In her debut novel The Girls (2016), Emma Cline fictionalizes the events leading up to the Manson murders, recasting the story in Northern California.
In the summer of 1969, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd meets sexy, bohemian Suzanne, who inducts her into the counterculture lifestyle of “the ranch.” There, Evie joins a group of young women, all worshipfully devoted to their leader, Russell. Greedy for Suzanne’s attention and eager to belong, Evie rebels against her upper-middle class upbringing. She shoplifts and steels from her mother, breaks into a friend’s home, has sex, runs away from both her parents. As the summer draws to a close, the utopian ranch community–such as it is–begins to fall apart, culminating in the most famous and grisly murders of the 20th century.
Though the plot is simple and well-trod, Cline’s style sets The Girls apart. Her writing is so beautifully exact, so astutely observed. Everyday objects are realized with the perfect turn of phrase–Chinese ribs have a “glandular sheen” (p. 76), cork sandals are “grimed with the ghost of my feet” (p. 166). Line by line, every passage is exactly right–evocative and convincing.
Cline’s characterization of Evie is similarly acute. Evie’s gender lies at the heart of her identity in an upsetting way that left me feeling both close to her, and embarrassed by the terrible familiarity of her anxieties. Cline illuminates the inner life of a teenage girl in a brutal, relentless way. Her depiction makes Evie’s indoctrination feel natural, like something that could happen to any young girl. The simmering unease of adolescence gives the novel tension, rather than the looming horror of the approaching murder.
Of course, I am predisposed to love The Girls. I was also a girl growing up in Northern California, and I sympathize with the author’s choice of subject. As a teenager my friends and I shared her fascination. Someone had a paperback copy of Vincent Bugiolosi’s Helter Skelter, which we read as a kind of group social activity. I remember my best friend describing Manson’s antics before the parole board, so this was probably around the time of his 1997 hearing–the one where he said he’d go “poof” if released. We would have been Evie’s age, thirteen or fourteen.
Returning to Helter Skelter as an adult, I was surprised by the book’s focus on trial evidence and testimony. As girls we skipped over all that to focus on what we saw as the interesting stuff–the ranch, the Beatles obsession, the messages on the walls of the LaBianca home, and the girls. I remember the folio of black and white photos at the heart of the book best. I can picture us, in someone’s living room during the nomad hours between school letting out and parents getting home, pouring over those pages.
At that age, the details of exactly what happened and why became tangled in my mind. I conflated facts with peripherally related cultural touchstones. Rosemary’s Baby (which I hadn’t seen) and devil worship; playing The Beatles backwards; Nazis and mind control and charismatic personalities; Trent Reznor’s haunted house. The whole story had an aura of black magic about it, eerie and unknowable.
And yet–there was a similarly infamous murder house in my own hometown–though not as famous as Cielo Drive. Horrific things could happen, close enough to touch you. Reading Emma Cline’s novel reminded me of that revelation, and the precariousness of girlhood.