SALT LAKE CITY — Josh Powell, the primary suspect in the disappearance and likely murder of his wife, Susan Powell, kept detailed audio journals throughout his early 20s — journals that provided much of the depth of content in the Cold podcast.
But what do those audio journals tell us about the man who remains the sole suspect in the disappearance of Susan Powell – and her likely murder? Investigative reporter Dave Cawley took the recordings to a clinical psychologist, Matt Woolley, to get his take.
A forensic psychologist who was asked to evaluate Josh Powell as part of a custody dispute in the state of Washington diagnosed Powell as having both adjustment disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. As part of Cold, James Manley told Cawley that Josh Powell saw his sons, Charlie and Braden, not as their own people but as extensions of himself.
Cawley asked Woolley to listen to a recorded journal entry of Josh Powell’s from December 2000 – about a month after Josh began dating a young woman named Susan Cox, and about another month before they would become engaged. Woolley would come to conclude the seeds of Josh Powell’s narcissism may have come from his own family tree – particularly, the influence of his father, Steve.
What is a narcissist?
“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, it’s this facade of competency. ‘I’m special. I’m important.’ And it has to be perfect and pristine and elevated above everyone else because it’s false,” Woolley said. “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.”
During the journal entry reviewed by Woolley, about an hour and twenty minutes of audio, Josh Powell talked about hosting dinner parties for his friends, what his expectations were for a romantic relationship, his feelings about Susan, and even ordinary occurrences like how he had planned to reformat a computer hard drive and his system of debt reduction and money management.
“Kind of a mix of very interesting and tedious,” Woolley observed. “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.”
What the audio journals say
Woolley said what Josh said wasn’t nearly as interesting as why he said it.
“Even how he says those things are interesting, perhaps, to a trained listener like a psychologist because it reflects certain aspects of his personality,” Woolley said.
One section of the entry detailed the contents of Josh’s DVD collection. Another described his apartment in great detail.
“It’s a very comfortable apartment,” Josh can be heard saying on the recording. “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.”
Woolley saw elements of narcissism even in the way Josh described his apartment and other possessions in the audio journals.
“My feeling was, the way he describes a lot of things are sort of literature-like,” Woolley said, pointing out most people would describe ordinary events and items in more efficient ways. “He instead describes things in unnecessary detail, 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.”
What struck Woolley about Josh’s relationship with Susan, even at that early stage, is that he didn’t hear much about how Josh felt about her as one might expect from someone newly in love.
“It really is all about her serving him, her doing things for him, her making him feel good and special, respecting his things,” Woolley said. “And so, he’s just, I think, found the ideal – in his mind – person to feed his narcissistic self-perception that he’s special and deserves to be treated that way.”
Woolley says he would have expected to hear something very different from Josh.
“You know, ‘she’s the light of my life,’ ‘I’ve gotta have her,’ ‘I’m gonna do this and that.’ None of that. None of that from Josh. Josh is just like, ‘Oh. Well, you’re worthless. You have no value if you’re not all about me,'” Woolley said.
Assets and liabilities
In Woolley’s view, someone like Josh would view the people around him in terms of assets or liabilities. Based on other observations from the Cold podcast about this period of Josh’s life, Woolley said it appeared the next “thing” he wanted to acquire was a wife – and Susan checked off all the boxes on his list.
“I’m sure he was worried about – he’s found the perfect girl for him, meets all his criteria/checklist, and that she could get away,” Woolley said.
As to the possible influence of Josh’s father, Steve Powell, on Josh’s personality, Woolley said that groundwork appeared to be laid long before Josh met Susan. He thinks the period of time in Josh’s 20s, when he was living on his own and attending church regularly, was a form of rebelling against his father, who hated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Over time, Josh tends to develop and become more like his father. He takes on those harder narcissistic traits and starts to align himself more with his father against his own 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,” Woolley said.
Woolley said Steve’s attraction to Susan may have had roots in his own narcissism. If Josh saw Susan as either an asset or a liability, so did Steve — and the same analogy applied to the way Steve viewed his son.
“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,” Woolley said.
The full conversation between Woolley and Cawley about Josh Powell’s audio journals can be heard as part of a subscription service, Wondery Plus. Two more bonus episodes of Cold will be released through the service in the coming weeks. This episode is available now, along with all 18 episodes of Cold, commercial-free on the wondery.com/plus website.
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