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Zan Romanoff | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,591 words)

The story of how Tom O’Neill’s CHAOS: Charles Manson, The CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties came to be is almost as crazy as the story of the book tells in its pages. Twenty years ago, an editor at Premiere magazine asked O’Neill to write something about the 30th anniversary of the Manson murders — whatever he thought would be interesting. Now, on the 50th anniversary, that magazine story is finally being released in the form of a 400+ page book.

The intervening years take O’Neill from the backyards of LA drug dealers to the offices of CIA agents doing research on the drugged out hippies in San Francisco’s Haight District. At one point, he gets four haircuts from a barber who intimates that Manson might have been involved with the mob. And as the story spins wildly out of O’Neill’s control, defying reduction to a single, simple narrative, only one thing seems certain: that the settled story of what happened in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969 might not be as straightforward as we’ve all been lead to believe.

O’Neill and I spoke by phone a few months before the book came out, on a gray Los Angeles Monday. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Zan Romanoff: So usually I start by asking about how a book came to be — what inspired you, and how you started writing. But the story of how this got written is really part of the book itself. What I’m curious about in your case, because getting this written was such a long, complicated, incredibly drawn-out process is: at this point, do you feel like you’re done?

Tom O’Neill: No, I don’t, unfortunately. I wish I did. I don’t want to give spoilers, but there’s a lot of loose ends. But I just didn’t want to do it forever. I’d love to do something different next, and I probably will. I’m looking forward to not waking up in the morning and having Charles Manson on my mind ahead of anything else.

As a person who’s not really into true crime per se, I actually really appreciated that you didn’t wrap the book up neatly — that it was more like, the truth is maybe not always totally knowable, and at a certain point, I have to just decide to leave this.

And that didn’t come easy! That didn’t originate with me — that was my agent, my various publishers, saying ‘Hey, you know, you’ve got enough compelling stuff here. You don’t have to answer everything.’

I started getting worried that it would never get out there; if I got run over by a car or something, it would just languish and end up in a dumpster. So I feel really relieved knowing that 60% of my reporting is going to be available to people who are interested.

West, Bugliosi and Manson … Those guys had secrets; they were sinister … I sometimes wondered which was the most evil of the three of them. I’m not sure Manson was.

You talk a lot in the book about how you’re worried that the material, the research, the obsessiveness, will make you sound crazy — and then at a certain point you had to bring in a co-writer, Dan Piepenbring. What was it like to let him see everything you had?

I was a little hesitant about him because he’s really young, and his focus at the time, two years ago, was music. He famously got the job writing Prince’s memoir. My agent, who I’ve known a long time, said ‘Trust me on this one; he’s really intuitive and smart.’

They sent me clips, and the first one I read was this long, detailed story about obscure almanac that goes out to people in engineering and farming. He made this 3000-word story fascinating, about a subject I had no interest in. I thought, if he can make me that interested in an almanac about jet propulsion parts and oils and stuff like that
He’s just a really fascinating, quirky guy.

I wrote two different proposals that were 200 pages each, so once he read all that stuff he knew what he was getting into. All it took was one meeting, and we immediately realized we were on the same page about everything. I got lucky; I got a really great collaborator. I’d gone on a couple of blind dates with some, and they were really frightened by the amount of material. I don’t blame them at all.

And then how did you work together? How did you start shaping what you had into a workable book-sized thing?

What I really valued about him, and what I needed — I had to reconcile myself to the fact that by 2016 or ‘17, I was way too deep in the weeds. I had a difficult time understanding anymore what was important and what could go.

We did it a chapter at a time. He would do a chapter using material that I’d already done, and then he sent it to me. He was really good at stepping back and doing the big picture paragraphs about what was going on in the world at the time; I was much more interested in the details of the investigation of the details of the crimes and the people.

We found this rhythm. It took a couple of chapters of back and forth and back and forth. The first 5 or 6 chapters we probably did 20 drafts, meaning he’d send it to me, I’d revise it, I’d send it to him, he’d revise it, and on and on. By the last three or four we had it down. We pretty much knew each other’s instincts.

