when he suffered a psychotic break in his Dallas jail cell.) When not in the office, West was running a “‘laboratory’ disguised as a ‘hippie crash pad’”—for research funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. “You’re not gonna like this,” O’Neill writes to his agent, already years into the rabbit hole with his research on the Manson murders, “but I think the JFK assassination is involved. . . . And the CIA’s mind-control experiments.”

And it’s here that O’Neill, sure that he’s on the precipice of a unified theory of the Dark 1960s, finds himself stuck. “My theory that Manson and West were linked was tenuous, circumstantial, lying solely in the fact that they’d walked the corridors of the same clinic.” Having masterfully demolished any faith that a reader might have had in Bugliosi’s rendition, Chaos then breaks down in the rubble.

O’Neill has been signaling this outcome, his procedural racked with self-doubt and panic. After laboring to schedule an appointment with a US senator, O’Neill stands him up in a fit of paranoia. (“While I was out, the phone rang and my mom picked up. It was Arlen Specter, sounding confused.”) He pours his advance money into hiring a private detective and two research assistants; the latter help him with hundreds of cassette recordings, sixty legal pads of handwritten notes, two hundred binders of documents, and twenty feet of unfiled papers. After three more years, the book deadline has come and gone. Sources die, or go to prison. By 2012, O’Neill has lost the contract completely and accrued half a million dollars in debt.

That Chaos can’t quite recover the smoking gun is, in a strange way, a gift. In the twenty years that have elapsed since O’Neill began work on the book, paranoia has so permeated American culture that healthy skepticism has ceded ground to firm beliefs in all-powerful Deep States and New World Orders—beliefs often stoked and exploited by those who actually hold the reins of power. What once were theories are gospels now. O’Neill’s skillful accumulation of facts, untainted by bluffery, is a victory for honest discourse.

“I kept little pieces of cardboard around my office,” O’Neill writes with humility. “Sometimes I folded them up and carried them in my pocket. Whenever I started doubting myself, which was a lot, I had a list of bullet points I’d write down on them and read to myself for encouragement—a reminder of what I’d discovered that no one else had, what I knew I had to share with the world.” The discoveries that O’Neill has shared with the world—about lies, suppressions, and conflicts of interest—should scare the hell out of us.

Sean Howe is the author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper, 2012) and a forthcoming biography of High Times founder Thomas King Forçade.