Book: “The Girls” by Emma Cline
Publishing Info: Random House, June 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.
Review: When I was sixteen, I read “Helter Skelter” by Vince Bugliosi. It was summertime, my sister, cousin, and I were visiting my aunt in Iowa City, and I would stay up late at night to read about Charles Manson and his cult of followers. I know that I’m not the only person fascinated by this case; there have been movies, miniseries, documentaries, and many books about Manson and the horrific murders his group committed at his behest. Because of my fascination, it should come as no surprise that I was super intrigued by “The Girls” by Emma Cline. Emma Cline already sold the movie rights to this book before it was even released, which only further demonstrates how we as a culture can’t get enough of Manson. “The Girls” isn’t really about the Manson family, per se…. But it totally is, as there are numerous parallels between the plot of the book and what happened in the California desert in 1969, from characters to circumstances to settings. But instead of focusing on Manson (or Russell, as is the charismatic cult leader in the book), it instead focuses on fourteen year old Evie Boyd. Evie is a restless teenager: she is dissatisfied with school, has few friends, is confused about sex and her sexuality, and resents her divorced parents. I think that it was a very compelling idea to tell the story of this group through the eyes of one of the members, especially the member who is still an outsider. Evie was more infatuated with Suzanne, a cool and beautiful older girl who takes Evie under her wing. The girl who is very blatantly supposed to be Susan “Sexy Sadie” Atkins, the Manson Family member who stabbed pregnant Sharon Tate to death.
Evie is a very compelling narrator, whose life we see during her summer with Suzanne and Russell’s group, and then in a more modern day time. In the modern timeline she gets caught up with a couple of young adults, a sociopathic boy named Julian and his devoted and doe-eyed girlfriend Sasha. While I enjoyed the flashback parts of the story more, the present timeline was a great way to show that while we decry and denounce the blind devotion the Manson Girls had towards Charlie, we actively encourage this behavior by making girls in our culture feel like they need the romantic partners in their lives, no matter how dangerously flawed they are. Evie knows this, as her need to be with and excuse Suzanne’s actions almost led to her own destruction. Seeing Evie have this knowledge, and yet be unable to show Sasha the terrible path she could be on, was one of the more melancholic parts (of many melancholic parts) of this story.
But like I said, the parts in 1969 were definitely the strongest parts of this book, and it wasn’t even just the cult stuff that was intriguing. Evie comes from a broken home, with her father married to a much younger woman and her mother seeking solace and fulfillment in fad self help therapies and new boyfriends. Both of her parents are so concerned with their own pleasure and happiness that they see Evie as a non-priority. So of course the poor thing is desperate to find some stability, and therefore drawn into this cult. By telling Evie’s story, we get to see a humanized side to a group of women (though so many of them were actually girls) who have been painted merely and solely as violent and foolish sheep. Is there a teenage self centeredness and feeling on invincibility that has some motivation in what Evie does, and what many of these girls do? To be certain, and it would be dishonest to imply otherwise. But Evie is here to remind us that ultimately, she is still a teenage girl, and that the things that she has to go through, both at Russell’s ranch and even at home with her actual family and friend group, are tragic and unfortunate. She is desperate to find acceptance somewhere, desperate to be loved, and because of this she willingly spirals towards a very dangerous conclusion.
Cline did a great job of creating and building parallels between the actual Manson Murders and what Russell’s family does in this book. Most of the characters have their real life counterparts (Russell is Manson, Suzanne is Susan Atkins, and I’m pretty sure Evie is Diane Lake, a fourteen year old who was caught up with the Manson Family), and the murders have similar foundations in the book to real life (Russell is denied a music deal, and sends his girls to attack the house of the man who he thinks did him wrong, just to find someone else there who they kill anyway). As someone familiar with and interested in the history of Charles Manson and his followers, picking out the analogs in this book was quite a bit of fun. Cline did a lot of research and put in a lot of the details of the original murders, while putting her own story into them as well. Her writing style is also a shining star in this book, as it flows and evokes the sights and feelings of this time period with clarity and ease. She gives Evie such a realistic and sad voice, and she manages to make this book seem less exploitative and seedy than it could have been. It’s definitely sad as opposed to titillating, and the tragedy is all over the damn place, on both sides of it.
Some of the sadness kind of spills over into today and current events. Just recently, Leslie Van Houten, one of the women who participated in the LaBianca Murders in 1969, was granted parole, only to have Governor Jerry Brown overturn it. I have a lot of feelings about this. On one hand, she is indeed a murderer, participating in the horrific killings of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. On the other, she was high on LSD at the time, and has really, really turned her life around while in prison, having gotten both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and has had positive reports by the prison staff. Not to mention that it was so, so many years ago, and the point of parole is to take all of these circumstances into account. Plus, he fact that a few of the dudes in the Manson group have been granted parole (ahem, Clem Grogan and Bruce Davis, both also convicted of torture and murder) kind of makes this all the more perplexing, and makes “The Girls” feel all the more pertinent. Girls who are brainwashed into devotion to a significant other (by both society and the perpetrator, in Manson’s case) are punished when they take that devotion too far. It’s just fascinating seeing Cline’s point played out beyond the page.
“The Girls” is a fabulous debut novel. Cline does a great job of not excusing the actions of a number of violent and misguided girls, while still showing the tragedy of their circumstances. I hope that this is just the start to a long and great career for Emma Cline, because I’m on board. “The Girls” is tense and upsetting, and a must read for people who are interested in the Manson Family, if only to see a side that perhaps hasn’t been seen yet.
Rating 9: A dark and sad story of growing up, and a really well done fictionalized account of the Manson Family, specifically the women involved.
“The Girls” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “The Femme Buzz: To Be a Well Read Woman Reader”.
Find “The Girls” at your library using WorldCat!
I’m also going to list some resources on The Manson Family, because there is a lot out there, but not all of it is great.
“You Must Remember This: Charles Manson’s Hollywood”: This podcast about Hollywood devoted ten episodes to Charles Manson, his Family, and Tinseltown in the late 1960s to give it all some context. It’s absolutely fabulous. Start here, and then you can find the way to the next episode at the bottom of the page.
“Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” by Vincent Bugliosi: This is the definitive book by the prosecutor of the Tate and LaBianca murders.
Flavorwire’s Charles Manson in Pop Culture Guide: A list of various Manson related materials as compiled by Flavorwire.
Biography.com’s list of the Manson Family Members: Links to Biography.com’s information about various members of the family.