Charles Manson, the CIA, and a Very Different Side of Helter Skelter

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

So many years later, Manson’s name still served as a kind of shorthand for a very American form of brutal violence, the kind that erupts seemingly from nowhere and confirms the nation’s darkest fears about itself. 

Why had he and the Family lingered in the cultural conversation when other, even more macabre murders had faded from memory?

Let me begin by saying that I don’t have a single hoot to give about Charles Manson, the 60s counterculture — any of that. They’re just not stories that are interesting to me. Yet despite that, I absolutely loved reading Chaos. It’s a million kinds of crazy, but not quite as nuts as you might immediately think upon seeing “Charles Manson” and “the CIA” in the same subtitle.

And I’d always wondered about the points in the above-mentioned quotes. Why did the story of the murders committed by a hippie cult over several nights in the summer of 1969 — mainly those of Sharon Tate, her unborn son, and several of her and husband Roman Polanski’s friends, followed by those of grocery store owners Rosemary and Leno LaBianca a few days later — have such sticking power? It’s a weird, sad story, of course, and involves some major and some peripheral Hollywood figures, but it’s neither as gruesome nor as mysterious as countless other American crime stories that don’t get nearly the attention or have the instant recognition it does. The element of the symbolic end of the peace-and-love 1960s is certainly a strong factor, but there just always felt to be a piece missing to me in explaining its magnetism. 

And it’s always seemed that as utterly batshit crazy as he is, tiny, grimy career criminal Charles Manson on his own seemed unlikely to have wielded so much power and influence over his followers, enough to turn a bunch of hippie girls into vicious, near-automatonic murderers. Something is missing there; even considering the rampant hallcuinogenic drug use, it just doesn’t quite add up. That is…unless…*eNtEr ThE CiA*

Journalist Tom O’Neill turned what was originally supposed to be an article for Premier magazine for the 30th anniversary of the murders in 1999 into twenty years of obsessive research. He missed all of his deadlines despite a string of patient publishers, and amassed such a mess of information that he had to bring on a second author to organize this into something coherent. No surprise, really, when he’d followed so many strange trails and gone down so many rabbit holes.

What set him off was a seemingly throwaway line in prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelterlong accepted as the definitive story of the Manson family and the murders. Bugliosi made a quick reference to the idea that someone must have influenced Manson somehow, he must have been shown how to do this. O’Neill would later interview Bugliosi, covered here, and he was defensive and uncooperative. Helter Skelter is his legacy, so it’s no shock that near the end of his life he wasn’t happy about any challenges to his narrative, or some loopholes that he glossed over and couldn’t or wouldn’t explain to a journalist.

There’s a lot going on here. Just to barely skim the surface, it includes the role of the Black Panthers; an odd relationship with a parole officer who took care of Manson’s baby (!); the CIA operations CHAOS, COINTELPRO, and MK-Ultra; doctors connected to the National Institute of Mental Health and desperate government-sponsored LSD and mind control experiments in response to Soviet use of drugs in behavior manipulation; corrupt police and corrupter Bugliosi, who made quite a name for himself from prosecuting the trials and Helter Skelter, which is frequently named as the top true crime book of all time.

And so much more. Where to even begin with this thing.

I’m not sure what to believe, but I have to admit O’Neill’s got the receipts to back up a lot that he alleges happened, or mysteriously went missing, or was lied about. But as many oddities as this highlights and questions as it raises, they mostly all eventually dead-end. Which, you could argue, of course they would because people carefully, thoroughly made sure of it. I do love a good all-the-way-to-the-top story, and this is certainly that. But it leaves you with a lot that’s shocking and strange and ultimately inexplicable.

It’s surprisingly readable despite how much ground it covers, how many people are interviewed, narratives crisscrossed every which way, and so on. Maybe that’s the two-person authorship that eventually led to such thorough organization. It’s entirely compelling, almost too much so — it’s easy to get caught up in. But sometimes you need that — this was immersively distracting during an objectively terrible summer. So it’s a good one to get lost in when you need to be lost.

What’s most convincing is the supporting evidence of what we know for sure, like that the CIA was extremely interested in the possibility of using LSD for mind control and really did conduct multiple experiments on unwitting subjects to try to achieve that. This was coupled with a fervent government desire to stamp out Communism and any threatening left-wing elements as thoroughly as possible, and a pivotal event in doing that would be to symbolically end the 60s by showing how dangerous hippies and their philosophies could actually be. Which is what the Tate-LaBianca murders did. That’s the tip of the iceberg, and it’s a hell of a big iceberg.

