Cold season 1, bonus 1: Anatomy of an Audio Journal – Full episode transcript

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I do need to be treated well. That’s probably one of the most important considerations in relationships.

Dave Cawley: Josh Powell’s recorded audio journals are one of the most unique and bizarre aspects of the Susan Powell case. When discovered by police, they provided nothing in the way of evidence. But they say so much about who Josh was and how he thought.

This is a bonus episode of Cold: Anatomy of an Audio Journal. I’m Dave Cawley, and I’m speaking with Dr. Matt Woolley, a clinical psychologist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. At my request, Matt reviewed one of Josh’s audio journals from December, 2000. Now, we’re going to talk about it.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Susan has been really sweet to me. It’s been overall a really good relationship and in, in many ways, possibly the best relationship overall I’ve been in.

Dave Cawley: You and I are in a small group of people who’ve actually had the chance to listen to one of these Josh Powell audio journals in whole.

Matt Woolley: Yeah. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: What was that experience like for you?

Matt Woolley: Umm, kind of a mix of, of very interesting and tedious. Right? Because he does spend a lot of time just cataloging and kind of talking about the mundane aspects of his day and what he’s doing. The one we shared, the one I listened to, y’know, he talks about moving in to his apartment and then he describes the various things in his apartment.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): That apartment, 11016 Waller Road East, apartment F304, is a very comfortable apartment. It’s, it’s big enough to have parties with a lot of people, to eat comfortably, to watch movies comfortably. And I’ve been thinking lately that that apartment might be sufficient to start off a marriage in, if I were to get married.

Matt Woolley: He says some interesting things. Even how he says those things are interesting perhaps to a trained listener like a psychologist because it reflects certain aspects of his personality. But as far as them being full of juicy details, it’s just, y’know, he’s excited that he has a complete DVD collection of Disney and, y’know, the, the, the d—, the, the, the reasons behind why he’s talking about those things may be more interesting but I have to admit, it got a little tedious at times—

Dave Cawley: Here’s a bit—

Matt Woolley: —as anyone’s daily journal would, I would think. Right?

Dave Cawley: Right?

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): At this point, I’m honestly satisfied with my DVD collection, y’know, with a few exceptions. I’ve got a lot of Disney cartoons. I’ve got the Rogers and Hammerstine collection, some holiday and festive videos. Christmas, Mickey’s Christmas, umm, Miracle, It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph, Christmas Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Charlie Brown holiday series with Christmas, Thanksgiving and, and Halloween.

Dave Cawley: One of the things that kind of blew me away about it when I first heard it is, this recording starts with Josh Powell saying, uh, “continuing on from…”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Here is is, December 13th, year 2000 still. I ran out of space on the card in this recorder. So I’m going to finish up this journal entry here.

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: …so he’s been talking before. And now he’s going to talk for another hour and 20 minutes.

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: I mean, so, he’s committed a significant portion of his day to recording this material. And—

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: —you would think if you’re going to invest that much time and effort, it would be “today was a really big day and here’s why.”

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: And instead what we hear is “uh, y’know, I want to talk about my debt and, y’know, what I’m doing with my credit cards and…”

Matt Woolley: Right. And if you notice, I’d be interested if you saw this as well, but my feeling was the way he describes a lot of things are sort of literature-like. Instead of just casual conversation, the way you might efficiently speak about what you did that day, I think is where you were going with that is—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: —he instead describes things in, in unnecessary detail in an, in sort of a narcissistic way, as if somebody is ever going to care about this. That it’s somehow important, precious information about him, eh, that some day future generations or other people might take a real interest in what he was doing that day. Just the mundane, everything would somehow be interesting and important. So I felt like it was very much a, y’know, it’s a narcissistic activity. It reflects back on himself his own self-importance that, that nobody ever would truly care about.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): So I need to spend a little more time taking care of this. I’ve got to scan a lot of papers to get, get rid of the actual paperwork. Then I’ve got to organize a bunch of files in my computer. And I’d really like to reformat my hard drive and re-install things a lot cleaner.

Matt Woolley: To him, in his mind and this, and this is fairly young in his, before his marriage, uh, kind of this developing delusion of his grandiosity.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): My current financial system of using multiple debit cards is something I’d came up with a few months ago. It seems like it was probably back in May or June when I came up with the idea.

Dave Cawley: And is this something, because I hear the question a lot from people who’ve listened the podcast and they’re surprised at all of these journals—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —you’ve got Josh keeping this audio journal. You have Steve writing just, y’know, all of these pages and pages of, of his journal. Uh, you even have Susan journaling a little bit—

Matt Woolley: Yep, yep.

