What are the necessary defining features of the Manson Family cult? [Rachel Lustig]
There is a fine line between a cult and just any organization. Cults, however, frequently are more intense than most groups and tend to have a slightly negative connotation. Charles Manson and his group of followers developed a cult that matched almost all of the cult-like characteristics. Two distinguishable features of the Manson Family cult are having a glorified and powerful leader, and cult members that are extremely brainwashed.
Charles Manson was glorified by his followers. Manson thought that he was a reincarnation of Jesus, a belief that was shared by his faithful cult. Manson attracted his followers by finding those that were outcasts. Once Manson gained control over his followers, he wanted to keep it. The International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology is a peer-review journal, and focuses on the treatment of an offender. A.J. Atchison and K.M. Heide wrote an article for the journal discussing the sociological ideas and theories behind Manson and the Family. The article also describes Manson’s goals in his actions, it summarizes the murders that took place, and then connects theories to the events. Manson was very bright (Atchison and Heide 773). Although his violent acts were misunderstood by most, his murders were influential (773). There was more to the murder than just killing, they were aimed at politics of the time, and led his followers to rebel, which was the main appeal to people that felt like outcasts from society (773). The people that felt distanced from society were drawn to Manson. Interestingly, Manson was pulled toward these outcasts as well. To justify his actions, Manson’s explanation was, “The world is rotting...Your children cry for help, but you don’t hear them. You ignore them and they come to me. The children you ignore, I will keep” (George and Matera 5).
Manson did not only use his skill of luring in and connecting with people that felt alienated from society to control his followers. Through his various techniques as a leader, Manson became loved and trusted by his followers. His ability to connect to the members of the Family allowed him to teach them his beliefs. Music was one method Manson used to influence the Family’s way of thinking. Charles Saatchi wrote “Meet the Mansons; In the Latest in His Series on Striking Images, Our Columnist Looks Back at the Story of America’s Most Notorious Killer and His Murderous Followers” for a reliable source, The Evening Standard (London). Saatchi also has multiple best selling books. The focus of this article is Charles Manson and more importantly, his followers. It describes how the cult started, the murders that were committed how the murders happened, and the punishments they received as a result of the murders. According to Saatchi, “Helter Skelter was Charles Manson’s demented interpretation of a Beatles song lyric. He built his following of oddball hippie believers by preaching the righteousness of an apocalyptic war he felt the lyrics foretold - and persuaded his Manson Family they were to spiritually lead it” (Saatchi 38). Manson became obsessed with power over the Family. He used his leadership abilities well, and when he felt that his group was not in his total control, he took action. Manson wanted to have and keep power over other people (Atchison and Heide 777). According to the FBI, Manson viewed his murders as a method to continue having control over his followers (777). Not surprisingly, the members of the Family obeyed Manson’s orders.
Having a leader that is extremely important to a group is not the only necessity to develop a cult. Another defining feature is having the members and leader all become brainwashed. There is a long process to becoming brainwashed. The labeling theory can be used to explain why the Family went to Manson and obeyed him (Atchison and Heide 780). Lawbreakers feel that they have a negative label because they were previously processed under the law because they committed a previous crime (780). Because of the way society now views and treats them, they are aware of the negative effects of the label they now have (780). Since they are deemed “bad” by the rest of society, they begin to see themselves as bad people (780). People can start to feel that they do not belong from an early age. Most of the members of the Family began to feel this way before they met Manson. Brainwashing already began before they were influenced by a leader in the first place.
Once a group spends a lot of time together, and begins to practice specific ways of thinking and existing, brainwashing is almost always inevitable. Gary Alan Fine is a professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. He wrote “The Manson Family: The Folklore Traditions of a Small Group” for the Journal of the Folklore Institute, which focuses on the Manson group from a sociological perspective, and how the Family developed an idioculture. Gary Alan Fine explained that “As a rule, the longer a group has been functioning, the greater the social and psychological importance of the group to its members; the more stable the membership and the more intense the interaction, the larger and more robust will a group’s culture be” (47). This relates back to Manson and the Family, as they began to live together and become more important to each other’s lives. This led to the development of their cult, and just as much, their brainwashing. Being surrounded by many people with a certain view will have an enormous impact on one’s way of thinking and beliefs.
An example of a brainwashed cult member is Charles ‘Tex’ Watson. Watson did not comprehend that he committed murder until after he was caught and sentenced to life in prison. “Charles ‘Tex’ Watson...is a born-again Christian and an ordained minister and operates Love Ministries, a website dedicated to spreading God’s word, and to apologising to his victims’ family members. He wrote his autobiography Will You Die For Me? The Man Who Killed For Charles Manson in 1978…” (Saatchi 38). Watson makes his remorse clear through his website and his autobiography. While he was spending his time with the Family, however, he probably did not question his actions, due to being a brainwashed member of the cult.
The members of a cult do not necessarily have to be the only ones that are brainwashed. Frequently, the leader is equally as brainwashed. Edward George was Manson’s corrections officer in California. He wrote Taming the Beast based on recollections of conversations with Manson or from notes that were taken immediately after having conversations with Manson. Manson believed that his soul could not be killed (George and Matera 209). In his mind, it always was the truth and would remain the truth (209). Charles Manson had his own superstitions that led to a change in his own beliefs, and thus, brainwashing. Manson did not see much fault with the murders he caused. He did not blame himself for why his followers were the way they were. Manson believed that everyone was blaming him, calling him the leader of the Family, but he believed he was simply a follower of the “children” that need him (George and Matera 241). Not only did Manson not accept his role in his cult, but he also turned the blame on the rest of society. According to Manson, “These children that came at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up” (George and Matera xi). Manson’s extreme beliefs and views extended beyond just the Family. They stuck with him after he was arrested. These were the basis for the ideologies of the cult.
Manson and his group of murderous followers had characteristics of cults that allowed for them to be willing to kill. The Manson Family has two distinct characteristics; a glorified leader that is obeyed, and brainwashed cult members. Having a glorified leader that is powerful and can command his/her followers will almost always lead to extreme brainwashing, which is seen in another cult, Jonestown.