CHAOS: CHARLES MANSON, THE CIA, AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SIXTIES by TOM O’NEILL with DAN PIEPENBRING
Reviewed by STEVEN TRAVERS
To this day the story of the Manson family remains one of the most riveting and insane crime dramas of all time, right up there with the O.J. Simpson case and the Kennedy assassinations. It made a hero out of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who wrote the best-selling Helter Skelter. Varying movies and documentaries have emerged with different points of view. Some years back a TV show starring David Duchovny, Aquarius, tried to capture the vibe. It featured several high-powered L.A. attorneys with close ties to then-Governor Ronald Reagan who, according to the show, enjoyed getting anal sex from Manson himself, and enjoyed giving anal sex to the Manson girls, who apparently were the only hookers in town willing to give it up so sweet. While Hollywood besmirching and impugning Republicans is standard fare, this was a bridge too far and the show of course tanked.
But in 2019 Tom O’Neill published Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. This was substantially different from all previous investigations into “the family.” To say it is the definitive tome on the Manson family would not be true. It is speculative and theoretical, but certainly fascinating and, most important, not impossible to believe.
We start with the essential facts, which are widely known and do not need to be hashed over with a fine tooth comb. In essence, a lifelong criminal named Charles Manson is released from Federal prison and in 1967 emerges in San Francisco during the “Summer of Love.” He finds lost boys and especially lost girls, disposed of by society, thrown out of their houses by disapproving parents, rife for experimentation in drugs and sex. A “family” is formed and they travel to Los Angeles where Charlie plans to become a rock star. They take copious amounts of LSD.
In a strange twist of fate Charlie befriends Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who gives him entree to the music scene. The girls act as his harem, providing sex to men who can help Charlie advance his musical career. This goes all the way to Terry Melcher, a top producer, who blows Charlie off, embarrassing him in front of his “family.”
Thus begins a downward slide in which Manson forms a conspiracy theory in which there will be a race war with blacks taking over America. He moves his “family” to the desert to wait out this apocalyptic event, but they need money so involve themselves in drug-dealing and prostitution with a motorcycle gang called the Straight Satans.
Eventually they wind up living at Spahn Ranch outside of Los Angeles, and in August of 1969, Charlie orders members of his family to kill everybody in the Hollywood hills home once occupied by Melcher. Several girls and a man named Tex Watson go there and kill everybody in the house, including the beautiful actress Sharon Tate, wife of Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski.
The next night Charlie orders his people to a house he has scouted out in the Los Feliz area, where a grocery store magnate and his wife are gruesomely murdered.
The killings are meant to accomplish two things: scare the life out of Terry Melcher, and start a race war between whites and blacks. The press sensationalizes it and scares the dickens out of everybody in
L.A., with many Hollywood stars such as Steve McQueen convinced the hits were meant for them. It, along with the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont later that year, effectively ends the “peace and love” ‘60s once and for all.
Despite numerous errors, the L.A.P.D. solves the case and Bugliosi successfully prosecutes Manson, Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten. Linda Kasabian was in the car but did not participate in the murders; in fact she planned to drive the getaway car away from the scene but did not do so because she had a baby back at Spahn Ranch and feared there would be retribution. But she did turn states’ evidence, testifying on behalf of the prosecution for immunity.
Sentenced to death, the lives of all the murderers were spared when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional.
Around 1999-2000, journalist Tom O’Neill was approached by Premiere magazine to write a standard retrospective on the impact of the case on the film industry. He was paid a few thousand bucks and given a deadline of a couple of months. He approached Bugliosi and a few other key people, and then a strange thing happened. He began to suspect there was more to the case than just what Bugliosi had written; more than appeared in the L.A.P.D. files; more than the public understood to be true. He saw a conspiracy, and he saw the Central intelligence Agency
He missed his deadline and quickly gave up on writing a standard Premiere magazine piece. He ran out of money but kept investigating. He landed a book contract but missed all their deadlines, having to give back what money they gave him up front. Years passed. The story became an obsession every bit as huge as the Great White Whale in Moby Dick. O’Neill was Ahab.
