As we creep towards the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders (just a month away, thrill seekers!), you can expect the media machine to crank into overtime. Arguably the most famous murder case ever (if we discount political assassination), the Manson story has everything needed to keep a sensation-hungry public satisfied. Celebrity, weird cults, rock music and the Sixties counterculture collide in this creepy-crawly case, and thanks to the efforts of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, everyone knows the story of how cult guru Charles Manson was inspired by the Beatles’ White Album to try to kickstart ‘Helter Skelter’, a race war that would see him become ruler of the world, by committing a series of murders and trying to pass them blame onto black militants. Super crazy shit.
So crazy, of course, that it’s complete nonsense. While journalists and writers have taken this story as read for decades, and Manson family members wanting parole have fallen in line with the story (because rocking the boat is definitely not the way to get out of jail), anyone who has bothered to study the case in any sort of depth knows that the story is nonsense, a convenient psycho-drama that Bugliosi spun to emphasise just how crazy Charlie was (though not crazy enough to be legally insane, of course) and how controlled his followers were (but not controlled enough to not be responsible for their actions, of course). It’s either tribute to Bugliosi’s talents (and the popularity of his egomaniacal book Helter Skelter) or an indictment of the laziness of the press that the story is still trotted out.
The truth of the Manson case is almost certainly less sensational, less crazy. There are all sorts of alternative theories, and the most likely one seems to be that the killings were somehow drug related. At least two of the victims were involved in drug dealing, and made enemies along the way. It’s not hard to imagine that these enemies could manipulate, or simply pay Manson to send his troops out to kill. Or that Manson was directly involved in a drug burn and took revenge. Of course, that’s working on the assumption that Manson actually did order the killings, and the evidence for that is a lot thinner than most people have been led to believe as well. And then there’s the Gary Hinman question. Family associate Bobby Beausoleil had been arrested for the killing just before the Tate-La Bianca murders, and there’s no question that there was a concerted effort by the murderers in those two cases to connect the crimes to the Hinman murder. Beausoleil, or possibly Susan Atkins, had written ‘Political Piggy’ on the wall of Hinman’s apartment in his blood (itself perhaps an effort to divert attention onto the Black Panthers); similar slogans (including ‘Healter (sic) Skelter’) were left at the scenes of the Tate and La Bianca killings, in the hope of convincing the authorities that Beausoloeil could not be their man after all. But was all that done because Manson ordered it? Or did his Family members act of their own accord? But we know Manson was at the La Bianca house, even though he left before the slaughter began, so surely he was in control? And how random were these crimes? Manson was familiar with the house on Cielo Drive where Sharon Tate lived. he’d been there. Terry Melcher, the record producer son of Doris Day who had recorded Manson’s music, had until recently lived there. Perhaps the murders were mistaken identity in revenge at Charlie not getting a recording contract. But Charlie knew Melcher no longer lived at the house, so that makes no sense. And what about the La Bianca’s? Rumours of their involvement in drug dealing won’t go away.
As the above paragraph, with all its convoluted contradictions, shows, the Manson case is as slippery as an eel once you start looking into it, and the only thing we can ever know is that the official story is just too glib to hold water. The Manson story is the sort of bottomless rabbit hole that you can easily find yourself falling down, and that’s exactly what happened to author Tom O’Neill, who took an assignment from Premiere magazine in 1999 to write an article for the thirtieth anniversary of the case, and found himself caught up in a twenty year investigation instead. His new book, Chaos, is subtitled Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, and it really is as vast an exploration as that makes it sound. Like many people, O’Neill found that every question just led to more questions, but in his case, it involved interviewing dozens of people, digging through court transcripts and long buried paperwork, and slipping off into some strange areas of conspiracy theory and cover up for two decades.
