FEATURE

Blood Relations

IN AUGUST 1969, Stephanie Schram hitchhiked down the coast of California with her boyfriend, on the way to visit her sister in San Diego. Schram was seventeen and wore her long, straight hair parted in the middle. At a gas station in Big Sur, she locked eyes with a slight man with dark hair and an intensely focused gaze. They began chatting, and the short man may have said something about how there was no such thing as right and wrong. Or that money was ego and kept people enslaved. Those were the kinds of pronouncements people liked to recite back then, and the dark-haired man was particularly good at coming up with them. Whatever he said, it must have been convincing; the teenager ditched her boyfriend and left the gas station with the dark-haired man instead.

I suppose you could see this story as a demonstration of the spooky charisma of Charles Manson (because that’s who the small man turned out to be, of course)—his ability to bewitch young girls and compel people to do his bidding, even against their best interest. Less than a week after Manson picked up Schram, a handful of his followers would kill seven people, including the nine-months-pregnant movie star Sharon Tate, at Manson’s behest. But the real puzzle, for me, has always been the other person in the story: What was it in Schram that made her so ready to find a guru in a gas station and believe that he might save the world?

“A lot of young people ran away: you could do it back then just because you were bored. You didn’t even need a tragedy,” Emma Cline writes in The Girls, her bracing, psychologically astute debut novel, which follows the rough outlines of the Manson Family story. Cline is not all that interested in her Manson analogue, an older man named Russell, who doesn’t make an appearance until a hundred pages into the novel, and resembles a con man/guru out of central casting, with his buckskin shirt, quietly commanding voice, and passel of insecurities. Instead, it’s his female followers (who range in age from early teens to early twenties but are always referred to as “girls”), with their potent mix of disdain and need, of competition and companionship, who are the real dark heart of the story. A multiple murder is mentioned in the first pages of the book; the rest of the novel is spent hurtling toward that moment, with the reader attempting to figure out how and why we’ll get there, and who we’ll consider complicit.

Evie Boyd, the novel’s narrator, is fourteen during the summer she meets the girls. Her father has just left to move in with his twentysomething assistant. Her mother stops baking cheese straws and starts eating seaweed salads and dabbling in various New Agey therapies; at one point, she is brought to tears by a dire interpretation of her astrological chart. Evie is mostly left to fend for herself during the long, dull summer before she’s shipped off to boarding school. At first, Evie spends her days with Connie, a middle-school frenemy, but there’s an uneasiness between them, partly due to Evie’s sense that plump, mundane Connie isn’t enough to fill her gnawing, object-less sense of need.

One night during a sleepover, Evie crawls into bed with Connie’s older brother and waits to see how he’ll react. “I would be shunted along whatever would happen, I understood. However he piloted the night. And there wasn’t fear, just a feeling adjacent to excitement, a viewing from the wings. What would happen to Evie?” Like all teenage girls, Evie has grown up in a world that has alternately dismissed and commodified her; it’s no wonder, then, that during this moment of sexual possibility, she defaults to thinking of herself in the third person. Imagining yourself as an object instead of a subject certainly comes with a psychic cost—but there’s also something thrilling, a kind of roller-coaster freefall, to giving up your own agency, and Cline is particularly good at mapping this dark territory, the paradoxical power girls claim by letting someone else control them completely.

Accepting such a bargain may work in the short term. This, I think, is part of the fascination with violent cults—that they give people permission to indulge their most destructive impulses, while also absolving themselves of responsibility. But any sense of security located in absolute, outside control has a tendency to bend toward disaster; the cult story rarely gets a happy ending.

Before long, Evie finds someone more worthy of her devotion—not Russell the barefoot guru, but rather his acolyte Suzanne, a black-haired girl with an air of otherworldliness. After a chance meeting in town, Suzanne brings Evie along to the ranch where she and a handful of other girls live with Russell. Evie is both attracted to and repelled by this “orphanage for raunchy children.” The bulk of the novel is devoted to Evie’s increasing immersion in the world of the ranch, complete with acid trips and boundary-pushing sexual experiments. The ranch’s heady mix of squalor and freedom—its untended children, inedible meals, and self-satisfied scorn for the straight world—is reminiscent of other depictions of ’60s communal experiments. As in those other stories, anything utopian about life at the ranch is shadowed by a sense of looming threat, and the anticipation of the moment when it will all fall apart—in The Girls, the murders that the novel builds to.

