An excellent book about a journalist pursing some of the shadowiest parts of American history with professionalism, integrity, and a die-hard refusal to become a conspiracy theorist.
Few definitive answers emerge from Tom O’Neill’s CHAOS.
In many ways, in fact, the book leaves you with only more questions. The questions that “CHAOS” leaves behind, however, are far better-informed, and far more interesting, than the false answers provided by the standard “crazy hippie cult” story that has, almost since day one, passed as the accepted narrative of the Manson Family and the Tate-Labianca murders of 1969.
This is not to say that that murderers were not crazy, not hippies, and not a cult, of course, but rather to say that the true story is far more interesting and complex than that.
O’Neill’s book is titled after the covert C.I.A. program named Operation CHAOS. Like the FBI’s COINTELPRO, CHAOS was implemented to undermine the 1960s counterculture.
The creation of both operations was inspired, supposedly, by the threat of Soviet influence over American society. According to this assertion, the Russians funded and influenced certain factions of the ’60s counterculture in order to destabilize the nation.
I’m tempted to go into my thoughts on that argument here, but it’s not really pertinent to this review, so I shall resist and perhaps write more on that topic at another time. Suffice it to say, the character of these operations, in my opinion, anyway, lies largely in whether or not the claims of Soviet influence were or were not true.
I’m not qualified to answer that question, either way.
The gist of O’Neill’s book will be new to most of the popular reading public, but it’s not really original at all.
There have been whispers for years about the gaping holes in the mainstream narrative of the Manson story, as well as the seeming connections between Manson’s brainwashing methods and those employed by the the C.I.A. mind-control program named MK Ultra.
Where O’Neill does invaluable, unique work is in finding documentation and witnesses to solidify these links more than anyone ever has (to my knowledge). He also brings specific names to the surface, tying prominent and secretive figures alike to locations that played a key part in the evolution of Manson from common prison rat to charismatic cult leader.
I don’t want to spoil this most excellent work of investigative journalism, so I’m intent on keeping details thin.
What I will say is that O’Neill has gone further than anyone ever has (again to my knowledge) in establishing a clear line of objective evidence to support the hypothesis that Manson and his family were MK Ultra research projects gone haywire.
O’Neill started to investigate this story on assignment from Premier magazine in 1999.
His previous writing career was primarily in celebrity journalism. He interviewed the likes of Tom Cruise, if that gives any indication to his credentials in that area.
So, hewent into this story without knowing much at all about the Manson murders and with no “conspiracy theory” background at all. If I have one complaint about the book, in fact, it’s O’Neill’s continued insistence that he is not a conspiracy theorist.
On one level that compulsion served him well, because it inspired him to find minutia and documentation and firsthand witness accounts to validate everything he claimed. This is, of course, admirable, solid journalism. He works very hard to keep everything he says credible and supported by evidence. I understand and admire that.
Still, the wholesale ridicule and condemnation of “conspiracy theorists” has always bugged me. There were people talking for years about Jeffrey Epstein’s Lolita Express, for instance.
They were called crackpots and nutters. Today, the news is all over the headlines and the mainstream press and audience are “shocked.” Funny thing about those conspiracy theorists…they turn out right more often than you’d like to think.
Anyway, I digress.
O’Neill set out to find a new angle on an old story. That's all. He had no broader suspicions whatsoever.
Yet, what started out as a 5,000 word piece for a magazine soon ballooned into much, much more, as clue after clue led him deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole.
His personal story in researching the story acts as a backdrop for the research itself. Some may not enjoy this, but I did. I also think it will make the creation of this book potential material for a movie someday. I hope it does, because O’Neill sacrificed a great deal over the course of 20 years spent researching this book.
The journalist went into massive debt chasing a story that may very well have led nowhere. He tested the limits of his own mental capacity in picking up the loose threads of a story that happened 50 years ago. The officials involved seemingly wanted to silence it then and they wanted to keep it silenced now.
Through threat, rejection, and one dead end after another, O’Neill stuck with it to the end. For that, I came away from this book with a great deal of respect for the man.
Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer who prosecuted Manson and who wrote Helter Skelter, which established the mainstream version of the Tate-Labianca narrative, plays the role of antagonist in this book. He was one of O’Neill’s primary interviewees. Early in their relationship, he set O’Neill off on his research by suggesting that Roman Polanski had forced his wife Sharon Tate to have sex with two men on camera.
The two rather quickly became enemies, however, as O’Neill began to unearth evidence that Bugliosi was less than honest and less than ethical in his court proceedings, his book, and the countless interviews he gave over the years following the murders.
Again, I have no inclination to give spoilers here. O’Neill put way too much into this book for me to steal that information here. I will just say that one of the most shocking, convincing parts of this book is the evidence O’Neill brings against Bugliosi, which is, of course, evidence brought against the entire Helter Skelter narrative.
It’s hard to say much else about this book without spoiling it. I’m very tempted to do so because this book is utterly fascinating and important. I’m not fond of calling books “important.” It always strikes me as pompous and pretentious. In this case, though, it’s hard to avoid that adjective.
This book is about so much more than the Manson case. It’s about the dangers of intelligence agencies operation without proper oversight. It’s about the shadowy parts of a decade that reshaped American culture and continues to influence us to this day. It’s about how easy it can actually be to manipulate history with a false narrative, if you have a big enough microphone and enough powerful people willing to play along.
On top of all that, it’s just endlessly goddamn entertaining and interesting. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Buy it. Get it from the library. Borrow it. Whatever.
If you have even an inkling of interest in this subject matter, CHAOS is a must-read.
The title of this piece, which I fully intended to be mysterious and engagingly aloof (gotcha!) refers to the death of Tusko the elephant, an incident covered in O’Neill’s book.
NOTE: Upon finishing this, I realized O’Neill (or someone representing O’Neill) posted some of his material here on Medium.