Dave Cawley: —and, and so where does it cross the line from being “hey, that’s a little unusual” to “wow, that’s really strange” in your mind?

Matt Woolley: Well, first of all you have to put it in context. So, they both grew up in the LDS faith and in the LDS church journaling is highly encouraged. So, y’know, the fact that Susan kept childhood and adolescent journals wouldn’t necessarily be unusual, per se. But this, this complete cataloguing of his life, which is what he did not what she did, that’s where it kind of crosses over. Typically, journaling is a mundane activity for the journaler. And so people tend to be fairly efficient with it, if they journal at all. He liked technology and so he was drawn towards this new technology, well not necessarily new but he was on the edge—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —of digitally recording audio and video. But, umm, where it becomes, I think, uh, crosses a line from kind of odd to very strange is the number of hours that, that are, that are involved. Which, like you said, an hour, I don’t have an hour and 20 minutes in my day to, to do something fun—

Dave Cawley: I don’t, I don’t think many of us do, right?

Matt Woolley: —let alone, yeah. Right. And so that, just the, the sheer minutes and hours, literally hours involved in his audio and some video is incredible. And then the fact that they really are about very, uh, mundane sorts of things. He does get into describing what you might see in a journal a little bit more often like feelings and thoughts about things. However, then it becomes even more kind of this, as if he’s reading a book. It, it, he extends out his descriptions of things well beyond what you’d want to do if you were trying to efficiently record your thoughts and feelings.

And so I’d say those sorts of things combined, plus the fact that it’s really ego-centric, meaning the self. It’s all about him and his thoughts and his feelings about everything. Which, of course, somebody’s listening saying “well, it’s his journal.” But there’s very little indication that he is contemplating or processing the thoughts and feelings and behaviors of other people, other people’s motives in his life or what, how they think and how they feel. There’s really no indication that he’s thinking “oh, I wish I could make someone else happy today.” Y’know, it’s all about his own things, his, his description of how great his, I remember he said he spent $300 on a DVD player and I remember when they used to be expensive like that.

Dave Cawley: Right.

Matt Woolley: Right?

Dave Cawley: Right.

Matt Woolley: So he’s wanting to, y’know, kind of highlight that he has very nice things.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I don’t really regret the DVD player. It was, uh, about a $300 purchase and now I’ve got the, y’know, hundreds of dollars-worth of DVDs that I’ve accumulated over the last couple of months. I don’t think that was really a, a problem. I don’t regret it at all.

Matt Woolley: There at times is kind of a “poor me,” sort of picked-on, y’know, attitude that I’m, I’m special but people aren’t recognizing it. So I think all of those factors together really tip the scales into the fact that this is well beyond a typical journal, but the, the highlight is just the number of hours, is y’know, I doubt, y’know, the president has quite so much audio on him.

Dave Cawley: Right. I’m glad you brought up the point about how he seems to lack this empathy for other people. Uh, there’s one particular passage in my mind where he’s talking about “I’m trying to be more active with friends.”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Up at UW Seattle it was really, you became a number. I didn’t like that environment. Down in Tacoma, I feel like I have an opportunity to make friends with people where I never could up in Seattle except in church.

Dave Cawley: It’s better now that I’m in Tacoma and I’m hosting these get-togethers where people come over, and isn’t this great.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I started a tradition of inviting people over every Sunday and after a few weeks that progressed into a tradition where we just get together as a group, pretty much the same core.

Dave Cawley: And then a little bit later in the recording he comes back and says…

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): People come over to my house and instead of eating what I’m offering them, they come in and say “oh” — they look in my freezer — “oh, I want to make orange juice to go with dinner.” And “I want to put this with my dinner.” Well, eventually when they start doing that, it gets extremely expensive to have these dinners and so I’ve felt like that has, uh, been a, a burden that I can’t take these days.

Dave Cawley: There might be some normal annoyance that most of us would feel at going, y’know, “I’m kind of a poor college student, I don’t have the resources.” But at the same time, there’s almost a shift in the way his voice sounds in my ear—

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: —that this is more than just annoyance. Like, this is “how dare they?”

Matt Woolley: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. It’s uh, they’ve gone out of bounds of his expectation and he wants to put them back in those boundaries. So, I think specifically he said people will get something out of the fridge and say “oh, I’d like to add this to the meal.” And we don’t know what those things were but, but most likely since he was a poor college student, it might’ve been salad dressing for all we know. Nothing that, y’know, people aren’t, y’know, unthawing his meat supply for the year.

Dave Cawley: It’s not steaks. Yeah, yeah.

