(Previous writings about Manson here, here, here, here, and here.)
Many hippies are socially almost dead inside. Some require massive emotions to feel any thing at all. They need bizarre, intensive acts to feel alive – sexual acts, acts of violence, nudity, every kind of Dionysian thrill.
The Hippie Trip, Dr Lewis Yablonsky (cited in Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, by Tom O'Neill and Dan Piepenbring.)
He, the god who appeared among men with his ripe intoxicating drink, was the same as the frenzied one whose spirit drove the women to madness in the loneliness of the mountains.
Dionysus: Myth and Cult, by Walter F. Otto.
- Infinite Rapture and Infinite Terror.
In the past, it was always a tiny minority of adventurous individuals who sought out the undiscovered corners of the world. Many of them died and many others returned ravaged by extremity and solitude, never quite themselves again.
The great tumult of the 1960s is a cultural phenomenon without any parallel in modern history, and yet it had innumerable precedents. Its lineage can be traced back to the Romantics, rebels against industrial and scientific modernity who dabbled in mind-altering drugs (Coleridge and de Quincey) and free love cults (Blake). The decadent/symbolist movements of the fin de siècle pre-empted the 60s with their occult obsessions and proto-psychedelic flights of intricately weird fantasy, as did the occult revivalists of the 19th century.
None of these movements, however, adequately adumbrated the scale and intensity of cultural and ontological upheaval which was compressed into the latter half of the 60s. This qantitive and qualitive difference was facilated by advances in pharmacology and communication technology. Enovid, the first contraceptive pill, was approved for use by the FDA on June 23, 1960. Meanwhile, the Swiss company Sandoz had introduced a new psychoactive chemical called Delysid to the research market in 1947. It was LSD, of course, and it had been slowly creeping its way into post-war America via the unlikely route of Project MKUltra, a top secret CIA mind control programme which has been shrouded in infamy, mystery and speculative mythology ever since.
By the middle of the 60s, telephones, radios and televisions had collapsed the distance between spaces and people, creating a mass culture in which social change happened at larger and much more rapid scales. Either by accident or design (depending on who you want to believe), LSD seeped into this mass culture, and a great chunk of the population went in search of the undiscovered corners of human pyschology and experience.
Any adventure in transgression, risk-taking and unfettered self-exploration carries with it the underlying fear that, like a policeman, priest or grandiose hangover, some dire consequence looms on the horizon, waiting to pounce. In the aftermath of the events of the night of the 8th of August, 1969 at 10050 Cielo Drive, that fear burst out like a thunderclap through the elite enclaves of the movie and music industries. The mood of biblical panic that engulfed LA's hippie royalty probably had two primary sources. One was just a general superstitious sense that all the freaky hedonism and druggy abandon had gone too far, somehow summoning Manson and his acolytes like demons to turn the Aquarian pool-sides red with blood. Another was perhaps more pointed: the full degree to which the Family had infiltrated the upper echelons of Hollywood babylon remains shrouded in mystery. Researching the article that would eventually blossom into Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, Tom O'Neill found that virtually none of the surviving Hollywood heavyweights would speak to him about Manson:
I'd been in touch with Diane Ladd's manager, having heard that Ladd, who'd been married to Bruce Dern at the time of the murders, ran in some of the same circles as Tate and Polanksi. Her manager promised to set up the interview. The next day she called back, saying that Ladd had had an “emotionally visceral reaction.” The manager said, “I don't know what happened with Diane back in the sixties, but she adamantly refused to have anything to do with the piece. She even told me that if her name was in it, she was going to contact her attorney.” (Chaos.)
For conservatives, the horrors of Cielo Drive have alway been codified as an inevitable outgrowth of the 60s counter-culture. This was never entirely convincing: although the saga of the Family could not have occured at any other time, Manson himself was a product of the US penal system and a dysfunctional upbringing in the 30s and 40s. Nevertheless, it may not be entirely wrong to suggest a certain inevitability in the fact that some very dark things slipped through the many doors thrown open in the latter years of the 60s. The term “Dionysian” has been applied so frequently to the decade of the 60s (and the subject of rock music in general) as to border on meaningless cliche. Yet the evocation remains apt, and as we shall see, often unnervingly so in relation to Manson and his followers.
