“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.” Joan Didion on the Sharon Tate murder
With all the Summer of Love reminiscing in the media, I joined in and read Tom O’Neill’s new book, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. Let me start by saying, this is not a bunch of conspiracy theories, and O’Neill is quite adamant about that. In fact, Rolling Stone writes, “It’s hard to explain Tom O’Neill’s new book Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties without sounding like a conspiracy theorist down a rabbit hole.” The story begins in 1999 when O’Neill is commissioned to write an article on the 30th anniversary of the murder of Sharon Tate and others by Manson and the “Family.” He initially thinks everything has already been said, but ends up researching this book for the next 20 years. He interviews many of the players around this sensational murder case. Some of the people were still scared to talk, some were defensive, but some were eager to get some things off their chests. Many were willing to confide misgivings about the official story of these murders, Manson and his followers. This is a well researched book of 436 pages and then an additional 67 pages of notes. O’Neill is forthcoming about not having a smoking gun and a new story. He writes, “My goal isn’t to say what did happen- it’s to prove that the official story didn’t.”
For many of us, the official story is the book Helter Skelter written by the chief prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. I clearly remember holding the paperback in my hands reading it with chills running down my back. Who doesn’t? O’Neill is able to get a treasure trove of all kinds documents through the Freedom of Information Act. He documents who perjured themselves in the investigation and during the trial. He documents cover-ups by the LAPD and the DA office. He writes of aspects of Manson’s life that was not thought relevant at the time, like the year and half Manson spent in Haight Ashbury which put him in contact with undercover CIA agents doing research (the project is MKULTRA) on using LSD as a mind-controlling and mind- altering technique. The US learned in the early 1950s that Russia was working on mind-controlling techniques using drugs and hypnosis which was deemed important in case one of their spies was captured by the US. So the US began experimenting with LSD, sleep deprivation and hypnosis too. The CIA recruited doctors and psychiatrists as undercover agents to work on these experiments.
During the 1960s, the question becomes how to experiment with humans to see if people can be programmed against their will and knowledge. It’s documented that the CIA experimented with military personnel, civilians and mentally ill patients without their knowledge. Sounds kind of like the Tuskegee Airmen being injected with STDs by the government without their knowing, doesn’t it? Of course, the other question is how did Manson turn a bunch of free-love teenage girls into killer robots? How is he able to override their innate sense of self to totally control them? O’Neill is never able to find the direct link between the CIA experiments and Manson’s actions, but the circles certainly overlap in Haight Ashbury in 1967-8. Again, Rolling Stone writes, “What explains the similarities between government funded, LSD-fueled mind-control experiments, and Manson’s techniques? And why were there so many people in his orbit who seemed to have ties to the CIA?”
Is it a lot? Yes, definitely, and there’s tons I have not mentioned here. Truth is, I couldn’t put this book down. I am fascinated by the information presented, and the questions left unanswered. If you are looking for a meaty book that makes you ponder, this could be it.