If you stopped the average person on the street, told them you were Jesus, a race war was coming, you’d need to live in a big dark hole, and oh by the way, go out and murder, the last thing that person would do is actually listen to you.
So how in the world did Charles Manson gather more than a hundred followers and convince them of not only his outlandish beliefs but to commit multiple homicides?
Charles Manson’s childhood is well-chronicled as one of extreme neglect and abuse. He bounced through the juvenile system and into the adult penal system. By the time he was an adult, he’d had almost no exposure to healthy adult behaviors. It’s also said that children who grew up in abusive homes learn manipulation as a means of survival. The skillset Manson would have needed in order to survive not only his own childhood but his time spent in juvenile detention, the foster care system, and later, prison. Though there’s an argument to be made for nature versus nurture, there’s no doubt that Manson’s antisocial personality was sharpened by his years of incarceration.
Psychopaths are partially defined by their belief in what they’re doing. While Manson appears to have believed wholeheartedly in his theory of a future race war and helter skelter, it’s his manipulation of others into committing his planned crimes that’s possibly the most chilling aspect of his entire story. Manson’s ability created for his followers what they most needed and then weaponized that need against them.
Manson created the Family. He brought absolutes, answers, and as sense of belonging to those who had none of those things. As all infamous cult leaders do, Manson manipulated the Family into increasingly violent and gruesome acts that culminated in the series of murders that finally led to their arrests and trials. But even then, while on trial, Manson continued to manipulate his co-defendants to the point that their attorneys refused to put their clients on the stand, afraid they’d take the blame for the crimes in order to exonerate Manson. And through it all, they believed wholeheartedly in what they had done—walking down the courthouse hallway singing Manson’s songs, carving his X into their forehead, and acting as he dictated in court.
That level of psychological control over another human being is terrifying. It’s easy to look back at Manson today and wonder how anyone took him seriously with his wide-eyed stare and the X carved on his forehead. But Charles Manson exerted so much influence over his followers that he could command them to commit atrocities justified by outlandish claims and they listened.
Charles Manson died in prison on November 19, 2017. He once said, “Living is what scares me. Dying is easy.” Maybe he did get a tiny fraction of what he deserved after all.
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