Matt Woolley: Right, exactly. And so, I think absolutely there’s a shift in his tone and temper in his voice when he talks about this, this really bothers him. That “how dare they” is definitely a good way to describe the feeling you get when you listen to that shift. How dare they do something in my home that I didn’t intend? Y’know, they’re here to become my friends. And so there’s no reciprocity there and there’s also no acknowledgement that maybe he was popular for a minute. People enjoy being there. They’re comfortable enough to go into his fridge. A different alternative perspective would be like “oh, it’s awesome,” y’know, “people come over and they, they help themselves to stuff. I’m really making real friends.” But no, it was, he can’t control what they’re doing in his environment and it bothers him.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): At this point, of course, I’m only seeing Susan and I have been for about a month now.

Dave Cawley: This also is really important in my mind because we know that it’s during one of these Sunday dinners that he hosted that he and Susan really hit it off. He didn’t go into it as much in this particular recording but in some of the others that were used in, in Cold, you hear him describe, y’know, Susan after the meal got up and, and was cleaning the dishes—

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: —and that’s when we fell in love.

Matt Woolley: (Laughs)

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Uh, I think I might’ve asked for help doing to the dishes and she volunteered so we were doing dishes together and I guess she liked that so much that she decided she really likes me.

Dave Cawley: It’s so hard for my mind to understand a 24, 25-year-old guy who meets this, y’know, cute 19-year-old and in none of these recordings, this one included, does he ever say anything about, y’know, she is so, I, I am head over heels for her—

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: —she is so this, that or the other. It’s—

Matt Woolley: None of that typical language.

Dave Cawley: —it’s how she serves me, how she takes care of me.

Matt Woolley: Oh yeah, very specifically. Umm, he, I, I have, if you listen to what, this, this section and then the, the Cold episodes, you obviously see that he has a plan. He is attending church functions, uh, social functions put on by his church, with the primary goal of dating. Trying to find somebody. Complains that girls don’t call him back.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I sometimes have difficulty finding girls who are willing to return my phone calls, go out with me. I’ve had over the last, uh, three or four months, I’ve called a number of girls who never returned my phone calls or who always said they were too busy to go out with me.

Matt Woolley: He’s very much in, on the hunt so to speak, for finding a girlfriend and I assume then later a wife. And when he finds Susan, she has these traits that he just has been looking for. She’s very, uh, kind. He said she does, y’know, nice things for him.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): She’s the first girl I’ve known, that I’ve been dating, who has had a car, who comes to visit me. And y’know, in the past I’ve always been the one to pick up a girl, whether she’s visiting me or I’m visiting her, I’m always the one to do the driving so that’s a great thing.

Matt Woolley: He specifically mentions that she jumps in and does the dishes, that she washes her hands and puts everything back after she uses the bathroom. And it only takes a minute to do that.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): She also tends to help me clean up, like after we have a party or, or after we have dinner together at my place or something. She helps me clean it up and keeps the kitchen clean. Like when she washes her hands in the bathroom, she wipes up the sink. Which I do, too. I like to keep all that clean. It only takes a second to keep things looking really nice.

Matt Woolley: And it really is all about her serving him, her doing things for him. Her making him feel good and special. Respecting his things, the opposite of what the other guests were doing in the home. She’s putting things back, cleaning up, doing the dishes and then doing nice things for him. And then, in this journal that we listened to there’s also a section where, I mean, this is a hard-working girl. She works very hard. Uh, she goes to beauty school all day, works at J.C. Penney and then drives to his house to meet him and, and serve him again.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): It really shows that she cares. For her to come over here after her long day and make it a point to see me every day…

Matt Woolley: And so he’s, I think, just found the ideal, in his mind, person to feed his narcissistic self-perception that he’s special and deserves to be treated that way.

Dave Cawley: Yeah. There, as I recall, is a, a particular where he talks about when they started dating. And, uh, he almost sounds a little defensive in saying “well, this was really Susan’s idea,” and y’know, “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to give up all these other options.”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): When I started getting serious with Susan, it was mainly her idea. I was very hesitant to get into a relationship because I was finally feeling confident about dating and I didn’t want to let go of all my relationships that I could potentially develop.

Dave Cawley: Right after he’s told us that he really has no other options because girls won’t give him the time of day.

Matt Woolley: (Laughs) Right, right.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Sometimes I feel like I can’t reach any girls anywhere, that for some reason or another, they won’t give me the, a chance to even go out with them.

Matt Woolley: But in his mind, being a special, precious person that’s deserving of adoration, he must have many, many options. He just hasn’t found them yet. Like—

Dave Cawley: Or, or convinced them yet.

