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Mind-blowing (but not in the CIA MKUltra kind of way)...

Cover of Chaos: Charles Manson, the
A review of Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O'Neill and Dan Piepenbring

I placed a hold on O'Neill's tome because of a mention in a podcast - one that was discussing Charles Manson as relates to the new Quentin Tarantino movie (if I remember correctly). So really I ordered it on a whim and wasn't even sure I'd read it when it came in and seemed so hefty. Over a long weekend I decided to dip into it, or at least look at the included pictures. I was not seen again by anyone for the next two days as I was immediately sucked into the what if's and maybes and possibles.

O'Neill began his research into Charles Manson and the Manson Family murders twenty years ago when he was assigned to write an article by Premiere magazine (which ceased publication almost ten years ago!). At the time it was the 30-year anniversary of the murders and the movie magazine wanted O'Neill to talk with some of the Hollywood luminaries who had been around at the time to see how the violence had affected them in the intervening years. What he ran into was a solid wall of no. No one wanted to talk about it and that made him more curious. In his work with Hollywood denizens he'd found they were always willing to talk about dramatic things and how it had affected them. But with this? Not a peep. That roadblock sent him into a deeper dive in his research and what he found were more questions than answers. And that sent him on a quest that became an obsession more than anything else and eventually spanned 20 years and over 1000 interviews. Chaos is both a deeply researched book about one of the biggest legal cases in US history and a memoir of one man's obsession with that case.

Along the way, on his quest for truth, O'Neill delves into the connected Hollywood world that Manson inhabited (he and the Family spent a year living with a Beach Boy!), the ways in which Vincent Bugliosi and other legal powers-that-be manipulated public perception and the law to win at trial, how the LAPD and the FBI may have been able to stop Manson but didn't (why?), the CIA's drive to best the Russians in finding ways for mind-control including with experiments with LSD and other drugs (totally true) and more. Can you see why this might be fascinating?

Ultimately, O'Neill's account is both intriguing and just a bit unsatisfying for all that. O'Neill is honest in that he cannot prove the things he thinks to be true and by book's end I did feel a little let down that none of the theories is shown to be the one. But when you're looking at a crime that happened 50 years ago, that there isn't a hard and fast answer is about the truest thing anyone could actually say.

Oct 7, 2019