“The Girls” and the Mansons and Growing Up

7 Sep

Last month I read one of the best books I have read in a long time: “The Girls” by new author Emma Cline. My first exposure to the book was in the tasting room of Cline Cellars in Sonoma, when I thought it was odd that a winery would sell a novel along with cheese boards and wine bottle openers. I asked the friendly woman pouring for our group about it, and she proudly exclaimed that the book was on sale because it was written by the owner’s eldest daughter. I had seen at least two people reading it on my morning ferry into San Francisco. A coworker eagerly lent me her copy, and I finally read it.

If you were once a 14 year old girl, it’s not an easy read. It takes you back where you may not want to go. Cline recreates the ennui and uncertainty and insecurity that go along with being 14, lurching from 8th grade to freshman year of high school. The book details Evie, the protagonist, as she tries to make her way in the world: among other things, she tries in vain to look cool to the boy she likes, only to get teased; she feels terribly alone after her best friend dumps her and she has no one to spend her long summer days with. Cline expertly details what it is to be an adolescent girl in the suburbs. It felt particularly relatable to me because Evie is a 14 year old in Petaluma, the North Bay town only miles from where I grew up. She referred to streets and landscapes and hippie mindsets that I knew. Although the novel is filled with 1969-era period detail (every item of clothing described is straight out of a time capsule), the confusion of being 14 and lonely appears to be timeless. One line that stands out, indicative of Cline’s lyrical literary chops: 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.

“The Girls”, as every review will remind you, is loosely inspired by the young female adherents of Charles Manson (although it is much more than that). But yes, Evie spends the summer of 1969 falling in with a group of girls who pull her into the orbit of a charismatic cult figure. We see the filth of their rural outpost, the squalor that one girl’s baby grows up in, the casual cruelty with which the girls address each other and their abandonment of all sense of self to devote themselves to their leader and his delusional dreams of pop stardom. Cline shows how it could be appealing to a young girl eager for the kinship and attention provided by the cool girls. The sense of belonging, of common purpose, the perverse joy in subverting societal norms- they are all so important to teenagers. You begin to see how this, plus copious amounts of mind-altering drugs, could lead some girls down a truly frightening path.

After finishing the book, I perused reviews of the book online, and came across this article in Australian Elle.  It mentioned the You Must Remember This podcast, which I promptly downloaded and listened to,  12 episodes devoted to the Manson family (focusing on the Family’s Hollywood connections).  Karina Longworth delves not only into the nitty gritty of Charles Manson’s life and the trials for the Tate/LaBianca murders, but also how the time, 1969- and the place, freewheeling San Francisco and Hollywood- affected the movies that were produced at the time, and how the Manson murders had an effect on future films (Shampoo, Chinatown, Easy Rider, just to name a few). Longworth effectively makes the argument that the masterpieces of 1970’s cinema were inevitably influenced by the horror of the Manson murders. Listening to this podcast was the perfect bookend to reading this magnificent book. It is the reason why I spent August of 2016 in the canyons of 1969 Los Angeles.

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