“You’re Not Gonna Like This”: The Manson Family Conspiracy in Tom O’Neill’s ‘Chaos’

Michael Grasso / October 2, 2019

chaos oneillChaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties
By Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring
Little, Brown and Company, 2019

“You know, I just didn’t think there were such real people. There were people with beards and we smoked grass. And like I never had been involved with dope—with what you call dope—except when I got out I took some LSD, which enlightened my awareness. But mainly it was the people. It was the young people walking up and down the street trading shirts with each other and throwing flowers and being happy and I just fell in love. I love everything.”

—Charles Manson, post-arrest interview with occult underground newspaper Tuesday’s Child, 1969

“You’re not gonna like this,” I wrote to my agent, pausing before I typed the next line: “but I think the JFK assassination is involved.” I paused again. “And the CIA’s mind-control experiments.” 

I rewrote it a bunch of different ways, trying to make myself sound less insane, but when I hit send, I still wished right away that I hadn’t.

—Tom O’Neill, Chaos, Chapter 11

As the dog days of the summer of 2019 slowly turn to autumn, our collective fiftieth anniversary remembrances of the events of that turbulent summer of 1969—the Moon landing, Chappaquiddick, Woodstock, the Tate/LaBianca murders—also begin to fade. The pop culture universe has been inundated with uncanny recreations of that fateful summer: real-time rebroadcasts of the Apollo 11 mission streaming on our futuristic smartphones sit squarely next to fairy tale cinematic recreations of 1969 Los Angeles projected on movie screens across the world. But among all the Charles Manson-related media of summer 2019, one book stands above them all: an investigation into the Manson murders, originally intended for the events’ thirtieth anniversary at the turn of the millennium, only now finding release after twenty years of investigational twists and turns that alone would make Tom O’Neill’s Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties a compelling read. O’Neill’s account of his two decades in a wilderness of conspiracies related to the Manson Family ultimately suggests some of the blame falls at the feet of a Cold War American intelligence/law enforcement/academic complex deeply compromised by its commitment to beating the Soviets at all costs. Having given power and responsibility to a group of functionaries who would be considered war criminals in any sane society, our federal government sought to destroy what it considered a dangerous vanguard youth counterculture at all costs, no matter who was irreparably harmed—or killed—along the way.

Chaos began as a bog-standard magazine piece intending to take a look back at the legacy of the Manson murders in Hollywood, thirty years later, for the now-defunct Premiere. Manson’s tenuous connections with Hollywood royalty would have been somewhat common knowledge circa 1999, especially his time hanging out and writing songs with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. O’Neill admittedly came into the assignment with no more or less knowledge of the Manson Family than anyone of his late Baby Boomer vintage. He starts at the most logical place—Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book about the case, Helter Skelter. Beginning with the then-accepted and authoritative take on the case is ironic, as over the course of O’Neill’s research, Bugliosi would go from a friendly contact to an ambiguous, secretive authority figure to full-on bête noire lobbing threats of lawsuits and personal and financial ruin at O’Neill. (O’Neill’s decision to begin his book with an abortive interview with Bugliosi in 2006, in order to show the reader how seemingly unhinged a few years of interviews and hectoring from O’Neill had made him, is a little piece of genius.)

Most of the early book focuses on O’Neill’s familiarizing himself with the events immediately preceding and following the Manson Family’s murder of five at 10050 Cielo Drive; for Manson aficionados, a lot of this information will be old hat. But inconsistencies in Bugliosi’s “authoritative” record, both at trial and in his book, soon emerge. Between Bugliosi’s evasiveness and the evidence in the documentary record at the DA’s office and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office (LASO), inconsistencies begin to suggest that there was some level of cover-up that occurred during the Manson trial. O’Neill suspects that Bugliosi helped cover up Hollywood scion Terry Melcher‘s level of involvement with the Manson cult. Mysterious figures, rumored to be involved with international drug traffickers and even U.S. Intelligence, appear at the periphery of the social circle at Cielo Drive, suggesting that Roman Polanski and his friends Voytek Frykowski and hairdresser-to-the-stars Jay Sebring had some pretty heavy friends. As O’Neill’s investigation stretches into the year 2000, his deadline for the Premiere piece receding into the distance, he finds himself deep in the LASO’s records that, combined with a few crucial interviews with Sheriff’s Office personnel, convinced him that Manson and the Family were valuable intelligence assets to the LASO: informants. “We were told not to bother those people,” former LASO detective Preston Guillory tells O’Neill. But it’s this revelation paired with hints of intelligence involvement that lead O’Neill to wonder if the Family, much like the Black Panthers in Los Angeles and other radical groups in the late 1960s, was being used, surveilled, infiltrated, and/or allowed to operate in order to catch bigger fish for the federal government’s war on the political Left at the height of protest against both the war in Southeast Asia and the American establishment at large. And it’s here where Chaos really fulfills its promise as a new and groundbreaking piece of journalism on both Charles Manson and Cold War America’s betrayal of its citizenry.