Matt Woolley: Or convinced them yet, yeah. Let them, or given them the privilege. I mean, it’s all of that—

Dave Cawley: Right, right.

Matt Woolley: —self-absorbed, narcissistic thinking and uh, and he even kind of brushes her off at one point when, I think, was it the roommate or the friend was interested in her?

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: Y’know, he’s like “well,” y’know, “I just,” y’know, “he could have her.” Y’know, he was very nonchalant about it.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Tim and I were sort of flirting with her and Tim got her phone number and eventually called her. I was, I gave her my phone number, I didn’t, y’know, everyone was teasing me and I didn’t want to really get her phone number and do what everyone is teasing me that I always do. I didn’t want to be the second person to get it after Tim already got her phone number. Whatever the reasons, I just kind of let it go to some extent.

Matt Woolley: But of course, at that point when he’s saying that, she’d already come around to, to liking him so it was a no-risk way of brushing it off. He knew she was hooked on him.

Dave Cawley: Yeah. That’s a great observation, because there was a competition happening there, I think, for a short time for Susan’s attention between Josh and this particular friend.

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: And, and it’s interesting to see the way, uh, he goes back and describes in some other recordings, y’know, when he and Susan met that friend was there and, y’know, was she paying attention to me? Was she paying attention to him?

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: And this kind of, uh, this kinda tug-of-war about, y’know, if she pays attention to him, then she’s worthless and I don’t care about her.

Matt Woolley: Absolutely. Not worth going after. Where, y’know, I mean, that, that, y’know, male competition for a girl when you’re in college, of course, happens all the time. But you would probably have somebody in Josh’s position who’s a normally functioning person have a very different approach, which is like, “what can I do to win her?” Like, what can I do? Y’know, she’s seeming to pay attention to my roommate or my friend more than me, but I really like her. Y’know, she’s the light of my life. I’ve got to have her. I’m gonna do this and that. None of that.

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: None of that from Josh. Josh is just like “oh, well you’re, yeah, worthless. You, you have no value if you’re not all about me.”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000? audio journal recording): I was feeling very frustrated about dating in general. I didn’t want to have anything to do with any girl. I was feeling like I might have too difficult a time finding someone who will treat me the way I want to be treated.

Dave Cawley: There was a section in the recording that I want to ask you about, umm, in particular because it really hit me when I listened to it the first time and it hasn’t really dulled as I’ve gone back and listened to it on, y’know, repeat listens. And that is this section where Josh describes Susan and her anger.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I’ve seen her upset, like that day we were moving and I’ve certainly wasn’t thrilled about that. I wanna see that, that she keeps those kinds of things under control and also the way she treats other people. Like, she comes up, she has an attitude with some people like her sister or some of her friends, that she just needs to keep that under control. Which, I just want to see that she’s doing that for quite a long time before I even feel comfortable with, with her completely. And partly I’m concerned about how she would treat me, if she would pull that attitude on me, which would be completely unacceptable. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t accept that at all. And secondly, I wouldn’t want someone to come up with some, any kind of attitude with, with our kids.

Matt Woolley: That’s the essence of it. It really isn’t about the kids. A part of a, a narcissist is, they feed themselves their own story, uh, over and over again and kind of reinforcing their own self-worth and their own self-importance. And part of that is being like a good person. Like, I’m better than the rest of you. I’m smarter. Uh, in this case, uh, I’m more righteous and moral. I’m above the rest of you. And so he would say things, in my opinion, in these audio journals, they’re really messages to himself. Like, oh I don’t know that I should choose a woman like this because it might be bad for my future children. But then he goes on to talk about what the real underlying thrust is, I want to get a woman who will serve me all the time, be subservient. And she has a little bit of her own gumption.

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: And I, and I think that if we were, if we had been able to see, y’know, examples of what he’s talking about, it probably would’ve been a normal 19-year-old girl, oh I think he uses the word “attitude”—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: —“she has an attitude.” Well, of course. She’s 19 and she’s an individual person. She’s gonna have a little attitude when people, when things don’t go her way. That’s—

Dave Cawley: And, and especially dealing with a personality like Josh’s.

Matt Woolley: Of course. He’s very controlling and—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —rigid and, and so yeah. When she pushed back on him a little bit, we don’t know exactly what that was—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: —in dating, which I would assume was very normal and typical. The, the average person would probably look at that and say “oh yeah, that’s, she’s just being, she’s asserting herself as a normal human.” Uh, he, he did, he was worried about that. He was worried that “oh I may,” y’know, “I may not be able to control this woman the way I want to control her ‘cause she’s got a little bit of an attitude.” But then he turns it into this whole morphing of maybe she’d be abusive to the future children.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I mean, I think that would screw up my kids to have someone to have a mother who isn’t stable enough with them.

