Manson-Book Review · Female Serial Killers · For Heaven's Sake

Plus Netflix docs, NBA refs, and Martha in cuffs

It’s not just a big day for Q-natics; March 4 is also the anniversary of Martha Stewart’s release from prison. Reading this explainer on the case by ThoughtCo’s Mike Moffatt, I was struck by the performative punishment of Stewart, and the near-quaintness of the case generally. Like, who doesn’t want to return to a time when this dominated headlines — which were read to us over our coffee by the then soothingly authoritative Matt Lauer?

And yet at the same time, so little has changed in 16 (!) years, in the sense that, in cases of corporate/market malfeasance, one big-name figure is selected as the lightning rod for discipline, and the rest of the industry — and capitalist/executive structures — doesn’t have to change. — SDB

The crime
On August 8-9, 1969, racist guru and aspiring rocker Charles Manson ordered his followers to kill seven people. OR DID HE???

The story
Well, that’s the central issue with Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, at least for this reader: he did. The question at issue for Tom O’Neill is whether the “why” we’ve taken as gospel for half a century, “Healter Skelter,” is really the why — and whether everyone responsible really was exposed and punished. O’Neill disgorges an impressive volume of evidence suggesting that the answer to both questions is “no,” but the issue lies in the “so?” his audience may respond with. It’s not that it’s not an interesting read (or, in my case, listen; Kevin Stillwell is an extremely capable narrator for the audiobook, and held my attention in a way the text may not have). It’s that a good portion of that evidence seems to fall into the category of “correlation is not causation.” It’s also that O’Neill is at such pains to illuminate certain inconsistencies or cover-ups that he loses perspective on how important or revealing his discoveries truly are, and by extension the reader struggles to put those discoveries in a meaningful context.

Take Vincent Bugliosi (“…please!”). A lot of real estate in Chaos is devoted to exposing Bugliosi as a defensive, combative, showboating abuser who left crucial information out of both his in-court narrative about the murders and his account of them/the case in Helter Skelter. HS is a true-crime classic which, like all classics IMO, should be questioned with the benefit of hindsight, and I don’t have any particular stake in believing V. Bugs was a good guy, but it’s not entirely clear to me what O’Neill’s stake is in proving that he wasn’t. Is it that Manson et al. didn’t receive a fair trial? Is it that Manson had a Manson of his own in the CIA, who never answered for alleged manipulation of subjects using LSD? Is that Bugliosi was litigiously unkind to O’Neill?

The testimony of biker Danny DeCarlo also gets a lot of acreage, and here again, it’s not that it’s not compelling and it’s not that its burial isn’t significant — but O’Neill tends to sap his own legitimate probing of sketchy situations and coincidence with repetition and rhetorical questions. The result is that plausible exceptions to the “historical record” of this case begin, thanks to O’Neill worrying them like bones, to seem like crackpottery. And I don’t believe they are. I think O’Neill presents more than reasonable doubt as to why Manson wasn’t violated for his behavior as a parolee; what role Manchurian Candidate-type programs may have played in the Haight “scene” when Manson came onto it; and whether law enforcement didn’t realize they could be looking at criminally-negligent homicide charges, and roll certain interviews and timelines into shallow graves. That the seven lives lost could perhaps have been spared is a big deal. Unfortunately, O’Neill doesn’t exactly ever come out and say that in so many words (to my recollection; please do correct me if I missed it, but…you know, that I missed it is maybe not a problem on my end, if you see what I’m saying), and undercuts his findings by spending as much if not more time on, well, how much time it took to write the book, and how many deadlines he missed after his 1999 Premiere piece didn’t run because he had no internet at the bottom of that year’s rabbit hole.

It’s not an unenjoyable experience, Chaos. I didn’t dislike it; the writing isn’t bad; I suspect I would have felt differently — i.e., more impatient — reading it, but it manages to move right along in the audio format. As I listened, though, brushing my teeth, doing chores, occasionally I’d respond aloud through a mouthful of toothpaste with, “Okay, and?” The suggestion that Manson had blackmail material on someone is not new to me, as one of the four people who watched Aquarius in its entirety — but as one of those people, shouldn’t that have landed harder? Shouldn’t we know how exactly O’Neill spent half a million dollars on research and travel if, as I assume, he didn’t buy the Spahn Ranch outright at some point? What exactly are we all doing here?