I’m also curious about how you feel about so much of this research that you’ve been doing being subject to public scrutiny for the first time. There was recently this big scandal with Jill Abramson’s book, where it felt like the general public discovered that most books aren’t fact-checked. How did you think about making sure that what you were putting out there was as accurate and airtight as possible?

Little, Brown outsourced the fact checking to professional fact checkers. I’ve been fact checked at magazines before, and I thought it was going to be much more rigorous. I talked to Dan about that; Dan actually worked at a couple of publishing houses, and he said, ‘No, no, these guys vetted it really well — we have nothing to worry about.’ He said, ‘What you’re not doing is you’re not giving yourself credit. You do have everything substantiated, and you’ve got the proper number of sources.’

We sold it in the UK, and their fact checking is much more rigorous, because their libel laws are so draconian. And they’re worried about Roman Polanski; he sued Vanity Fair. Some of the stuff he did to Sharon — I didn’t want to put a lot of it in, but I kept hearing it, from more than one or two or three people.

There’s this moment, late in the book, when you’re getting really deep into that kind of uncomfortable territory — like, “who shot JFK”-type stuff — when you kind of give in to the idea that this research is going to take you places you don’t consciously want to go. You write, “I had to let the story consume me.” Can you talk about that feeling of giving in to the story like that, just being like, ‘okay, I have to stop worrying about what this looks like. Let’s go’?

The reason the JFK stuff came in was because I was looking at Jolly West’s files for documentation of him having some kind of an intersection with Manson or the family. [West is a psychiatrist famous for, among other things, his work with the CIA’s MKUltra project, serving as a brainwashing expert in the Patty Heart trial, and the death of an elephant he’d injected with LSD.]

I could show that he was working out of the [Haight-Ashbury Free] clinic recruiting subjects for his research at the same time Manson was bringing the women in to see his parole officer there, but I was trying to get them in the same room. I felt like everything that Manson did with his women was exactly what the CIA was trying to do with people without their knowledge, in the exact same time, at the exact same place.

West had a history of doing research in inducing insanity without a person’s awareness. He reported that he had learned how to replace true memories with false ones. And he saw Jack Ruby [who shot JFK’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, in 1963] within the 24 hours that Ruby became insane.

One I had those documents I thought, okay, at the very least that should have been disclosed to the Warren Commission. When you have that paperwork, and then you go through everything that was ever written about MKultra and West, and see that it’s never been reported, it’s only been speculated, no one could ever prove it …

Then I just knew: I don’t care anymore what people think of me. I have the paperwork. I’m not relying on someone’s hazy memory of something 30 years ago.

The documentation was the most important thing to me. That’s what kept me going, saying, ‘I want to do justice to these papers.’ If I hadn’t found them, maybe somebody else would have. But if no one ever found them, then people got away with it.

When I started asking him questions he got really angry at me, and literally threatened to kill me … I had like, ten of these experiences with different Hollywood people.

As far out as it ends up going, one of the things I really like about the book is the way it works to contextualize and kind of ground Manson — talking about how he was coming up in an era when the government was working on mind control experiments, so it’s not that crazy to think about what he was doing as a kind of mind control experiment. For so long there’s been this sense that he was magic in some way, and a lot of what the book does is say, ‘no, he’s a piece of a lot of pieces of the culture that were happening at the time. This is not so inexplicable as people like to think.’

He represents different things to different people, as did Jolly West. I think the three protagonists of the book, hopefully excluding me, are Manson, Vince Bugliosi, and Jolly West. Those three men, West, Bugliosi and Manson, are of a certain time and place that might never happen again. Those guys had secrets; they were sinister. Each of those three guys I became pretty intrigued by. I sometimes wondered which was the most evil of the three of them. I’m not sure Manson was.

When you say, they were of a time that might never happen again — you have this line in the book where you’re talking about trying to interview people, and it’s not that they don’t want to answer questions, it seems like they physically can’t. You write, “It was irreparable. Wherever the ’60s had come from, they were gone, even in memory.”

