Charles Manson, Please Save Marriage & Family Therapy

David Schnarch
Dr. David Schnarch

New ideas, important thoughts, and assorted musings

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

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

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

1 thought on “Charles Manson, Please Save Marriage & Family Therapy”

  1. Attachment theory & mindmapping

    Hi Dr. David,

    I am no expert on attachment theory, yet I am somewhat familiar with it through reading Dan Siegel, Lou Cozolino and scanning of two books, one by Mikulincer & Shaver and an edited book by Johnson and Whiffen.  I am a bit confused by what you say regarding mindmapping and attachment theory.  Specifically that childrent do NOT develop mind mapping abilities unless certain conditions are present, such as being valued and parents haveing a coherant narrative.  Can you point me to the references you used in the attachment literature with regard to this position? 

    Hope all is well for you.

    Warm Regards,

    Suzanne Lovejoy, MA, LMFT



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