Why Girls Love Stories About Murderous Cults (And Why The Girls and American Girls Are the Best Yet)
Two amazing books out this month look at the famous "Manson family" murders—gruesome killings carried out by young girls with long, flowing, enviable hair. As a teen who read and re-read Helter Skelter, the true-crime book about Charles Manson, Lauren Passell looks at what attracts teens to the dark legend of the '60s cult, and how Alison Umminger's American Girls and Emma Cline's The Girls treat the story.
At about age seven, when girls have not yet hit the manic heights of tweendom but are able to start making decisions, they are often wildly opinionated individuals. They love animals and want to be scientists and surgeons, they turn vegetarian overnight, they reveal stashes of empathy their parents have long since lost—think Lisa Simpson forever voicing her beliefs to an audience of ignorant adults. It is at this age that the magic inside girls starts to bubble up.
Girls are powerful, and at age seven, this power is manageable. They can’t drive. They go home to their parents’ homes at night and sleep in twin beds. They don’t want to drink or do drugs. But as the years pass and they get closer and closer to adulthood, their magic starts to bubble over. They have power and they know it. They learn the importance of being sexual in society. They realize they have some autonomy.
Fourteen-year-olds are about to explode into the world as women—even if they will continue refer to themselves as “girls.” They know the world has begun to see them differently, and they wonder what kind of woman they will be, while understanding at a base level that this power is a tap turned on and off by men. Deciding who you want to be is a double-edged sword—a powerful freedom and a dangerous burden.
“I should have known that when men warn you to be careful, often they are warning you of the dark movie playing across their own brains.”
That decision is explored by Alison Umminger in this month’s winning YA American Girls, and forms the basis of Emma Cline’s powerful new novel The Girls. Both star girls who run away to grow up: Umminger’s story follows Anna, a teen who sneaks onto a plane to Los Angeles, crashing with her sister, a struggling actor, and finds herself researching the girls in Charles Manson’s murderous ‘60s cult for a screenplay.
Cline gives us the firsthand story of fourteen-year-old Evie, who runs away to join "Russell," a Charles Manson stand-in (relocated here to a commune outside San Francisco), and the girls who form his harem. For Evie, the real attraction is to nineteen-year-old Suzanne; the alpha Russell girl, of sorts, who possesses the worldly, parentless affect that you always marvel at in people older than yourself. Suzanne just seems to know exactly who she is. She lets Evie borrow her clothes, borrow her style, step into Suzanne’s life to try it on. She escorts Evie into Russell’s orbit, goads her on.
"Donna said Russell was unlike any other human. That he could receive messages from animals. That he could heal a man with his hands, pull the rot out of you as cleanly as a tumor.
’He sees every part of you,’ Roos added. As if that were a good thing.”
At first, Russell’s ability to “see” the girls, to tell them who they are, and to validate them by inviting them into his bed, is gratifying; proof they are women, beautiful, wanted. But as Evie becomes more entrenched in Russell’s world, his power over them becomes stronger and stronger, and the girls’ ability to snap out of their trance becomes weaker and weaker.
Do any of them know what they are in for?
At home in the suburbs, Evie has more freedom than her peers because her parents have separated, and she is undergoing that messy process of adolescent separation from her mom ("I saw, for a moment, my old mother, the cast of weary love in her face, but it disappeared when her bracelets made a tinny sound, falling down her arms."). Still, after Evie flits between her old life as a regular teen and as one of the girls on the ranch, Suzanne makes it clear Evie needs to sacrifice something if she is to stay. The other girls have a freedom more limiting than Evie’s; they come from broken homes, no homes, are raising babies of their own carelessly on the ranch.
Art by Louise Reimer for SparkNotes; quote from Emma Cline's The Girls
It’s easy to see why they are such perfect candidates for Russell’s apocalyptic charisma. Umminger’s book looks at Manson’s victims as well as the girls who wielded the knives, doodled hearts on the wall in blood. The question Anna is looking to answer is: why did some girls end up victims—the beautiful, pregnant actress Sharon Tate—and why did some girls end up murderers?
“... thin, harried girls with partial college degrees and neglectful parents, girls with hellish bosses and dreams of nose jobs. His bread and butter...”
The girls know that they have been spit out the far side of girlhood, if they sometimes appear nothing more than broken-hearted besties at a terrible slumber party—and Russell certainly knows it. Once the girls have decided to give themselves to him and his "cause," it seems too late to turn back, and they become willing to cross any line for him. This is all leading up to the sensational Manson murders, of course.
There is a line drawn between those that get into the car on the night of the murders and those that remain. As you wait to find out which group Evie falls into, and whether Suzanne will save or sacrifice her protege, your skin will prickle as you wonder honestly about yourself.
