Monday, March 11, 2019

A Prison Psychologist on Charlie Manson

By James Dowding

It began like this: a correction officer brought him into my 4x6 office on the cell block.  His feet were in shackles, but his hands were free.  The officer asked me if I wanted his hands shackled, and I said no, knowing that he had no history of violence while in the institution.  The correctional officer left, closing the door behind him.  I sat at my desk.  I made a simple greeting, suggesting he sit, but he didn't comply or say anything.

Charlie shuffled over to a small bookcase.  He ran his finger along the books, touched knick-knacks on the shelf, and looked at paintings on the wall.  Slowly turning towards me (he offered no initial eye contact), he placed his hands squarely on my desk, leaning forward, his face in close proximity to my face.  Then with direct eye contact, he said slowly with emphasis, "I don't see any pictures of your children here."

Looking him squarely in the eye, I said, "Shut the **** up and sit down."  Smiling slightly, his demeanor abruptly lightened, he sat.  Unfortunately, I do not recall what he said during the remainder of our encounter; however, there was some degree of engagement that had none of the threat suggested in his initial presentation.  His ploy had failed, and he knew it.

I met Charles Manson in 1982, while working in my first post-doctoral experience as a forensic psychologist at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.  This is the place where the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sends felons who are mentally ill and need a high level of care.  Charlie was deemed one of those felons, spending his first ten years of his incarceration in solitary confinement at San Quentin.  He had recently been relocated to Vacaville, which was something of an experiment to get him out of solitary confinement.  The goal was to get him on the "mainline," where he could mingle with the general population, those who were not so severely disturbed that they needed 24-7 lockdown and close surveillance.  As a postscript, the experiment never worked very well because there was always someone in the prison looking to make a name for himself by "lighting him up" - a reference to a hobby shop incident where someone threw lighter fluid on Charlie! 

Every year, according to the law, Charlie would go before the parole board.  Before each meeting with the board, his psychiatric file had to be updated.  That year, the psychiatrist who had previously handled Charlie's update asked me to do the interview and write-up.  She admitted she had been "undone" by some of her previous encounters with him and did not wish to see him again.  As a new postgrad and newest member of the team, I took it as a compliment and said, "absolutely," curiosity driving my eagerness.  I getting into a bit of trouble and into an argument with a haughty consulting psychiatrist from San Francisco who insisted Charlie was schizophrenic, which, and history bears me out here, he was not.  Not to say he wasn't severely disturbed, but more from a sociopathic and narcissistic angle than a truly thought-disordered human being in the schizophrenic spectrum.

During my interview with Charlie, I tried to take a social and developmental history.  For example, I inquired, "Tell me what you recall from some of the foster homes you were in as a child."  In response to my questions, Charlie used poetic language filled with metaphors and similes.  I remember him saying, "I am what you made me" - a line he had used on other occasions with other interviewers.  In fact, much of what he had to say had a certain dramatic tone and intent.  At times, his lines seemed a bit rehearsed and prepared, a soliloquy of sorts that was running commentary on how the world had abused and mistreated him.  Some might call it paranoia, if not for the realness of the abuse that actually did occur in his young childhood and adolescence (this has been documented). 

I ended up seeing him maybe a half-dozen times, not getting very far with any specific facts associated with his history, motivation, or crimes.  He guarded and protected himself well through his theatric meanderings.  I could always tell if he didn't like the way the inquiry was going, because he would make some veiled or more pronnounced threat that essentially ended the discussion.  For example, at one point he said, "You know, I still have friends on the outside."  I think on this occasion, I simply glared back at him without a response and moved the topic to another area.

Because I had a lot of time as a professional in this type of environment, I too to reading the voluminous records on Charlie.  As I recall, the pile of papers was at least six-feet tall, including everything from court transcripts to social histories taken years in the past.  For what it's worth, in my professional opinion, he never did "wield the knife," but, essentially, derived satisfaction from guiding and coercing others to fulfill his murderous impulses.

