Susan Atkins was a member of the infamous ‘Mason Family’, where she was convicted of murdering eight people under the orders of Charles Mason. She was given the death sentence and lived the rest of her life from a jail cell until she died on September 24, 2009 (Jensen, 2011).
The Attachment Theory, written by John Bowlby in 1988, is based on early adolescents and their relationships with parental figures. This theory demonstrates how these individuals seek out close relationships to their caregivers (secure attachments), and what happens when they are unable to seek such relationships (insecure attachments) (Bowlby, 1973).
This paper will show the insecure relationships Susan Atkins had in her adolescence and how Bowlby’s Attachment Theory shaped her to become closely connected to Charles Mason, which made her more inclined to be part of his ‘family’ and commit heinous crimes. Multiple peer-reviewed articles apply attachment theory to workplace environments and organizations, which can elicit insecure attachments and therefore lead to delinquency and the need to feel appreciated and cared for. These findings will be linked to the history of Susan Atkins and how she was fully devoted to the Manson Family cult.
Explanation Of Case
During Atkin’s time with the Mason Family, she adopted the name ‘Sadie Mae Glutz’, and developed a very close connection with Mason, where she felt that she knew what love was because of him: ‘Getting hit by the man you love is no different than making love to him . . . Charlie gives me what I need’ (Watkins, 1979). The main income of money for the Mason Family came from drug dealings, where Atkins and various other women would act as ‘entertainment’ for prospective and regular buyers who would come to their farm called the Spahn Movie Ranch, located in South California. While at the farm, Manson’s ideology revolved around the idea of ‘Helter Skelter’, which was described as: ‘an apocalyptic battle in which blacks would rise up against their white oppressors and kill them’ (Jensen, 2011). He also would preach to his followers, describing how this war will benefit the family: ‘At the end of this war, family members would be made into gods and eventually rule the Earth when blacks realized that they could not do it themselves’ (Jensen, 2011). During this time, all his followers believed every word Mason had said and would follow every order he gave, including Atkins.
Over time, the followers of the Spahn Movie Ranch would escalate their crimes from theft to murder. The Mason Family’s first target was Gary Hinman, who was alleged to have a large inheritance coming soon. Charles Mason ordered Atkins and other family members to go meet with Hinman, where they murdered him furiously when it was found out that he was not going to inherit money from anyone. Once Manson got a taste of murder, he decided to select more targets to ‘take money from. . . and kill them’ (Jensen, 2011). Atkins and other fellow family members would assist Mason with murdering other victims such as Voytek Frykowski, Leno & Rosemary LaBianca and Sharon Tate. After relocating to Death Valley, the Mason Family Ranch got raided, with Atkins arrested and placed into custody (Jensen, 2011).
Even while Atkins was placed in prison she was still loyal to Charles Mason as she would testify that she had been involved in a small part in the murders that took place. Additionally, Atkins along with two other family members, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten showed their love for Mason while they were on trial for first degree murder: ‘The three girls shaved their heads and carved an ‘X’ in their foreheads, and continually disrupted the courtroom with giggling in order to show solidarity and loyalty to Mason’ (Jensen, 2011). It was only until after the final trial, the Mason family cut all contact with Atkins, she would later re-transform herself into a ‘born-again Christian’, saving the lives of her fellow convicts and was rewarded for her efforts accordingly. Atkins was considered a ‘model prisoner’ to inmates and personnel who knew her up until she died of a brain tumor on September 24, 2009 (Jensen, 2011).
Susan Denise Atkins, born in San Gabriel, California, had a very gruesome childhood. She was always considered lesser in comparison to her brothers, Michael and Steven, who her parents always showed favoritism towards. In addition, her parents were alcoholics, and her father would allow Atkins to be sexually abused by his peers. To make matters worse, Atkins was not only abused by random family friends of her father, but she also would get molested by her own brother, Michael. Atkin’s family dynamic took an additional turn for the worse when her mother died of cancer when she was 14 years old. Relatives of Atkins would look after her along with her brothers during this tragic moment, but with the piling hospital bills and the stress from losing a family member, her relationship with her father worsened as he sold the family house and began to drink even more heavily than before. Eventually, her father left her brother, Steven, with Atkins, forcing her to take care of him by herself while her other brother, Michael, moved out of the house to join the Navy (Jensen, 2011).
