Locating Psychopathy in a Scorpio, Musician, and “Family” Man, Charles Manson
Born November 12, 1934, Charles Manson would one day become the image of psychopathy. According to the online “fun fact” publisher, UberFacts, the murderous manifestation of psychopathy can be traced to one’s month of birth: ‘Seventeen serial killers were born in November, compared with an average of nine for other months, out of a total of more than 100 in the study. Those born in November are most likely to believe they get a raw deal. A 2005 study found that they grow up to be the most pessimistic” (Shorey, 2016). Is the prediction of psychopathy as simple as that? If so, as a Scorpio, I might be destined for psychopathy. Interestingly, though Manson never killed anyone himself, he is still spoken of as one of the most notorious serial killers to have plagued the nation. To better understand his infamous role in the killings that took place during the summer of 1969, we must put Manson’s psyche to the test–did he fit the characteristics of psychopath?; was his psychopathy caused by factors of nature, like his month of birth or genetic criminality, or was the type of nurture he received responsible for his behavior?; and what was it about one man that made him responsible for the murderous acts of others?
In his book, The Mask of Sanity (1988), Hervey Cleckley describes a psychopath named Tom, whose behavior and character closely resemble that of Charles Manson. However, Tom’s upbringing differs from that of Manson, in that his family life appeared rather healthy and stable, while Manson’s did not. For instance, both Manson’s mother and father were reported to have histories of criminal behavior (Bugliosi and Gentry, 1994). In Cleckley’s analysis, Tom’s parents were not characterized by criminality, and attempted to help him overcome his own (1988). What do his commonalities and differences with Cleckley’s prototype tell us about the making of a psychopath like Charles Manson? One explanation can be found in the term equifinality–discussed in our class lectures–meaning, multiple causes can result in the same outcome; though raised in different environments, Charles Manson and Tom’s exhibited similar psychopathic traits (Phillips, 2019). Using the four-factor model proposed by Hare & Neumann (2008), we can better evaluate psychopathy based on categorical fit.
As discussed in our lecture and supported through various assigned readings, a working definition of psychopathy is: a psychological construct, with no diagnostic test aside from clinical assessment, exhibiting traits such as lack of empathy or callousness, calculating or manipulative behavior, deceitfulness, aggression, and lack of future orientation (Phillips, 2019). Hare and Neumann’s four-factor identification of psychopathy include these categories and their respective sub-categories: Interpersonal, Affective, Lifestyle, and Antisocial (2008). Using information from Guinn’s biography of Manson, it is known that he was often abandoned by his mother due to her stints in lock-up, or outright refusal to care for him, which could be understood as a biological or environmental factor–meaning, she passed down her criminality to Manson genetically, or his exposure to her criminality affected his own (2014). Regardless, Manson exhibited behavior applicable to the four category of psychopathy from a young age. In line with the four-factor model’s subcategories of Antisocial behavior, Manson’s early life was fraught with “poor behavior controls,” “early behavior problems,” “juvenile delinquency,” “revocation of conditional release,” and “criminal versatility” (2008). Before the age of 10, Manson became continually truant, frequently stole, was often sent to (and ran away from) reform schools, and–exactly like Checkley’s Tom (1988)–began stealing cars at the age of 14, often raking up second chances as frequently as he did arrests, but with no sign of remorse or commitment to reform (Guinn, 2014). Not only was this Antisocial behavior present in early life, but continued throughout his adulthood, culminating in his eventual orchestration of random killings as the cult leader of the “Manson Family” (Bugliosi and Gentry, 1994).
In terms of the Lifestyle category, Manson’s early life, as well as his early adult life, fit the criteria. As reported by Bugliosi and Gentry (1994) and Guinn (2014), Manson’s lifestyle was stimulation-seeking (using drugs and engaging in promiscuity), impulsive (random criminal activity, fathering multiple babies), irresponsible (no sense of duty or loyalty to anyone throughout his life, including those in his “Family,” or cult), put others at risk (orchestrating murder, as an obvious example), and showed him to have a parasitic orientation (manipulating others to do things for him, like getting the drummer for the Beach Boys to give shelter to him and his cult or a bigger one, like getting his cult members to commit murder for him).
Manson’s behavior in interpersonal relationships was characterized by superficiality disguised as emotional depth, grandiosity, pathological lying, and manipulation through conning, all in line with the four-factor model’s Interpersonal sub-categories (2008). Growing stronger into adulthood and in the time leading up to the Manson Family’s murder-spree, it is clear that Manson mastered these interpersonal skills to convince others to do and think whatever he wanted them to. As cited in the rejection of one of his subsequent appeals for the 7 life-sentences Manson would serve for murder, the opinion of California’s Court of Appeals was that, “Manson’s position of authority was firmly acknowledged [by Family members]. It was understood that membership in the Family required giving up everything to Manson and never disobeying him. His followers, including the co-appellants, were compliant. They regarded him as infallible and believed that he was a ‘God man’ or Christ (1976). This same Court of Appeals also wrote, “the establishment and retention of his position as the unquestioned leader was one of design,” and one who members must be willing to kill for, highlighting his exception ability to manipulate, and his callous lack of empathy, a trademark of the Affective category (People v. Manson, 1976). Perhaps establishing Manson’s applicableness to Hare and Neumann’s model of psychopathy, a subsequent rejection decision in 2012 held that Manson continued to violate rules while in prison, never displayed any sort of remorse for his crimes, never spoke to the cause of his actions, refused to recognize the “magnitude” of the murders, and had an exceptional, “callous disregard for human suffering,” never even offering up a plan if granted parole (State of California Board of Parole).