Matt Woolley: That sort of theme plays out later, when after she’s gone missing and the, the investigation is on, when Josh and his father Steve are going through her childhood journals trying to prove that she was abused and she was abusive to the kids and making these stories, just fabricating stories about her abusiveness. And you could see that he was toying with that idea before they were even married—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —as sort of an, uh, an out or an escape, a way to blame her for problems.

Dave Cawley: Right. Yeah, rather than self-reflect and go “maybe she’s upset with me because A, B, C, or D, it’s just because she has this problem—”

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: “—and she’s gotta get that solved—”

Matt Wooley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: “before,” y’know, “I will ever consider…”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): So Susan is always talking about marriage with me. The other day she said something like “would you let me propose to you?” And I didn’t really know what to say so I didn’t say anything. But, uh, first of all, I wouldn’t want a girl to propose to me at all. I would find that probably very uncomfortable. And secondly, I’m not really ready to, to get engaged with Susan anyway. I at least want to get to know her over the long run and see how she is, if, if her, uh, personality changes. Like, I want to see how she can handle stress and, and whether she has patience and stuff in the long run.

Matt Woolley: I think if, people who’ve listened to your podcast, they’ll recognize a theme. And that is that he sees things as kind of a zero-sum game. As plus and minus. Things are either an asset to me or they’re a liability to me. And there, there is very little, if any, I don’t recall anything I’ve read or heard that would make me indicate he has true empathy. He fakes sympathy and empathy at times.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I was helping her move and she was in a really stressed-out mood and she wasn’t really being very nice. Well afterwards, and I was just somewhat understanding, I guess. I wasn’t being really rude to her in response but afterwards, she felt really bad so she was going out of her way to just make it up to me, do little nice things for me.

Matt Woolley: The way normal, typical, healthy adults interact is we may be upset with each other in our marriages or relationships but we can, y’know, calm down and empathize and realize “ok, I understand why he or she was thinking this way or that way or feeling this way or that way.” And that helps us compromise and work with people, make real, genuine connections. Umm, but he, he didn’t have that. There’s nothing that I am aware of that is an example of him doing that. It’s just “she needs to serve my needs and if she’s not serving my needs and I can’t make her serve me, then she goes from an asset to a liability.”

And that’s exactly what we see happen over time as she found her own voice, so to speak. Uh, started, uh contemplating the idea that maybe he wouldn’t change. Maybe they did need to divorce and I’m sure there were lots and lots of conversations none of us will ever be privy to that planted ideas in his mind that “she’s going to become a liability. She’s a liability now. I need to eliminate that liability.” But that goes way back—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —to this, uh, audio journal of shortly just, what, weeks after they met?

Dave Cawley: When Josh records this audio journal, they’ve been dating for about a month and they’re about a month away from being engaged.

Matt Woolley: Yeah. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: And it’s stunning to me that you hear Josh in this recording say “eh, y’know, Susan’s kind of been the one driving this and I don’t have this,” and less than a month later, he is, he is all in.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I realized that she was serious, that she wasn’t going to just start something and walk away. And at this point, I am confident that she, that she is sincere.

Dave Cawley: He recognizes at some point during that span of time that she meets those criteria that you’re looking for—

Matt Woolley: Uh huh.

Dave Cawley: —as you described, and if you don’t lock her in—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —she will leave.

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: And, and maybe it’s, uh, you and I talked a little bit about this kind of idea of a narcissist having a, a protective front—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —and maybe there is that, that, y’know, little piece inside, that voice that’s going “you gotta commit her before she finds out who you really are.”

Matt Woolley: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s absolutely the truth. Umm, I’m, I’m sure he was worried about he’s found the perfect girl for him, meets all his criteria, his check, checklist and she could get away.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Felt like I had to make a decision: either get with her exclusively, right then and there and let all these other girls go that I have tentatively scheduled dates with or that I’ve been talking to and that I’ve been planning to ask out any day now. Uh, I either had to let all of those girls go or get with her, to get with her. Or let her go to continue the things the way they were. So that was a very scary step.

Matt Woolley: One way to think of a, a narcissistic personality — and I’ll, I’ll just take a side-step and say personality as the psychologist thinks of it is our way of perceiving, understanding and interacting with the world. And it’s kind of auto-pilot. It’s how we do what we do when we’re not thinking about what we’re doing. It’s just us. And so it’s a very ingrained part of who we are. It is who we are. So most of our personality traits, quirky as they may be are healthy—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: —and, uh, capable of us reflecting on them and realizing we may need to improve in certain areas of our life and if you’ve been married then you know there’s someone there to help you reflect on that.

