America has a current cultural fascination with the girls of gurus and grifters. Over the last few years, stories about young women who survived cult scenarios in various forms have emerged and found popularity. There’s Sean Durkin’s 2011 narrative thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which Elizabeth Olsen plays a cult escapee who is having a difficult time adapting; there’s Life After Manson, Olivia Klaus’s short documentary about “Manson girl” Patricia Krenwinkel. There’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix’s relentlessly optimistic sitcom about the new life of a young woman rescued from a doomsday cult in Indiana. Claire Vaye Watkins’s near-future dystopia Gold, Fame, Citrus features a desert dune cult, the women of which are its most interesting inhabitants. Karina Longworth’s story podcast You Must Remember This produced an 11-episode arc on Charles Manson’s Hollywood, and some of the series’s most memorable moments involve Longworth herself speaking the words of Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and the other women who inhabited Manson’s Spahn Ranch. Even Lifetime came out in 2016 with a film called Manson’s Lost Girls. And so on.
Collectively, these works seem to suggest that we’re interested, perhaps for the first time, in granting subjectivity to the girls who orbit these enigmatic cultural moments — the girls weirdly willing to participate in the unspeakable crimes that mar America’s own recent history. The image of these girls is, of course, familiar. We know what they look like; we’ve seen their matching clothes and the way they always seem to be in groups; we’ve wondered about their inscrutable smiles as they leave the courtroom. These girls are secondary characters in the central story of a male criminal, a conspirator, a killer. It’s a story that’s been examined many times in the same way: a manipulator rises to power, and women circle around him like satellites, doing the work necessary for the narrative to actually function as the whole collective rises up into infamy. But stepping back to think about these individuals, and the way their choices change their lives for good, serves to expand and complicate the story we’ve been told time and again.
In this way, Emma Cline’s beautifully written, layered first novel The Girls, a book-length examination of the life of a woman who was almost there at the scene of a horrific crime, arrives at the perfect moment. The impact of the title is double: Evie Boyd, the narrator, spends much of the book hanging around a fictionalized Spahn Ranch, both being and wishing desperately to be one of “the girls.” From the book’s beginning, they get all her attention; they are the reason she accepts a ride to the hornet’s nest. “I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls,” she says in the opening, and at that moment, they’re just wild-haired teenagers at a late-’60s hometown street party, somehow in their own little world, “like royalty in exile.” But by the book’s end, they’re much more than that. The book itself, told both in the present as well as in extended flashbacks, is about how Evie’s life is fundamentally changed because of the recognition scene in the opening.
Readers come to know Evie at two different points in her life. In the novel’s beginning, and scattered periodically throughout, Cline gives us an older, present-day Evie, one who hides away in a friend’s beachside vacation home. She’s alone and slightly alienated because of her unusual biography, uncomfortable with the visitors she receives, few and incidental as though they are: the drug-dealing dropout son of the friend who owns the house and his too-young girlfriend. Cline writes the older Evie as a cautious, thoughtful woman, someone for whom taciturnity is a way of assessing her chances of staying unscathed. Present-day Evie’s remembrances of young Evie are equipped with ex post facto life knowledge — there are occasional asides that evaluate the past — but the retelling, because of Cline’s lush writing, is also so immersive and compelling that it’s easy to forget we’re witnessing the story through the lens of age and experience.
Flashback Evie is an ordinary teenager growing up in the Nixon years, discovering boys, idly applying avocado masks in the long wait for back to school, and whiling away time as America-the-concept shapeshifts everywhere, it seems, but sleepy Petaluma, California, where her family lives. Her family life is a tense stasis: they have money from a glamorous grandmother, but her parents are divorced, and everything around the house where Evie and her mother live is tenuous and charged. Her mother is busy attending to a new post-husband iteration of herself, complete with jangly bracelets, vegetarianism, and astrologers who talk to her about emotional breakthroughs. Fourteen-year-old Evie wanders around unseen as a ghost, playing agreeable but silently criticizing everyone around her as she waits for something to actually happen. She wants for something, but doesn’t have a good idea of what — she just knows that being a girl is imprecise and aimless: even during routine checkups at the doctor’s office,“[f]eelings seem[…] completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board.” Evie is waiting for an identity, for someone to tell her what she should be doing.