In Chapter One of his textbook, Aggression and Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents, Connor discusses “Definitions and Subtyping of Aggressive behavior” (2004). In speculating as to which subtype of aggressive behavior Charles Manson might belong, a compassionate person might subtype him as “reactionary” or “affective,” meaning his behavior was born out of a defense of himself from a dangerous environment or some other form of legitimate fear (2004). After all, it is reported by Guinn that he supported himself by stealing from stores (2014). Furthermore, Bugliosi and Gentry described a coping mechanism young Charles Manson developed in response to the alleged rapes he would endure at a reform school in Indiana: Manson developed a self-defense technique he later called the ‘insane game.’ When he was physically unable to defend himself he would screech, grimace and wave his arms to convince aggressors that he was insane (1994).
Manson, however, was not insane. Soon after his days in the Indiana Boys School, his case worker described him as “aggressively antisocial” (1994). Through his research, Guinn was able to uncover a striking moment in Charles Manson’s young life, one that speaks to a pattern, and echoes the nature of the man Manson would become. By the age of six, Charlie had begun convincing girls in his class to beat up boys he did not like. After being called upon by the school principal to explain this behavior, Manson’s alleged excuse was “‘It wasn’t me; they were doing what they wanted. You can’t blame me for that’” (2014). As Guinn subsequently noted, this is the very excuse he would use later, charged with the murders of seven individuals whom he never physically touched.
Interestingly, Manson did not fit the high intellect often associated with psychopathy; around this time, he was also deemed illiterate and scored within the margin of average intelligence (2014). Nonetheless, he was perceptive enough to understand that people did not tend to like him very much, and he would soon prove himself capable of mastering the art of attraction. I believe this speaks to the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath. It is hard to describe the feeling of being under the influence of a sociopath, in particular; at trial, Manson’s followers described experiences similar to my own: it feels as though they read your mind, put you upon a pedestal, understand what you need and give it to you, and soon, you begin doing things you ordinarily never would, and it does not stop until you are physically removed from them. Though psychopaths are not necessarily bound by one trait or another, like intelligence, one conclusion repeated in many of the texts we have read so far is that it takes a highly intelligent individual to successfully manipulate so many people to such a degree. One form of intelligence is social intelligence, which Manson may have either learned or had a deep-seeded capacity for. Regardless of whether Charles Manson may have naturally possessed it, he was able to study up on how to wield this sort of charisma that seems to be the mark of sociopathy, and use it for psychopathic endeavors.
During his last stay in prison before his arrest following the fateful summer of 1969, Manson reportedly spent years studying tapes of Dale Carnegie narrating his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (Guinn 2014). Stemming from his childhood, this pattern of behavior–using knowledge to exert power over others–illustrates the more proactive subtype of aggressive behavior, “instrumental” aggression: a calculated, methodical pattern of behavior directed towards a desired outcome (Connor, 2004). This insight is key to unearthing Manson’s individual psychopathology; by separating his maladaptive aggression from what could be normal, adaptive aggression, we can better determine his functioning–or dysfunctioning–otherwise known as “Harmful Dysfunction” (2004). For Manson, his maladaptive aggression manifested in social dominance as his goal, and the ability to attract followers was only the tip of his psychopathic iceberg.
In assessing diagnoses for someone like Charles Manson, I think both Conduct Disorder (CD) or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) might have applied during his younger stages of development. As exemplified in the aforementioned pattern of aggression, Manson’s behavior qualified him for at least two of the aggression subtypes, at the very least, and he continued to engage in behavior that was destructive, deceitful, illegal and in violation of legal or social rules the rest of his life, fitting all the criteria for Conduct Disorder. Unfortunately, Manson was given everything the state was willing to give him, at the time, and it had not seemed to make a bit of difference. Could a diagnosis of CD have made a difference? Does it really matter how or why he became a psychopath, or whether he can officially be considered one or not? I believe what matters is how he slipped through the cracks, his inner world brewing in the face of outer silence. As previously mentioned, one case worker had deemed him aggressively antisocial in adolescence, but there seemed to have been absolutely no follow-up–just a revolving door of in and out.
If only they would have given him someone to listen to him, from childhood onward, maybe everything would have been different–or maybe psychopathy was his destiny, as a Scorpio, or the son of criminals, and no amount of intervention could have changed that; still, maybe lives could have been saved. During Charles Manson’s last days in jail before his release in 1968, knowing how well he had mastered the charisma he would need to carry out his desire for anarchistic social dominance, he paused for a moment, verbalizing a self-awareness that there was something wrong with him; he pleaded to stay in jail, saying he knew that if he was released, he would do bad things (Guinn 2014). The system released him anyway, and so he gravitated towards “the summer of love,” where the impressionable youth that had flooded into San Francisco were waiting for him, ready to listen to his music, flowers in their hair–and the rest is history.
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