Dave Cawley: Right, yeah, right.

Matt Woolley: And, and, and that can be a hard process—

Dave Cawley: Right.

Matt Woolley: —but a good one. And a, a narcissist typically you may think of them as somebody who’s not building a genuine personality structure. It’s kind of this facade, at least at first its this facade of competency. I’m special, I’m important. And it has to be perfect and pristine and, uh, elevated above everyone else because it’s false. Y’know, he was, a lot of people have told me “oh wow, he was very intelligent.” And we look through the things, we look through the report and we say “ok, he’s above average in intelligence.” But it was a particular kind. It had nothing to do with, uh, really creativity, flexibility, fluid intelligence wasn’t his thing. Interpersonal intelligence was not his thing. Uh, it was very much this mathematical type of intelligence. And it was, so kind of fits that cold exterior. His narcissistic armor, so to speak, this facade, is what he would invest all his time in. That’s who he’s talking to a lot of the time on these tapes is just building up this sense of “I’m special and precious.”

So you think of it as kind of a facade and the real person underneath kind of shrinks year after year after year. But at some point, y’know, when you’re still younger, you’re in your 20s, there may be some of that left that goes “Josh, you’ve gotta lock her down or she’s gonna get away. She’s gonna find out that you’re really not that great.” And so, over time that voice gets smaller and smaller as the narcissistic personality develops a thicker skin. And then the person essentially becomes that false person—

Dave Cawley: Hmm.

Matt Woolley: —in a way. And so I think absolutely he, he probably jumped on getting her locked down in marriage as quickly as he could because during the short period of time of dating, uh, she was demonstrating she needed, she could be who he wanted.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): She seems like someone I could be with because she’s got the same values in, uh, conserving energy, keeping the house clean, uh, which is important to me.

Matt Woolley: And what we know about Susan is she was attractive, uh, vivacious, energetic. Probably somebody that had a lot of offers for, for dating.

Dave Cawley: And she was just at 19 kind of entering that phase of her life where you would transition from maybe, y’know, boyfriend-girlfriend into, into some of these more serious relationships. And I think a lot of, uh, young adults in that, in that space, they go through a few relationships that, that fail and—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —and they learn along the way and they develop some of those skills.

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: And I personally look at, y’know, Susan and Josh and see that in some ways, marrying Josh when she did appears to have stunted Susan’s development a little bit.

Matt Woolley: Absolutely.

Dave Cawley: And it’s not until later in her, in her later 20s after she’s kind of had a, a gut full of it that she begins developing a little more independence in stepping out—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —and that puts her in conflict with her husband.

Matt Woolley: Oh yeah, very well said. Umm, that’s one of the, as, as a psychologist and working with people, umm, I’m always concerned when an 18, 19, even 20-year-old says they wanna get married. That, y’know, can work out, I know. Uh, however, that person is giving up, regardless of whether the marriage works out of not, which may be a product more of the two people developing a good dynamic together and, and one of ‘em not being a psychopath, umm, that uh, that you give up that personal development, that young adult experience.

You’ve gone, and we actually have a term for it. It’s called individuating or becoming your own self and you’ve been raised, uh, and learned all the good things and had all the support from your family, your community, etcetera. And now you’re on your own, to some degree. Uh, you’re off to college, being more independent, and you need several years of experience, uh, with taking care of yourself, managing your own finances and maybe most importantly: relationships. How do you handle friendships? How do you handle intimacy?

And so developing competency in your ability to have intimate connection with other people requires practice. It’s not something we’re born with, necessarily. Some people might be a little better at it than the rest, but we need practice. And unfortunately, the time that she could have been practicing that in dating through college, unfortunately she got married.

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: And she got married to somebody that had, uh, very ill intentions for her.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): In the worst case, I would probably end up moving back in with my dad, putting all my stuff into storage. I would probably pay $150 to $200 a month to store everything I own and, of course, that wouldn’t be ideal either.

Dave Cawley: Let’s talk about the broader Powell family dynamics that, uh, I, I think are kind of hinted at in this audio journal. You hear Josh talking about some of his interplay with his dad. What did you take away from that?

