Emma Cline’s The Girls is a serious novel, and seriously disturbing.
It’s a fictionalized reimagining of the Charles Manson “family” and the notorious murders perpetrated by Manson’s “girls” at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles in 1969.
Due to the salacious subject matter, and Emma Cline’s marketability, there was a bidding war for publishing rights in response to the book proposal. The project could have turned out grossly exploitative, but one of the attributes that makes Emma Cline marketable is her egregious talent: her novel is a stunning debut.
The Girls is a narrative told in the first person by Evie Boyd, within two timeframes: Evie aged about 61, and Evie aged 14, in 1969. Speaking as a 56 year old, I must immediately credit Cline with making an audacious choice, given the author was a mere 25 when The Girls was published. Her choice to inhabit the voice of a woman in her 60s is audacious but successful (though her mature Evie is outstandingly reflective – living through six decades doesn’t always result in this degree of insight).
Evie at 14 is painfully vivid. Cline is concerned with the vulnerabilities of adolescent girls: the ways the intense desire to belong, to be accepted within a friendship group or community, exposes them and makes them pliable, open to sexual exploitation and grooming. She’s concerned with formative adolescent sexual experiences and developing sexuality. She’s particularly concerned with the passionate feelings adolescent girls sometimes develop for each other and with older girls. Her Evie embodies all this.
Evie as a young girl is also a walking illustration of how we choose not to see, especially as adolescents, but also, for most of us, as we age. We choose not to recognize the obvious, if the obvious thwarts our illusions. We choose cognitive dissonance. We tell ourselves lies to make it all alright.
Evie is a privileged young girl from a wealthy, albeit troubled, background. She’s a socially isolated poor little rich girl. When she first sees “the girls”, gypsies, hippies, ‘free spirits’, she is immediately infatuated. When they take her to the hippy encampment on a ranch outside of San Francisco, she is seduced, literally and metaphorically, and wants nothing more than to join the girls as acolytes of Russell Hadrick, the cult leader Cline bases on Charles Manson.
Evie can see the hippy commune is dirty, disordered, dysfunctional, the small children underfoot feral and neglected, the adults semi-starved, drug addled inadequates. She can see they survive on petty criminality. But Evie is enamoured by the girls, most particularly Russell’s number one girl, Suzanne (based on Manson disciple Susan Atkins), and all that is ugly is wreathed in the glamour of her feelings for Suzanne and her desire to be seen, accepted, and loved.
Evie gives herself sexually. She robs her mother. She joins in burglary forays, invading the homes of her own neighbours. She lies, cheats and steals for Suzanne, the girls and Russell. The question looms: would she kill?
To this point, the story could be a gothic allegory for more usual adolescent rites of passage – the crushes, the fervent group identifications, the sleazy manipulations of young girls by older men. But this story is based on the murders instigated by Charles Manson, so inevitably the narrative must engage with the much more extreme issues around killing fellow human beings.
If Cline simply retold the Manson story, fictionalizing names, attributing motivations and feelings, I think this project would be inexcusable. But she doesn’t do that. Instead, while allowing the narrative enough closeness to the Manson killings to acknowledge the real life scaffolding, she deliberately distances the story, geographically and in other ways, both to ensure the reader is pointed to the themes she most wishes to explore and, I believe, out of respect for Manson’s real life victims.
It would be unthinkable to recount in forensic terms precisely the ways the real life victims were slaughtered. That is not an entertainment. So instead of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Steve Parent, the victims in The Girls are named as Linda, Christopher, Gwen, and Scotty, and the ways they meet their deaths are comparable to, but not identical to, the ways Sharon, Abigail, Jay, Wojciech and Steven were killed. The killers are not named as Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian; Leslie Van Houten and Bobby Beausoleil are not named. Instead, the characters are Susan, Donna, Helen, Guy and Roos.
The LaBianca murders, perpetrated by Manson, Tex Watson and Manson’s girls the following night, are not mentioned. The Gary Hinman murder is only alluded to, without using names. The murders of James Willett and Don ‘Shorty’ Shea and the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford are outside the scope of Evie’s story.
The Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones’ 14 year old daughter Mary Jennifer Selznick, known by the Manson family as ‘Snake’ (because of how her hips swivelled during sex), is absent – or omnipresent, subsumed by Evie, who also, I would guess, incorporates aspects of Emma Cline.
The fictional Evie Boyd owes her material comforts to the fortune built by her grandmother, a movie star. Emma Cline is the grand-daughter of the man who invented the Jacuzzi. Mary Jennifer died at age 21, leaping off a rooftop, either a suicide or an acid casualty. Emma Cline was a pubescent actress whose experiences in Los Angeles as a teen on the fringes of the entertainment world and later attempting to transition to a young adult actress were so demeaning she tossed it in and instead undertook a Masters of Fine Arts (Writing) at Columbia University in New York.
At Columbia, Emma Cline as a writing talent is remembered by one faculty member as “head and shoulders above everyone else”, which is born out by The Girls. She quickly progressed to writing for Salon, O Magazine and The New Yorker, with fiction in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and Paris Review, before she was signed to a three-book fiction deal by Random House, for a rumoured $2 million.
The Girls, published in 2016, was shortlisted for the John Leonard Award from the National Book Critics Circle and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. The following year Cline was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.
Her short stories to date tend to engage with similar themes to those explored in The Girls – how young girls navigate that potentially dangerous passage to adult sexuality. Emma Cline is on record saying she constantly wonders how she survived her teen years without crippling damage. The Girls asks, did Evie?