In many ways The Girls is a book about watching people, and nobody watches quite as closely, with as much vigilance, as girls who believe nobody sees them. They watch closely and guardedly, trying to absorb everything they can while remaining invisible; they watch with a mix of newfound self-consciousness — the result of changing bodies awash with a new hormone tide — and a babyish notion of invisible imperviousness. Evie is a watcher of the women in her own life, but her secret observations about her mother, her father’s new girlfriend, and her own best friend Connie are scathing because she doesn’t feel like any of them notice her or see the real her. Being truly seen — and seen by the right individual — legitimizes a person, and there is nobody in Evie’s life who she believes can perform this ritual of personhood for her. But that changes the day she meets Suzanne, Donna, Helen, and Roos (short for Roosevelt, and pronounced, presumably, like “Rose”). From that day, Evie would follow them anywhere.
Of the girls, the dark-haired Suzanne is the leader, and the object of Evie’s fascination, influencing the latter’s behavior from the start. Evie watches the girls dumpster dive in the park, and when Suzanne turns to see her staring, Evie experiences something that sounds a lot like love at first sight: “She smiled and my stomach dropped. Something seemed to pass between us, a subtle rearranging of air.” Evie feels seen, and this vulnerability means everything; later, when they meet face to face, she is ready to do whatever it takes to be in Suzanne’s good graces, volunteering to steal for her an embarrassing token as proof of her affection: the roll of toilet paper that Suzanne needs to bring back to the ranch. (She doesn’t steal; she buys it from the shopkeeper, and then goes outside and tells Suzanne she’s grifted it, pleased and embarrassed by the bemused admiration she gets from Suzanne for this fake larceny. Too much is still at stake in Evie’s home neighborhood, where she’s known, for her to commit crimes — though this too changes by the end of the novel.)
The drug-fueled ranch of the novel is helmed by a Charles Manson-esque musician named Russell. He’s an awful hippie king, shirtless and pantsed in buckskins, practicing his middling guitar songs as everyone else watches with reverence, believing with him that his big break is on the way. In the grand tradition of the manipulator, Russell’s power is in looking at someone and making them feel seen; at some point or another, he has let each of the people who inhabit the ranch believe that they bring something special to the table that nobody else can bring. This of course ensures their loyalty and their resources, monetary and otherwise. When Evie arrives, he singles her out, too. And in order to fit into the hierarchy of the ranch, Evie gives Russell his obligatory admiration as well as the creepy one-on-one time he requires. But Suzanne is Evie’s true reason for being there, and every time she is done interacting with Russell, her next thought is to find Suzanne. Because of this myopic focus, Evie fails to see the signals that lead up to the book’s darkest turns, choosing instead to home in on Suzanne and feeling herself unwanted when Suzanne’s motivations cause her to act with self-interest and worse.
There are many moments of friendship that feel validating — small interpersonal interactions that make Evie’s forays seem worth it; Cline’s fully realized characters and the relationships that simmer between them justify the book’s tense plot turns. Cline is a talented world-builder (as we know from her short stories) and some of her most evocative writing comes in the form of scenes describing the ranch itself. When Evie first arrives, it’s a slightly ramshackle idyll peopled with positive hippies smoking joints, sunning themselves, and sharing various life tasks like cooking, gardening, and minding the happy, dirty children who seem to be collectively owned. By the end, it’s a darker, scarier scene, with harder drugs turning Suzanne and everyone else skinny, twitchy, and inward. “They aren’t nice,” remarks a boy Evie brings by the ranch about its inhabitants, near the end of the novel. But Evie refuses to see it. She’s too wrapped up in the sisterhood she perceives is still there. By the time the novel’s action ratchets up to its tensest points, Evie is still watching, but she’s missing the big picture.
Present-day Evie is the adult product of the late ’60s turning into the ’70s — a hangover of a time period where everything, including the trope of the hippie, lost its far-out golden glow. In the 2000s, when Evie looks back at her life, it’s with the grave awareness of someone who knows she narrowly escaped something terrible as a very young person. Her identity remains hers — she doesn’t end up one of those mind-controlled courtroom girls — but it’s one she might not even have chosen when given a choice, at the age of 14. In this way, The Girls is about being gifted with a self. As the it progresses, readers work their way to a moment of decision by exploring the furious longing that leads a person toward a dangerous epicenter.
This novel will be familiar: it’s definitely a coming-of-age story, and also a story set in a well-mined period of the recent American past. But it transcends both, not just because Cline’s writing lets us linger on every detail, but because she reorients the narrative toward a person we haven’t heard all that much from yet, and gives readers access to the comprehensible subjectivity of a person whose equivalents have seemed incidental until now. How many Evies were there at the real Spahn Ranch, drawn in by the thrill of belonging but made into accessories in every sense of the word? The story told in The Girls may take place around the periphery of a crazy crime, but it doesn’t linger on the narcissistic maniac who perpetrates it, because, it turns out, not everyone is interested in orbiting him.