I feel like we as a country fetishize the ’60s in a different way than we fetishize other eras — like we really believe that the ’60s meant something, and if they didn’t mean something, then we’re in trouble.

So another thing I really appreciated about the book is that it’s like, look, it might not have meant anything! Or, really, it might have meant a lot of things. But the ’60s weren’t some special case of history where everything made sense and followed a narrative. When it was happening, it was as messy as anything that’s happening now.

I really romanticize the ’60s — I was born in ‘59, so the murders happened when I was 10 years old.

I loved the whole idea of peace and love and Woodstock and all of that. So all of this reporting, especially the first few months, was really eye opening to me. I knew there was sleazy stuff going on, but when I started interviewing people in that world and finding out just how sleazy, and how horribly the women were treated, and how people treated each other so terribly — ripping each other off for drugs — it was a lot uglier than I ever suspected.

One of my favorite small parts of the book is at the beginning there’s a drug dealer who’s maybe gotten raped, and he’s really high, so his friends chain him up so he can’t take revenge on the person who supposedly did it. The guy who does the chaining, he mentions, “It was easy, because I already had the chain there for someone else.” 

I’m glad you caught that!

Are you kidding me? That’s when I bought in. I was like, okay, I’m on board with this book.

But it was also really striking to me because that sounds more like the ’60s that I’m familiar with. My dad lived on a commune around then, The Hog Farm — there was actually a Manson girl who lived there for a while, too, though he didn’t know her — and I grew up hearing his stories, and they weren’t really much about peace and love. They were a lot more about drugs and craziness.

Also discovering that personal connection, and there are some others — a high school classmate of mine is the son or nephew of a different Manson girl, that kind of thing — made the murders feel different to me. They became more real, more tangible, not just this big national myth about the end of the sixties.

You write in the book about how the murders touched everyone at the time in this small community. For me, discovering these things, it was like, ‘this stuff is still alive.’ I felt like, if you’re a part of this community, it actually still touches you. It’s not totally over yet, somehow.

A couple of people I interviewed got so upset. One guy, his name is Jules Pachieri, he was a multi-millionaire, and then he became a yogi. He’s all about peace and love and transformation stuff, and he agreed to let me interview him. When I started asking him questions he got really angry at me, and literally threatened to kill me. It was still a magazine piece at the time, and my editor made me go to the West Hollywood police and report it in case something happened.

I had like, ten of these experiences with different Hollywood people. Michelle Phillips, from the Mamas and the Papas, she went out to lunch with me, and she got so upset talking about Sharon that she left to go to the bathroom and came back and said, ‘I threw up. I vomited. I can’t do this anymore.’ That was thirty years later. It impacted a lot of people’s lives.

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I’d love to hear more about the part where you’re doing the reporting, and trying to figure out the line between wanting to get the story and the truth, and people being like, I’m so viscerally upset by you asking these questions that it’s making my physically sick. Where did you draw the line? Or did you?

That’s the thing about it. You can’t even imagine anybody you know getting killed like that. That’s going to traumatize you for life.

But there was some other visceral reaction so many people had. And then I end up speculating, but I do think that Manson had much deeper ties in the community. An important thing I left out of the book is that there’s really good evidence that the killers tried to kill the same four people the night before they actually killed them. The night before, Sharon [Tate], Wojciech [Frykowski], and Abigail [Folger] were at dinner at Jay Sebring’s house. The lines were cut to the house that night. The police found that out three days after the murders, and hid that information. It’s never been reported before. So I do think that there are still secrets, all of these years later, that people have kept. And I think a lot of them feel guilty about it.

An important thing I left out of the book is that there’s really good evidence that the killers tried to kill the same four people the night before they actually killed them …  So I do think that there are still secrets, all of these years later, that people have kept. And I think a lot of them feel guilty about it.

One of the things you push back on really hard in the book is the calcification of the Manson story — the way, as you put it, “a narrative becomes the narrative.”