A still from David E. Durston’s I Drink Your Blood, 1971. Box Office Spectaculars.

That sense of imminent doom is somewhat muted by chapters narrated by a grown-up Evie, who has evidently survived her travails with Russell and the girls. We learn she’s not in prison like some of the others, but we also quickly figure out that her time at the ranch seems to have damaged her deeply. Present-day Evie leads an itinerant life as a live-in aide and/or house-sitter, only ever half at home in other people’s houses, not quite hiding out, but not not hiding out, either. In these present-day scenes, we also see how the drama of the ’60s has been subdued by the intervening years—if not for Evie, then at least for the culture at large. When she meets the young son of an old friend, he’s impressed rather than horrified by her association with this famous murderous hippie cult: “I always thought it was beautiful. Sick yet beautiful,” he tells her. “A fucked-up expression, but an expression, you know. An artistic impulse. You’ve got to destroy to create, all that Hindu shit.” Seen through the haze of nostalgia, even murder can be transformed into an object of curiosity.

Emma Cline is twenty-six; the Manson Family murders and the ’60s culture they grew out of are as temporally distant from her life as the flappers were to the young people of the hippie era. (That may be why, at times, Cline’s evocation of the period reads like a late-season episode of Mad Men—all the right references, but with the stiffness of a re-creation: “Nobody thought until later that strangers might be anything but friends. Our love for one another boundless, the whole universe an extended crash pad.”)

Cline’s novel is part of what seems to be a recent revival of interest in the Manson Family, with a half-dozen TV shows, movies, books, and podcasts focusing on the group over the past several years. They highlight our own time’s affinity with the late ’60s, a period when the optimistic political engagement and protest culture of earlier years was crumbling into disillusionment and charismatic pyschos were happy to step in and fill the vacuum.

It seems significant that The Girls and other current pop-culture artifacts that explore the cults and communes of the ’60s have largely been made by people too young to have experienced the period firsthand. Their work reflects a cultural fascination with a time they missed out on—but it’s an ambivalent kind of fascination, imbued with more anxiety than nostalgia. The 1969 of Cline’s novel is simultaneously free and dangerous, as if the freedom and danger are inextricable from one another. In a period of social change and upheaval, a time fraught with possibility, the girls of The Girls chose to ecstatically cede control, and to embrace chaos and destruction. In the obsession over the Manson Girls (because there were plenty of men involved in Manson’s world, too, though nobody seems to write novels or make movies about them), there’s also perhaps an undercurrent of anxiety about female freedom: You give them their women’s lib, and look where they go with it.

Basing The Girls on true events allows Cline to lean on the reader’s apprehension about how it will all turn out; we all know where this story goes. But ultimately, the Manson hook seems unnecessary; Cline is so good at creating a fraught atmosphere—the dog barking with “high, human alarm,” “the crispy package of a dead frog, drifting on the surface of the pool”—that she doesn’t really need to borrow any dread. If anything, the reliance on real life leaches some of the drama from the story, putting the characters on a track that sometimes feels forced.

But perhaps that’s because The Girls isn’t really a book about cults, or about the ’60s; rather, its real subjects are power and control, and the convoluted and sometimes damaging ways that girls and young women locate those forces in a world that’s not made for them. It’s about the way that the girls in the novel pay attention to each other— flatteringly, critically, with wonder and worship and disdain: “Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.” Ultimately, the most unsettling scenes in the novel have nothing to do with bloodstains or strangers at the door. Instead, they come at more quietly sinister moments, when Evie feels out the edges of her own power, and her own ability to be cruel and controlling: “The hatred that vibrated beneath the surface of my girl’s face. . . . Of course my hand would anticipate the weight of a knife. The particular give of a human body. There was so much to destroy.”

Rachel Monroe is a writer based in Marfa, Texas.