Near the beginning of Chaos, author Tom O’Neill consider his 20-year investigation of Charles Manson’s crimes and muses –
Who cares? I’ve asked myself that a lot over the years. Was it worth investing so much of my time and energy in these, some of the most well-known, worn-out crimes in American history? How did I end up falling into this, anyway? (Pp. 5-6).
Unfortunately, the reader has to ask him- or herself similar questions. Authors of any new entries on Charles Manson’s crimes have to compete against dozens of previous efforts and the fact that the crimes recede farther into the past each day. O’Neill tries – does offer some fascinating information – but Chaos is just middling success.
Long Road to Publication
Back in 1999, O’Neil received an assignment to write about Manson’s connections with Hollywood for the now-defunct Premiere magazine. Amazingly, that assignment led to a 20-year odyssey to learn what really happened. The result is Chaos – an unfortunately-apt title.
Official Story vs. The Facts
When Chaos shines, it’s excellent. O’Neill had me for the first 200 pages; then the book derailed. Consistently, O’Neill shows that the official story of the Manson murders is not the full story. He’s particularly strong in recounting how record producer Terry Melcher’s court testimony concerning his involvement with Manson differed from some of his prior statements to police. There is a particularly strong scene in which O’Neill confronts Melcher at the rooftop pool of the latter’s Los Angeles condo.
If O’Neill succeeds at taking down anyone in the book, it’s Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who sent Manson to prison. O’Neill provides convincing evidence that Bugliosi shaped the prosecution around an “official” version of the murders that excluded many important facts.
Even more damning are O’Neill’s revelations about Bugliosi’s tawdry private life. He writes about Bugliosi’s vendetta against his milkman, which occurred after Bugliosi somehow convinced himself that the milkman had fathered his son, Vincent, Jr. Later, Bugliosi became involved in another scandal when a woman claimed that the married Bugliosi assaulted her and forced her to have an abortion after they conceived a child together. Though both stories had been whispered about for years, O’Neill brings these facts to a wide audience.
Down a Million Rabbit Holes
Given Chaos’ many interesting stories, the book could have been a qualified success. But O’Neill fills large parts of the book with long, unrewarding stories. Less would have been more.
After the first 200 pages, the narrative veers off into conspiracy land. The book implodes in Chapters 6 and 7, rights itself in Chapters 8-10, then implodes again in Chapter 11. Fortunately, O’Neill does close the book with some interesting thoughts (in Chapter 12 and the Epilogue).
The weak material gets into a rogue intelligence agent named Reeve Whitson, the Kennedy assassination, the CIA, and other unlikely topics. (By the end of the book, I wouldn’t have been surprised to read references to black helicopters and the New World Order). What all of the weak material in Chaos shares is a low-M (Manson) quotient – the number of references to Manson on each page is very low. Perhaps this is no surprise, given that Manson probably had nothing to do with the CIA or the Kennedy assassination.
O’Neill goes off track in other ways as well. He engages in rampant speculation, accusing everyone he interviews of being involved in a big coverup. Anyone who can’t remember, or who failed to follow procedures to the letter, is guilty of nefarious conduct. (Ironically, O’Neill impugns Bugliosi for speculating in presenting the Manson case in court).
Final (?) Verdict
I have a tortured relationship with these latter-day Manson books. I’m frequently disappointed in them, but I always come back for more. Recently, Dianne “Snake” Lake published Member of the Family about her time in The Family. Lake’s book is much less ambitious than is O’Neill’s – she doesn’t claim to know anything other than her own experiences with Manson. But her book is much more satisfying than is O’Neill’s.
At the end, O’Neill seems to realize that – at least in some respects – he’s fallen short. He writes that “The evidence I’d amassed against the official version of the Manson murders was so voluminous, from so many angles, that it was overdetermined. I could poke a thousand holds in the story, but I couldn’t say what really happened” (pp. 394-5). So, O’Neill moves the goalposts, stating that “My goal isn’t to say what did happen – it’s to prove that the official story didn’t. I’ve learned to accept the ambiguity” (p. 430).
Whether that’s enough will depend on each reader’s interpretation. At its best, Chaos is a page turner. The Manson story continues to fascinate and O’Neill manages to wring a bit more out of the old Manson sponge. But, it’s only a qualified success – that rarity, an unsatisfying page turner.
I give Chaos 6.5 out of 10.