Conspiracy theories have gripped American politics by the throat. As of this writing, more than one American politician on the national level has expressed public belief in the ‘QAnon’ conspiracy theory. What is this you ask? To explain it poorly, an anonymous government employee, posting on reddit and other websites as ‘Q,’ periodically releases “information” claiming that news media, Hollywood and our government are run by power hungry sickos that traffic children and secretly murder their enemies. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, right? Things take a hard right into crazy town with the ‘Q’ community’s belief that Donald Trump is using his status as a LIFELONG MEMBER OF THE VERY SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CLASS THEY CLAIM IS FULL OF SICKOS to bring down the creeps from the inside now that he’s president (lol). He’s teamed up with JFK Jr., who has faked his own death to help Trump out. Are the elites lizard people in disguise? Do they worship the devil and sacrifice people in his name? Why did Hillary Clinton have Jeffrey Epstein murdered?!
Conspiracy theories like this aren’t limited to the right end of the political spectrum. Think Bernie Sanders is a Russian asset? Congrats! You’re likely a center left suburban parent with the brain of an infant. Think Russia’s bot farms on Twitter made so many memes that it cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 presidential election to a game show host? Please, log off and read a book. Preferably one on recent American history. It might enlighten you.
Americans live in a culture of conspiracy. ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracies rot the brains of our parents and grandparents on Facebook, young reactionaries see the specter of Socialism over the shoulder of any call for social change. It’s infected our politics, our history, the very movies and TV shows we watch. The X-Files ran for like eleven seasons. The assassination of president Kennedy got a three-and-a-half-hour treatment by Oliver goddamn Stone. Chinatown, by far the best thing both Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski have ever been involved in, is based around a conspiracy to steal water and hide an act of incest in a high powered family, in that exact order. It also has the benefit of being made by an ACTUAL Hollywood sicko (Polanski), the murder of whose wife is intimately tied to the book at the heart of this review.
Before we can discuss the actual book, the question must be asked, why do we as Americans put so much stake in conspiracies? Why do people still discuss the reasons for JFK’s assassination in 2020 or fire off guns in crowded pizza shops looking for trafficked children? Maybe we’re bored. Maybe we feel powerless as we watch the world go to hell around us and reach for anything that puts any narrative structure to this meat grinder of a society. Maybe we lost our friends and family to the internet, or our bad politics, and need to feel RIGHT about something. Unequivocally, righteously, black-and white correct about something in our lives.
These feelings might play a part, but I think Americans love conspiracy theories because our government has a long and storied history of engaging in conspiracies. We see evidence of it all the time, and we’re trained to expect shady actions from our government that never see true justice. Writing about each of these conspiracies at length would need its own blog and potentially lead to SWAT teams barreling through my front door during my mid-morning snack. Instead, Google any of these myriad search terms. The events they bring to light are completely historically accurate:
- The Tuskegee Experiment
- Iran-Contra Affair
- The Bay of Pigs
- Guatemala, 1954
- El Salvador, 1979
- Chile, 1973
- The School of the Americas
- My Lai
- Sidney Gottlieb
- Operation CHAOS
Each and every one of these search terms will lead you to verified, historical evidence of the American government engaging in less than legal activities, ranging from drugging its own citizens to wartime massacres of civilians, that it then tried to cover up. Most of the above incidents happened during the height of the Cold War, where the ruling foreign and domestic policy was ‘step on the rights of as many people as we need to in order to stop the Reds.’ This led to the FBI spying on writers and artists, a purge of homosexuals from government service in D.C., the infiltration and destruction of groups like the Black Panthers. Today’s book takes that mindset and applies it to the granddaddy of modern day True Crime: the Charles Manson killings. It refutes the idea put forth in Manson prosecutor turned author Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter that Manson was a drugged-out Hippie who manipulated teen runaways using LSD and 60’s ‘flower child’ philosophy to murder a house full of Hollywood elites. The Tate-LaBianca Murders signaled for many the death knell of Hippie idealism, but what if the Cold War paranoia at the heart of American culture during this decade played a potentially massive role in this tragedy? This is the thread journalist Tom O’Neil seeks to unravel, in the process shaking the very foundation of the True Crime genre to its core. This is Chaos: Charles Manson, The CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.
Any conspiracy film you watch, from The Manchurian Candidate to Blow Out to Zodiak begins with the protagonist finding a single strand of a conspiracy that goes against their traditional view of the world. They tug on that string, tease out more and more parts of it until a grander, more malevolent scheme is unearthed. Maybe the world as you know it is an illusion created by robots (The Matrix), or a shadowy company is using brainwashing techniques to create government assassins (The Parallax View). For Tom O’Neil, this happens when he is tasked with the writing of an article for Premiere magazine on the Manson family killings 30 years after the fact. What starts out as little more than a glorified puff piece becomes something that is somehow much weirder considering Charles Manson is your base line.
