Making of a Monster: Charles Manson

Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on Charles Manson, an American criminal who led ‘The Manson Family,’ a quasi-commune in California in the late 1960s. Out in the 28thJune 2012 edition, I supplied the following psychological insight.

How did having an alcoholic mum affect the young Charles?

Alcoholism has been termed a ‘family disease’ for a good reason.  It impacts not only the world of the alcoholic, but the entire family become victims to its effects.  Studies have shown that children who have alcoholic parents grow up to have deep-seated emotional problems, which can manifest through destructive behaviour.  Having an alcoholic parent can be likened to being on a continual rollercoaster, making children feel insecure, vulnerable, anxious, and sometimes as though it is their fault.  As adults, children of alcoholics can find it hard to be successful or to develop close personal relationships.

How would someone cope knowing his mum had tried to exchange him for a keg of beer?

There are generally four ways that a child would cope with the often irrational and rash actions of an alcoholic parent, including their mother trying to exchange them for a keg of beer.  Firstly, they might internalise their sadness and become withdrawn.  Secondly, they might deny it and pretend it didn’t happen.  Thirdly, they might use the experience to grow and become stronger.  Finally, they might externalise their sadness and anger through violent behaviour.  Charles opted for the fourth coping mechanism.

To what extent was he affected psychologically by his small stature?

The saying ‘short man syndrome’ and ‘little angry man syndrome’ is based on some fact.  Throughout history small statured men have released anger and aggression overtly.  Think of Napolean Bonoparte, Mussolini, Attila the Hun, Stalin, and Hitler, to name a few.  Even scientific research has indicated that short men can be particularly aggressive.  Of course, this is not to say that all small statured men are to be the next Charles Manson.  However, it does indicate that in some instances, and perhaps even in Manson’s case, the inferiority complex that can accompany being short can result in outward displays of hostility.  Small men have greater pressure to demonstrate their masculinity in a world so dominated by appearance.  Combined with an innate or biological tendency towards aggression, this can be a dangerous concoction.

He raped another boy when he was just 12, but denied being gay. What would make someone do this to another? 

For decades heterosexual males have raped other males.  This is less about sexual attraction and more about having the ultimate kind of power by totally demeaning another human being.

Did his failure to launch a successful music career influence his crimes?

Independently, Charles’ failure to launch a successful music career is unlikely to have influenced his crimes.  However, when combined with his chaotic childhood, this could have been one of many triggers to creating the Manson we know today.

Why would he have named both his sons Charles after himself?

Naming both of his sons Charles, after himself, is indicative of Manson’s narcissistic and self-centred personality.  It would appear that he saw his sons as an extension to himself.  He wants his sons to be yet another representation of himself within the world.

What makes a person see something in song lyrics that isn’t there, i.e. the race war he saw predicted in the Helter Skelter record by the Beatles?

Charles was absorbed in most of the Beatles songs, but Helter Skelter in particular was released at a time when Charles was forecasting a racial war.  If someone believes something so intensely, they will make everything around them confirm that belief, even if it doesn’t make sense.  This is particularly easy to do with music, where the meaning is subjective to the listener and not necessarily even related to the artist’s initial meaning.  Charles had already predicted the race war and Helter Skelter intensified his beliefs.

How did he manage to convince his followers to commit the murders?

I have already discussed Charles’ narcissistic tendencies.  Narcissists, while very self-absorbed, are also extremely charismatic and possess huge amounts of charm.  It is this charisma and charm that make them effective leaders, but in the case of Manson, he was leading his followers to commit murders for him.  Charles’ self-grandiosity is likely, however, to have been so enigmatic and believable that his followers put him on a pedestal.  In many ways, he became a ‘God’ whom people believed in and would thus obey, believing that he only asked of them what was necessary. 

And why did he don’t wield the knife himself?

This again goes back to his narcissistic personality.  Why do the work that you can get others to do for you?  The power and further feelings of grandiosity he would have gained from his followers committing the murders for him would have been far greater than being alone in his mission.

Since being in prison, he’s received more mail than any other US prisoner. What do people find so appealing about this man to this day? 

Even in prison, Charles Manson’s narcissism and the associated charisma draw people towards him.  People are always captivated by power and Manson certainly demonstrated that he has power.


Categories: Psychology

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6 replies

  1. Wow, what a great article on the topic. I read Helter Skelter when I was young, and it was very scary and also fascinating. Since studying psychology and Buddhism later on, I think an important thing to keep in mind is that we all have pieces of so many things within us, such as the tendency to see things that aren’t there in song lyrics, for example. It’s good to remember such an extreme case like Manson’s in order to acknowledge that we all have similar situations, though not as pronounced and usually not as violent, in order to have compassion when we meet others who are struggling with these things. When we can connect with people empathically early on in this process, maybe some of these horrible things can be prevented, instead of living in a culture of isolation where people’s narcissistic tendencies can get so out of control. Thank you for sharing this 🙂

  2. Jennifer, thank you so much for dropping by and commenting. I like your comment regarding us all having a tendency to see things that aren’t there – you are so right – it is the degree of delusion or hallucination that can make a huge difference.

    You have some wonderful insight in terms of prevention through empathy; I couldn’t agree more. We all start out very similar – humans with the same wants and needs.

  3. Thank you, your comments are the best I’ve found on the subject. Just some clarification about the dates, (although I’m no expert). According to his own account, “Manson was sent, at age 13, to the Indiana Boys School, where, he would later claim, he was brutalized sexually and otherwise”. I believe the rape you refer to was committed by him, Feb. 1952, when he was 18. Therefore he was well versed in brutality, having spend so much time incarcerated from a young age.

  4. Thank you, Sara – I am pleased you found this useful. Also, thank you for the clarification re the dates – this is really useful and interesting to know. Always feel free to add to my blogs – the more we learn about these characters, the better we can understand the behaviour that often seems so incomprehensible.


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