In The Girls, A Retelling of the Manson Murders From Within

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When looking back upon the Manson Family murder spree of 1969, one question continually mystifies us: How did one man persuade a bunch of peace-loving hippies to kill in cold blood? This is the question at the center of Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, a fictional account of life at a Manson-like ranch in the late 1960s, as told by a young cult girl.

The story opens with protagonist Evie Boyd and her friend Connie, both 14, at the start of their summer break in Petaluma, California, a place of “low-hipped ranch houses” and “sun-scorched crosswalks.” Sexually curious, Evie and Connie attempt to get the most out of their summer with boys, but are unsuccessful. Their frustration appears to set up Evie’s later seduction by Russell (a thinly disguised version of Charles Manson), but male attention turns out to be a small part of the allure of cult life.

One day, while at a park in Petaluma, Evie sees Suzanne, the girl who will shepherd her into the ranch family. Intrigued by her look and free-spirited attitude, Evie follows Suzanne and her crew into an alley, where she watches them Dumpster-dive for food and then take off in a black school bus. A few days later, while Evie is on the side of the road trying to fix her broken bicycle, the same bus stops to help, and she ends up heading to the ranch with the group. She stays that night for a “solstice” party (it is not solstice) and meets Russell.9780812998603

Evie doesn’t particularly enjoy her first sexual encounter with Russell, but she likes that the experience brings her closer to Suzanne and the others, because they’ve done that too. Being with Russell, Evie believes, minimizes the distance between herself and the other girls; it makes her a part of the group. Momentarily manipulated by Russell’s brainwashing (he tells her she’s beautiful, smart, special and “an actress” who sees more than other people), Evie is drawn to his utopian vision—she longs for love and acceptance, which seem possible only in a relationship with other girls, particularly those she finds at the ranch.

So how did this guy convince these girls, who supposedly came to his ranch in search of peace and harmony, to brutally murder people they didn’t even know? Cline suggests that the killings have less to do with Russell’s reasons and more to do with the girls’ own—that they were filled with murderous rage because of how they had been treated throughout their lives as girls. “The hatred she must have felt to do what she’d done,” reflects the adult Evie, of one of the other cult girls, “to slam the knife over and over again like she was trying to rid herself of a frenzied sickness: hatred like that was not unfamiliar to me.” She offers examples from her own life of men harassing, belittling and using her. “There was so much to destroy,” she says, echoing the feelings of generations of woke women. In essence, the cult girls’ fury was fed by a lifetime of mistreatment at the hands of men.

Although Evie ignores obvious warnings in her interactions with the ranch family, she has insight beyond her years. Her parsing of seemingly banal episodes in her young life unearth sad profundities: “That was part of being a girl—you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.” While Evie and Connie spend endless hours analyzing boys’ actions, “seeing portent and intention in every detail,” in reality, Evie realizes, “they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”

In The Girls, men are not interesting enough to be duplicitous. Driven by base instincts and occupying a far less complicated social reality, Evie determines that they cannot be of any real use to her as she struggles to make sense of her constricted movements within a world of rules and paradoxes. While this perhaps unfairly discounts the inner lives of boys, it also represents an inevitable and necessary chapter in the history of feminist thought. If this book is feminist—as I believe it is—then it is more indicative of the spirit of the feminist movement of the 1960s than of the movement that surrounds us now.

Of course, if hatred and rage are the emotions underlying a movement, problems are bound to arise. “Suzanne and the other girls had stopped being able to make certain judgments,” Cline writes, “the unused muscle of their ego growing slack and useless. It had been so long since any of them had occupied a world where right and wrong existed in any real way. Whatever instincts they’d ever had—the weak twinge in the gut, a gnaw of concern—had become inaudible…They didn’t have very far to fall—I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe in yourself.”

It is this “handicap”—far greater of an influence than any cult leader—that could cause a girl to become so very lost. The Girls might not remain true to all the details about the Manson Family, but it tells a far more pervasive truth about the ways “desire [can] humiliate you,” and how humiliation, anger and girlhood so often intertwine.

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Feature photo of Emma Cline by Megan Cline