Mediabeat: “CHAOS” and the strangeness of truth

Rarely do I make a spontaneous book purchase. Usually I’m too committed to the eternal quest of finishing the stack of unread books that I already own. However, a few months ago I tuned into my favorite internet radio show, “Time Crisis,” and listened to an interview with Tom O’Neill, the author of “CHAOS,” a book covering the Manson murders. O’Neill said he spent decades researching this book, travelling around California and interviewing former criminals, celebrities and hippies at restaurants like Denny’s. I was intrigued. A day later, the red paperback arrived at the post office, and I quickly became glad that I bought it.

A standout aspect of “CHAOS” is the time the author devotes to his own journey of becoming obsessed with the inconsistent story of the murders. The “Time Crisis” interview compared the book to “Zodiac,” which is one of my favorite movies, and I’d wholeheartedly agree. O’Neill started researching the murder case because he had to write a magazine article about the Manson murders, but ended up making such strange discoveries that he missed his deadline by 20 years and ended up writing an entire book.

The initial hook that O’Neill found was a small, yet very disturbing, fact: the prosecutor in the Manson family’s trial — the man who was responsible for establishing the definitive story of their crimes — let Roman Polanski keep a videotape that allegedly showed Polanski abusing Sharon Tate, when it clearly should’ve been taken as evidence after her murder. This action eventually led to bigger questions.

The police knew that although Manson and many family members were on parole, they were stealing cars and stockpiling weapons. The first discovery led to more questions. Why didn’t the police do anything about these issues before the cult committed the murders? Why did it take so long for them to investigate Manson after? And, one of the strangest: why were the family members regulars at a Haight-Ashbury clinic that turned out to be a front for a Cold War-era CIA experiment?

Despite the intense CIA-related direction that the book takes, it’s not a conspiracy theory story. Not to spoil things, but none of these interesting questions actually get answered. A big takeaway from “CHAOS” is that people often want to simplify historical events despite the fact that historically important events never happen in the form of a clear and well-organized narrative. It’s shocking to see just how connected the Manson murders were to every other major event happening in late 1960s California, from the Black Panther movement to the CIA’s LSD experiments. These connections just show that the truth is immensely more complicated and nonsensical than we’d like to think.

“CHAOS” is also about the impossibility of even finding the truth at all. As time goes by, we see that many of the people who were involved in the murders, namely Manson himself, have now passed away, and that so much of the information about the CIA seem to have been expertly hidden. This book suggests that we may never know the full story of the Manson murders, but we do know that the truth is bizarre. Overall, “CHAOS” is a book about the human drive to search for truth and understanding and how we can’t always find it. It’s also one of the most well-researched and underrated nonfiction books I’ve ever read, and I’d highly recommend it for those seeking some “Zodiac” vibes.

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