The death of cult leader and convicted murderer Charles Manson resurfaces tales from his twisted family’s killing spree after nearly four decades. Manson orchestrated the brutal deaths of actress Sharon Tate and six other innocent people in the 1960s according to historical reports, which leave many wondering how he convinced followers, made up of a former Sunday school teacher, a church choir singer and a one-time homecoming princess, into committing such brutal acts.
According to psychoanalyst Mark Smaller, past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, part of Manson’s power lay in the type of language he used. Notably, Manson was able to speak in a way that engaged those who felt marginalized or alienated.
“A charismatic leader knows how to speak to people in a way that will emotionally engage those people,” Smaller told Newsweek.
Smaller is clear that he does not believe President Donald Trump is similar to the convicted killer, or that their followers have any shared beliefs or characteristics, but he did say we can look to the current president to see how language is used to form a bond with followers.
“Our current president speaks in an emotional or affective way to large numbers of people in our country who feel a kind of alienation or disconnection from the government,” he said. “They feel very responded to and become his political base.”
According to the psychoanalyst, cult followers like those in the Manson family are so seduced by feelings of acceptance and understanding that they accept their leaders’ ideologies regardless of how destructive or dangerous they may be.
“It’s not even the content of what that charismatic leader says,” he said. “He or she is able to do it in an emotional way.”
Smaller said that gang members also utilize this way of speaking to recruit new members who may not have any form of familial or social support.
“They can feel like somebody has their back,” he said.
Smaller doesn’t have specifics on what Manson may have told followers, but said cult leaders may say things like, “Your parents don’t really care about you. Your community doesn’t care about you. The government doesn’t really care about you, but I’m going to not only care about you, I’m going to take care of you. I understand how angry, neglected, and hurt you feel.”
This ability to empathize is a key component of manipulation, according to Dr. Carrie Barron, a psychiatrist at Columbia University.
“There’s a very distorted dark side of empathy,” she said. “You can use empathy to get inside another person and manipulate. You know the inner workings of another person. You’re able to perceive that without thinking about it.”
For example, manipulators might connect to their followers by holding their hands while speaking or looking them in the eyes.
But while it’s clear that manipulators, like cult leaders, prey on people using language, Barron said there’s usually a combination of factors that make them successful. And she warns that many times the perpetrators appear more vulnerable than they really are, though there’s still a lot that we don’t know about these types of people, according to Barron.
She warns that we all need to be cautious and alert in order not to get swept up in these radical personalities, which Smaller believes is more important now than ever before.
He said that a combination of socioeconomic conditions and social media have led to the increased feelings of discontent.
“That kind of distance, if not disconnect, creates a mass kind of alienation,” he said.
While it’s natural to worry about the power charismatic leaders hold, Smaller thinks we should focus on empowering those who need someone to follow.
“I’ve never worried as much about the Donald Trumps in the world as I worry about the large amount of people in our country who feel alienated and disconnected and looking to follow somebody,” he said.
“We live in a time where the potential [is high] for adolescents to become very isolated and disconnected from their families, from their schools, and from their communities. As citizens of our communities, it’s our job to recognize and respond when we see that happening.”