The Reading Season: Tom O’Neill spent 20 years investigating the Manson murders. Didion: it’s an impossible task.

If you were born in California, of a certain age, there’s a reference point to perpetually entice; the Manson Murders. It was the crime of the century. It was mayhem.

The craziness of California in the late 60’s feels like the craziness of America right now. Such are the cycles of life and how one thing leads to another.

Last week, Quentin Tarantino was promoting his new book is based on his Academy Award-winning film called ‘Once Upon a Time’. Both revolve around the Manson murders. Tarantino recommended Tom O’Neill’s book, ‘Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.

I read it but even O’Neill wasn’t convinced. He spent 20 years investigating the murders but only had theories. Was Manson an informant? Of the CIA? the FBI? So many conspiracy theories. They exhaust, they even feel tedious. His journastic effort is impressive but to what end? He never could find the smoking gun.

In ’69, the day after the murders, Joan Didion was sitting in the shallow end of her sister’s pool in LA when the calls started coming in. Apparently ‘the family’ had driven by Didion’s home on that sinister night. Didion said they weren’t even surprised. Everything was permitted, the flower children were taking drugs, some were taking an awful lot of LSD but once speed and meth entered the scene it became violent. They were mostly runaways and they all ran to san Francisco, to the corner of Haight-Ashbury. Everything was out of control.

A documentary on Didion was called: The center will not hold.

This is what I thought about while revisiting Didion’s essays in ‘The White Album’ and ‘Souching Towards Bethlehem’. The Manson Murders were a climax of the spiralling tension of the 60s. A period of excess, people crossing lines, committing crimes, without any fear of consequences. She captured the essence of the 60’s. She was the chronicler of California before she explored the other Americas.

Here in Europe there was drama in the late 60’s but the Europeans, older tribes, had experienced this before. They stay serious, they can be weary, especially the Italians who constantly put a lid on their operatic behavior, keeping it on the stage and out of their personal lives. But Americans are easily excitable. We are gullible.

This feels familiar, this feels like the cycles of life. Trump commits all kinds of sins. He even confesses to them. And he loves chaos. So did Manson.

Trump famously said he could kill someone on 5th avenue and his followers would still love him. Manson’s followers loved him so much they killed for him. He didn’t even need to be at the scene of the crime. Manson was in detention centers and jail for most of his life, then he was released in ’67 and we know how that turned out.

Trump never went to jail, he got away with everything. Then he became President of the United States. And we know how that turned out; the media is still obsessed. He drives ratings. He loves chaos. He keeps amping up the pressure.

Didion wrote, “Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable.” Now people are saying the quiet part out loud.

Tom O’Neill spent 20 years trying to make sense of Manson, trying to unravel the chaos of ‘the family’. Maybe he should have listened to Didion. It’s an impossible task. This awesome and impenetrable mystery.

Gary Lachman, whom I’ve interviewed, said, “History has caught up with us…” Was this what he meant?

There doesn’t seem to be the time to feel suprised. The brainwashing, the cult of personality, unraveling slowly, daily, in a myriad of ways. The 60’s ended with the Manson murders. The movement entered society, thrived, then it died. Perhaps the government was involved. I could not care less. Governments always try and control society.

They seem to be tightening their grip.

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