It’s definitely one of the smartest, best researched, and least kooky arguments for a wild set of conspiracy theories I’ve ever read. Something nefarious, or multiple things nefarious, were definitely afoot, that much is undeniable whether you buy this thing whole-hog or not.

As uninterested as I am about the 60s counterculture, the way O’Neill ties the significance of the Mansons into the historical moment was fascinating and helped underscore the cultural significance these events hold. The late ’60s were a strange and surreal time on so many fronts.

By then I’d spoken to so many people about this period that it felt at once totally near and completely alien. So many of my sources, even the most reliable, had trouble explaining their feelings and motivations, not just because so much time had passed but because some schism stood between them and the past. It was irreparable—wherever the sixties had come from, they were gone, even in memory.

Chaos is packed with little side stories and bizarre facts. I never knew that Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, a record producer, was so connected to Manson, and was dating Candice Bergen when all this was going on. Candice Bergen was involved! Perhaps better known is the connection of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who picked up two hitchhiking Manson girls and ended up deeply entwined in their lives that summer. Or how about this little gem: “The actor Cary Grant, on the advice of his shrink, took some one hundred LSD trips during their weekly meetings in the late fifties, experiencing a “rebirth” and picturing himself “as a giant penis launching off from Earth like a spaceship.”

I don’t know if I wanted to know that, but now I do. Perhaps that sums up my entire feelings about the book? I don’t even know. It’s hard to summarize this except that it’s a very wild ride and I kind of loved it. 

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties
by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring
published June 25, 2019 by Little, Brown

20 thoughts on “Charles Manson, the CIA, and a Very Different Side of Helter Skelter

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    1. It was the perfect lockdown read, honestly! I much prefer these conspiracies to everything people are coming up with around corona. A guy at my accountant’s office asked me yesterday if I “believed” in the virus. Just go to hell, really.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I made some kind of awkward joke that of course I believe in it, it’s not the tooth fairy and changed the subject. What can you even say to these people? It’s always going to be a losing argument when they’re just making things up!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Woohoo, just reserved this at my local library for 60p. It is curious that this, out of so many books, happens to be available in the deceptively sleepy village library run by octogenarian volunteers….or is it? They would have been in their 20s in the 1960s….what do they know? I see a conspiracy looming..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. See what I mean! It makes you start thinking about things that you shouldn’t! I mean really, he loops in so much crazy stuff that if it was all true would be pretty overwhelming. But if even a little part of it is true, which is what I suspect — the truth of this probably falls somewhere in the middle, it’s crazy enough. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m old enough to have lived during the Manson madness. What made it stick? Certainly not Manson who everyone was repulsed by. It was a combination of the high profile victims, the supposed “nice girls” who were the perpetrators & cult followers and the high profile victims. You’re too young to know how utterly popular and beautiful Sharon Tate was at that time and what a force Roman Polanski was in that era. The murders were gruesome, senseless and plastered across newspapers and television for months. Sharon being 8-months pregnant made it even more tragic. And, most of “Charlie’s girls” came from affluent families.

    But what scared people? The senselessness of it all. People wanted to grasp a reason for the murders that made sense and never could. Sure, there were other senseless crimes that had been perpetrated before but nothing like this. Then the circus that ensued with the trial gave the mess even more energy.

    Because I lived it, I’m not a subscriber to any large scale conspiracy. Manson capitalized on the racial tensions and law enforcement focus on the Black Panthers (who gave the group more power and strategy than they owned). I invite you to research them and it will provide surprising insight (my brother-in-law was loosely connected so granted I’ve got a leg up). Manson was bat-s*** crazy like a fox, a stone cold racist, a career con artist and a criminal.

    Finally, all of this happened in the middle of the “peace and love” mantras. It was most definitely a helter-skelter moment. Bugliosi’ s phrase took hold for a reason…it was the only thing we as a public could handle and embrace to explain the insanity that was Charlie Manson. I cannot adequately express the horror the country felt that there was no good reason why these people were massacred but we never lost the need to find one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All of the things that you mention are part of the story told here, and certainly are the major factors. There are quite a lot of oddities in the investigation, more than I can succinctly summarize. You should give this one a try, with your background or connection to it, I think you’d find it really interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

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