A new psychological assessment of Charles Manson has challenged the enduring theory that the cult leader’s outlandish behavior and violent tendencies were driven by schizophrenia.
A career criminal, Manson first captured the nation’s attention following a string of high-profile murders in the late 1960s that were committed at his behest. His mental state has been scrutinized ever since by armchair and professional psychologists alike.
“The main question about Manson has always been was he schizophrenic,” said Dr. Joni Mihura, a psychology professor at The University of Toledo who is board certified in assessment psychology. “People have debated this for years, but no one had access to his actual, formal psychological test results.”
That changed following Manson’s death in 2017, when a team of psychologists including Mihura were given full access to a comprehensive psychological evaluation of Manson that was conducted in 1997 after he was temporarily transferred to California’s highest security state prison.
Using notes and data collected during that assessment, the researchers sought to better characterize Manson’s mental and personality disorders and their relevance to both his crimes and his emergence as a role model for extremist groups in more recent years.
“The takeaway is Manson was not schizophrenic. That’s the main, really clear thing,” said Mihura, who also has expertise in assessing psychosis. “From our contemporary analysis, it looks like he might have a little bit of hypomania, but not mania. It also became really clear how his narcissism fueled his need to be the focus of attention, and he maintained that focus until he died.”
The findings were published late last year in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management.
Forensic psychologist Dr. Tod Roy, who conducted the 1997 evaluation and had agreed not to publish his assessment or raw test materials until after Manson’s death, served as the publication’s lead author. The research team also included Dr. Reid Meloy, a California-based forensic psychologist who has consulted on several high-profile criminal cases, including the Oklahoma City bombing.
Mihura was invited into the project to review Manson’s responses to a Rorschach test administered during the 1997 evaluation. An expert in inkblot test analysis who has presented internationally, she has in recent years helped develop the Rorschach Performance Assessment System as an improved method for administering and interpreting Rorschach tests.
Though Manson’s responses during the 1997 Rorschach test — many of which were aggressive and highly sexualized — fall well outside the norm, Mihura said they were not indicative of the disorganized thinking, cognitive impairment and disinterest in interacting with people that are characteristic of schizophrenia.
“Statistically speaking, what he described would be seen by way less than 1% of people, but they are not the kind of bizarre responses that suggests a formal thought disorder, where you have loose associations, jumping from one thing to the next,” she said.
In addition to the Rorschach test, Mihura’s assessment of Manson also drew from a pair of television interviews, one from 1970 when he was on trial and a 1993 jailhouse interview with journalist Diane Sawyer.
While the 1993 interview features a number of outbursts and non-sequiturs from Manson, Mihura said his actions seem deliberate rather than uncontrolled.
“He developed this sort of crazy persona to maintain attention from the media. In watching and listening to the video, you can see he’s very much in control of that interview” she said. “He’s trying to distract Diane Sawyer from asking about his guilt and his part in the murders. It’s very purposeful.”
The researchers determined Manson wasn’t suffering from schizophrenia. However, Mihura said he clearly met the criteria for psychopathy, which includes a grandiose sense of self and callous manipulative use of others.
For Mihura, who had only a passing knowledge of Manson’s history before embarking on the project, the research proved to be an intriguing opportunity to answer decades-old questions about one of the most notorious criminals in American history.
But the exercise was more than just a historic curiosity — though the murders committed by Manson’s followers occurred more than 50 years ago, further understanding the pathologies that drive someone to kill remains important.
There also is value, the authors argued, in understanding the link between Manson’s psychopathology and the race war he promoted, particularly in light of a recent increase in violent, racially motivated attacks.
“Accurately assessing psychosis that can lead to violence is extremely important. While Manson’s crimes are well in the past, there remains a threat from others whose mental state and ideology are comparable to that of Manson’s,” Mihura said. “If someone has an inclination to kill, it is important to identify the driving factors. For example, if they are psychotic with command hallucinations to kill, you can try to intervene to treat the psychosis and hopefully reduce that threat. In cases like Charles Manson’s, it is equally important to know they are not psychotic and such treatments would not reduce the threat.”