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CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties


CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties is a 2019 non-fiction book written by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring [de]. The book presents O’Neill’s research into the background and motives for the Tate–LaBianca murders committed by the Manson Family in 1969. O’Neill questions the Helter Skelter scenario argued by lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in the trials and in his book Helter Skelter (1974).[3][4] The book’s title is a reference to the covert CIA program Operation CHAOS.[5]


In 1999, entertainment reporter Tom O’Neill accepted a three-month assignment from the film magazine Premiere to write about how the Tate–LaBianca murders changed Hollywood. O’Neill missed his deadline but continued to investigate the murders.[6][7] CHAOS is the product of twenty years of meticulous research, hundreds of interviews, and falling-outs with publishers that led to financial and legal repercussions for O’Neill.[8][9][10]


Publishers Weekly wrote that “True crime fans will be enthralled.”[11] The GuardianPeter Conrad wrote, “As [O’Neill] admits, the loose ends are still not tied up and with so many of the culprits dead they probably never will be. O’Neill’s intricately sinister ‘secret history’ often sounds incredible; that doesn’t mean that it’s not all true.”[9] Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Stephen Phillips deemed that O’Neill did “yeoman’s work filling out an aging narrative straitjacketed by the exigencies of its author’s legal strategy. “[12] Greg King of The Washington Post wrote, “There’s plenty of new information that makes Chaos a worthwhile addition to the canon of Manson literature, even if it ends without a unified theory of the crimes and their motivations.”.[13]

In a mixed review, Kirkus Reviews called the book “overlong”, praising “the author’s confessions of the many dead ends and blank spots he encountered” but largely criticizing O’Neill for exploring too many theories.[14] Tony Allen-Mills of The Sunday Times felt that the early chapters of the book “do a convincing job picking out the flaws in Bugliosi’s case, but the wheels start to come off when O’Neill begins searching for alternative explanations.”[15]

Film adaptationEdit

On July 19, 2019, Variety reported that Amazon Studios purchased the film rights to the book. Before CHAOS was published, an adaptation of O’Neill’s story was originally in development by Errol Morris in collaboration with Netflix but O’Neill backed out of the project over creative differences.[16]


  1. ^ “Chaos by Tom O’Neill”Little, Brown and Company. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  2. ^ Tom O’Neill (June 25, 2019). Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. Little, Brown. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-316-47757-4.
  3. ^ “Chaos by Tom O’Neill”Little, Brown and Company. Archived from the original on May 26, 2019. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  4. ^ Garber-Paul, Elisabeth (July 9, 2019). “RS Recommends: ‘Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties'”Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  5. ^ Mack, Adrian (August 9, 2019). “Extended interview: 50 years after the Manson murders, Tom O’Neill’s disturbing new book CHAOS seeks to dismantle the myths of Helter Skelter”The Georgia Straight. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  6. ^ Williams, Alex (July 28, 2019). “Journalist Misses His Deadline on Manson Article. By 20 Years”The New York Times. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  7. ^ Romanoff, Zan (June 27, 2019). “A Manson Murder Investigation 20 Years In the Making: ‘There Are Still Secrets'”Longreads. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  8. ^ Harty, Patricia“What Are You Like? Tom O’Neill”Irish America (October / November 2019 ed.). Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  9. a b Conrad, Peter (July 7, 2019). “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring – review”The Guardian. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  10. ^ Canfield, Kevin (August 4, 2019). “He Went Down the Manson Rabbit Hole and Barely Escaped”The Daily Beast. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  11. ^ “Nonfiction Book Review: Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring”Publishers Weekly. March 18, 2019. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  12. ^ Phillips, Stephen (July 12, 2019). “What really happened in the Manson murders? ‘Chaos’ casts doubt on Helter Skelter theory”Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  13. ^ King, Greg (August 1, 2019). “A 20-year search for the truth behind the Manson Family murders”The Washington Post. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  14. ^ “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring”Kirkus Reviews. April 23, 2019. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  15. ^ Allen-Mills, Tony (June 30, 2019). “Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring — revisiting a notorious murder mystery”The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on April 18, 2020. Retrieved August 26, 2021.
  16. ^ Donnelly, Matt (July 19, 2019). “Amazon Studios Takes Film Rights to Manson-Centered Drama ‘Chaos’ (EXCLUSIVE)”Variety. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
Tom O'Neill with Dan Piepenbring
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