The seeds of O’Neill’s theory were essentially released to the public in increments around 1994. It was a CIA experiment called MKUltra. Its roots came from experiments conducted by Nazi and Japanese scientists on prisoners of war during World War II, then used by North Korean Communists on American POWS. The CIA began to look into mind-altering drugs, in particular LSD. It was believed LSD could be used as a truth serum, and eventually they came to believe it could be used to turn ordinary human beings into mad killers lacking any conscience. Such killers could be used as assassins and in military operations; mindless “robots” carrying out orders no matter how extreme.
The project essentially lasted throughout the 1950s, and into the 1960s, but was upended in a sense when an amateur chemist named Owsley Stanley started creating batches of LSD in Berkeley. He dispensed this “Owsley acid” to rock musicians and soon it spread all over the world, fueling the counter-culture and killing many kids in over doses.
The Harvard professor Timothy Leary promoted it, inviting young girls to his New York estate to “tune in, drop out, and turn on” in orgiastic parties. Manson himself took LSD and distributed it to his “family” during “encounter sessions” ending up in wild sexual abandon. However, Manson possessed a scientist’s knowledge of LSD, taking only enough to stay in control and to therefore control his “subjects.”
O’Neill began to study the way Manson used acid. He seemed very technical in his use of it, as if he were attempting to reach some “answer” through its use beyond merely sex and partying. He was engaged in mind control. Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner was reportedly fascinated to the point of admiration at Manson’s ability to get young girls to do anything he wanted them to do. Manson became a cult hero to the radical left. Bernadine Dohrn, who with her husband, Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground helped launch the political career of Barack Obama, was openly admiring of Manson.
O’Neill also found holes in Bugliosi’s longstanding narrative. He saw a cover up and determined it reached to the highest levels of the U.S. Government. He knew what he was investigating was dangerous and if he got too close he could be in trouble. How close he got nobody really knows or will know, at least publicly.
But he got close enough to rattle Bugliosi, who seemingly went off the deep end in an effort to stop O’Neill from investigating further and writing what he found out. Bugliosi’s passing a few years ago freed O’Neill to write about the former prosecutor more openly.
Essentially, O’Neill discovered that MKUltra had involved experiments by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly on Federal prisoners. Manson had spent half of his life prior to 1967 in the Federal system. This seemed odd to O’Neill, since most of his crimes were relatively petty; prostitution, pimping and pandering, drug use and sales. He was a minor criminal but ended up at places like Terminal Island with most-wanted felons.
In prison Manson learned how to get along. He allowed other prisoners to use him anally without complaint, or to provide oral services to them. He read books on sales techniques and How to Win Friends and Influence People. He became a sort of prison guru.
But O’Neill questioned why the government somehow saw fit to send him to Federal penitentiaries instead of state pens; penitentiaries O’Neill discovered the MKUltra project in full swing. He found others, too, such as infamous Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, who had strong political connections. Many became convinced Bulger was turned into a cold-blooded killer by the CIA, and it was well known that he was an FBI informant for years. Bulger reportedly said as much late in his life.
O’Neill also discovered that on a number of occasions Manson’s sentences were shortened or his parole was approved by “friendly” judges, prosecutors and administrators, as if he had a “helping hand” all the time. He interviewed several judges who reviewed his case and determined that many actions taken with Manson were highly inappropriate.
So what happened to Manson? O’Neill is not able to provide a thorough answer, and we likely may never know, as with the Kennedy killings. O’Neill points out that Robert Kennedy’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan, claimed not to remember what he did, and there are numerous discrepancies around the investigation, just as there were with President John Kennedy’s 1963 murder. The novel and movie The Manchurian Candidate increasingly looks less a tale of fiction and more like a real-life government plot.
Was Manson programmed by drugs and psychologists to become a “guru,” capable of using mind control to attract people into a program of murder and mayhem? Look at the facts and you decide. What happened happened, and to this day nobody can explain it. He took normal, middle class girls (and boys) and made them mind-numbed psychopaths. All their morals, religious upbringing and compassion was stripped from them. But surely the CIA never intended that innocent people be murdered in a rampage.
The program was likely meant to create assassins who could kill enemies of the state; to enter into dangerous battles and without fear or consequence kill key people in warfare. When Manson went haywire, the powers that be most likely folded their tents. The Church Committee hearings certainly put the clamps on Langley a few years later.
They probably wish it would have just gone away, and it would have except that the program was discovered in the 1990s, and Tom O’Neill doggedly pursued it for two decades.
Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.