Patti Armstrong is an award-winning author and was the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families and Dear God, You Can’t Be Serious. She has a B.A. in social work and an M.A. in public administration and worked in both those fields before staying home to work as a freelance writer. Patti and her husband live in North Dakota, where they are still raising the tail end of their 10 children.
Evil people are scary. Their stone-cold hearts seem unreachable. In the Inferno, Dante wrote that some people were so wicked that their souls had already preceded them into hell while they still walked the earth. It was a metaphor, not theology, contrasting salvation in the next life beginning with holiness in this one.
Charles Manson was one of the scary people. Before he died last November at the age of 83, he was sentenced to a California prison for spearheading a murder campaign in the1960s with his Manson Family cult, making him one of the most infamous criminals in history. Although he received the death penalty in 1971, it was commuted to life in prison the following year when California suspended capital punishment.
Manson was denied parole 12 times. Each time, TV cameras followed himto his parole hearings for a glimpse of the man who seemed to be evil incarnate. I would inwardly recoil at the sight of his crazy eyes, swastika tattooed between his eyebrows, and disturbing responses to reporters’ questions.
Notorious criminals fascinate even as they repel, as we wonder, how can any human being be so evil? Are they possessed? I occasionally interview exorcists for their insights on the supernatural, so I know that possession is extremely rare and committing great acts of evil is not proof of a possession. Yet, I could not help but suspect that Manson was possessed. After he died, I asked an exorcist and a Catholic psychiatrist who works with exorcists what they thought.
Catholic Psychiatrist Comments
Dr. Richard Gallagher is regularly called upon to help a network of exorcists to evaluate and advise. He was educated and trained at Princeton and Yale, has a private practice, and is on the faculty at Columbia University and New York Medical College. Gallagher has been the longest-standing American attendee at the meetings of the now Rome-based International Association of Exorcists in Italy and for a time the only psychiatrist on its governing board.
With all his expertise, did he have any inkling regarding Charles Manson? “It is very important to emphasize that possession is rare, and evil people are not normally possessed,” he said. “Never having examined him, I wouldn’t know about Charles Manson.”
Gallagher noted that assumptions cannot be made simply based on a person’s participation with evil. “Even members of a serious satanic group are not usually possessed, though they risk it,” he said. “Anyone involved seriously in the occult probably make themselves potentially vulnerable to oppression, as do those for that matter who try to move on from their involvement.” In a previous article, he explained that the most bizarre possession he ever witnessed was a case of someone who did belong to a satanic group.
Mental illness, however, in no way implies demonization, according to Gallagher. “Jesus himself drew a clear distinction between illness and demonization and so should we,” he said. “Many people, including those with mental illness, may struggle with destructive feelings and impulses, but that is a very different thing from possession.”
To discern the difference between possession and mental illness, Gallagher explained that possession is considered when there is a pattern of symptoms that don’t fit a psychiatric profile and often includes paranormal manifestations such as superhuman strength, knowing things that were hidden, speaking a language the person never learned, and even levitation.
As for Manson, over the years, there were many reports of evil that swirled around him in ways that were paranormal, but without having been evaluated, it does not prove he was possessed.
Manson Was Not the Devil
I asked Msgr. John Esseff, a priest in the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for 65 years and an exorcist for over 40 years, what he had thought of Charles Manson. In typical Msgr. Esseff fashion, he looked past the evil to see God.
“Charles Manson is not the devil,” he said. “He may have been possessed—or not—but he was a person loved and created by God.”
“Child of God” is not a thought Manson evoked. Yet, regardless of what a person has done, Msgr. Esseff said that God continues to offer redemption and so we should continue to pray for conversions of even very evil people, never assuming that anyone is lost.
“Every human being alive in the world, is loved by God because he created them,” Msgr. Esseff said. “The demonic force continues to hate God because he has made that choice against him which is irreversible. But even the most wicked person in the world is still open to God’s mercy. God’s love is greater than the evil of the devil.”
Msgr. Esseff pointed out that the devil can tempt and harass and even possess our body, but it is only sin that can destroy the soul. “If you are in the state of grace,” he said. “You are protected and cannot be zapped by that evil.”
Although the question of whether Manson was possessed does not have an answer here, Msgr. Esseff reminds us to always pray for conversions because God loves even the most wretched.
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
“And they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” ( 2 Timothy 2:26)