Dionysus is the most fascinating and puzzling of the Greek gods. His nature is characterised by insoluble paradox and contradiction. He is, on the one hand, the great liberator who awakens all the repressed energies and creative potentialities of the community which has fallen into the cowardice of habit and convention, the stasis of excessive order and control. As such, he is also the conduit of all untrammelled physical joy in being, all ecstatic transport and epiphany. Yet the doors opened by the Dionysian revel are primordial and ungovernable: through them comes all the grandeur of life, but also all its madness and horror. In Dionysus: Myth and Cult, Walter F. Otto evokes the apocalyptic upheaval engendered by the outsider “God who Comes”:
The world man knows, the world in which he has settled himself so securely and snugly – that world is no more. The turbulance which accompanied the arrival of Dionysus has swept it away. Everything has been transformed. But it has not been transformed into a charming fairy story or into an ingenuous child's paradise. The primeval world has stepped into the foreground, the depths of reality have been opened, the elemental forms of everything that is creative, everything that is destructive, have arisen, bringing with them infinite rapture and infinite terror. The innocent picture of a well-ordered routine world has been shattered by their coming, and they bring with them no illusions or fantasies but truth – a truth that brings on madness.
The ambiguous character of Dionysus is echoed in the drug which fuelled the heightened and fraying ambience of the late 60s. The LSD experience engendered total transformations of reality whose only predictable quality was their intensity: enchanted paradises and looping corridors of madness and dissociation formed a new mental topography which seemed to have emerged overnight around the familiar social mores of the pre-Space Age world:
In the myth and in the experience of those who have been affected by this event, the appearance of Dionysus brings with it nourishing intoxicating waters that bubble up from the earth. Rocks split open, and streams of water gush forth. Everything that has been locked up is released. The alien and the hostile unite in miraculous harmony. Age-old laws have suddenly lost their power, and even the dimensions of time and space are no longer valid.
(Dionysus: Myth and Cult.)
The utopian glow of the 60s had already passed its high-water mark by the beginning of '69. Emerging from their secluded revels in the desert, Manson and his frenzied maenads embodied with an eerie perfection the dark side of the Dionysian myth.
2. Murder and Obsession: The Ecstatic Elusiveness of Truth.
“One’s file, you know, is never quite complete, a case is never really closed, even after a century, when all of the participants are dead.”
The Third Man, Graham Greene, cited in Why Popular Culture Still Can't Get Enough of Charles Manson, by Ed Sanders.
David Fincher's best movie Zodiac (2007) deals with how unsolved murder can become an all-encompassing obsession. The movie traces an obsession with solving the Zodiac murders as it plays itself out through three separate characters: journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and cartoonist and later true crime author Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Crime holds a peculiar obsessive power over the imagination. As much as it has been derided as exploitative trash, the true crime genre has probably never been as vital.
What accounts for the enduring popularity of sifting through the often labyrinthine minutiae of traumatic and appalling events from the past? Morbidity only accounts for a part of the phenomenon. There is a perennial appeal to the mind of attempting to solve dense, seemingly intractable problems. Mystery captures the mind with an almost erotic ardour, an obsessive passion which is at its height when in a state of irresolution, where the apparent proximity of the solution and the ultimate, ecstatic elusiveness of finality and resolution are equidistant to one another.
This perhaps accounts for the appeal of the cold case. Sufficiently distant in the past, an old case can rarely be definitively solved – but that those not deter us from chasing after some kind of ambiguous resolution, or provisional certainty that the truth can yet be wrestled from the hazy fog of time's passage. The past, like the truth, plays a game with our obsessive imaginations, appearing one moment within our reach, and the next utterly irretrievable. The investigation of a cold case, whether in fiction or true crime, dramatizes our peculiar relationship with the past. It is at once divorced from the present by cleavage greater than that of the farthest star in the sky, and yet innumerable threads and links remain: a detail in a file nobody noticed before, a witness nobody thought to interview, a memory, a physical trace etched into a wall somewhere – something to restore the past by decoding its unfinished business.
Of all the twentieth century crimes that have taken hold of excitable and obsessive imaginations, none have enjoyed the same pre-eminence as those which bookend the 60s: the assassination of Kennedy in '63, and the Manson Family murders of August '69. Both had the air of ominous ritual: in the first the slaying of a virile (or, in less flattering language, priapic) chieftan, and in the latter the slaugther of a beautiful and pregnant young woman. In the insuing years, America had careened into a giddy, creative, apocalyptically violent tumult, and latterly walked on the moon, having in the meantime engaged in so much labyrinthine conspiratorial sorcery that a not inconsiderable section of the population would never believe that it really happened. The lasting legacy of the 60s, of brains rewired by drugs, technology and subliminal state coercion, was that nothing would ever be how it seemed any more.
