Back in November, I attended a dinner sponsored by the publisher Little, Brown and Company that had all the trappings of a traditional book industry event: highly enthusiastic booksellers, a seemingly unending flow of white wine, and a venue that, if I’m being honest, I would never find myself in if it weren’t for the book dinner. Little, Brown’s editors and authors presented their slate for the coming year: a debut about 1920s Paris, a raucous family drama, and one vastly reported nonfiction exposé that caught us all by surprise.
It’s a tome that kicked off 20 years ago, when journalist Tom O’Neill (who has written for New York, The Village Voice, and Details) received an assignment from an editor at Premiere to cover the 30th anniversary of the Manson murders and the effects that Helter Skelter (the theory) and Helter Skelter (the book) had on society. That was two decades ago, and his path to presenting his as-yet-unfinished book to my fellow diners was littered with dozens of pushed deadlines, the folding of Premiere, a canceled book contract with Penguin, and revelations that threatened his livelihood and his life. The simple fact that he and his collaborator Dan Piepenbring (who worked with Prince on the late artist’s upcoming memoir) were standing in front of us at the Napa Valley Grille seemed a miracle.
Just over six months later I’m sitting at a café in Los Angeles, galley copy of Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties in hand, waiting to meet O’Neill and feeling about one mind-control-experiment revelation away from becoming a full believer in the deep state. This is where I should warn you: Chaos (out June 25) doesn’t so much solve the crime so much as it pokes holes into nearly every aspect of the official narrative — via the authorities and Helter Skelter — of the Manson family murders. It’s more Making a Murderer and less The Jinx.
“I’m sure when the book comes out, and it’s one of the things I’m really anxious about, that there are going to be people who aren’t happy with it,” O’Neill says almost immediately. “And you can’t even imagine how much stuff we had to keep out.”
The book alleges, among other things, that the late author Vincent Bugliosi lied in Helter Skelter, that most of the testimony in the trial of Charles Manson and his followers was misleading, that the government’s connection to Manson (his training as a cult leader and the fact that he constantly evaded detainment prior to the Los Angeles murders) goes deeper than we ever thought, that the government has repeatedly lied about said connections, and that several Hollywood players may be knowledgeable of much of the above.
O’Neill is open about all his revelations and also everything that has gone wrong: lawsuits, debt, and the fact that he still doesn’t have all the answers. He also appears almost giddy about finally getting the weight of this story off his shoulders, and perhaps because he spent 20 years conducting difficult interviews with erratic and dangerous people, he’s generous with sharing things.
“There were peaks and valleys in doing this book, and the valleys were a lot deeper and darker and more consistent than the peaks,” he says of the years-long research and writing process that quite literally took over his life. The author began the assignment for Premiere by interviewing members of the late Sharon Tate’s circle and reading all the police reports and official documentation he could get his hands on. He was looking for holes, and he found plenty. O’Neill says he always searched for documentary evidence first because law enforcement, parole officers, and eccentric types who hung around Cielo Drive (where the murders took place) and Spahn Ranch (the Manson family’s primary residence) had both foggy memories and a proclivity for either conflating their own involvement or straight-up lying.
[Charles Manson being escorted to court for a preliminary hearing on Dec. 3, 1969.]
O’Neill discovered that Manson’s story — how he came to be a cult leader capable of inciting previously nonviolent young men and women to commit murder — extended far beyond the Los Angeles free-love community. The first big break (and one of the many discoveries that caused him to postpone delivery of the Premiere article) came almost two years into the process, when O’Neill followed the Manson trail to San Francisco (where Manson formed his family) and quickly realized that the evidence didn’t fit what was written in Helter Skelter. In particular, Bugliosi failed to mention that Manson had a parole officer, Roger Smith, who, according to Chaos, acted “more as Manson’s guardian” and even worked as legal advisor, after he left the parole department, to Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner while the family was in San Francisco and delving into the world of LSD.
“It seemed to me an omission by deliberation,” O’Neill says. “I started wondering, how did Manson learn to control those people? Once I found out about this merger of people at the Free Clinic [where the Manson family hung out]…I started going through boxes at UCLA [where a researcher from the clinic kept his official records].”
O’Neill discovered letters between Jolly West, one of the foremost researchers into LSD as a tool of mind control, and Sidney Gottlieb, who ran MKUltra, the CIA program that was activated on and off through the 1960s to discredit the left-wing movement by any means necessary. No one had ever seen unredacted records of the program before — those involved refused to divulge anything during Senate hearings after MKUltra was exposed, and O’Neill is convinced the letters were left in the box at the UCLA special collections by accident.
