Recollections on Meeting Charles Manson

Read about James Dowding's encounters with cult-leader Charles Manson!

In August 2018, during Older Student Registration, students Carol Chester and Gail Johnston, with guidance from Joanne Jaber Gauvin from the Urban Action Institute, initiated the Older Student Writing Project (OSWP). The goal of the project was to collect personal essays written by older students and to have them printed in a university publication. The purpose of the project was to highlight the work of older students, showing that they add to the diversity of the WSU community.

By Jim Dowding

It began like this: a correctional officer brought him to my 4×6 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 at him square 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 the first 10 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 would 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 be required to 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 that 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 recall 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 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 a 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 pronounced 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 took 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 anymore. 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.

In 1983, I attended a job fair associated with the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. My attendance at the job fair led to work as a corporate psychologist, doing assessments of managers and executives, helping them understand how temperament and personality potentially play out and impact their leadership style. Obviously, working with a successful, healthy population was a 180-degree shift from working with criminals. Put simply, it has been rewarding.

After working as a corporate psychologist for 36 years, I semi-retired in February 2017. Since then, I have continued to do some consulting. I have also taken three math classes at Worcester State University. Why math classes? In the field I come from, there is so much ambiguity around human behavior. However, in the field of mathematics, there is something pure and straightforward about the process of solving math problems. There is a certain intrinsic joy I experience while encountering a new problem or a new concept, discovering how it fits together, how it makes sense, and how it can be utilized to solve a real-world problem. Plus, it’s a pretty nonviolent arena.

I also take math courses for relaxation and to keep the brain active. I am reacting to some studies about maintaining cognitive agility in one’s older years. The studies show that new learning generates the growth of neurons – so there may be some clear upside benefits! Some of those close to me smile at my choices, but that’s okay because I’m free and fortunate to be able to pick and choose how to spend my later years.

As far as the future is concerned, I might do some tutoring in math, or I might earn a degree in math education, possibly even an advanced degree. However, one PhD in a lifetime is likely enough. We will see. For sure, based on my earlier career experiences, I will not be addressing the needs of the criminally insane. I’m essentially taking it one day at a time – a lesson partially learned from “lifers” in the prison (meaning a life sentence, without possibility of parole).

Footnote: Charles Manson was known for being the leader of a cult that carried out a series of murders in the Los Angeles area in 1969. Manson was sentenced to life in prison. He died Nov. 19, 2017, at the age of 83.

James Dowding, Ph.D. has engaged in the practice of management and consulting psychology for the last 30 years. His core practice areas are in executive assessment, selection, coaching, and development in the leadership realm. Early in his career he pursued traditional clinical work in various hospitals and treatment centers. He semi-retired in 2017 and started taking undergraduate courses at Worcester State University, primarily pursuing an interest in mathematics. Jim is a licensed psychologist in Massachusetts and a member of the American Psychological Association.

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