Early on in Emma Cline’s novel The Girls, the sound of intruders wakens a middle-aged woman sleeping alone in a borrowed house. The woman is Evie Boyd, who survived a summer hanging around a Manson-like cult in 1969, when she was 14. Forty or so years later she is out of work, staying in her friend Dan’s vacation house, doing nothing and seeing no one. ‘I ate in the blunt way I had as a child – a glut of spaghetti, mossed with cheese,’ she says. ‘I watered Dan’s plants once a week.’
The sound of someone breaking and entering takes her back to that summer when her friends from the Manson-like cult massacred some innocent people in a Manson Family-like way. ‘When I heard the lock jamming open near midnight, it was my first thought,’ Evie says. ‘The stranger at the door.’ But the unexpected visitors are not homicidal cult members: they are Dan’s university dropout son, Julian, and his teenage girlfriend, Sasha, passing through on a road trip north, unaware that the house is occupied. ‘He didn’t remember me, and why should he?’ Evie says of Julian. ‘I was a woman outside his range of erotic attentions.’ But then Julian does remember: ‘She was in this cult,’ he explains to Sasha.
Evie observes and pities Sasha’s deference to a boyfriend who doesn’t actually like her: ‘that dopey part of teenage girls: the desire for love flashing in her face so directly that it embarrassed me.’ That night she lies in bed listening to the young couple have sex in the next room. ‘There was Sasha’s voice, whining like a porno. High and curdled,’ she writes. ‘Julian growling. “Are you a cunt?”’
The title of The Girls is obviously close to the title of the HBO series Girls. And this scene, of young people whose expressions of sexual fulfilment parrot certain tropes of internet porn, is the kind of scene we see in Girls too. The author of The Girls, Emma Cline, is the same generation as Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, and reading The Girls, as when I have watched Girls, I felt pained by the theory of girlhood they propose. As Cline describes it:
Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They notice what we want noticed.
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.
Girls were good at colouring in those disappointing blank spots.
Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.
I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself.
The premise of The Girls is that Evie is drawn, at 14, to the cult because it offers an escape from a suffocating feminine malaise of insecurity and need. (The older Evie tells the story in flashback.) She is living with her recently divorced mother in Petaluma, an upscale town in Sonoma County, California. She is due to go to boarding school in the autumn. Her mother, in the aftermath of the divorce, has become keen on Gestalt, sensory deprivation tanks, tea ‘made from some aromatic bark’, astrology and acupuncture. She has cut back on motherhood: she has stopped folding Evie’s socks, and leaves her miso soup in the refrigerator for dinner. Evie thinks her mother is pathetic. ‘At that age I looked at women with brutal and emotionless judgment,’ she says. Only later will she come to sympathise, in a passage that seems inspired by Betty Friedan: ‘How she must have sat in the empty kitchen, the table smelling of the domestic rot of the sponge, and waited for me to clatter in from school, for my father to come home.’
One afternoon, Evie sees a curious group in a park – the girls of the title. ‘I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed,’ she says. ‘They were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.’ She watches as they steal food from a dumpster, then run from the angry owner of the restaurant. One of them manages to flash a nipple at the staid families barbecuing before the group are picked up by a black school bus and driven away. These girls are not like Evie’s mother, abandoned and flailing, and not like Evie herself, taking guidance from teen magazines about how to shrink her pores and make herself more appealing to boys. Evie pays particular attention to a black-haired 19-year-old who she will later find out is called Suzanne: ‘That was the difference between me and the black-haired girl – her face answered all its own questions.’ One day, after a fight with her mother, Evie has trouble with her bike and the black school bus pulls up beside her. The girls inside, including Suzanne, invite her to a ‘solstice party’ at ‘the ranch’. Evie goes, then spends most of the rest of the summer there.
Cline fictionalises the Manson murders by setting them in Northern California instead of Southern California and calling the charismatic psychopath at their centre Russell instead of Charles. The cult’s celebrity patron is called Mitch instead of Dennis Wilson, and the group lives rent-free on a ranch where they help raise llamas instead of renting out horses, as the Manson family did at Spahn Ranch. Cline also removes all reference to Helter Skelter – Manson’s delusional plan to incite a race war in America. In most other respects the plot of this novel is the story of the Manson Family. You read it the way you might watch Titanic, waiting for the ship to sink, which in this case happens when the group switches from LSD to speed.