Throughout Chaos, O’Neill inserts his own frustration and confusion over what all the discrepancies mean, and this practice stands out particularly during the retelling of his days digging through the library’s dusty records, unsure if he was going to uncover anything but unable to give up. It’s not a common practice — Bad Blood’s John Carreyrou doesn’t surface in the narrative until the very end — and O’Neill and Piepenbring did so to help equivocate on what might otherwise be damning accusations.
“So much of [this book] involves scenes where somebody is not telling me something even though I’m showing them proof,” he explains. “And to show someone lying and backpedaling, I have to involve myself. There are so many loose ends — if I can’t have a huge finale where you find out what happened, then I think the smart thing was to add me to the story.”
For every discovery about the government, an equally wild fact surfaced about the Hollywood machine that has (inadvertently or not) worked to keep the apparent truth about the Manson murders quiet. Roman Polanski, husband to Tate (and father to her unborn child) at the time of her death, is present throughout the book, via anecdotes about his behavior in the days and weeks after the crime and his apparent connections to members of the LAPD.
“I am suspicious of [Polanski] having prior, I shouldn’t say relationships, but some type of involvement,” O’Neill muses. “He’s been keeping secrets for years.”
The author also had bizarre interactions with members of Tate’s circle during his reporting, like Jules Buccieri, friend to Tate and fellow victim Jay Sebring, whom O’Neill says threatened to kill him during an interview. (Buccieri died in 2002.)
“It was like a switch had gone off,” says O’Neill. “He just said, ‘I will slit your throat from f—ing ear to ear, and you know I can do it.’ There were swords everywhere too, because he collected them. When I got out of there I could barely look over my shoulder.”
A similar encounter came with a visit to John Drew Barrymore (father of Drew Barrymore), who was, according to O’Neill, one of the half-dozen people in Hollywood who had nervous breakdowns after Tate was murdered. O’Neill tracked him down at a family member’s house, offered a nickel bag of pot as a peace offering, and was subjected to a tirade the second Tate’s name was invoked.
“All of those people knew something more, and I think it had to do with Manson,” O’Neill says. “Some big secret.”
[Candice Bergen and Terry Melcher at the Whiskey a Go Go in the summer of 1967.]
The only person from the extended circle to largely stay out of the narrative is Candice Bergen, then-girlfriend to record producer Terry Melcher, a former resident of the Cielo Drive home. She has barely spoken about the incident in the decades since and refused O’Neill’s multiple attempts at an interview. Bergen has maintained that she never met Manson or any of his associates, but O’Neill read police reports that alleged an encounter between Charles “Tex” Watson (one of the perpetrators) and Bergen at Melcher’s house.
“She’s one of the people who knows a hell of a lot more than she’s ever said,” O’Neill tells me. “I don’t know that I blame her, but she did go public in her memoir [with a couple paragraphs about the murder] so I think she should be held accountable.”
Bergen and Melcher are also missing from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the forthcoming Quentin Tarantino movie — starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie as Tate — set in the months leading up to the death of Tate and her friends. It poses a question that is eerily similar to the proposed angle of O’Neill’s very first Premiere assignment: How did the murders change the mood of Los Angeles and the film industry, and did they cause the walls to go up in Hollywood? Tarantino himself has spoken about suspicions that mirror an elevator pitch for Chaos — the question of how Manson convinced people to commit to him and do whatever they were told, including murder.
“As far as I can tell, there’s nobody [in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] that has the Candice character,” the author points out. “It only takes place over two days in February ’69 and then Aug. 8, so they’re not really part of the story. But Tarantino might have been worried about a lawsuit.”
[Margot Robbie, as Sharon Tate, filming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Los Angeles.]
O’Neill himself has his own concerns about the book’s publication. Throughout our conversations, he makes numerous references to possible ramifications of the book’s publication — it seems as though an exposé 30 years in the making will do that to a person. He’s weary of Polanski, who is notoriously lawsuit-happy and for whom they redacted portions of the U.K. version of Chaos. He’s cognizant of the fact that, despite the fact that Little, Brown has libel insurance, if a suit goes beyond the monetary limit he becomes responsible for the payout. He’s hoping that some of the more eccentric supporters of the current administration are not going to read too much into the government’s shadier dealings.
“A lot of people have been asking me if this book is going to change things,” he says with concern. “Or be used as proof that we can’t trust anyone. I’m just reporting what I found out and trying to remain as objective as I can be. But I don’t know how deep it goes.”
O’Neill has visions that once the book hits shelves, public discourse will pick up where he left off and perhaps launch debates about whether justice was really served, similar to the Adnan Syed or Stephen Avery cases. He’s also eyeing the next project: The film version of his 20-year search for answers (rights have been acquired by Amazon Studios, and they’re currently auditioning screenwriters.) But truly, one has to imagine that he’s most looking forward to being able to go a day without thinking about Charles Manson.