Exploring the Mind of Charles Manson

4 min read
cottonbro studio / Pexels

Source: cottonbro studio / Pexels

In August 1969, a string of violent murders stunned the entire world. Charles Manson, whose name has since become synonymous with cult-led violence, was the mastermind behind the infamous “Tate-LaBianca” killings. The first killing occurred on the night of August 8–9, and the victims included pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four of her friends who were visiting that night.

Manson had apparently chosen the house where Tate lived because he believed a record executive who had rejected his songs was still living there. The following evening, the “family” also murdered supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, at their home in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.

In the trial that followed, Manson and his followers testified that the killings had been intended to precipitate a race war since they intended their crimes to be blamed on black activists. As a result of his involvement in these killings, Manson was sentenced to death in 1971; however, his sentence was eventually reduced to life in prison. Manson would spend decades in jail until his death in November 2017 at the age of 83. Of his surviving followers, four remain in California prisons.

In August 1997, Manson, who was then 63 years old, was transferred to Pelican Bay State Prison for drug trafficking charges while in prison. Also known as California’s “supermax” prison, Pelican Bay housed the most dangerous inmates who were serving long sentences (i.e., 25 to life with the possibility of parole). Due to being previously diagnosed with severe mental illness, Manson was housed in Pelican Bay’s psychiatric service unit (PSU).

Ever the subject of controversy, questions were immediately raised about whether Manson was truly mentally ill or whether he would be better suited for the prison’s special handling unit (SHU.). As a result, he underwent a comprehensive psychiatric examination, the full details of which only became publicly available following his 2017 death.

A recent publication in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management provides an overview of Manson’s assessment, including his formal diagnosis, his criminal history, and why he has become a role model for extreme right-wing terrorist groups over the past decade in the United States. The lead author, Tod A. Roy, a forensic psychologist now practicing in Phoenix, Arizona, conducted the 1997 assessment and secured permission from the California Department of Corrections to publish the previously confidential report.

Along with a battery of tests, including the Rorschach Psychodiagnostic Test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), and the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), Manson’s extensive criminal history, both inside and outside of prison was also examined. At the time of his assessment, he had spent 46 of his 63 years behind bars, including 25 years for the Tate-LaBianca murders.

The results, which Roy and his coauthors recently reanalyzed, proved to be as complicated and conflicting as anyone familiar with Manson’s case might expect. For instance, the findings of the MMPI-2 and Rorschach tests that Manson took provide evidence that he struggled with significant psychological disorders that couldn’t be neatly classified according to existing systems such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

As a result, the question of whether Manson could be considered psychotic as well as psychopathic remains as controversial as ever, even after his death.

The significance of these discoveries lies not only in trying to understand Manson but also in understanding the more far-reaching aspects of his ideology, particularly in the context of contemporary extremist movements related to “accelerationism.”

What is meant by “accelerationism” is the concept that accelerating the collapse of society would bring about the political or social changes extremists want. The ideology of Manson, which he used to justify the heinous murders he ordered, can be interpreted as an early example of this radical worldview.

It is helpful to discern and combat similar extremist views in today’s world if we have a better understanding of what motivated someone like Manson and those who followed him. In addition, the case of Manson highlights problems regarding the characteristics of psychosis and the degree to which mental illness might have an impact on criminal behavior.

Certainly, the article by Roy and his coauthor raised troubling questions about the intersections of psychology, criminality, and the effect of society given Manson’s life, the crimes he committed, and the later psychiatric tests conducted on him.

The life story of Manson is not only a chronicle of a criminal mastermind, but it is also a case study of the terrorist cell he created and the need to remain cautious against the ideologies that motivated his crimes. It is also a reminder of the significance of psychiatric evaluation in the process of comprehending criminal behavior and trying to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

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