Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, could be seen as just a period piece on the often fetishized late 1960s. It would be easy for Cline to beguile the reader with a novel full of the reimagining of iconic sixties moments, à la Mad Men or Forrest Gump. Cline resists the oh-so-millennial urge to create nostalgia for a time she wasn’t alive for (see any Free People catalog…flower crowns galore) and instead uses the era as a backdrop for a more timeless and complex statement about, you guessed it, girlhood.
Besides the groovy style and the vibes, duuude, of the sixties, maybe the most mythic occurrence of the decade happened in the very last year, in the infamous summer of ’69: the Manson family murders. Charles Manson was the brains behind horrific murders carried out by his cult of female followers. Their most iconic act was the killing of actress Sharon Tate and friends in her ritzy California mansion. It was one last earth-rocking event that kept people glued to their TVs after nine tumultuous years of, well, also being glued to their TVs. Reports from the big three television news networks revolving around high-profile assassinations, race riots, and an unpopular war took a toll on the nation’s psyche after the pseudo-idyllic nature of the ‘50s.
The crimes continue to fascinate today. They appeal to our revulsions but are sensationalistic enough to maintain comfort in the idea of us vs. them. They inspired copycats in action and in art. Cults, sex, murder, the personification of pure evil…there’s no shortage of material there.
The Girls is without a doubt based on the Manson murders. However, it isn’t the usual sordid story where Manson family aficionados relish in devouring all of the sick details. No swastikas on foreheads, pregnant starlets, or helter skelter to be found in this particular retelling. It’s the bare-bones Manson story with the gory details only alluded to in lore decades later, almost a different lifetime for Evie Boyd, the girl who finds herself entwined in the novel’s Manson-like commune.
The novel begins with 14-year-old Evie seeing “the girls” for the first time. The girls, led by Suzanne, who Evie is most drawn to, are like the ones in the Manson “family”, are former high achievers and it-girls turned commune-groupies. She is initially drawn to them after hearing their laughter, and then to their image of free-spirited beauty. Evie is at the beginnings of a typically lonely adolescence: newly divorced parents, a vapid best friend, and an entire summer that “gaped before [her]”. In the girls, she sees excitement and intrigue. Mainly, however, she sees the potential for acceptance.
After making her way into this girl gang, they take Evie home to the ranch where she meets Russell and Mitch, the leaders of the group. Evie feels drawn to them in a similar way as the rest of the girls, but is still far more interested in Suzanne and the rest of the girls than either of the men. Evie does not question her initiation-of-sorts by Russell or any of the other red flags surrounding her new friends as she immediately becomes obsessed with the lifestyle, namely, being able to spend time with the girl who caught her eye first, Suzanne.
Evie hangs around the ranch more and more, her days wrapped in a haze of drugs, sex, and the warm buzz that comes with belonging. Finally, after intervention by her parents, she is shipped to her dad’s house where, although bored, she almost succumbs to the comfort and lull of life pre-ranch. It doesn’t last long, and she ends up back at the ranch with a guest, who sees the ranch for the dangerous place that it is.
Everyone, probably even Evie, knows what comes next. The murders are recounted but not with the gruesome details of the Manson murders, and without Evie’s point of view. The lack of focus on what the reader assumed would be the climax of the novel proves that for Evie, it was never about a streak of evil inside her; it was never about the acceptance from men. All Evie wanted was the acceptance of Suzanne, the symbol of all Evie wanted but couldn’t have.
In Evie’s adult life, she recounts the story to teenagers who are familiar with her involvement in the murders. She sees traces of herself in Sasha, a young teenage girl, mainly the need for acceptance and how she defines herself through her partner.
“Poor Sasha. 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. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force, the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.”
In popular culture, there has always been more fascination with Charles Manson than his female followers. Cline reads more into the story. She makes the murders a believable possibility for any girl who wants love and acceptance badly enough, not so much in the style of a cautionary tale but in a study of girls as a whole.