Who put Charlie and the Family up to their murderous mischief? This long excursus on the killings that terrified Los Angeles 50 years ago suggests some unlikely answers.
How did it happen that a bunch of peace freaks turned into a band of homicidal maniacs? In this overlong but provocative barrage, freelance journalist O’Neill charts a series of conjectures that begins with famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and ends in the dark chambers of the intelligence community. The logic goes something like this: It’s useful to control people’s minds, but it’s difficult to accomplish if they’re sane. If they’re a little off balance, needy, and disaffected, though, then give them a charismatic leader and some chores, and voilà—and along the way, if LSD is involved, then you can serve up an object lesson about the dangers of drugs. O’Neill’s thesis has its possibilities, but, like Oliver Stone’s JFK—and the Kennedy assassination figures here—it’s not so much that he ventures a theory as that he ventures all of them: The FBI wanted to whip up racial division to divide the New Left from the Black Panthers, Manson was an agent provocateur, record producer and Hollywood insider Terry Melcher had a hand in the whole thing, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson was a silent partner. And then there was Roman Polanski and his weird proclivities—as O’Neill writes, “remember how Susan Atkins wrote the word ‘Pig’ on the front door of Cielo Drive, in Sharon Tate’s blood?” But what if she really wrote something else? It’s all too much. Among the best aspects of the book are the author’s confessions of the many dead ends and blank spots he encountered, as when he confronted Bugliosi with the suggestion that he knew more than he was letting on and in fact covered up some of the evidence. “It was the wrong move,” he writes. “I’d intended to build to this moment, and now I was leading with it, giving him every reason to take a contentious tone.”
Fans of conspiracy theories will find this a source of endless fascination.