The Kennedy and Manson murders take their researchers into a strange, often scarcely credible world which is more like fiction than reality – more outre than fiction itself, in fact. This is because they occur not in the everyday world, but in worlds characterised by different types of power. To attempt to unravel Kennedy's murder, one enters the complex, compartmentalized and occult (in the sense of “hidden”, and maybe some others) machinations of the national security state, a largely unseen world where real power is exercised through the merging of corporate, military, intelligence and organized crime networks. The Manson saga takes us into a different kind of power – the great power over the imagination exercised by movies and popular music, and by the sybaritic lifestyles of the icons and celebrities who make them – and finally to the power exercised by Manson himself, the power of the mesmerist, the hypnotist and cult leader, the psychopath who we despise, but from whom we cannot withhold our enduring fascination. These are worlds buzzing, almost mystically, with coincidences, connections and secrets.
3. A Story that has Never Been Told in Its Entirety.
The Manson Family murders are solved, insofar as nobody really debates who actually did the killing. Yet there has always been a sense that the Manson saga is a story that has never been told in its entirety. Going all the way back to Ed Sanders' The Family (the first book on the subject published in 1971), dark rumours and conspiranoid theories have always swirled around the core story. Sanders discussed persistent tales of decadence having run amok in the house on Cielo Drive prior to the grizzly events of August 8/9, and his book positions the Family within a wider matrix of satanic biker gangs, organized crime both petty and more professionally ambitious, and a burgeoning sub-culture of gnostic mind control control cults (including Scientology and the Process Church of the Final Judgement) that makes Panos Cosmatos' movie Mandy feel like the Barry Manilow track of the same name. Pioneering conspiracy maven Mae Brussell argued that the killings were a false flag operation against the counter-culture, and posited Manson as a COINTELPRO patsy. (Whatever the ultimate validy of this theory, her research did highlight a persistent, baffling and disturbing leniency shown to Manson and his followers by law enforcement authorities.)
In 1974, however, vainglorious DA Vincent Bugliosi published his account of the trial in Helter Skelter, and this book enshrined forever the official Manson narrative, with its White Album inspired race war apocalypse as the scarcely credible, but rarely thereafter questioned, motive for the brutal killings. Sanders' book was dismissed as poorly sourced sensationalism, and the weirder backwaters of the case were largely relegated to underground works like Peter Levanda's epic melange of true crime, occult history and conspiranoia Sinister Forces.
What is striking about Tom O'Neill's book Chaos (released fortuitously on the eve of Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is that it is, to the best of my knowledge, the first mainstream book to really wade into the dark, long repressed undercurrents of the Manson story. This was by no means O'Neill's intention. The whole thing began – it's hard to avoid the movie-like structure of the book – as a routine freelance assignment for Premier magazine, a Manson anniversary piece with a Hollywood angle. Stonewalled by the luminaries, however, O'Neill found himself drifting slowly into the obsessive realm charted out in Fincher's Zodiac. At an early point in his investigations, the recently departed activist/journalist Paul Krassner warned O'Neill “This will take over your life if you let it.” So it came to pass: the Premier piece, its deadline endlessly deferred, became a 20 year obsession.
There may not be much in Chaos which is completely new to seasoned Mansonoids, but O'Neill has done a heroic amount of investigative legwork, and in many cases provided substantiation for much that has previously hovered in the ambiguous realm of rumour and innuendo. Chaos relentlessly exposes the Manson Family prosecution as riddled with so many improprieties and irregularities that it could have been struck out of court many times over. He mounts a very convincing assault on the legitimacy of the putative Helter Skelter motive, pointing out that Bugliosi stated on two separate occasions that he didn't think Manson himself believed in the coming race war/underground getaway mythos; this is an extremely telling admission, because if Manson didn't believe in Helter Skelter, and ordered the killings, then the race war angle couldn't have been the actual motive, only at best what Watson, Atkins and the other Mansonoids had been told it was.
O'Neill then makes the case, based on circumstantial but undeniably suggestive evidence, that Manson might have been an asset of some or other of the deeply immoral underground programs the US government had become embroiled in in the 60s (COINTELPRO, MKUltra, etc.) This is by no means implausible. As a COINTELPRO asset, Manson would have been win-win, in the sense that his activities would both inflame tensions with black militant groups like the Panthers and present the 60s counter-culture in general in the most negative light possible. In relation to MKUltra, many have observed that Manson's activities dovetailed precisely with those of the shadowy program, ie the use of hallucinogenic drugs and ritualized psychotherapies and sexuality to create re-programmed and obedient subjects.