Matt Woolley: Umm, so I think there’s that, umm, competition between father and son. Umm, and y’know, like most boys growing up, he when he was younger, y’know, probably wanted his father’s attention and approval and that sort of thing. But when the divorce happens, then something different kind of takes over and takes place and, uh, that’s often referred to as a closed family system. And what I mean by that is, there was a divorce and, uh, the, very contentious. All the kids except for Jennifer, I believe, went with, with the father, with Steve. Josh, there was a, a, maybe a few weeks or months there where he was trying, he and his younger brother were trying to spend some time with mom but she was trying to set some, what seemed like appropriate limits and boundaries to establish, she’s come from this chaotic situation, establish an appropriate home life, uh, and hoping that Josh would give in to. And so he wouldn’t do that and he went back into this family system with his, uh, father. And a closed family system is kind of like circling the wagons, y’know, it’s us versus them. The rest of the world is bad or wrong or evil, typically, and we only can trust each other. Uh, there’s a lot of indoctrination of, kind of delusional, paranoid beliefs, typically, that are happening, which we know, umm, boundary-less.

Steve appears also to be a true narcissist with, y’know, a lot of sexual deviancies and so he would be kind of primed to have no boundaries with his children, that they were a possession of him. He owned them and could do with them what he wanted and so, uh, as they were younger I’m sure there was a lot of abuse and very questionable things that happened to those children in that home, uh, exposure to pornography maybe being the least of the concerns. And we know there was reports of sexual abuse and, and fantasies and things that were just very inappropriate for a child’s development. Josh pushes back, as a teenager would. And so there creates this competition and as soon as Josh quits just following dad’s word to the letter, then Josh becomes an enemy or a liability instead of an asset to Steve. And then Josh becomes maligned by his father as, as soon as his father sees his fiancé and, and then Susan becoming his wife, he wants to possess what Josh owns. And because he’s a sexually deviant, uh, narcissist, then it’s it’s a sexual obsession that is just remarkable.

I mean it’s, it’s unbelievable. The documentation and the, the self-aggrandizing that he has around this. He’ll even tell everyone about it. And he puts his son down. So there’s this tug back and forth during the early years of the marriage. Uh, Josh feels, uh, I think, uh, rebellion against his father and does a very odd rebellion and that is that maybe going to church and becoming an active member of the church was actually a rebellious act against his father, right?

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I also have been praying almost every night and reading the scriptures at some point every day with, y’know, a few exceptions when I’ve, when I haven’t for one reason or another. But overall, I think I’ve done very well with those over the last many, many months.

Matt Woolley: His father at this point was a self-described anti-Mormon, very, taking every opportunity to run the church down publicly, personally. Uh, so the perfect rebellion against Steve, at that time, for Josh would be to become an active member of the church, number one. Number two, independent from his father. So back to the audio journal that we reviewed—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: — umm, he’s talking very, very detailed, very, a lot of detail in his conversation about his independence, so to speak. He has food, he has an apartment, he has things. He’s planning to decrease his debt and be self-sufficient. And so, he’s rebelling against Steve. Whereas, most fathers, a typically functioning father, would be, that’s what you hope. You hope that your kid, you’d be praising them but I’m sure Steve wasn’t. Steve wants Josh to be dependent on him because Josh is just an extension of the narcissistic father.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I keep a substantial food supply. I probably have the largest food supply of anyone in my ward.

Matt Woolley: The rebellion going to church, the rebellion by being individual, uh, an individual who’s independent, plays into that relationship. But then Josh has to eat crow several times and move home and there’s that tension. Uh, however over time, Josh tends to develop and become more like his father. He takes on those, uh, harder narcissistic traits and uh, starts to align himself more with his father against his own, uh, wife. It eventually comes out that Steve propositioned Susan and Josh does very little about that, if anything. Whereas, most husbands would be, they’d be ready to fight dad—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —right? Like, “you kidding me?”

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: Your dad is, y’know, propositioning and, and then it’s the music he writes and the videos he shoots and the fantasies he shares. I mean, this is just a really, uh, sick focus but it’s a, he wants to possess what Josh has and push Josh out. Josh is now a liability and so Josh is fighting back. But eventually, Josh loses and Josh’s personality becomes more like his father. He aligns with his father against Susan. Susan now becomes Josh’s liability. So it’s, it’s, it’s umm, an interesting study in generational narcissism and how narcissistic parents can influence narcissistic children and they eventually become aligned in their narcissism. Maybe not in all of their behaviors and attitudes, but certainly in their narcissism.

Dave Cawley: I, in my head I’m thinking about, y’know, two ends of the, of a magnet, right? If you take—

Matt Woolley: Uh huh. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: —two negative poles and try to push them together—

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: —they’re gonna repel each other.

Matt Woolley: Yep.

Dave Cawley: But yet there’s also, there seems to be this attraction between them.

Matt Woolley: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a push-pull, very conflict-based but kind of like you can’t tear ‘em apart.

