(TW: This book features rape and some of that is described non-graphically below.)
Evie first sees the titular characters of Emma Cline’s The Girls during a community barbecue in the park, late 1960s California. Both she and the girls are outsiders in the domestic scene, she because her parents’ recent divorce and her burgeoning sexuality are creating rifts between her and everyone important in her life. Whereas Evie still looks like she can fit into this suburban pastoral of hot dogs and Christianity, the girls appear feral, with unkempt hair, dirty shifts, and exposed nipples. In Evie’s mind, they are resisting all that is painful in Evie’s life. They flagrantly dumpster dive and beg, when Evie cannot even be rude to a shopkeeper; after promising to shoplift some toilet paper for the girls, she secretly pays for it. Evie sees them and thinks that their rebellion promises freedom from the daily humiliations she faces as a girl, and she follows them, eventually becoming embedded into their community.
Their community, we readers recognize, is a fictionalized version of the Manson family, and the “girls”–young women actually, compared to Evie’s 14 years–will go on to commit murders as grisly as their real life counterparts. Young Evie doesn’t yet know this and is drawn into their lifestyle largely because of her attraction to their ringleader, Suzanne. Suzanne is the kind of charismatic girl whose attraction lies in how little she seems to care about how the world perceives her. To Evie, whose life is regimented by beauty magazine-advice, disavowal of the superficial world seems like the greatest freedom. Her desire for Suzanne, both sisterly and sexual, makes it worth living in the Manson (here called “Russell”) commune despite the squalor and sexual abuse inherent in that situation. She joins them for the promise of freedom, but as she becomes more deeply involved in their lives, Evie learns that they are equally victimized. They have shed minor worries like appearing perfect or gaining weight; Evie comes to realize that the dirtiness and starvation that invalidate those worries are their own concerns. It’s just a new, glamorized form of victimization, of preying on the desire to be loved.
Although lightly touched on because Evie herself is not the target of most of the sexual advances, the girls’ sexuality forms the core of the commune. It’s what they trade for the means of their survival, and for the happiness of the charismatic Russell. It also obliquely forms the rationale for the murders they ultimately commit. In this way, Cline recenters the traditional Manson narrative from Manson himself to the young women. The story becomes about their pain and triumphs, providing them with more agency than they receive in many journalistic explanations of the crimes. It’s a strange sort of agency, though, one that exists because of their sexuality, and can only be enacted through their sexual abuse.
Cline is very careful in demonstrating the very real trouble young women often have in defining rape, of disengaging themselves from feelings of complicity. It’s explicit in the work that Russell’s relationship with the young women is predation. Cline describes it specifically as “grooming”, a strategy refined to both secure sex from insecure young women and make them feel like it was their choice, and their guilt to carry. Simultaneously, she demonstrates why the girls are so susceptible to Russell’s techniques. Girls have no power, and sexuality can appear like one. Finally, they have something someone wants, a currency for exchange. Evie feels the humiliation and disgust inherent in her abuse, but she thinks of it as a trade she is making for the crumbs of attention that she receives in exchange.
The nature of her relationship with Russell and the other men in his sphere only seems more sensationalist, but not necessarily more abusive, than Evie’s exchanges with boys closer to her in age. Girls have nothing except sometimes their power over other girls, so there is always a power differential in their young sexual experiences, always an element of victimization. This becomes most evident in a series of present-day scenes that provide the scaffolding for Evie’s flashbacks to her summer in the commune. Present-day Evie lives a rather lonely life, jobless and dependent on the kindness of a friend for housing. One night, her friend’s son stops by to crash in the house on his way to a drug deal, with his newest girlfriend, Sasha, in tow. Evie observes their relationship and notices the hallmarks of a bad relationship are all there: emotional neglect, hints of violence, sexual bullying. Evie realizes, though, that they and their friends all see this relationship as deeply normal, a typical relationship, and there’s no way she can interfere. Young people won’t take relationship advice from anyone “old”, and her past as part of the infamous commune has already invalidated her opinions on what counts as normal. All she can do is share a beer with Sasha and hope for the best.
“Poor Sasha. Poor girls,” Evie thinks. “The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they needed it, and how little most of them will ever get.” This consistent description of the patheticness of girls eventually wears the reader down. All girls, in Evie’s world, are victims, and there’s no way that’s she’s found to avoid it. Makeup and a pretty face didn’t save her from it. Suzanne and the other girls’ rejection of all social mores didn’t save them from it. Cline’s book is one beautiful description of victimization after another and with each, I think, as someone who was once a girl, “This is true. This is how it is.” I recognize these thoughts and this pain. But this view reduces an entire portion of the human race to victims, which isn’t exactly true or fair.
The trouble is that we don’t have a robust enough way of discussing sex and power to describe relationships. This isn’t just a literary problem; it’s one with real life consequences in a world in which words are how we are taught to navigate consent and sex crimes are litigated based on verbal evidence. Cline’s book is ambitious because it focuses on these ambiguous areas and attempts to move beyond the terms like “victim” which has been employed against her characters so often in this review. Unfortunately, the deck is stacked so dramatically against the girls, it’s hard to say if she succeeds.
In reducing the Manson-family narrative to one of sexual abuse of young women, removing other complicating factors like racism and psychosis, Cline simultaneously provides the girls with more agency in their crimes but less agency in their lives overall. She refocuses the story on girls and shines a light on the seemingly endless humiliations that girls face, a worthy cause. However, to focus on these problems so specifically magnifies them. To create this tight narrative where the reader has no room to breathe, she has to create a world in which the girls themselves have no room to grow. One of the few characters whose age we know is Suzanne, aged nineteen. She is a woman. In this fictional world, there’s no room for them to become women, though, and they remain the girls.