CHAOS cover and author Tom O'Neill

Review: a true crime megafan tears into a new book on the Manson murders

Jean Sergent is left bemused and beaten-down by CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, a book that sucked up two decades of the author’s life. 

As the resident murderino on The Spinoff’s guest roster, I’m the natural choice to review this new book on the Manson murders. Timed for publication in the 50th anniversary year of the Tate Labianca murders this month, I’m guessing this book will be selling pretty well when it comes to figuring out what to get your nephew for Christmas.

Spoiler warning: I hated it.

American journalist Tom O’Neill claims to have unearthed shocking new documentation about the murders. He has spent 20 years on a dogged labour of obsession, making friends in weird places and then turning those friends into enemies. He has definitely found evidence to support the facts that the 60s were a crazy time, and that Hollywood is a twisted nightmare. But his central claims? A bit too fishy for my palate.

O’Neill’s central theory goes something like this: the motive for the murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent, Leno Labianca, and Rosemary Labianca could not have just been that a cult with a charismatic psychopath leader wanted to incite a race war. It’s much more likely to O’Neill that at least some of the victims were targeted for more specific reasons.

Jay Sebring, according to O’Neill according to a barber called Joe, was connected to the mob. Wojciech Frykowski and Tate’s husband, the filmmaker Roman Polanski, were Polish spies – again, according to O’Neill, as told to him by a very angry man called Doyle. Let’s follow these threads to their logical conclusion: the mafia and the CIA had a chat about how they didn’t like three people who didn’t live together, and asked a cult leader if he could arrange it so they could be offed while they were all at a party together.

Yes, my head is spinning as well, and we’re only a fifth of the way through the book.

Charles Manson: cult leader, charismatic psychopath… and CIA dogsbody??

This all stinks of victim-blaming to me. Lots of people with a passing knowledge of the case will pause over the choice of victims and locations. The house on Cielo Drive where Tate was living when she was killed was owned by someone else. She and Polanski were renting it short-term. The owner, however, did have a connection to the Manson family, so maybe he was the intended victim? That seems kind of likely, right? More likely, anyway, than the idea that Tate and her unborn child were brutally murdered because her husband – a Holocaust survivor – was a spy “subverting American democracy with his decadent films”.

The book goes on – and on, and on – to dredge up and chronicle all the famous and not-so-famous connections that the Manson family allegedly had in Hollywood. Denise Wilson, Candice Bergen, blah blah blah blah blah. There are letters and police documents that O’Neill comes across that for the author seem like groundbreaking new evidence. But evidence of what?

“I just don’t see where this all leads,” says former senator Arlen Specter, almost 400 pages in. I have to agree with him. I’m confused and unconvinced. What have I been reading?

The title, CHAOS, comes from the CIA operation of the late 60s and early 70s. CHAOS was looking for links between foreign influence and American domestic anti-war movements. Okay, so, no link there then. The equally far-fetched theory that the Manson family was a COINTELPRO (FBI counter intelligence) cell is also given a moment or dozen in the book, but even O’Neill seems to conclude that that’s a pointless path to follow.

So what exactly is he arguing? As I approach the end of the book – and on page 397 he’s still outlining his methodology – I’m starting to believe that he doesn’t really know. Maybe this is the true tragedy of the book: how a man misspends 20 years of his life to uncover a 50-year-old mystery that it turns out wasn’t a mystery at all.

Why do young people fall in with violent sociopaths who give them free drugs and somewhere to live? Doesn’t that question answer itself?

The Manson Industrial Complex strikes again in this arduous, repetitive, artless, and entirely uncompelling tome. Long may we forget.

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, by Tom O’Neill (William Heinemann, $40) is available at Unity Books. 

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