I don’t know what to tell you vis-a-vis a recommendation; case-heads should probably give it a look, and if you have a free-trial Audible credit to burn, there’s worse ways to use it. (Like the delinquent-turned-forger crimoir I’m currently slogging through, ugh.) But I wouldn’t pay full price for a story of a book that gets in the way of the story in the book. — SDB

Any thoughts on Glamour’s list of “39 Documentaries That Will Captivate You”? Almost half the list is true-crime content, which is unsurprising; the selections are also fairly unsurprising, although I was glad to see The Keepers surfaced, as it tends to get overlooked in these listicles. I’d have liked to see more Josh Zeman material (Murder Mountain) on that sub-list, and more features — plus Crime Scene could have been swapped out for any number of other, less disingenuous properties. — SDB

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Paramount+’s launch date has arrived, and with it an exclusive true-crime docuseries, For Heaven’s Sake. Paramount+ is the rebrand of CBS All Access — here’s what you need to know about whether it’s worth adding to your menu of streamers — and Variety has a synopsis and an exclusive clip, which based on this snip sound…fake?

The series will follow the search for Harold Heaven, who mysteriously vanished from his remote cabin in Ontario, Canada in 1934. The clip, which balances levity and true crime, showcases Heaven’s great-great-nephew Mike Mildon and his true-crime-obsessed best friend Jackson Rowe trying to obtain a ground penetrating radar to find Heaven’s body.

“Fun” factoid for you: I’m sure I’ve mentioned that I used to volunteer as a researcher at Green-Wood Cemetery, writing bios for forgotten poobahs of the nineteenth century. That included verifying the poobahs’ graves’ locations, but some of them had sunk below ground level, and once a year, the cemetery would scrape together a pile of money and rent a GPR machine from the FBI for a few days, to find stones that had been taken back into the earth. So for most people, this detail probably has a whiff of Lance-and-Tim overstepping, but I find it relatable, whatever that says about me.

I’ll tell you something else about me: I’m cheap, and I will definitely check this series out because Paramount Plus gives you a luxurious month on the free-trial tip. Plus, Good Fight. Overall, I’ve found the Paramount channel’s crime offerings lackluster (that Waco thing with Taylor Kitsch is fairly typical) but the price is right here IMO. Anyone else going to check out either the series or the service, then set a calendar reminder for Day 29 and cancel it? (If you’re undecided about whether the story is up your alley, here’s a piece on the case from early last year.) — SDB

The Walrus excerpted Patricia Pearson’s When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away With Murder a few weeks ago. The section snipped focuses specifically on health-care providers, and the idea that, when these angels of death are included in our more traditional conceptions of the serial killer, serial-murder numbers from the last 50-70 years look a lot different. Here’s a sub-snip:

[W]e could be talking about 130 suspected serial killers in North America and Europe—dozens of John Wayne Gacys and Jeffrey Dahmers—in the last half century. And these are only the ones known or suspected. There have been other care homes and hospitals with highly suspicious death rates that have never been fully explained. Like the red-light district and the lonely highway, institutional care settings are prime hunting grounds for the modern serial killer.

Aside from the home, these care homes and hospitals are also the main source of victims for women who kill. We don’t fully understand what separates these women from others of their gender. But more than half of health care serial killers are female, according to Southern California University nursing professor Beatrice Crofts Yorker. By that measure, there have been at least forty-five of them in the years since the FBI established its Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico, the subject of Netflix’s Mindhunter—even though the leaders of the unit declared to this author personally that all serial killers were male.

The book evidently came out in 1998 but has a fresh edition with an updated chapter from January of this year, and I’d love to have a look at it — not least because, in my inventory travels over at Exhibit B., I come across a lot of mid-century titles like Bad Girl, Worse Girl or lurid “investigations” into lady felons in which the word “lesbian” is capitalized…you know the kind of thing I mean. The culture has gotten somewhat more circumspect about the presentation, but the fascination with woman-identified people who violate the ultimate norm, and how, persists. If you’ve read it, or have other gender-studies/crime crossover reading recs, I’d love to hear from you.

PS There’s a discount code in play until Friday night, so if you’re browsing around, take 15% off with the ExtraHot344 code! — SDB

Friday on Best Evidence: Not sure what we’ll be talking about tomorrow! Possibly hilarious author photos, examples of which I collect at all times.

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