Prior to working for the California Department of Corrections, I had worked for the State of Illinois at a hospital for women, many of whom had killed one or more of their children. For a period of four years, I had dwelled on what I call the "dark side," working with individuals who had committed heinous crimes.  Meeting Charlie was the culminating event that told me I couldn't do this any more.  I needed to find a job working with a healthier population.  With tongue-in-cheek, I'm fond of telling people that Charlie gave me career counseling, and I acted upon it.

Original Article

There is one sentence in Dowding's article that I believe is the closest we will ever come to knowing the motive for the murders that took place in the summer of 1969.

  For what it's worth, in my professional opinion, he never did "wield the knife," but, essentially, derived satisfaction from guiding and coercing others to fulfill his murderous impulses.


As the Col would say, "Discuss."

Here is a copy of a typical yearly review done by the prison for each prisoner, though it was written up at a later date than when this psychologist did his yearly reviews.  The information on the report is the same information notated each year.



23 comments:

starviego said...

"a haughty consulting psychiatrist from San Francisco who insisted Charlie was schizophrenic, which, and history bears me out here, he was not. Not to say he wasn't severely disturbed, but more from a sociopathic and narcissistic angle than a truly thought-disordered human being in the schizophrenic spectrum."

Though Charlie may not have been crazy, there are parts of the Helter Skelter theory so bizarre that you'd have to be crazy to believe them. And believing that famous people(or Jesus, or God) are communicating to you personally via their records(or via the TV, or the refrigerator) is typical of the 'delusions of grandeur' commonly seen among schizophrenics.

Could this have been a case of 'temporary insanity?'

starviego said...


CM's "Rolling Stone" 12/5/2013 interview:
Manson "HS wasn't a lie. It was just Bugliosi's perspective. ..There was a lot of motives, man. You got a motive for every person there. It was a collective idea. It was an episode. A psychotic episode..."

grimtraveller said...

James Dowding said...

in my professional opinion, he never did "wield the knife,"

Bernard Crowe, Gary Hinman and Donald Shea might all beg to differ, as might TJ Walleman, Rosina Kroner, "Jim, Steve and Del," Bruce Davis, Susan Atkins, Mary Brunner, Bobby Beausoleil, Steve Grogan, Larry "Jones", Bill Vance and....maybe even Charles Watson.

but, essentially, derived satisfaction from guiding and coercing others to fulfill his murderous impulses

That's essentially what much of the prosecution case put forth.

starviego said...

there are parts of the Helter Skelter theory so bizarre that you'd have to be crazy to believe them

I disagree. Throughout recorded history {and probably before it was recorded} there have always been people that claim to have seen beyond and even right this moment there are millions of people that believe things that many others would count as 'crazy' yet who are as sane and rational as you.

And believing that famous people(or Jesus, or God) are communicating to you personally via their records(or via the TV, or the refrigerator) is typical of the 'delusions of grandeur' commonly seen among schizophrenics

That may be so but just because it's a hallmark of schizophrenic behaviour doesn't make it exclusive to them. It is not difficult to find interviews over the last 50 years in which famous people tell us that they are communicating via their lyrics, songs, films, plays, poems etc.
George Harrison might not have been expecting someone to go and rip up people when he wrote "Piggies" from the comfort of his home but he, like many of his ilk, generation and profession sought to get rid of the establishment as it then stood and he communicated that in some of his songs and interviews. And none of the Family that ever explained their appropriation of Beatle lyrics stated that they understood that they would be the ones doing any of the killing, just that the lyrics pointed to the general situation that encompassed the revolution.
When Rasta reggae artists in the 70s and 80s were singing about the destruction of Babylon {ie, the West} they weren't just "stating their opinion" as much as conflating what they believed with a call to arms. There is a correlation between the arts, religion, politics and the messages people pick up on. It isn't easy to see or always obvious and it is very nuanced. But it is there.

Doug Smith said...

I personally think CM suffered from schizoaffective disorder. Similar to, but different from schizophrenia.