Atkin’s horrifying childhood left her feeling depressed and isolated by her peers. At school, she was seen as a ‘self-conscious, quiet girl’, where she would join the glee club and choir to express herself. (Jensen, 2011). However, when she turned 18 years old, she decided to drop out of high school, leave her family and move to San Francisco to pursue various jobs to support herself. Atkins turned to drugs such as LSD and marijuana to help escape from her depression that was a result of her family problems. This is when she met Charles Manson; while she was hanging out with ‘the drug and hippie crowd in Haight-Ashbury’ (Jensen, 2011). During this time, Atkins and Manson became very close and once her house got raided by the police a few weeks later, Atkins decided to join the Mason Family to Los Angeles, where they had planned a summer road trip together (Jensen, 2011).
Explanation Of Theory
The Attachment Theory, written by John Bowlby, depicts how adolescence relationships, especially with parental figures, can contribute to how adolescents develop relationship are created in their adult life. Bowlby hypothesized that infants are born with an instinct attraction and connection to their adult caregiver, which can be altered due to the infant’s experience with the caregiver (Robertson et al., 2018). Bowlby’s study concluded that when children are close to their caregiver, they felt completely safe in their environment. However, when infants are separated from their parental figures they feel a sense in insecurity (ie. anxiety) and try to recover the attachment through various means, such as monitoring, searching, or crying (Richards et al., 2011).
There are three different types of attachment written by Bowlby: secure, avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent (Robertson et al., 2018). In a secure attachment, the adolescent sees the parent as a ‘secure base’, which gives the child a sense of security. This type of attachment is developed by the mother’s behavior: ‘The mother in this pattern can nourish the child physically and emotionally, she will comfort him when he is distressed, and she will reassure him when he is frightened. She will be there for her child when called upon’ (Bowlby, 1988). Common techniques for the mother to develop a secure attachment are ‘attunement, empathy, affective resonance, gaze sharing, entrained vocal rhythms, and mutually shared pleasure primarily mediated by the right front brain and associated with positive affective states’ (Snyder et al., 2003). When a child experiences avoidant attachment from their caregiver, there is little connection and little or no response whether the caregiver is there or not. They tend to hide their anxiety and focus on other things that are not bothering them (Lang et al., 2016). In some cases, the child ignores or avoids the caregiver when they are reunited (Zeanah et al., 2011). When a child feels an anxious/ambivalent towards their parental figure, they experience stress, anger, discomfort, and have difficulty coping without their attachment figure (Lang et al., 2016). Adolescents that have an insecure (avoidant and anxious/ambivalent) attachments tend to have social, psychological, neurological problems as they grow into adults (Snyder et al., 2012). To summarize, attachment theory suggests that:
‘(a) Human beings are wired to connect with one another emotionally, in intimate relationships; (b) there is a powerful influence on children’s development by the way they are treated by their parents, especially by their mothers; and (c) a theory of development pathways can explain later tendencies in relationship based on such early experiences’ (Snyder et al, 2012).
When adolescents have a secure attachment to their caregiver, it can lead to beneficial results (healthy relationships) while insecure attachments present developmental risks for said child.
Application Of Theory To Case
Susan Atkins obviously had insecure attachments when growing up; her whole family was extremely abusive towards her. With her negative relationship with her family, she developed an insecure attachment towards them, leading her to join a cult, a place where she finally felt wanted and loved. This concept is prevalent in today’s society; not just in cults. There are multiple peer-reviewed articles that apply attachment theory and how insecure attachment can shape a person negatively. For example, a study written by Robertson et al. goes explicitly into detail about abusive supervision and how it affects the workplace. Their findings found when management became hostile towards their employees (public ridicule and overall rudeness), the turnover rate would increase, and employees would act more negatively in their work environment. Robertson et al. concluded that by reducing abusive behaviour, it, in turn, reduced employee hardship and made them more eager to work (Robertson et al., 2018). This paper applies to Atkin’s case as her family gave her a ‘hostile work environment’. With the sexual abuse and violence Atkins experienced, she decided to leave her family at the earliest opportunity possible without looking back. She had an anxious/ambivalent attachment towards her family, so she decided to ‘quit’ and proceeded to join a family of her own choosing, the Charles Manson family. Instead of acting hostile towards Atkins, like her biological family, Manson acted kindly towards her, making her more susceptible to whatever orders he gave her. Manson gave Atkins the ‘positive working environment’ she needed in order to do his bidding for him, such as eight murders.
