My daughter, the psychology major and recent college graduate, was fascinated when she first read Helter Skelter a few years ago. Despite the harsh reality of the subject matter, the murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers, there is something darkly intriguing about his cult and the devotion and obedience he engendered in his minions, most of them young, vulnerable girls.
I was equally intrigued by Emma Cline’s fascinating and extremely well-told new novel, The Girls, in which Cline re-imagines that time period with its fictionalized Manson-like cult and the young people who fell prey to it. The Girls is a coming-of-age story told through the eyes of Evie Boyd, whom we first meet as a 40-year-old, recounting in lingering detail her fixation and experiences with the cult the summer she was just 14, a summer marked by feelings of alienation and loneliness due to the lack of love and attention from her divorced parents, few friends, and cultural messages that over-emphasized physical beauty above character. One of the appeals of the novel is how seamlessly Cline weaves the details of the 60’s and 70’s into the setting. For some of us, it’s a trip down memory lane. The novel is evocative of adolescent insecurities and vulnerabilities. But while most people survive adolescence without joining a cult, there is a recognition that loneliness can lead one down a dangerous path.
In the novel, Evie is hungry for recognition and acceptance. She is drawn toward Suzanne, a reckless, black-haired 19-year-old-girl and devotee of the cult. Suzanne represents everything Evie is not:
As soon as I’d caught sight of the girls cutting their way through the park, my attention stayed pinned on them. The black-haired girl with her attendants, their laughter a rebuke to my aloneness. I was waiting for something without knowing what….The black-haired girl turned and caught my glance. She smiled and my stomach dropped. Something seemed to pass between us, a subtle rearranging of air. The frank, unapologetic way she held my gaze….That was the first time I ever saw Suzanne–her black hair marking her, even at a distance, as different…She seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years…And what had the girl seen when she looked at me?
That last question is the one upon which the book pivots as Evie’s ever-present longing to be noticed and loved draws her toward a world that Suzanne introduces her to, the Manson-like cult and their leader, Russell, a skilled recruiter with his godlike status among the runaways and castaways who populate the “ranch.” Evie observes:
The way these girls spoke of Russell was different, with none of the playful, girlish longing I knew. ’He sees every part of you,’ Roos added….The possibility of judgment being passed on me supplanted any worries or questions I might have about Russell. At that age, I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.
It’s lines like these that allow the book to work on two levels: Evie’s world and our own adolescent worlds revisited in our minds. And Cline does this masterfully throughout the book with her alluring and evocative descriptions, reminding us of the challenges of being a GIRL, of surviving the teenage years with its fixations and immaturities not all that different from Evie’s at times. In the end, of course, we don’t join a cult, but we can identify with the circumstances that lead Evie astray. This book is one you will definitely want to talk about.