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/schizoaffective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20354504

I dated someone who lived with this disorder for 5 years. It could be scary or, mellow, or, maniacal, or violent...or, a variety of things. She came across as the sweetest woman ever - until I had to break out the butter knives to prop the bedroom door shut in fear of being stabbed to death in my sleep.

But, every case has it's own set if peramiters and such.

Robert C said...

Always interesting to hear/read about a shrink's assessment of Chuck. I recall much discussion in the past on the blog about this as well. I suspect the only thing left is to debate the percentages of psycho, schizo, socio, etc. within him.

It's my opinion he is homicidal as well based on shooting Crowe (thinking he was dead), physically contributing to Shorty's demise and even his sword assault against Hinman. Not to mention the unknowns beyond prison assaults.

Milly James said...

In my professional capacity, I have had to attend the sectioning of individuals suffering from schizophrenia. It is a terrifying condition for the persons concerned. And very horrid to witness. With respect, I doubt very much that Manson presented with this illness.

Donna Nelson said...

I work in corrections setting as a mental health professional. I assess and diagnose inmates as my primary job duty. I think from all I have heard about Manson that he had grandiose delusions and was quite narcissistic. I do not feel he has Schizoaffective d/0 or schizophrenia. I feel psychosis nos is more appropriate along with narcissism.

starviego said...

Milly James said...
"In my professional capacity, I have had to attend the sectioning of individuals suffering from schizophrenia."

I'm almost afraid to ask, but what do you mean by the 'sectioning' of individuals?

grimtraveller said...

starviego said...

I'm almost afraid to ask, but what do you mean by the 'sectioning' of individuals?

Sectioning in England is when a person is detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act which is basically a law that means someone can be held against their will for treatment.
Having seen friends and family go through it, it can range from very calm and eventless to pretty horrific. I'm not sure what it presently is but it used to be that a person could be detained for 28 days. I have to say though, that in every scenario I was part of, it was for the person's own well being {and in those instances, those of their kids or kids they lived with}.

starviego said...


Well that's a relief. I thought it had something to do with scalpels.

------------------

The founder of the Haight-Ashbury, Dr. David Smith, seemed to think Charlie was indeed a schizophrenic:

http://www.mansonblog.com/2013/05/dr-david-smith-on-family-in-berkeley.html
"...your friendly local guru just might be an incredibly persuasive schizophrenic with destructive paranoid delusions, and not a mystic at all."

"Charlie... had a lot of serious problems in the area of paranoid delusions.."

"If you know schizophrenics, you know how persuasive they can get..."

"There are a lot of people like (Charlie), and many of them are in mental hospitals."

Milly James said...

Yes Grim/Starviego, exactly. Most ditressing but very much a last resort and has to be authorised by two approved doctors/social workers. Unfortunately a further cast of seemingly thousands is also involved: Police to legally force entry and escort the patient if uncooperative, ambulance crew, carpenter to mend the door and change locks, a bloke from the local animal shelter to take charge of the 35 cats in residence, a contingency of neighbours looking on with interest and the poor sod from the housing office who's been dealing with complaints for months and has to coordinate the whole three ringed circus!

Milly James said...

Scalpels - I laughed. Sorry, I assumed the term was universal. The scizophrenics I've dealt with have actually been very vulnerable people who maintain very elaborate plots regarding their persecution. I agree they can be initially very convincing- a neighbour harassing them, a break-in at their flat etc. However, when Mossad or the KGB are poisoning them with mustard gas through the keyhole, you tend to realize medical issues are involved. They really believe these scenarios live, rarely sleeping,in a state of trauma. One induvidual spent her days bleaching her floorboards as a antidote to something or other. As a result her 35 cats (yes, that one) had horrifically burned paws.

starviego said...


This author concludes Manson was, indeed, batshit crazy:

https://www.swlaw.edu/sites/default/files/2017-04/2%20Eye%20of%20the%20Beholder.pdf
pg275
"Manson was first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1963, when he was incarcerated for check kiting at the U.S. Penitentiary on McNeil Island. ...

"During the forty-plus years that Manson has been in CDC custody since the murders, he has been diagnosed with several serious mental illnesses, primarily paranoid schizophrenia and chronic psychosis....