In its rote historicity The Girls has a Forrest Gump-type reliance on cameos that illustrate everything we have come to understand about the 1960s and how they ended: depressed housewives getting divorced and turning to group therapy, the neighbour who comes home maimed from Vietnam, teenage runaways, Valley of the Dolls, Playboy, the earnest Berkeley undergrad (‘“LBJ,” he said. “Now there was a president”’). The prose, too, takes its historical cues. ‘It was the end of the Sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer,’ Evie muses in the first chapter. Maybe I’ve just read Joan Didion too many times but this reads as a hair’s breadth away from parody, down to the subsequent mention of jasmine. Or maybe I just felt trapped in the echo chamber of the originary text of girlhood, The Bell Jar: ‘It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs …’
Cline’s imaginative embellishment is to posit that Russell/Manson’s followers were there not because Russell/Manson brainwashed them, but because the ranch offered an extreme version of women’s liberation. As Evie puts it:
I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.
Russell has power because he is ‘an expert in female sadness – a particular slump in the shoulders, a nervous rash. A subservient lilt at the end of sentences, eyelashes gone soggy from crying.’ For Evie, the girls’ willingness to make themselves his followers differs from the enslavement of trying to look cute for high-school boys. ‘The way these girls spoke of Russell was different, their worship more practical, with none of the playful, girlish longing I knew. Their certainty was unwavering, invoking Russell’s power and magic as though it were as widely acknowledged as the moon’s tidal pull or the earth’s orbit.’
But Evie is not charmed by Russell. The sexual favours she does for him and Mitch are only a sideshow to the real seducer, Suzanne, with whom she is in love. Suzanne doesn’t love Evie back – she really likes Russell – but lets her sleep in her bed. She goads Evie, treating her as a mascot or pet, but protects her from the cult’s worst crimes. Then she goes to jail for life, and Evie never quite falls in love again. There are hints that she preferred women all along, but for some reason she never says so outright, leaving the possibility that hers was simply a political lesbianism expedient in a world where all relationships with men are doomed to end in exploitation.
Her language is also arrested in adolescence: she moons over this and that, mired in childish metaphors. One character is ‘pretty in the youthful way of hometown beauties’; another has ‘a face as round and rosy as a storybook character’. The girls sing ‘like campers around the fire’. The members of a band ‘turned like jewellery-box ballerinas’. ‘You’re just like a little doll,’ one of the girls tells Evie, and, later, ‘it was like she was recounting a fairy tale.’ One man on the ranch has ‘the feminine duskiness of a cinematic villain’; another ‘reminded Guy of the adventure books of his youth’.
Those who were alive at the time have tended to depict the Manson girls as lost souls or icons of camp and have tended not to give them the credit of motive that the 27-year-old Cline gives her fictionalised renditions. John Waters dedicated Pink Flamingos to the Manson girls, lampooning the nation’s celebrity obsession with them. In Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s novel about the aftermath of the 1960s, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello asks his girlfriend if she’ll wear a wig during sex to look like Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, the Manson follower who tried to assassinate Gerald Ford. Didion helped establish the Manson Family as shorthand for the end of an era of too much sex and drugs: ‘Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive travelled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true,’ she wrote. ‘The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.’ Didion also gave the family its glamour, buying Linda Kasabian a dress in Beverly Hills to wear at her trial.
While I was reading The Girls in July, one of the Manson girls was again denied parole by the governor of California, Jerry Brown. At 19, Leslie Van Houten was the youngest of the killers. Her attorney told the Los Angeles Times that she had had a forced illegal abortion and had to bury the foetus in her backyard. He spoke of her parents’ divorce, her social difficulties at school and her descent into drug use. Van Houten has described herself as ‘saturated in acid’. ‘I had no perspective or sense that I was no longer in control of my mind,’ she once told Waters, who after Pink Flamingos befriended her and has advocated for her release. In 1994 she told a Washington Post reporter that after she stabbed Rosemary LaBianca she thought she would become a three-inch-high deity with ‘fairy wings’ when Manson’s grand design was fulfilled. Nobody in The Girls ever quite reaches this level of delusion: they commit their grim murders lucid, on amphetamines.
By juxtaposing Evie’s adolescence with that of Sasha forty years later, Cline suggests that little has changed about being a girl. A girl still has no agency, a girl is still trying to please, a girl’s sexuality is still dictated by male fantasy (there’s a scene where Evie sits in disgust while Julian and a friend make Sasha lift up her shirt to assess her breasts). Womanhood offers no respite: Evie describes her middle-aged face as ‘blurred with the pleasant, ambiguous expression of a lawn ornament’. This is writing that traps its women in timorous corners, where they devote themselves to the idle scrutiny of the details that make the world disgusting (in this case descriptions of things like the saliva on olive pits and picking at pimples). In 1963, when both The Bell Jar and The Feminine Mystique were first published, writing about feeling trapped in a suffocating dreamscape helped to destroy a false mythology about what made women happy. Fifty years on it reads as a relentless insistence on the confinements of gender, setting up shop in the bell jar, making it home. Or maybe Cline is right, and the only thing that has changed in America are the mass murderers who pursue fame with violence. Lately no one has found them charismatic, not even women trying to attach themselves to something bigger than themselves. Lately these men have tended to live at home, with their mothers.