I’m always suspicious of conspiracy theory when it comes to famous crimes. Why should these cases, rather than obscure murders that are long forgotten, be the ones where the CIA (it’s always the CIA in these theories, admittedly because it always was the CIA in these cases) is either directly responsible, or pulling strings, or simply covering the tracks for some nefarious reason. In that sense, though, the blurb for O’Neill’s book does it a slight disservice, as there is no real suggestion that Manson was a secret CIA operative, or a patsy who was framed for a CIA-led assassination. There is, however, the hint of mid-control and MKULTRA connections to Manson, which isn’t quite as outlandish as you might immediately think, given what we already know about their experiments with LSD, mind control, and beyond at exactly the time and place that Manson was gathering his Family of drop outs and misfits together. At the very least, O’Neill suggests, Manson might have picked up on these techniques, as he certainly seemed to use LSD as a way of breaking down and reprogramming Family members, so that they could leave their bourgeois pasts behind.
O’Neill’s book – and I doubt he’ll thank me for saying this – reminded me a lot of Maury Terry’s astonishing, infamous The Ultimate Evil, which connects the Son of Sam to a grand Satanic conspiracy. Like that book – and to be fair, like many an investigative book – Chaos is as much about the author as it is Manson, as he falls deeper and deeper into the investigation and tries to track down witnesses, battles the defensive and appalling Bugliosi and faces threats of lawsuits and violence from reluctant interviewees. Like Terry’s book, Chaos offers a compelling argument that what we think we know about this case is not the truth (admittedly, in this situation, much of this was already clear) before it goes off into a sketchier world of conspiracy. O’Neill keeps his work a lot more grounded though – for a start, he is constantly aware that he is entering the tinfoil hat land, and once he’s there, he remains careful not to make assumptions. His coverage of CIA operatives, shady probation decisions and mind control experiments comes close to going off the deep end, but ultimately it remains both relevant (even the diversion into the JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald assassinations) and plausible. And unlike Terry, he’s never pompous enough to declare that he has solved anything. In fact, there’s a slightly anti-climatic sense after reading the book because although there are all manner of theories and ideas explored in detail, O’Neill readily admits that he still doesn’t know what the truth is – only that it isn’t what we’ve been told.
There’s a refreshing honesty about this, and O’Neill’s book is never less than compelling reading. His encounters with Terry Melcher and Bugliosi are both hilarious and terrifying, and his frustration at police officers and politicians (who he won’t call corrupt but I will) and a Hollywood establishment that continues to close ranks even now all makes for fascinating reading. The mere fact that a book about Manson could offer anything fresh is… well, refreshing. And that’s as much because Manson is often a peripheral figure in this story, as it frequently goes in other directions. This is more a detective story, the tale of journalistic investigation becoming obsession and a look at the deranged world of the late 1960s where everything – even the world of science and espionage – seemed to be caught in a particularly bad acid trip, as it is about Manson. And that’s what keeps it fascinating, even where it gets densely caught in stories that will ultimately go nowhere (like the tale of the secretive Reeve Whitson). I ploughed through the 442 pages (plus sixty one pages of notes) in a day, and I’ve struggled to finish the two previous recently published books about the case.
There are two things clear in this case, beyond the fact that Helter Skelter is a red herring. One is that some very weird shit was going down in the 1960s, and Manson was in the middle of it all, as both ringmaster and bystander. The other is that huge swathes of Hollywood celebrity knew, and still know, a lot more than they are telling about the case. Some of those people are now dead, but those living are still not talking about what was really going in in Cielo Drive leading up to the killings, or just how far Manson’s tentacles spread into the world of the Hollywood elite. Everyone, it seems, wants to keep the truth hidden.
As everyone involved slowly dies off (many of those interviewed in this book died before it was published) and the distance between true memory and false recollection, fact and self-delusion becomes ever more blurred, the only chance of even getting close to the actual truth of the Manson case will be if the Los Angeles authorities give up the files and the tape recordings that they are guarding jealously. There seems little chance of that happening (and you have to ask just why that is), and so the Manson myth – spread by people with a vested interest in seeing this story remain the unquestioned truth – will continue, with movies, books and documentaries offering up variations on the same story. After all, Manson the crazy Helter Skelterin’ Svengali looking to start a war between black and white is a lot more exciting that any of the alternatives.