Your fictionalization of the Manson murders, “The Girls” (2016), is a quite strong debut novel about coming of age within a structure of gender exploitation and neglect.
The story is told in retrospect by Evie Boyd, now a middle-aged woman who is out of work, living in her friend’s house. When Julian, the young son of the house’s owner, and his girlfriend, Sasha, arrive unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, Evie is reminded of her own teenage folly, when she was seduced into a Manson-like cult.
The narrative then jumps back to the 14-year-old Evie, an only child whose upper-middle-class parents had just gotten divorced. It’s 1969, and the girl is lonely and bored, ripe for trouble, trapped in waiting to grow up, to be sent to a boarding school, to be noticed. She finds herself adrift between her father and her mother, between childhood and womanhood. “I tended to the in-between spaces of other people’s existences (…) cultivating a genteel invisibility.”
When she glimpses, from afar, a wild black-haired girl, Suzanne, defiantly exposing a nipple in a Petaluma park, Evie feels an eerie mixture of attraction and recognition. Suzanne ambiguously plays the role of Evie’s protector, lover and corrupter: “she seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty.”
Evie is immediately drawn to this feral and rebellious woman and her free-spirited group, led by an egomaniac drifter, Russell Hadrick, who can speak to young girls’ insecurities, enticing them into canine obedience and blind adoration. One by one, the girls – “tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile” – meet him with their hearts laid bare: they seek freedom by alienating themselves to the imprisonment of drugs and forced sexual service.
Your fictional Manson-like murders are rendered with restraint, never fully disclosed. Along the way, we encounter hints of what will happen, but at a remove and devoid of sensationalism. And this is both the strenght and the weakness of your novel: (a) it is interesting that Russell, your Manson, is kept at the edge of the novel, despite the power he exerted over the girls and the macabre fascination he aroused in the public opinion; (b) it was a clever decision to bring the girls to the foreground, in order to illuminate a broader situation of gender submission, as well as to describe Russell through the way he was experienced by his female acolytes; (c) however, if your restraint contributes to adding suspense until halfway in the novel, from then on this same artifice, having been used in excess, robs the narrative of its momentum, and renders a quite anticlimactic aftermath.
Your excessive use of fragmented sentences, metaphors and similes seems to be just a crutch you cannot avoid, in order to overcompensate for the gaps left behind by the excessive self-imposed restraint in rendering the gruesome character of the murders. Some metaphors simply sound as if you were trying too hard to impress, or as if you didn’t have the proper range of tools to create the effect you intended on the reader.
Despite these minor downsides, I particularly enjoyed the novel’s twofold structure: it unfolds as an act of confession, going back and forth between present and past, as well as between Evie’s life at home and at the ranch. The two perspectives Evie has on the group – the present Evie and the teenager Evie – are rendered in two slightly different voices, which gives the narrative its powerful immediacy and authenticity. Your detailed and textured writing style provides a heavily visual and vivid reading experience, in which confession, memory and hallucination are intertwined.
The highlight of your novel was for me the subtle exploration of the many ways in which gender structures imprison women’s lives in the story. “I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. 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.”
Most of the women in the book are somewhat entrapped in a male dynamics of domination (“just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself”). Evie’s mother and school friends are as objectified by the men in their lives as the girls are by Russell. Worse yet, their self-esteem is built on this dynamics of being dominated, and of feeling pleased at being chosen to perform this act of submission.
The women in your story, both outside and inside the cult, are party to their own abasement at the hands of men – and these women gladly do so, hoping to be rescued by something bigger than themselves: love, marriage, sex, a guru. “I’d enacted some pattern, been defined, neatly, as a girl, providing a known value. There was something almost comforting about it, the clarity of purpose, even as it shamed me.”
As in a hall of mirrors, the exploitative relationship between Sasha and Julian, as told by the present-day Evie, reflects back the domination exerted by Russell over the girls in his cult, as well as the broader submission of Evie’s mother to what was expected of a middle-aged woman at that time, and what she learns to expect as her due. The questions about who is entitled to gaze and who bears the corresponding duty to be gazed upon are the two opposing light outputs illuminating the distorted images inside this hall of mirrors.
Girls soon realize that growing up means learning how to behave as commodities, “solstice offerings” whose only desire is to please their men, trading their minds or bodies for male support and vague feelings of empowerment. As naturalized as the male demands on women is the violence with which those demands are enforced. Directed by their guru to carry out a slaughter (while the guru himself stayed at the ranch), the girls in the cult do not release their rage at their true oppressor, but at innocent women and at themselves: in being able to release their hatred at their own powerlessness, the girls render themselves and other women as sacrificial offerings in behalf of their guru. Their sole act of empowerment is also an act of debasement, of asserting the guru dominance. “Hatred was easy. (…) There was so much to destroy.”
It almost sounds like the cult were only a sickly radicalization of a form of dynamics already ingrained inside the “best families” themselves – as if the thin line between madness and what was called normality were not a quality issue (both the cult and the “normal families” present the same power dynamics), but merely a question of quantity, an issue of degree. Yours is, in this sense, a bold way to interpret the cult dynamics; however, in order to serve the purpose of this broader feminist claim, the inner complexity of the cult dynamics itself had to be greatly reduced – which perhaps may have impoverished the novel’s outcome in terms of plot development.
Nonetheless, the strength of the book does not lie inside the group, but in the space between the cult and the society, and the correlations and exchanges between them. Evie herself behaves as an outsider, a figure in-between both the “best families” and the cult dynamics: she is not willing to obey Russell; what she strongly desires is to please Suzanne, as well as to take revenge on her own neglectful mother. Evie’s sentimental education is built through the thin light beam of her desire for this female gaze. And this desire has both saved her and cursed her in the end.
So, my dear, I may have not been in awe at the final result of your work, as many readers have. But I like the direction you tried to take.
The hatred that vibrated beneath the surface of my girl’s face – I think Suzanne recognized it. Of course my hand would anticipate the weight of a knife. The particular give of a human body. There was so much to destroy.
– Emma Cline, The girls