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David Schnarch
Dr. David Schnarch


New ideas, important thoughts, and assorted musings



Charles Manson, Please Save Marriage & Family Therapy

By David Schnarch, Ph. D.

I just finished reading an about-to-be-released book containing recent correspondence and transcripts of interviews with Charles Mason, now age 77. (Charles Manson Now by Marlin Marynick, published by Cogito Media Group. Manson derives no financial gain from this book.) The first paragraphs convinced me that Manson could really help the field of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT).

For sure, Manson is the product of bad parenting. His mother traded him for a pitcher of beer when he was a young child. He bounced around from relatives to foster homes to reform schools, and spent most of his life behind bars. But Manson isn’t a good advertisement for marriage and family therapy, which has virtually no track record for treating young adults with antisocial personality disorders. Moreover, families like Manson’s usually don’t go for therapy and don’t stick it out if they do. What then, can Charles Mason offer marriage and family therapists?

In the book’s opening paragraphs, Manson describes “owning” the penitentiary by watching the goings-on, figuring out particular inmates’ or gangs’ agendas, tracking developments between inmates and guards. and generally knowing what’s about to go down. Look past his grandiosity: Manson is describing mind-mapping the people around him.

If you haven’t heard of mind-mapping yet you certainly will. It’s showing up in all types of articles in popular magazines. Mind mapping (Theory of Mind) is the human brain’s inherent ability to make a mental map of another person’s mind/brain. Theory of Mind has been studied by neuroscientists for decades, and brain-scan research documents how the brain performs this nifty feat. Application to psychotherapy, however, is fairly new. It plays a central role in my recent book, Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship, which is the first application of mind-mapping to sexual desire problems. I have been working with mind-mapping for almost a decade and the benefits are dramatic, particularly with difficult clients.

Applied neuroscience is a hot topic among mental health professionals, and there are two different views of mind-mapping in ascendance: One is based on attachment theory, which proposes that mind-mapping develops by parents giving children accurate feedback about who their child is, and parents having a coherent mind and allowing their children to map them. According to this view, people don’t develop mind-mapping ability if this is not valued in their families growing up, or if parents’ minds are not coherent, or if parents’ give children a distorted picture of their own minds. As a result, such children do not develop the ability to understand other people, interpersonal relationships, or themselves. Simply put, as adults they cannot read their partner’s mind, although they can develop this to some degree. This view is uncritically accepted as attachment theory and attachment-based therapy gain popularity within MFT.

The other view, which I support, is that mind-mapping is an inherent ability that emerges spontaneously around age 5-6 as the child’s brain develops. Mind-mapping emerges as a child realizes parents’ minds are capable of a false belief. When your child starts to lie (implant false beliefs) and thinks it’s the funniest thing going, this is proof your child is developing mind-mapping ability. Mind-mapping transforms into adult sophistication around age 12-13 as the brain develops further, and becomes further refined through experience. In other words, children’s mind-mapping ability starts with the realization that parents’ minds are not perfectly coherent. The notion that parents’ cognitive distortions stop children’s mind-mapping ability is bass-ackwards.

There are even two well-researched theories about how this kind of mind-mapping works: One is that children develop a ‘theory’ about how people’s minds’ work (called “theory theory” or folk psychology). The other involves imaginative role playing, mentally putting yourself in another person’s situation and imagining what he or she is feeling and wanting (called “simulation theory”). The scientific literature doesn’t call this “empathy theory” because neuroscientists haven’t been indoctrinated in attachment theory.

Some brain/mind disorders impair mind-mapping ability, such as autism, schizophrenia, and Asperger’s Syndrome. But far from being the fragile fruit of good parenting, mind-mapping is a rugged wide-spread ability because the origins are survival mechanisms. The rudiments are located in the primitive (reptilian) parts of your brain which you share in common with frogs. This is why mind-mapping develops so powerfully in people from troubled backgrounds.

