CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring

Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies

In Stephen Dobyns’ murder mystery Saratoga Swimmer Charlie Bradshaw,unlicensed private eye and true-crime addict, recounts the story of New York gangster Dutch Schultz’s 1935 assassination by a Murder, Incorporated hitman. Asked ’How come you know this stuff?’ he replies, ‘I don’t know. I read about it, then I like to go over it in my mind… .It’s like knitting.’

Charlie is not a stupid man, nor is knitting just an idle pursuit. And while the true-crime genre has a reputation for trashiness and prurience, it has also been elevated to serious, ‘non-fiction novel’ status by works such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. So what is CHAOS’s analogue – knitting or literature? For me it’s like neither; or a hybrid, maybe. As the author admits, it’s the brainchild of a twenty-year obsession with the Charles Manson case, 436 pages of dense text supplemented by almost seventy of acknowledgements and citations plus an index. ‘Serious’, then. At the same time, the publishers promise ‘chilling new truths’ and ‘shocking new conspiracy theories’.

The go-to guy for the Tate-Bianca murders has always been Vincent Bugliosi, prosecutor in the case and author of the best-selling Helter Skelter (1974). O’Neill’s book is heavily shadowed by his animus against Bugliosi – at one time they dialogued but it ended, as such fraught associations tend to, in tears. Bugliosi, who died in 2015, is accused of  incompetence and worse. He is particularly blamed for twisting the law and suppressing evidence in court to convict Manson of murder (he was not present at either killing by his young followers) in pursuit of a death sentence.  He got it, but it was commuted to life.

After the identification on page one of Bugliosi as the author’s adversary the story gathers momentum, and no review could adequately digest the scope of  O’Neill’s investigations. They lead upwards and outwards, their intersecting trails pictured in the complex diagram on the photograph of  his whiteboard. The cast of characters multiplies as the enquiry proceeds, including Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, whom Manson saw as his tickets to a recording career. Major movie actors are approached but won’t talk.   It’s intimated that a now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t figure called Reeve Whitson has CIA connections. Eventually O’Neill’s digging turns up alleged links with COINTELPRO and CHAOS, the covert, illegal FBI/CIA programmes seeking to counter dissent as the nation divided over Vietnam and racial issues. Questions arise. Was Manson an informer? Was his parole violation overlooked because he was out to get the Black Panthers? 

It’s all problematic, but O’Neill claims not to be a conspiracy theorist and he’s right. He has no coherent, nailed-down, forensic explanation of how it all fits together. There’s no sign here of the insane logic that squares a paranoid circle, but instead plenty of legwork, phone calls, interviews, scrutiny of motives, weighing of hearsay, and a degree of finger-pointing. His method is speculative, suggestive, full of maybes and why nots, and he often pauses to stress the provisional nature of his beliefs. That helps the reader accept the writer’s good faith as the serial waves of detail risk washing away the big picture.

Finally O’Neill recognises that Manson was a cipher:

My investigation orbited him, but he mattered hardly at all to me… as a cottage industry rose up around him and he became a true-crime icon, he’d been made brittle, toothless… a repository for our fears.

As the radical thinker Paul Krassner argues, Manson was no hippie, no poster boy for the liberating energies of the 1960s, but a Frankenstein product of the US penal system. Like the subjects of Capote’s and Mailer’s books he was a petty offender from an early age, a chronic jailbird, the model of a ‘white-trash loser’, less a rebel than a deplorable. He became the false guru behind the Tate-Bianca killings, controlling teenage lost souls, but only the Hollywood connections of Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski gave the deaths a spectacular, historic aura. Otherwise it was almost a commonplace crime. In 1969 the US had a homicide rate of 7.3 per 10,000 on a national population of 202.7 million. Do the math.

As I see it, there are two stories here. One is that of the Manson ‘family’ itself, with its tangled history and expanding cloud of suspicion; the other is the quest of the writer to find a new way of shaping its significance. The first is a twice-told tale. The second aim does not quite succeed, though it does a creditable job in lifting the lid on a creepy half-world in which boundaries between the lawful and the criminal, showbiz glitter and the sad, vicious existence of low-life drifters, are crossed and recrossed. Truth and fake news arrive in a mashup. Everyone has an angle, whom do you believe? Don’t look for a solution, but CHAOS diverts attention away from the mythologised – for good or ill – ‘Sixties’ to a deeper-rooted, more tenacious American pathology.

Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring, CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, (William Heinemann, 2019). 978-1785152078, 520 pp., hardback.

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