"He spent most of his early years of imprisonment there(Vacaville), in the S-Wing of Seguin Unit, the intensive psychiatric segregation unit.

" ... In 1985, the CDC diagnosed Manson with schizophrenia...

"In 1987, a psychologist recommended placing Manson in mental-health care...

(in 1997) "...that (psychological)evaluation determined that Manson was severely mentally ill, because he was "out of touch with reality" and would not stop rambling incessantly...

"Post-1997, a consensus seems to have emerged among CDC psychiatrists and psychologists that Manson suffers from serious, organic, psychotic mental illness."

Milly James said...

The old 'mad or bad?'debate...

Carlos said...

Regarding DebS’ observation regarding motive, I would add something that struck me immediately in the first three paragraphs ending with the words, “His ploy had failed, and he knew it.” Those three paragraphs are yet another example of Manson’s fundamental nature as a pure manipulator. It’s no surprise to me that the section of the article focusing on Manson are bracketed with that theme of manipulation. I wonder if it was deliberate on Mr. Dowding’s part.

Milly James said...

Any relation to Hugh Dowding: Air Chief Marshal RAF?

chris hannel said...

I have a topic for discussion. In John Gilmore's book The Garbage People, he says that Susan Atkins had a girlfriend she was having sex with when she met Manson. This is new to me as I've never heard it before. Are there any books that go more in depth of this detail? Is it even true? Seems strange that she would have a gf but then start talking about the murders to scare Graham and Howard cause they were flirting with her. Such a confusing case, man.

Matthew Record said...


Chris Hannel Said:
he says that Susan Atkins had a girlfriend she was having sex with when she met Manson.

Seems from things I have read that Susan would pretty much do anything with anyone for attention. I read somewhere, and I am sure one of you will know, that she would give head to her infant son. Not sure how reliable that is and pretty disgusting. There was also a lot of group sex at Spahn that was mostly women so it would be a great setting for a bisexual girl.

Carlos said...

Matthew Record asked about Sadie’s personal habits...

Yes, Helter Skelter made reference to this.

Doug Smith said...

Chris - I may be wrong but it would seem...at the most basic level...that Sadie (or, most everyone) would feel FAR MORE comfortable in a CONSENSUAL MF or FF (or, MM) relationship with somebody known to her (outside of a jail cell/dorm) than in a position of unwelcome overtures from unknown women in an environmental she had no control over at that early juncture.

Do we become intimate with EVERYONE that flirts, compliments or comes on to us?

Maybe she engaged more once she was more comfortable in her surroundings, had vetted people out, and, created her own persona in jail and/or made alliances.

Who knows what eventually went down but, just because she had been with women prior to her incarceration - that doesn't preclude her freedom to choose not to sleep with Graham or Howard.

brownrice said...

Very well said, Doug.

xreles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
xreles said...

I am not a Manson apologist... nor Pro-Manson.
Even so, Here is my life-experienced diagnosis of CM post-1969.

He had (new word) Solitary-Confinementitis and he was an institutionalized dependent at an early age.

As you know, Starting at age ten ... he spent all but 13 years of his life in the penitentiary system. That, of course, speaks to his being Institutionalized.


As to the solitary confinement and my long distance diagnosis thereof...
With all due respect to the world of professional head shrinks...
Anyone who has not spent considerable time sitting in a cell somewhere alone with only your own thoughts day after day…cannot accurately assess, comprehend nor put a proper name to the dysfunction that solitary confinement etches on the mind.

Solitary confinement is more dangerous to the brain than the prison yard is to the body. You cannot even remotely imagine living in a world where your greatest wish is to be released out into a prison yard. Think about that wish for insight into the depths of being in solitary confinement for decades!


As to what CM thoughts on this subject were. His best answer came in the Charley Rose interview. When asked...

Q. What is prison life like for u?
A. I sit in my cell 24hrs a day.

Q. What do you say to the people who say CM is schizophrenic?
A. If they put you in the middle of the yard I BET you'd change your personality.