I’m not enamored with Charles Manson. But it is clear Manson’s Svengali-like ability to manipulate other people stems from his excellent mind-mapping ability. Successful sociopaths, con artists, and good liars—people utterly devoid of empathy for others—are usually incredibly good “trackers” because mind-mapping doesn’t necessarily involve attachment or empathy. Yes, good empathy skills involve mind-mapping, but people who lack any capacity to invest in another human being can, and do, have excellent mind-mapping ability. They use this to manipulate other people for their own ends. They are not totally heedless of their impact on others, they just don’t give a damn (at best), or enjoy exploiting or getting over on others.

People who come from the worst backgrounds often have extraordinary mind-mapping ability. If your parents are unpredictable, emotionally explosive, manipulative, exploitive, drug or alcohol abusers, or just plain crazy, you develop mind-mapping ability out of necessity: You want to be able to predict what’s going to happen beforehand. Moreover, you not only get good at mapping other people’s minds, you learn to block your own mind from being mapped. If you are obvious about monitoring an explosive raging father or mother, you become a target. If your manipulative, intrusive, or controlling parent knows what you want or what’s important to you, they use it against you. Mind-mapping is about detecting desire and deception—being able to detect what other people want, in order to predict that they are likely to do.

People who are excellent “trackers” often look like they can’t see farther than the end of their noses. If you’re really good, you implant false beliefs to misdirect and manipulate other people by systematically constructing a false picture of your mind in their minds. People who live dual or secret lives, like bigamists, adulterers, and Ponzi-scheming Bernie Maddoff are classic examples. Without mind-mapping ability, they could never know how to accomplish their goals or determine when they’ve succeeded in manipulating your mind.

How does this apply to marriage and family therapy? People who act like they don’t understand relationships, or spouses who do cruel things without seeming to understand their impact, or parents who psychologically or physically torture their children are often great mind-mappers. The more clueless people seem, generally speaking, the better they are at mapping other people—and beating therapists’ radar. People from troubled homes are often better mind-mappers than their therapists, and lead them to think they “don’t get” relationships. Therapists who picture attachment bonds as the drive wheel of human relationships are particularly prone to miss this, preferring to believe parents or spouses don’t deliberately and knowingly do such things. This how they come to the picture that people don’t develop mind-mapping ability if this was lacking in or not valued by their parents.

So what can Charles Manson do for marriage and family therapy? Studying his mind could teach therapists a lot about mind-mapping. He exemplifies what happens when good mind-mapping ability occurs in a mind that is also sociopathic and assaultive. Some might argue Manson exemplifies the importance of secure childhood attachment bonds, but that doesn’t prove mind-mapping ability hinges on attachment processes. One clear-eyed look around the world says empathy, trust, honesty and self-sacrifice don’t depict, in themselves, the dominant human interactional pattern, whether between parents and children, neighbors, lovers or spouses. Yes, we are capable of love, commitment, and compassion. But the human brain developed mind-mapping, in part, to detect deception for good reason. Lots of us enjoy wiping the smiles off other people’s faces.

Young therapists, in particular, don’t recognize the growing hegemony of attachment theory. They don’t realize the MFT field emerged after World War II, based on a rejection of attachment and psychoanalytic/psychodynamic theories (which had been around for decades). Attachment processes play an important role in brain wiring, personality development, and parent-child interactions, but attachment theory creates a reality that is not the best way to understand adult love relationships. Differentiation, and not attachment, is the more fundamental drive of emotionally committed relationships, because attachment is just half the picture. Differentiation is the ability to balance humankind’s two most fundamental drives: Our desire for connection and affiliation with others, and our desire for autonomy (self-direction and self-regulation). Differentiation is the ability to hold onto your sense of self when important people in your life pressure you to conform.

Crucible Therapy focuses on talking to the best in people. It also says, “Only the best in us talks about the worst in us, because the worst in us lies about its own existence.” It boggles our minds to think people commonly and knowingly do cruel exploitive torturous things to each other. We prefer to believe they can’t anticipate the impact of their actions or the painful feelings they engender. When we leave behind the “bassinet” view of human relationships, and confront mind- bending cruelties, mind-twisting double-binds, and mind-stupefying deliberate exploitation (common even in white-collar families), we will be a step closer to realizing that having decent parents is a blessing none of us should take for granted as the norm.