During the summer of 1967, having recently been released from prison, a human predator prowled the streets of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. There was nothing that particularly stood out about him in a physical sense that made the man unique. He had unkempt hair, was short of stature, lean, but not muscular, and his face was nothing remarkable; the type of ordinary visage that could blend in and get lost among a throng of humanity. Underneath the physical veneer, however, when he spoke, he exuded an unexplainable magnetism, especially when conversing with young, wayward adults, and impressionable teenagers. His appeal to those who yearned for freedom from the watchful eyes and restrictive constraints of parents, guardians, and the school system, and those who desired someone to listen to their concerns, and not be judgmental, was unparalleled. His talent for drawing people in, was in large part, thanks to his ability to know exactly what someone wanted to hear, which would, in the minds of those who followed him, lead them to believe that they had come upon a savior. He listened to the youth, who he was fifteen to twenty years older than, but it was feigned listening; he never truly cared about what they had to say. He didn’t judge them, no matter the views they expressed, or the past actions they had taken. How could he? The man was, for all intents and purposes, a career criminal by that point in his life. In regard to love, that was a foreign emotion to him, something which he could pretend to give to others, to suit his purposes, but had never been present in Charles Manson’s own life.
Books, films, television specials, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles over the past four decades have covered at length, Charles Manson, his followers, and the depraved, Tate-LaBianca murders, which took place in Los Angles, on August 9th and 10th, 1969. I am not in the habit of making assumptions, but given the notoriety of Manson and the murders, I’ll assume most of you who are reading this, have a familiarity, not only with who Manson is, but the details regarding the horrific crimes that were perpetrated by members of his so called ‘family,’ therefore, I am not going to write about the specifics of the crimes. While “Girls,” the well-written and thought provoking debut novel by Emma Cline, incorporates the murders into her narrative – as well as a stand-in character for Manson, in the guise of Russell Hadrick – the murders are not the central focus of the book.
Cline’s main protagonist is Evie Boyd. When the novel begins, she is middle-aged, living alone in her friend’s guest house, in an attempt to get her life back on track after getting out of another failed romantic relationship. One evening, she receives unwelcomed company – her friend’s son, the pot smoking, drug dealing Julian, and his docile girlfriend Sasha. After Evie introduces herself to the couple, Julian, who is familiar with Evie’s past, is in awe that he is in her company. His fascination with Evie’s long dormant past, is the catalyst which sets in motion a series of flashbacks, where Evie remembers what transpired during the summer of 1969, when she was fourteen years old, living in Petaluma, California.
A reader will soon learn, that teenage Evie was exceptionally bored with the direction of her life during that time period. Cline, taking the reader back to that time, shows Evie in a constant state of waiting, and drifting through lazy summer days. Once the summer reaches its end, she knows that her divorced parents – her mother, Jean, a woman who keeps experimenting with the various self-improvement methods of the time period, while searching for male companionship, and her father, who she sees little of, and who is living with his girlfriend, are sending her to boarding school. In addition to seeking love and admiration, Evie is in some desperate need of excitement in her life, which primarily consists of her socializing with her best friend, Connie. Day after day, the two have been engaging in the same activities of lounging by the pool, reading magazines, listening to records, and spending time with Connie’s older brother, and his friends, which was more watching, and hoping to be noticed, on the part of the two girls, than social interaction. The only break in the monotony comes when the girls lick a battery, because they have heard that the metallic buzz they will feel on their tongues after doing so, is equivalent to an orgasm.
One day, Evie, spots three girls, several years older than she is, walking through a park in her hometown. The trio are not modest when it comes to their attire, and they display an almost unfettered freedom in the way they conduct themselves, which immediately sparks a curiosity in Evie. The girl to whom Evie is magnetically drawn is Suzanne, the girl walking between the other two. In Evie’s mind, Suzanne projects a mysterious quality that Evie desires to find out more about. On that day, however, she doesn’t approach the girls, she merely observes them like many others in the park are doing, before the three get into a black bus and leave, but not through the same lens of awe as Evie does. (As an aside: The character of Suzanne is modeled after notorious Manson family member, Susan Atkins.)
Eventually, Evie will come to befriend Suzanne and the other girls, although it is Suzanne’s acceptance which she craves the most. One day, while riding her bicycle on a dirt road, the chain breaks. While momentarily stranded, the black bus containing Suzanne and the others pulls up, and they offer to help her. Befriending Evie, the girls bring her back to their rundown ranch where their commune is located. While someone else might be turned off by the lack of cleanliness, the squalid sleeping conditions, the mostly inedible food, and the fact that everything, including clothing is shared, Evie embraces it. She becomes a frequent visitor to the ranch, always with the goal of remaining by Suzanne’s side. In fact, Evie’s need to be accepted by Suzanne leads her to making immoral choices, which include, but are not limited to shoplifting, breaking into people’s homes, and giving her body to different men, to whom she is not attracted, for sex, one of them is the leader of the commune, Russell Hadrick.
Like Manson, Hardick is the unquestioned leader of a group of directionless people at the ranch. His mostly female followers run errands for him. Those tasks include breaking into homes to steal money and goods, rummaging through garbage dumpsters looking for food, attracting men to the group, to act as the muscle, since he can’t provide that himself, and to indulge his every sexual proclivity. Furthermore, like Manson, he is a failed musician. Hardick has befriended someone in the music business with connections, who has promised him a record deal, but has not yet delivered. (As an aside: Charles Manson, for a time, had a relationship with The Beach Boys, drummer, Dennis Wilson. Wilson thought Manson had interesting musical insight. The two wrote the song “Cease To Exist,” which The Beach Boys later adapted into a song titled “Never Learn Not To Love,” which was released on February 3, 1969 on their album 20/20. Additionally, Wilson introduced Manson to instrumental record producer, Terry Melcher, who listened to Manson’s music, but never gave him any sort of commitment to record him, although according to Manson, Melcher had made promises to him, which he failed to deliver on. Real or perceived, Melcher, had occupied the home at 10050 Cielo Drive, before director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate lived there. When Manson sent his followers out to cause havoc he thought he was sending them to Melcher’s home, an unmitigated tragedy for Tate, her unborn child, and the others who were brutally murdered.)
How far will Evie go to please Suzanne? Does she flee after learning of Russell’s plan for bloodshed? Did her admiration and love for Suzanne, make her abandon her moral compass, and accompany Suzanne and the other participants on the night of the murders? Did someone put a stop to Evie’s participation in the murders before there was no going back for her? All of those questions and more will be answered by the conclusion of Cline’s detail rich, novel. I don’t want to delve any further into specific plot points, and ruin the reading experience for those of you who have had this on your ‘to read’ list, but haven’t yet had the chance to. This was a page-turner that I had trouble putting down.