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Does ‘Chaos’ Debunk ‘Helter Skelter’?

Besides the Moon Landing and Woodstock, this summer is the 50th anniversary of the Tate/LaBianca murders that gripped Hollywood in 1969.  Along with Altamont, historians have identified the murder spree of Charles Manson and his “family” as the moments when the idealism of the decade truly died.  It’s almost as if we need these two horrific signposts to give rhyme and reason to the killings that occurred.  Joel Selvin’s 2016 book Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hell’s Angels And The Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, did an excellent job of looking at the aforementioned music festival as a singular event and not the culmination of the 1960s.  It’s definitely worth your time.


In Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, Tom O’ Neill and Dan Piepenbring don’t try to examine the Manson crimes outside of the context of the decade, but to reframe them.  The basic premise of this sprawling 561-page book is that Vincent Bugliosi used the Manson murders to make himself into a legal star.  He was able to do this by making sure that the “Helter Skelter” backstory for the murders became the official narrative of the trial.  I won’t divulge the details or supportive evidence, but it’s tough to read Chaos and not think less of the late Bugliosi.  Needless to say, he doesn’t come off like the crusader for justice who went on to weigh in on the JFK assassination and O.J. Simpson trials in subsequent books.

Chaos begins with a confrontation between O’Neill and Bugliosi.  The book is really about O’Neill’s quest to discover the truth while also getting it published.  Piepenbring is his co-writer, brought in to finally take the manuscript home. It’s the story about the making of the book itself as much as about the horrific murders in the summer of 1969.  At no point does O’Neill make the case that Charles Manson isn’t the monster we think he is, but rather that Bugliosi drew a false version of the events that begin his book Helter Skelter.

This is no small claim.  From its opening sentence “This book will scare the hell out of you,” Bugliosi’s book has become a part of our culture.  Reading it used to almost be a rite of passage for a high-school student. Helter Skelter, its 1976 TV miniseries, the 2004 remake, the short-lived David Duchovny series Aquarius, and Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon A Time in Hollywood all draw from its creepy appeal.  Emma Cline’s excellent novel The Girls was basically about how a young woman could fall into a “family” like Manson’s.

It was fascinating that this satanic figure distorted the most revered principles of the free-love movement, not to mention the music of its most beloved band. We all found it terrifying that Manson, evil incarnate with a swastika carved in his skull, planned to use his “girls” to start a race war.  Someone murdered a beautiful young actress while she was pregnant and then used her blood to write warnings to the “Piggies” of the world.  Tarantino claims that his film might allow Sharon Tate to no longer only be defined by her beyond-tragic murder.  Of course, having an actor portray Charles Manson makes that difficult.

Chaos, as its title suggests, examines the possibility of other forces conspiring to protect Manson long enough to commit these ghastly acts. Of course, he never actually stabbed these victims. That was what made it so difficult for Bugliosi to convince the jury of Manson’s power over others.  Chaos never tries to create the definitive story of the murders as Bugliosi did.  O’Neill admits that would be impossible and hints that he left tons of theories and threads out of the book.  But he risks everything (lawsuits, smear campaigns, and bankruptcy) to unmask Bugliosi and his “Helter Skelter” narrative.

He leaves the reader with tons of questions.  The author himself still has questions.  But he forces us to re-examine the mythology of “the family.”  That seems to be good enough for O’Neill.  With Amazon Studios already having bought the rights to his book, it appears he will have another opportunity to try to open our eyes.

(Little, Brown, June 25, 2019)

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Ross Warner

Ross Warner has been steeped in pop culture since he appeared on MTV's "Remote Control: Out Of The Basement Tour" in 1989. He's written tons of articles on music and movies and has appeared in Cinema Retro and American Heritage multiple times. But he's is probably best known for addiction to the San Diego, now Los Angeles, Chargers of whom he was named 2002's Fan Of The Year. He's just finished his first book, Drunk On Sunday.

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