The Manson Family murders were before my time, but they were there somewhere, floating in the collective consciousness, attracting and repelling sensation-seekers in equal measure. 45 years or more after the perpetrators were sentenced, they still exert a horrible fascination upon us and have been the extreme benchmark (together with the Jonestown massacre of 1978) against which all ‘cults’ have been judged.
So what happened that summer in 1969, for those who are too young to remember or care? Charles Manson was a former convict with aspirations to be a singer/songwriter, who managed to assemble a diverse group of people, mostly vulnerable young women, around him in a sort of anti-materialistic hippy commune in the late 1960s. He either believed he was the vanguard of an apocalyptic race war or else he felt badly let down by a record producer who failed to recognise his talent, or else it was a mix of the two, plus quite a bit of LSD which the group was consuming (Manson himself far less than his followers). Anyway, he convinced his followers to carry out a series of brutal murders over the course of five weeks in 1969. Manson, his ‘right-hand man’ Tex Watson and three of his ‘girls’ (they were all under the age of 25) were finally caught, put on trial and sentenced to death (commuted to life after the abolition of the death penalty in California).
Not just one, but two books have just come out, as if to prove our perennial fascination with violence and brainwashing. Both are novels about the young women in Manson’s ‘gang’ or ‘cult’. What is clever about both Emma Cline’s The Girls and Alison Umminger’s My Favourite Manson Girl is that both of them tell not so much the story of the murders and their aftermath, but describe how it might feel to be young, troubled, running away from home and falling in with the wrong kind of people out of a desperate need to belong and to feel loved.
Alison Umminger’s book is technically classed as YA novel, so it has a very distinctive voice: a snarky, snarly teenager with a dysfunctional family (absent father, mother who has become lesbian, a sister trying to become a Hollywood star), who is nevertheless touchingly vulnerable at times. It’s set in the present-day. Anna is fed up with her self-absorbed, divorced parents, helps herself to a credit card and flies to LA to stay with her older sister. But Hollywood is not quite the glamorous world she imagined, nor is her sister quite as selfless and generous as she expected. She does manage to get a job to do some research on the Manson girls for a possible future film. Although she is disgusted by the subject matter, she accepts the work and starts to find some parallels between her life and the life of the ‘girls’ she is researching. Interestingly, the original title is ‘American Girls’ and the author says in the afterword that she only added the Manson family dimension later. So it really becomes a book about our obsession with celebrity culture, about how family members damage each other even with the best of intentions, and how the need to be loved remains so strong even when we are at our most hateful. Humour and self-dramatisation help to lighten the mood, so this is a book which you can gallop through quite quickly.
Emma Cline’s book is for an older audience and this time we are dealing with a protagonist who has actually known the ‘Manson-like’ girls (the names and situations have been altered, but there is of course a strong similarity to the Manson case). Evie is a neglected teenager, inadequately parented by a well-meaning but self-absorbed mother and a mostly absent father. She is fascinated by the sense of freedom and adventure that these young girls project – in fact, her real love story is not with the Manson-type cult leader, but with one of the girls, Suzanne. She is love-bombed by the group and chooses to ignore the squalour of the abandoned ranch and the lack of food. Instead, she finds it exotic and exhilarating. There is also a shift of timeframes, as we see an older and wiser Evie remembering that heady and dangerous summer, and realise that youthful mistakes are about to be repeated (although hopefully with not such dramatic consequences).
I’m rather uncomfortable with the use of the term ‘cult’ (it’s worth knowing that Christ and his disciples were known as a dangerous cult back in the days), and feel that too many ‘new religious movements’ have been demonised as brainwashing cults. But in this case, it’s probably the right term to use! Cline’s book was not quite as startling or detailed in terms of psychological insights as I had hoped, but it was a good look (and far more serious than the Umminger book) at how vulnerable youngsters can be manipulated. And not just youngsters. The mix of charismatic leader, sexual and psychological control through a mix of love and fear, the use of drugs and being told that one is important, beautiful, about to bring world change… a potent cocktail indeed!
The style was a bit overwritten at times, so, like a cult, the book promised much but failed to completely satisfy me. Still, I enjoyed both these reads, and would recommend them. Be prepared, however, for some chills!
These books represent 3 and 4 out of my #20booksofsummer reading plan and we’re now on an upward trend for book satisfaction.