Another paper linked to attachment theory in the workplace was written by Richards et al., where they would conduct two studies: one where they ‘adapted and validated an established measure of adult attachment in romantic relationships to assess individual attachment in a general, context-free manner’ and another where they ‘drew on attachment theory to develop and test hypotheses regarding relations between attachment and work-related behaviours, including support seeking, emotional regulation, organizational citizen behaviour, counterproductive work behaviour, and turnover intentions’ (Richards et al., 2011). Richards et al.’s findings were consistent with insecure attachments as described by Bowlby:
‘Our results are generally consistent with attachment theory in that avoidant individuals tend to be self-reliant and to disengage form affiliation with others by suppressing negative emotions and not seeking support to deal with work difficulties, whereas anxious individuals tend to display prosocial behaviour and more likely to think about quitting their job’ (Richards et al., 2011).
Once again, this applies to Atkin’s case as she developed an insecure. avoidant attachment towards her family. Just like the avoidant individuals in Richards et al.’s study, Atkin became disengaged and self-reliant as she moved to San Francisco without the help of her family. She had to drop out of high school and take on various jobs just to survive on her own. Atkins possibly also felt an anxious attachment towards her family, as she ‘quit’ her family (had no contact with them), when she left for San Francisco. In addition, Richards et al.’s results concluded that ‘organizations can implement practices that encourage positive relationships between organization members, may contribute to the meeting of affiliative needs and increase the work effectiveness of anxiously attached individuals’ (Richards et al. 2011). Not only did Atkins had a positive relationship with Manson, she also maintained close relationships with other members of the ‘family’. For example, Atkins would accompany Charles ‘Tex’ Watson and others to assist with murdering victims that got in Charles Manson’s way. Susan Atkins previous ‘anxious attachment’ made her more inclined to follow orders (ie. increase work effectiveness) since Charles Manson gave Atkins a ‘positive environment’. This environment was much better than the abusive household Atkins was in when she was a child, therefore it encouraged her to forgo with these felonies.
- Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol.2. Separation: Anxiety and anger. New York, NY: Basic Books
- Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.
- Jensen, V. (2011). Women criminals: An encyclopedia of people and issues. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca.
- Lac, A., Crano, W.D., Berger, D.E., & Alvaro, E.M. (2013). Attachment Theory and Theory of Planned Behaviour: An Integrative Model Prediction Underage Drinking. Developmental Psychology, 49(8), pp. 1579-1590.
- Lang, K., Bovenschen, I., Gabler, S., Zimmerman, J., Nowacki, K., Kliewer, J., & Spangler, G. (2016). Foster children’s attachment security in the first year after placement: A longitudinal study of predictors. Early Childhood Research Quarterly
- Richards, R.A., & Schat, A.C.H. (2011). Attachment at (Not to) Work: Applying Attachment Theory to Explain Individual Behaviour in Organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), pp. 169-182.
- Robertson, J.L., Dionsi, A.M., & Barling, J. (2018). Linking Attachment Theory to Abusive supervision. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 33(2), pp. 214-228.
- Snyder, R., Shapiro, S., & Treleaven, D. (2012). Attachment Theory and Mindfulness. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 21(5), pp. 709-717.
- Watkins, P., & Soledad, G. (1979). My Life with Charles Manson. New York: Bantam Books.
- Zeanah, C.H., Berlin, L.J., & Boris, N.W. (2011). Practitioner Review: Clinical application of attachment theory and research for infants and young children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(8), pp. 819-833.