02 April 2020

Chaos



I probably wouldn't have read Tom O'Neill's Chaos, Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties if he had not appeared on Eye 94, a book show on WLPN-Chicago radio. This is a low power station and the show ( full disclosure here) is hosted by three book geeks, one of whom is our son. It tells you something about the state of the publishing business that a huge variety of authors, from local first timer to literary translators to Pulitzer Prize winners, is willing and eager to share the mikes.

Still on the face of it, another book about the Sixties did not appeal. Great music, sure, and some high ideals, but also a lot of self-absorption, pretension, and outright bad behavior, some of which still haunts us now.

But O'Neill was so down to earth, unassuming, and informative that I cracked the covers. Four hundred and thirty-six pages plus notes later, I know a lot more than I knew before, and I have a lot more questions about what I thought I knew previously.

Chaos, I think, will appeal to two different sorts of readers. Conspiracy buffs and true crime fanciers will have a field day with this exploration into the muddy waters of the Tate-LaBianca murders and their perpetrators. Along the way, O'Neill turns up a bizarre gallery of spy agency and FBI operatives (worried about anti-war protests and Black Power), dodgy psychiatrists, mind-control specialists, ambitious or anxious politicians, and cops both frustrated and corrupt. There's an appearance by Jack Ruby, assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, along with links to the CIA and illegal human experimentation. You couldn't make this stuff up!

The milieu really requires a Thomas Pynchon to do it justice, and, come to think of it, Pynchon's early novels were contemporary with the drugs, anxiety, and paranoia of the Sixties. Unsurprisingly, O'Neill had trouble digesting all these strands, and what had begun as an article for an entertainment magazine on the lasting impact of the Manson case on Hollywood morphed twenty years later into a book so long and complicated that he took on a collaborator, Dan Piepenbring to help him out of the documentary thicket.

And that brings me to the second group of potential readers: fellow scribblers. While Chaos is a convincingly-researched true crime account, it is also two other things: a critique of what might be called the official story, the late Vincent Bugliosi's best selling Helter Skelter, and the narrative – and it honestly is an epic– of O'Neill's twenty-year pursuit of information.

Anyone who has done even modest amounts of research will be sympathetic to O'Neill's obsessive pursuit of just one more document, one more interview, one more angle. He was warned at the start that the Manson case had the potential to devour his life and that warning proved prescient. Again and again, he worries that he is going down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole, and that he is becoming so overwhelmed not just with information, but with conflicting information, distortions and outright lies, that he will never finish.

It was a near thing. Before he was done, O'Neill was half a million in debt. Premiere, the original commissioning magazine was defunct, and his first publisher had washed its editorial hands of the book and was threatening to sue for the return of his advance. The lot of the writer, like Gilbert and Sullivan's policeman, is not always a happy one.

Thomas O'Neill
O'Neill is candid about these tribulations and about his anxiety concerning his debts, especially to his devoted parents. Along the way he is threatened with retribution of one sort or another and with suits, including several times by Bugliosi, who had some violence issues as well. More than once, O'Neill questioned whether or not devoting his life to the aftermath of  several sordid murders was worthwhile.

Part way through the investigation someone asked him just that, and he records his answer at the end of Chaos: "This has been the most exciting thirteen years of my life. There's nothing like the adrenaline rush of catching these people in lies, and documenting it – knowing you've found something no one else has found."

There speaks the true researcher and one of the truest sorts of detectives.


Good Eye 94 discussion with Tom O'Neill

3 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Sounds interesting, Janice, if a little off the wall. One has to wonder how the rogues' gallery of agencies and spies and especially Jack Ruby, who was dead at the time of the Manson murders, ties into them. I guess I have to read the book to find out.

Eve Fisher said...

Yes, Paul. I too was wondering how Jack Ruby can figure in with the Tate-Labianca murders when he was long buried. Well, this makes for an interesting bit of research! Thanks for the post, Janice.

Leigh Lundin said...

Okay, now I'm intrigued. I lived in the East Coast epicenter of Greenwich Village, didn't take drugs, and I'm still not sure what happened.

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