When I finally had to accept that I might not find the smoking gun and be able to answer all the questions — around the time that I reconciled myself to that, Serial had already happened, and Making a Murderer was happening, and those two both end up without any conclusion. It makes it interesting, because it’s giving it back to the reader to let them decide what they want to think.

But then on the other hand, do you worry at all about being in this post-fact, fake news moment — that people might look at this book and take it as evidence that you can’t trust anything, that basically everything is bullshit?

I don’t want to be the person that feeds into that deep state paranoia. My brother was the first one to say, ‘The Trump base is going to love this book.’

I said, ‘No, please! I’m not going to publish it if that’s going to happen!’

I am a little worried that it’s going to confirm — I mean, it’s not the first book about this, but there’s a reason to distrust the government, the CIA and the cops and all that. I’m a thousand times more cynical than I was 20 years ago, and skeptical and questioning. That’s what the book ruined for me, is having faith in the system.

Which is interesting, because more traditional true crime relies on and then also reinforces our faith in the judicial system, and the idea of narrative: a story that begins will have a throughline, and an end, and justice.

Beyond that, though, it was kind of wonderful for me to get to read a book that’s constantly grappling with the artificiality of narrative, and the choices you have to make as an author to make something that has a story. Because you know that when you write it as a story, people will read it and think, ‘oh, well, that’s how it happened.’ Not seeing all the things you’re choosing to leave out because they don’t go anywhere, or don’t feel relevant, but they still happened.

That’s scary. I have a responsibility as a storyteller. I thought, am I being fair to Terry Melcher? Am I being fair to Vince? I’m haunted by, if I made mistakes, what I might do to these people.

You’ve got an obligation to be as honest and truthful as possible. No matter what you’re going to manipulate what you use. I constantly had to ask myself, am I cherry picking? I gotta show both sides. That’s a scary responsibility, unless you think no one’s going to read it.

Which I feel like — twenty years in on a project, you can’t think that way. You have to believe that someone’s going to read it and care, right?

You know, I finally decided that, even if no one reads it, as long as it’s available if someone wants to find it, I won’t feel as horrible as if I left this earth not having put it on paper. That was the most important thing. I had too much invested. I had to finish.

A lot of people asked, ‘What kept you going? Why didn’t you give up?’ I said, ‘Once you accumulate all of that information, you can’t discredit what you found by letting it go unseen.’ You gotta get it out there.

That’s the biggest relief of all — even if the book gets lousy reviews and I get made fun of, I don’t care, as long as my reporting is out there for other people to read. I’m raising questions about stuff that hopefully will create the endings I couldn’t put in the book. Maybe they’ll come out after the fact.

I mean, we’re definitely in a Manson moment, with the 50th anniversary of the murders coming up this summer, and so many movies and things coming out about them …

This is one battle I didn’t win with Little Brown: I didn’t want my book to be released this summer. They wanted to publish this on the 50th anniversary, and I said, ‘I’d much rather have it in the fall, or winter after.’ I just don’t want to look like we’re trying to capitalize on it, trying to make money off of it. They agreed to do it much earlier in the summer.

But then, I owe so much money to so many people, and if the interest raised by things like Tarantino’s film [Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] is going to help sell my books … I’m hoping people will get curious about who these people were, and why these things happened, because of this movie. I’m hoping it does generate interest.

It’s difficult for me, because I’m pretty good friends with a couple of the victims’ relatives. Deborah Tate is tough as nails, I’m not worried about her, but some of the others aren’t, and it’s going to be a difficult time for them. I don’t want to feed into that, but at the same time, I gotta do my job.

I mean, I didn’t want it to come out the 20th year. I wanted it to come out 19 years ago, and then 17, and then 15. I’m just glad it’s finally coming out.

* * *

Zan Romanoff is a full-time freelance writer and the author of the novels A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART and GRACE AND THE FEVER, out now, as well as LOOK, which is forthcoming from Dial Books for Young Readers in spring 2020. She lives and writes in LA.

Editor: Dana Snitzky