45 Years Later: the Manson Family influence #20booksofsummer

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).

Manson family members in the 1960s, from biography.com
Manson family members in the 1960s, from biography.com

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.

girls2Alison 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.

girlsEmma 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.

 

Fragmenting into Teens

3Amigos (2)They’re training me well for the decades to come,

watching the News Year’s Concert from Vienna on my own.

Minecraft blocks in bland primaries fill their screens.

Pressure cooks; I shout and shout.

‘One more minute, please, Mum!’

At least they still say please.

Books he once loved

scatter in abandon on the floor or foisted

upon unwilling younger brother.

He still knows the name of every dinosaur ever excavated,

corrects my eras when I stutter.

If only his detailed lists extended to homework,

his attention to detail had bearing on his missing objects.

A few more months

to snuggle my nose against his smooth cheeks

and breathe in sulky childishness

before the razor bites.

 

Berliner Freiheit – Youth and Freedom in Berlin

tigermilchTBR3 from #TBR20

Stefanie de Velasco gives voice to two 14 year old girls in this coming-of-age story entitled ‘Tigermilk’.  It’s a summer of hanging around outside their council estate, going swimming and shoplifting, smoking and drinking their ‘doctored’ (alcoholic) milk, eager to lose their virginity but also to find love. Nini is German and Jameelah is Iraqui, they also have Bosnian friends, Serbian acquaintances… but society will not allow them to forget the differences between them, and it’s not just ‘leave to remain’ that marks them out. The playground between their block of flats is divided: the German and Russian kids never go on the slides, the Arabic and Bosnian children never go on the swings. Living in a new country does not necessarily mean that their past doesn’t catch up with them, and, even though Nini’s life is not a walk in the park, she discovers that she has more privileges simply by virtue of being German.

This is a YA book – the protagonists have that self-absorbed voice of teenagers everywhere – which makes it very heavily dependent on just the right nuance of voice, but it failed to fully convince me. I read the book in the original German and was a bit disappointed by the lack of obvious slang. The girls have their own secret puns and speech inversions (quite rude and funny at times), but there is no Berliner Schnauze (dialect) or real youth slang in here, which makes it sound a little false.  I can also attest to the lack of speech marks, a deliberate choice by the author which has infuriated many readers, but  which gives this book a feverish quality, as if everything happens in a nightmarish half-aware state. Which is the state these girls seem to be in most of the time (while Nini’s mother seems to be almost comatose, seriously depressed). Until they witness a frightening event which truly tests their loyalties and their friendship.

The stigmatised Gropius neighbourhood in Berlin.
The stigmatised Gropius neighbourhood in Berlin.

Yet, for all of the serious consequences of this event, there is perhaps not quite enough self-awareness or introspection or growing up going on. It’s a sad story, there are many poignant moments of realisation of the emptiness and possible hopelessness of the lives of these young people. Things that these young people only realise in momentary flashes of insight, but that we as readers are aware of all along. There are some memorable scenes, for instance when Nini’s younger sister and another little friend from the neighbourhood jump around on the sofa watching porn films, with carrots and courgettes stuck down their pants. Overall, though, it doesn’t quite gel for me.  I would have liked this better as a series of short stories, perhaps, vignettes of life in the tower blocks of the poorer parts of Berlin.

I suppose my main disappointment stems from the fact that I was expecting it to be the voice of a whole generation. I thought it would bear testimony to the millenial generation as Christiane F. did for my generation (well, strictly speaking for the generation just before mine). However, it most certainly does not do that and I don’t think it’s just because I read Christiane F. at the right (impressionable) age. It can’t be a coincidence that the initial premise for Tigermilk is so similar to Christiane F.: a girl living with just her mother and younger sister in a soulless block of flats in a deprived area, a mother apparently oblivious to her daughter’s dodgy deeds, the mother’s boyfriend trying to make-believe all is fine, her admiration for a friend who seems to be so much cooler and knowledgeable than her, her desire to experiment and be different. Yet there is some kind of affection and solidarity amongst the druggies in Christiane’s Berlin which seems to have gone missing in the present-day.

The more touristy image of Kurfurstendamm, from  economist.com
The touristy image of Kurfurstendamm, economist.com

Of course, Berlin has changed enormously since the 1970s, and Tigermilk shows us a more multicultural society. Christiane’s friends were all white and German, while Nini’s are almost all non-German. Clubbing and drug-taking has given way to going to the pool and drinking. The area around Bahnhof Zoo has been cleaned up, so the pick-up spot for part-time prostitutes has now moved to the very posh shopping street Ku’damm.  Yet Tigermilk seems to be trying too hard, keen to manipulate the reader’s emotions, to drive me to tears or pity or shock. In contrast, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children of Zoo Station) is matter-of-fact, without a trace of self-pity, narrated in a ‘take it or leave it’ tone which sends genuine chills down your spine. What both have in common, however, is the lack of happy outcome.

It did make me curious to see the Christiane F. film again, which I have in my collection. I intend to show it to my children when they are a little older. We watched that film when I was about 11-12 (recommended age is 16+), as a class at school, and I can say hand on heart that it put me off drugs completely. [So the educational aspect of it worked, even though the book is not preachy at all about the evilness of drugs.] Even the fact that it had David Bowie appearing briefly in it (he was already my hero back then) was not enough to make drugs seem ‘cool’.

Rewatching it, I realised that the most frightening aspect of it all was that 13 year old Christiane is not from a particularly horrible home or traumatic background [the book is much more explicit about her abusive drunk father and neglectful mother]. Her parents are divorced and she lives in a rather depressing block of flats, but we all could recognise bits of ourselves in her: her hero-worship of Bowie, her desire to fit in with the cool crowd and escape from the ‘dreary ordinariness’ of her life, even her ‘well brought up girl’ attitude initially to drug-taking. At first, as they all meet up at a club and then careen wildly down an empty shopping-centre and up on the roof of the Mercedes-Benz building in Berlin to the soundtrack of ‘Heroes’, you get swept up in the thrill and apparent freedom of it all. What the film does very cleverly show is the gradual decay not just of the children but also of their environment, to the truly awful, graffiti-filled public toilets.

Movie poster from 1981. From the ironically entitled berlin-enjoy.com website.
Movie poster from 1981. From the ironically entitled berlin-enjoy.com website.

*Play on words: Berliner Freiheit is a rather ugly-looking shopping in Bremen, while Münchener Freiheit were a German pop/rock band popular in the 1980s. Freiheit means freedom, the location is Berlin and those young people believe they are looking for freedom… but find nothing but disillusionment and their own inner prisons instead.