“Whatever instincts they'd ever had—the weak twinge in the gut, a gnaw of concern—had become inaudible. If those instincts had ever been detectable at all.”
It is frightening to realize how vulnerable girls this age are; more so when you’ve made it through that period and look back on the stupid things you did, the terrible people you trusted, the good people you hurt.
As Evie gets deeper into the criminal world of Russell, her best friend from childhood is turning into a woman, too. She gets a serious boyfriend, has sex, and does all the normal things you see in Judy Blume novels. Evie is maturing on a parallel track, one that’s much darker. They are both trying to become women and are deeply critical of the way the other is doing it. They see each other as strangers, although they are playing the same game. (There is a similar dynamic between Anna and Delia in American Girls, with Anna judging her sister for becoming the weak, tiny, cookie-cutter starlet they might have made fun of years before.)
Emma Cline manages to perfectly—perfectly—capture the identity crisis teen girls go through firsthand through the voice of Evie in 1969, but also look at it from a distance with flash-forwards to the current day, where an elderly Evie observes Julian and Sasha, a friend’s teenage son and his girlfriend. Sasha is “campaigning for her own existence” while shaping herself based on what she thinks her boyfriend thinks is acceptable. She basically hands him the reins to her personality, gives him power over her own identify. Flash my tits? Sure, what do I care. I'm playing along, I'm in on the joke. If Julian, Sasha’s boyfriend, had told her to murder someone, would she have done it? Some girls are pushed further into dark territory than others in that searching, experimental identity crisis that lasts the entirety of your teen years. Can you entirely blame yourself for the "rot" that you feel in your once-simple, sweet life?
The person that Evie chooses to become is terrifying. I am long past high school and am sure I would be cowering in the corner if we were to meet at a party. She is terrifying in her compliance, her silence, her actions. And it is difficult to imagine what on earth could turn her back, what could shake her back into a person who doesn’t feel she has to prove herself by pushing the limits.
Because we all perversely want to peer over the edge as teens, but not all girls are able to turn back.
When I was a teenage girl, my favorite book was Helter Skelter (something Alison Umminger and I have in common), a detailed account of the Manson murders written by the prosecutor in Manson’s trial, Vincent Bugliosi. I was becoming a woman, and the power that Charles Manson had over his followers frightened and delighted me. I rebelled in my own ways. I dyed my hair bright pink and pierced my nose. I drank and smoked and spent way too much time thinking about boys and what I could do to appeal to them. I often think about what a smart person I would be if I had dedicated just 10% of the brain space I was reserving for my crush Derek, a frosty-tipped skier who loved ska, on literally anything else. For a few years I was obsessed with Buck-O-Nine, his favorite band, got really into skiing, and wore both purple and orange together because they were his favorite colors. (Not mine.) Taking that path made me who I am today. I still sing along to Buck-O-Nine songs and I am grateful for my ski skills. But I’m not sure I’d be as grateful for the alterations I had made to myself if one of them had included abandoning my family and murdering someone. Ha.
Still, I see the allure in using the first dose of power you’re given to buck the system, to follow a leader you have chosen for yourself, one that isn’t your mom and dad. To prove that you can handle life to the extreme. Becoming the opposite person is the best way to prove that you have changed, right? So is immersing yourself into the darkness the best way to prove that you have grown up?
“Already he'd become an expert in female sadness--a particular slump in the shoulders, a nervous rash.”
As a teenager reading about Manson and his followers, I’m not sure I understood that that’s what Patricia Krenwinkel and Manson’s “family” were doing. I was simply obsessed with thinking about that dark world of rape and murder previously unknown to me. In reading about it, I could dip in without submitting to it myself. But I look at their pictures now and I see exactly what the girls were doing, and I see that it is not all so different than what I did to become a woman. They still have scars burned into their foreheads. I still have my nose piercing.
“The possibility of judgement being passed on me supplanted any worries or questions I might have about Russell. At that age I was, first and foremost, a things to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.”
To find out how the thrilling American Girls and The Girls end, you'll have to read them: Umminger's book, being YA, takes you into scary territory, but keeps you safe; Cline's, on the other hand, will break your heart fully.
As Caitlin Moran wrote in How to Be a Woman and later in her novel How to Build a Girl, nobody tells us how exactly to become an adult. Do we have it in us to turn down a darker path, to follow the wrong leader? How do we choose to use our power, to make important decisions, to become sexual, to join a tribe, while holding on to the girl inside who wanted to be a vegetarian veterinarian? It’s the most important decision we will make. And in The Girls and American Girls, we can see how delicate the passage from girl to woman is, and how easily it all can go wrong.
Have you got a savory taste for stories of cults and murders, or are you more of a teen vampire romance-type reader? Are you dying to get your hands on American Girls and The Girls?