To make the case for MKUltra involvement, O'Neill focuses on Manson's period in Haight-Ashbury, during which the life-long prison inmate very rapidly adopted the newfangled role of acid guru, and particularly on the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic (HAFMC). O'Neill isolates no less than three figures associated with the Clinic who had academic/experimental interests which eerily prefigure Manson's activities with the Family. Federal officer Roger Smith had studied how drug use precipitates violent behaviour among gangs, often using immersive, observer-participant methods to gather data. Meanwhile, David E Smith, the founder of the HAFMC, had also been studying the link between drug use and violent behaviour in groups, this time amongst rodent populations. The first of the two, Roger, was Manson's parole officer, and his relationship with his charge was unorthodox, to say the very least, and characterised by the kind of bizarre leniency which would reoccur in various departments throughout the ensuing saga.
Another occasional visitor to the HAFMC was Louis Jolyon “Jolly” West, a psychiatrist and life-long friend of Charlton Heston who once accidentally killed an elephant by injecting it with LSD and antipsychotics. “Jolly” West was also one of the many medical practitioners sub-contracted under the MKUltra program, and O'Neill discovered his direct correspondence with its leader Sidney Gottlieb, known in his lifetime as the Black Sorcerer and the Dirty Trickster. West is one of those figures who constantly shows up in peculiar places. In 1959, he persuaded DJ Peter Tripp to stage the notorious wakeathon, in which the radio personality broadcasted his show from a glass booth in Times Square for 200 hours straight without sleep. In 1964, West privately examined Jack Ruby, declaring him to be “obviously psychotic.” (Incidentally, Ruby claimed to have been taking Preludin at the time of killing Oswald. Preludin was marketed as an appetite suppressant, but it was in fact an amphetamine substitute which the Beatles had taken during their Hamburg days, bringing us back to the subject of amphetamines and violence.) In West we find a link – however tenuous – between the MKUltra program, the JFK assassination, and the decaying Haight-Ashbury hippie milieu that Charles Manson moved in in '68, demonstrating once again the strange dark tapestry and nexus of coincidence underlying America's cultural and political tumults of the 60s.
Whether or not Manson was an informant, asset or unwitting guinea pig of some government program, one persistent and plausible theory of the Tate-LaBianca murders places them in the more banal realm of dope dealing and petty crime gone awry. The theory posits the murders as the end-product of a sequence of messy, confused episodes which began with Manson shooting (and thinking he had killed) drug dealer Bernard Crowe, and basically having less to do with mind control sorcery, and more to do with small time crime spiralling out of control owing to its participants being thoroughly pickled by isolation and excessive psychedelic drug use. (Read this interview with James Buddy Day for a succinct breakdown of this theory.) This is certainly one way of interpreting the Manson saga – that because of Manson's peculiar charisma, because he had been swept along in the collapsing historical wave of the 60s, because the Cielo Drive victims had been beautiful, famous and well-connected, an otherwise squalid and banal sequence of events became seared forever into our historical subconscious. Bugliosi aided this process by covering up the extent to which Hollywood elites had become embroiled in this small time criminal world, and by crafting the narrative of a master manipulator which put the final nail in the coffin of the revolutionary 60s.
Nevertheless, the Manson story continues to fascinate, because we still have a sense that crucial parts of it remain elusive and deliberately hidden from view. The pointed silence of Hollywood's hip set (in his 1993 autobiography What's It All About, Michael Caine describes encountering a “scruffy little man” - you know who – at a party also attended by Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate), the extraordinary, recurring leniency shown to both Manson and Susan Akins by the authorities (both should have been busted back inside many times over before the killings), the eerie dovetailing of David E Smith and “Jolly” West's research interests with the emerging dynamics of the Manson Family cult – all of these things point to a definite, dark something that remains elusive about the case. Chaos manages to weave a compulsively readable narrative out of O'Neill's dense, diligent, Ahab-like quest to finally bring that something into the light of day. In the end, the book is perhaps inevitably anti-climatic – after all the obsessive excitement, the smoking gun remains elusive, O'Neill refuses to enter the realm of speculation, and the reader is left, like Oedipa Mass at the end of Thomas Pynchon's prescient conspiranoid classic The Crying of Lot 49, on the threshold of a revelation. O'Neill's investigation ends, more by virtue of time and necessity than anything else, its threads still multiplying, and and the Manson case returns to the indecisiveness of history, to the realm of ambiguity and myth, and the fiction of the Tarantino film.