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Sometimes it feels to me like I do too much, that I’m giving away more than I can afford. Like, giving people rides up to Seattle and who knows where else when I really can’t even afford the gas.

Dave Cawley: We can draw this out and see what happens, uh, after Steve gets arrested where now Josh almost becomes the, the alpha, in a way. Umm—

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: —and this is going well beyond the audio journal but I do think it’s, because we’re talking about this interplay relationship, that when Steve goes to jail and Josh becomes kind of the de facto head of that household—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —now he’s the one who’s calling the shots. And I’ve talked to a number of people who were privy to, y’know, the jail phone calls and things of that time who said Josh really asserted himself as being the one who was in authority at that point, which I found interesting.

Matt Woolley: And probably, yeah, definitely an interesting observation and, but, but maybe somewhat predictable—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —because he’s been vying for that position. There’s not a healthy father-son relationship, where your dad becomes kind of a wise mentor in, as you, and is proud of you for having your own life. There’s none of that. The only way Josh gets any real validation is at first by pleasing his dad, and then later by taking over, becoming his dad.

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: And so once dad’s out of the picture, he’s like my, it’s my turn to shine as the narcissistic alpha of this family.

Dave Cawley: One of the, the final things I wanted to kind of touch on is, if we look at, if we look at Josh, especially y’know, in this early timeframe, I’ve had the question listening to these audio journals and reviewing, y’know, the divorce file, do you think there was a, a point in time, or could there be, y’know — if somebody has a child who’s exhibiting, uh, narcissistic behaviors as they’re growing — is there a way to step in and direct or channel that in a way that’s more positive.

Matt Woolley: Yeah, that’s a great question and something that, uh, came to my mind often listening to, to the podcast episodes and then the journals that we reviewed. So you have to look at what is personality? Personality is developmental. Uh, it develops through childhood and adolescence and starts to become more solidified in adulthood. In that context, the answer would be yes. You can see developing traits of maladaptive personality early in a child’s life, sometimes back to elementary school. Uh, so narcissism and, uh y’know, interpersonal coldness, uh y’know, lack of empathy, those things can, can be seen early on.

Uh for, for any clinicians listening, y’know uh, most clinicians would say “we want to rule out other causes of that.” Y’know, there often can be things like abuse and neglect involved in that process. So certainly, y’know, interventions that reduce or eliminate abuse and neglect, provide support, healthy self-esteem and concepts early on should be employed. I personally work a lot with older children, adolescents and primarily for the reason that they’re in this developmental period where things like, whether it’s an anxiety issue, a learning disability or their personality structure is, those things are developing. It’s a great time to get in and make interventions.

To reference current research, we know that some personality disorders tend to have a fairly high loading of genetic predisposition. So, we know that with narcissism specifically and, and antisocial personality disorder and others, there seems to be fair amount of heritability. Now, that’s not destiny. Heritability is not destiny but some of these kids who are born to parents who obviously have met those criteria are at much higher risk for exhibiting those behaviors. So, from a teacher’s point of view, a, a parent’s point of view, other people involved, we would want to pay attention and as those tendencies are exhibited, it’s a great time to consult experts: pediatricians, therapists, people who can help with normal life development, uh, and kind of getting kids course-corrected. However, the problem is, one of the other generational factors may be chaos.

Dave Cawley: Hmm.

Matt Woolley: And so a lot of these kids who are born to parents who are personality disordered in this way — narcissism, antisocial — they may have parents in jail or in trouble with the law who don’t live a calm, normal lifestyle. And so, they’re also in, not just having a genetic predisposition but they’re being raised in a chaotic environment. And I think we see that with the Powell boys. Unfortunately, the potential for them having a normal, healthy life was there but Josh and his family’s influence wrecked that. Y’know, created chaos, created a stressed-out mother who was riding her bike on the freeway to work and back and not having enough to eat and this sort of abusive, chaotic, uncertain environment is, uh, the perfect environment to grow narcissistic personality.

So listeners, people who are teachers, aunts and uncles, parents, grandparents, umm, if you are, uh, concerned at all about that, instead of just wondering and worrying, y’know, talk with a professional like your pediatrician, for starters. That’s usually easy access and then maybe consult with a child or adolescent psychologist. There’s a lot that can be done early in life to help a person grow and develop.

Dave Cawley: Dr. Matt Woolley, thank you so much for, uh, taking the time to speak with us about this. Fascinating, we could go on for hours, I’m sure.

Matt Woolley: Yeah, definitely. Maybe we should, uh, go out to dinner and continue the conversation.

Dave Cawley: That’d be fantastic. Thanks, Dr. Matt Woolley.

Matt Woolley: Thanks.