With his deeper dive into both FBI’s COINTELPRO and the CIA’s illegal domestic counterintelligence op CHAOS, O’Neill finds links between the CIA, FBI, LAPD officers, paramilitary activities in Southeast Asia, and cutting-edge scientific and psychological research stateside. In Vietnam, American forces used both computer technology and good old-fashioned psychological warfare in the Phoenix Program to try to win “hearts and minds” back from the Viet Cong through both targeted assassinations and staging atrocities and blaming them on North Vietnam. LAPD officer William Herrmann openly admitted in interviews in the early 1970s that the goal of the U.S. government among student and minority activist groups was “forestalling revolution in America” by using Phoenix-style psy-ops on the home front, predictive computer modeling, and electronic surveillance. So where does Manson and the Family fit into this labyrinth of mirrors? Manson’s notorious racism and hatred and fear of the Black Panthers was certainly a factor. Even if the overarching theory of “Helter Skelter,” which O’Neill avers was merely a convenient hook for Bugliosi to hang his motive on, was not literally a motive for the rank and file Family members. Manson’s having made imaginary Panthers his nemesis would make him a friend of the FBI and law enforcement, or least an “enemy of their enemy.”

Given that Manson had an explicit “hands-off” from the LASO and law enforcement in general, and given that there had been vast omissions from the official story of the Manson Family’s murders, O’Neill decided to see if this law enforcement “leniency” extended backwards through Manson’s years before he came to Southern California. The answer was an unqualified yes. In his year-plus in Northern California after being released from prison, Manson fell in with the hippies during the famous Summer of Love. Having spent his many years in prison “improving” himself by taking Scientology courses and reading American classics of “self-selling” such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, he was released into a social environment that was exceedingly receptive to the predations of wanna-be gurus. At the same time that Manson began assembling the Family in the Bay Area among both youth refugees with flowers in their hair and other forgotten and isolated types, the U.S. government was well-aware of the locale’s nature as a hotbed of “anti-American” student and youth revolt. And they were armed with more than flowers and peace signs: they had on their side the tools of science, psychological warfare, and the ruthlessness that came natural to the Cold War military-intelligence establishment.

Manson’s “friendly fed” in Northern California was a man named Roger Smith, an academic studying the effects of narcotics, especially amphetamines, on anti-social behavior. He was also a parole officer, and seemingly his only client was Charles Manson, post-release from prison, who gave special attention and care to Manson and his rapidly-growing Family in ’67 and ’68. Smith was a clean-cut authority figure who’d found himself a home on the outskirts of the hippie demi-monde, all the while conducting experiments and anthropological observations for his own research purposes under the auspices of a federal program under the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) titled “The San Francisco Project.” Manson’s own writings indicate that Smith had a powerful hold on him; all the while, Smith was encouraging Manson to throw himself into the hippie lifestyle and embrace all its fruits, including women and drugs. The two shared a love of Robert Heinlein’s counterculture classic Stranger in a Strange Land, with Manson even naming his son Valentine after Heinlein’s main character. One particular event, in Ukiah, California (coincidentally at the time also home to Jim Jones‘s Peoples Temple before their own move to San Francisco proper in the 1970s), where Manson’s girls entrapped and drugged a group of underage boys, including the son of a Mendocino County deputy sheriff, shows that Smith was regularly able to help both Manson and the Family avoid probation violations on serious charges. Smith even tried to get Manson permission to travel to Mexico—an undeniable parole violation on several levels—to do research for Smith on drug trafficking for one of Smith’s research papers. This request was a bridge too far for the parole authorities.

Smith is indicative of the government’s interest in Bay Area counterculture and its ability to bridge gaps between law enforcement and the medical/psychological/academic community, as well as individuals living on the boundaries between both. Another center for this contact was the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic (HAFMC), well-known to the dropouts in San Francisco and the Haight as a source for free medical treatment in a milieu rampant with malnutrition, sexually-transmitted illnesses, and unwanted pregnancies. Founded by yet another young, strait-laced academic seduced by the hippie world, David Smith, the HAFMC was a major hangout for Manson and the nascent Family. This Smith, like Roger, was a friendly face for Manson, as well as a recipient of grants and support from NIMH for research into the effects of both overpopulation and psychedelics on lab rats. In 1967, there was no better laboratory for studying the effects of both stimuli on humans than the Haight. David Smith even conducted an official study on Manson and the Family with the help of colleague Alan Rose, published in an academic journal founded by the HAFMC, the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs (Rose spent four months at Spahn Ranch in 1969, seduced by the Family much like both Smiths). David Smith and Rose’s report appeared (using pseudonyms) in 1970, after the Family had become worldwide news. And this use of civilian populations as de facto experimental subjects links O’Neill’s research with possibly the most infamous Cold War American program of scientific research into biowarfare, psychological warfare, and the use of pharmaceuticals in mind control of the Cold War: MKUltra.

