EMMA CLINE The Girls. Reviewed by Linda Godfrey
Emma Cline dissects the cruel attraction of cults in this novel inspired by the Manson murders.
This is a work of fiction drawn from real-life events. The book does not say that outright, but it is very identifiably based on the Manson Family, the cult run by Charles Manson in the 1960s in California. Many of the details are the same – one charismatic leader with a mish-mash of religious, ideological and apocalyptic teachings who surrounds himself with subservient, sexually available young women.
The book opens with a middle-aged woman, Evie, disturbed from her sleep by noises in the house. She goes to investigate and finds a young couple; it turns out that the young man, Julian, is the son of the owner of the house. He recognises Evie, an old girlfriend of his father’s, and boasts to his girlfriend, Sascha that Evie is famous. She had once belonged to a commune. She’d evaded gaol time, but the other members were notorious for mass killings.
Evie goes back to bed, still unsettled by her initial fear that the house she is staying in has been found by the group and they have come for her. The young couple retires to sleep in the next room. Evie is certain that Julian makes sure she hears them having sex.
This propels the novel back in time to when Evie is 14, innocent, with one close girlfriend. Her teenage world is infused with sexual awakening and frustration, combined with a physical and social awkwardness. Her parents have just broken up, her father is living with his young secretary and her mother has emerged from the chrysalis of wife and mother and has found the counterculture in 1960s California:
The Haight populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-coloured pamphlets, the jasmine along the roads blooming particularly heady and full. Everyone was healthy, tan and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing too – you could be some moon creature, chiffon over the lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.
There are random meetings with three feral girls. Evie is drawn to them; they are different, they stand out, they look like cruising sharks. She attaches herself to the oldest one, Suzanne, and gains access to their Ranch by providing them with toilet paper and giving them cash stolen from her mother’s purse.
Everything seems so free, easy and dangerous. Evie has a crush on Suzanne and gets to share her bed:
But we had other things in common, Suzanne and I, a different hunger. Sometimes I wanted to be touched so badly I was scraped by longing. I saw the same thing in Suzanne, too, perking up like an animal smelling food whenever Russell approached.
Evie is not missed at home. She has told her mother a simple lie – that she is staying at her friend’s place for the summer. Her mother has a new boyfriend and seems pleased that Evie is out of her way.
Evie is exactly the kind of girl who is groomed by predators. Adrift, unsupervised, no one to take a close interest in her; a girl who thinks no one loves her. The bottom has dropped out of her world. Then she is introduced to the seedy but dangerous world of the Family, where people invite her to come inside, offer to look after her, welcome her, become her family.
Catnip to a discarded lonely girl, and one too young to notice the sick and dangerous side of all this – the focus on the leader; the focus on bringing in new members; mind-numbing techniques (in this case starvation, servitude and poverty), the claims of elitism. Russell says he is a Christ-like figure and the women are encouraged to cut ties with their family and friends:
We were, Russell told us, starting a new kind of society. Free from racism, free from exclusion, free from hierarchy. We were in service of deeper love.
Evie is drawn further into their world by taking part in home invasions and robbery.
Knowing how it all ends does not spoil the tension. True to the Manson story, when the killings come in the book the scenario is the same as in real life. Manson wanted a record deal. He didn’t get one, so he wanted to kill those people who had denied him. The killings were misdirected and though the Family members were at the right house, the victims were not the ones they were seeking. But the frenzy happened anyway.
However, retelling that story is not the intention of the book. Emma Cline does an outstanding job of outlining exactly how our society lets down our most vulnerable young people. How some of them are considered detritus to be brushed aside, left exposed to violent and negligent behaviours, pushed out to make their own way before they are able to make adult decisions. It is the tragedy of 99.9 per cent of young people in refuges and living on the streets today.
The other major thread of the story is the socialisation of young girls and how they are directed to concentrate on their physical appearance and told that they are nothing without a man – that they have to have a man’s approval and consequently will do almost anything to keep his attention overriding their intelligence, sense and moral code. How do young women become a hunting pack sent out to do the bidding of an evil and violent man? Emma Cline shows this perfectly, without telling us. We see Russell’s behaviour, but have no access to his thinking or even the thinking of the other women. But we are with Evie all the way: her crush on Suzanne, her willingness to follow her anywhere, her awe of Russell and her fear of his unpredictability and violence.
Evie didn’t go to gaol with the others because at a crucial moment Suzanne ejected her from the van and the group. In one thoughtful action, Suzanne saved Evie from physical imprisonment, The reader now knows why, at the beginning of the book, she was so terrified when she heard people in the kitchen — she thought the Family had caught up with her, to kill her.
In this review, too, I am in danger of being sucked into the force field of Charles Manson. Instead of writing about the themes of the book, I find myself concentrating on the details of Manson, his deeds and his general craziness. But that is the allure of cults; they draw you in, make you reconsider reality and after a while their leader and teachings are all you can think about.
But I will urge you to concentrate on Emma Cline’s clinical dissection of our society’s way of raising girls and young women.
Emma Cline The Girls Chatto and Windus 2016 PB 355pp $32.99
Linda Godfrey is a writer, editor and Program Manager of the Wollongong Writers Festival. She worked for many years with homeless young people. She is studying towards a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, and writing a novel about cults.
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