What begins with the author’s discovering of inconsistencies regarding the prosecution of the Family leads to a deeper investigation that reads beat for beat like a conspiracy movie. A sudden furious outburst by the famously litigious Bugliosi during an interview leads O’Neil to start asking questions and hunting down documents in long forgotten archives. As interviews and evidence pile up, figures tied to the case, but forgotten by time begin to reveal secrets largely unknown to those outside direct involvement with the case. Why was Charles Manson, a federal parolee, picked up by police multiple times on theft and weapons charges, but always released? Bugliosi portrays Manson as a failed, bitter musician and social outsider, but why do interviewees specifically mention Mason at Hollywood parties handing out female followers as party favors? In true conspiracy thriller fashion, O’Neil takes these threads and expands on them to the point that they derail his entire life. He keeps hunting down interviews and documents as deadline after deadline passes. After Premiere magazine folds, O’Neil stubbornly sticks to his research, because something is THERE dammit! Along the way, O’Neil is warded off by some interviewees, threatened by others and blown off by most. Are these people trying to distance themselves from one of American history’s most violent cultural shocks? OR are they hiding something deeper? O’Neil’s reporting eventually yields sightings of shadowy government agents infiltrating Hippie groups, corrupt policing in the Bay Area, etc., etc.. The most fascinating insights of the book are some tenuous links to the CIA and it’s 100% verifiably real MKULTRA project, wherein scientists in the agency’s employ experimented with mind control through substances like LSD. This including unintentionally drugging American citizens, because truly we are all just ants under the boot of American empire. The big reveal of the book revolves around a free medical clinic in San Francisco staffed by doctors with direct ties to the CIA. It is known Manson was here regularly with his Family during the ‘Summer of Love (1967)’ and it is convincingly presented that it was here where Manson started to learn how to use LSD on his followers. Thus combining his already raging messiah complex with the tools needed to get others to commit violence. This gels suspiciously well with the fact that right around this time the CIA was also instituting Operation CHAOS, another 100% real initiative by the government to infiltrate and sabotage left leaning protest organizations like the Black Panthers and student activism groups. If law enforcement agencies could infiltrate the Black Panthers, why wouldn’t they be able to help turn Manson from convict to cult leader and unleash him on a movement that riled up the youth and threatened American social order?
Sadly, this book follows the typical beat of conspiracy movies to the letter, unsatisfying conclusion and all. Rarely do such movies end positively. Warren Beatty’s character is murdered at the end of The Parallax View. Andrew Garfield’s character in Under the Silver Lake solves his mystery, but is threatened into silence by a shadowy organization of uber-wealthy men. Charlie Day’s obsessive search for ‘Pepe Silvia’ in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia comes to naught, as his vast corkboard of rubber bands and sticky notes is less evidence of a conspiracy and more evidence of light nicotine poisoning. Through this book’s twenty-year timeline of obsession and left turns, an impressive amount of evidence is stacked up, but no ‘smoking gun’ is every found. O’Neil himself admits to the possibility that any such evidence linking the CIA to Charles Manson may have been destroyed long ago, if it ever existed in the first place. This book is an absolutely gripping read, but as with all conspiracy theories, the lack of a true reckoning leaves the taste of ash in your mouth.
Quote of the Story:
“Always willing to play the madman, he (Manson) slipped too easily into our understanding of the criminal mastermind. In that rictus of his, those glinting eyes, the X carved into his forehead, we’re supposed to recognize what Bugliosi famously called ‘a metaphor for evil.’ But the full extent of that evil isn’t what we know about Manson. It’s in what we don’t know. That’s what kept me going all these years, even when I was broke, even when people said I was crazy, even when I had death threats lobbed at me.” –Tom O’Neil
Keep or Donate?:
This book differs from many non-fiction work about “conspiracies” in that it’s both well researched and well-written. Even if you aren’t actually convinced by his argument, his writing is compelling and it brings a fresh look to historical ground that has been extremely well trod. If this era of American history is interesting to you, or you’re just a fan of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, for sure read this book. I’m not sure anyone but the most die-hard true crime fans would keep it on their shelves forever, it’s more the kind of book you pass off to potential fellow travelers in your friend group.
P.S.: When I started writing this post Ghislaine Maxwell hadn’t been caught yet. Now that she’s in federal custody, this book should serve as an illustration about the role wealth and power plays in protecting whatever social order it deems in need of protecting. Secretly propping up unsavory characters for the ‘greater good’ is something our government has 100% done since at least the 1960’s. There’s no good reason to think they’ve ever