Along with the Smiths and Rose, there were other feds abroad in the Bay Area in the late 1960s, including one of America’s most notorious participants in MKUltra, a man who skated blithely among some of Cold War America’s most shocking events: Dr. Louis Jolyon West. “Jolly,” as he was known to his friends, was involved early in his career in the debriefing of the “Manchurian candidates” who’d publicly “betrayed” America in the aftermath of the Korean War by confessing to being involved in war crimes. According to West, this was accomplished using drugs and psychological torture, and, as an Air Force researcher, he wanted to find out how the Chinese and North Koreans had done it so the same tactics could in turn be perpetrated by the West. Corresponding with MKUltra eminence grise Sidney Gottlieb on these experiments, West soon found himself in other highly suspicious circumstances: tending to the psychological care of federal prisoner Jack Ruby right before he had “a psychotic break” (and eventually died of a sudden fast-acting cancer), and ending up, yes, in the Haight in the years prior to the Summer of Love, where he set up “hippie crash pads” with the help of David Smith and HAFMC to investigate the effects of drugs on the new population of youth dropouts (this tactic itself followed directly on the CIA/MKUltra’s 1950s “Operation Midnight Climax,” which used brothels to test drugs like LSD on unsuspecting johns until 1965). In O’Neill’s estimation, West’s explicit connections with MKUltra set the stage for “embedded” experimenters such as David Smith, who would implicitly take MKUltra’s directives on human experimentation to the streets and into “cults” like Charles Manson’s. Later, West himself would move to Southern California to help then-Governor Reagan with a proposed UCLA-linked project situated at an old missile base on the outskirts of Los Angeles called “The Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence” that would involve “behavior modification, implanting electrodes” and “remote monitoring devices” in the brains of prisoners. Rage over Watergate and Reagan’s ongoing disregard for civil liberties on behalf of “law and order” prevented the “Violence Center” and its technocratic nightmare from getting off the ground.

Throughout Chaos, O’Neill bemoans both the amount of time he ended up spending on his project, as well as how crazy the unfolding labyrinth of conspiracies made him sound to friends and colleagues. His ongoing sparring and eventual irreconcilable split with Bugliosi, whom O’Neill identifies as a willful and conscious protector of the Hollywood elite (as well as a corrupt DA with a record of stalking his exes stretching back well before the Manson case made him famous), seems to be the rock upon which O’Neill’s entire investigation breaks. Local law enforcement protected those who’d protected Manson, the federal government officially “neither confirmed nor denied” its involvement with creating the Manson Family (even when highly-suggestive evidence was published on the record and publicly discussed by figures associated with the feds), and, by the end of O’Neill’s book, his realizations about MKUltra’s connections to Manson can come across as terribly anticlimactic. The pieces all appear to fit together, but there’s never that satisfying “click” of a confession or an admission that would make O’Neill’s connections emerge as undeniable proof of a government conspiracy to create Manson. One could easily argue that the American Cold War system of law enforcement, academia, and intelligence, in its myriad constituent pieces all claiming plausible deniability, worked to perfection.

O’Neill deploys his own cryptic face-to-face meetings with Manson as an epilogue; Manson’s occult declarations, sprinkled throughout these interviews, act as a fine metaphor for O’Neill’s entire experience in putting together this twenty-year labor: truth mixed with fiction mixed with wishful thinking mixed with apparent madness. If Manson’s secrets died with him in 2017, they are truly interred in the files and archives O’Neill utilized, in the vast graveyard of America’s win-at-all-costs ethic during the Cold War. Manson’s relevance doesn’t ultimately lie in the minutiae of his guru trip, within his racist Hollow Earth fantasias, or in his weird post-incarceration performances for the media, but instead among the broken pieces of the control apparatus that encouraged and protected him, the same apparatus of control that surround us to this day. If nothing else, the actions of Manson and his Family did indeed turn Middle America decisively against its hippie children: just as COINTELPRO and CHAOS had intended, O’Neill notes. As we’ve spent the last 50 years with a largely moribund and often-mocked American Left, what else can you say to the torturers and poisoners of the U.S. government, military, and intelligence communities than: mission accomplished.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

2 thoughts on ““You’re Not Gonna Like This”: The Manson Family Conspiracy in Tom O’Neill’s ‘Chaos’

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  2. Pingback: “A New Self”: The Radical Imagination of Ernest Callenbach’s ‘Ecotopia’

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