In a world with no shortage of tragedy, that tragedies that become legendary seem almost outside the scope of humanity. Of course, every catastrophic event — bombings, serial killings, mass shootings, natural disasters that leave lives and communities ruined — all incite shock, and grief, and inspire a collective urge to understand that which cannot be made sense of. But certain, rare tragedies have a power that reverberates far beyond the context of the event itself, suddenly becoming the backdrop for everything else going on in the world at the time; a “where were you when” touchstone for those who lived through it — suddenly making your regular run to the grocery store, your interrupted business meeting, that otherwise unremarkable evening spent at home, unforgettable — and evolving into something akin to mythology for those born in the years after.
The Manson Family murders, committed over five weeks during the summer of 1969, and announcing the end of both America’s Summer of Love and the safe idealism of the 1960s in a great, sweeping arc — were one such tragedy, most recently retold in stark, haunting detail via Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls , which landed on bookstore shelves earlier this summer.
The Girls introduces readers to Evie Boyd, a 14-year-old, only-child who finds herself drawn to a Manson Family-like cult in the wake of her parents’ divorce, and subsequent neglect. After observing a group of captivatingly rebellious girls in California’s Petaluma Park, whose dumpster diving, kissing, and nipple exposing all bear stark contrast to the other, upper-middle-class families of park-goers, Evie finds herself desperate to join them. She all but begs to hop aboard their refurbished, black-painted school bus; to steal money for them; to take on the most unpleasant and menial of housekeeping tasks at the cult’s ranch; and to offer up her virginity as part of an unspoken business brokerage between the cult’s leader and a local record producer.
But in many ways Cline’s reinvention of Charles Manson — the dirty, disturbing, and inexplicably magnetic Russell Hadrick, ever accompanied by his harem of long-haired (parted exactly down the middle) devotees — is a backdrop too, for the story Cline is really telling: a coming-of-age tale of neglect, interrupted innocence, and a desperate desire not only to be seen, but to be recognized. There is no price so steep that Evie isn’t willing to pay it for mere seconds of attention — what she interprets as adoration. She revels in her new existence outside society, enjoying playing the role of an exotic oddity who imagines herself far more tuned into the world than the square, law-abiding, moral-observing citizens around her. But Evie never falls for Russell’s alleged mystique as the other girls do. In many ways Russell is simply a means to an end: a fast track on which Evie can race towards womanhood, freedom, rebellion, and visibility. Even in the wake of the murders, Evie’s regret over being excluded is palpable; decades later, she remains in thrall with Suzanne — a fictional amalgamation of Mary Brunner, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and others — whose life in prison Evie seems to favor over fading into obscurity.
The Girls is a mesmerizing novel, filled with the kinds of turns of phrase — “the nothing jump of soda in my throat”; “the sparkly mess of flies I’d swept from the corners”; “we licked batteries to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumored to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm” — that feel written with an impossible ease, made all the more impressive by that fact that Cline, at 27-years-old, was born 20 years after Charles Manson wound up behind bars.
Here are 9 books to read if you’re totally obsessed with Emma Cline’s The Girls , and cannot wait for her next book — The Girls is only the first of a three-book deal with Random House, so you know more are on the way.
1. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem will take you into the landscape of Cline’s The Girls, as observed through a native-Californian, journalist’s eye. Although set in San Francisco, further north than Manson territory, the story of ungrounded, discontent youth looking for everything the 1960s promised them but didn’t deliver, rings wholly true. The essay collection offers a rather grim, disillusioned portrayal of the Haight Ashbury district at the end of the 1960s, where homeless and part-time-homeless youth laze around, fight, and give their toddlers LSD.
2. Fierce Attachments: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick
Central to the plot of The Girls is the contrast between Evie’s mother: recently-divorced, newly-dating, and trying on a revolving door of personas Evie finds unbecoming to a middle-aged woman, and Suzanne: the mysterious, snide, alluring ringleader of Russell’s female followers, who seems impossibly powerful (even though she isn’t.) Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments tells a similar coming-of-age story, profiling the two women at the center of Gornick’s young life — her mother, and her young neighbor, Nettie — who each demonstrates for Gornick a different way of coping with their lives. While Nettie represents the freedom of a liberal social and sexual life, Gornick’s mother is more reserved and conservative; and these two contrasting women informed Gornick’s young ideas about marriage, sex, and romance.
3. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
In case you haven’t gotten enough of the Manson-like horror, then Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders will leave no stone unturned. Bugliosi, who served as the prosecutor in the 1970 trial of Charles Manson, has a front row seat from which he explores the trials of Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and other members of the Manson Family cult for the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate, business-owners Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, and others.
4. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Relentlessly researched and painstakingly compiled, Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief contains everything you want to know about the Church of Scientology, and a whole lot more. If the idea of why anyone would ever want to join a cult seems totally inexplicable to you, Going Clear just might clear it up (or not. Like, at all.) The text features summarized excerpts from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s own writings, information garnered from Church and government documents and countless interviews with Church defectors and current members alike.
5. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
In some ways Johanna Morrigan’s coming-of-age story in How to Build a Girl reads like the sister story to Evie Boyd’s coming-of-age experiences in The Girls — both teenage women long to be seen, to be celebrated, to be something other than exactly what they are, and they both dive into utterly unfamiliar worlds, embarking upon journeys of reinvention in order to achieve that. But where Evie’s experience is dark and disturbing, Johanna’s is heartwarming and hilarious. Entering the (cult-like, in a way) world of record reviewing, Johanna recreates herself as the hard-drinking, sexually-inventive Dolly Wilde, and starts to learn what it really takes to build a girl.
6. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
If you haven’t DVRed the HBO series yet, then Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers is a great read, if you want to make yourself even more freaked out after finishing The Girls. When a large percentage of the world is suddenly vanished, in some sort of Biblical-feeling event known as the Sudden Departure, the world erupts into unholy chaos. From prophet Holy Wayne who begins to pick up followers left and right, to the Guilty Remnant — a cult that definitely competes with The Manson Family for infamous creepiness — everyone is looking for answers, for numbness, for a way out of experiencing the devastating loss.
7. White Oleander by Janet Fitch
After reading both these novels, I get the sense that White Oleander protagonist Astrid Magnussen would get along really well with Evie Boyd. Both are growing up during an unsettled time in California, both endure the experience of standing by while the women they idolize commit murder, and both are formed, in part, by experiences of neglect. White Oleander follows Astrid through a series of foster homes in the wake of her mother’s incarceration for murder, as she struggles to free herself from her mother’s dangerous, obsessive grasp.
8. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk
Tender Branson is the last surviving member of the Creedish Death Cult, and he’s also on an airplane that is about to crash in the Australian outback, undoubtedly killing him. Some guys really just can’t catch a break. Survivor contains Tender’s last words — the desire to tell his life story, from the moment he was born into the suicidal cult, until he fiendishly commits his last act as their member. For an added twist, Tender has also been bulked up into a messiah-like, media superstar.
9. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
Yet another tale — this time nonfiction — about devotion gone terribly awry, Under the Banner of Heaven tells the story of brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, members of a religious sect of fundamentalist Mormons who call themselves the School of Prophets. Insisting they have received a direct order from God to kill their sister-in-law Brenda and her baby girl, the two commit the act in cold blood. Taking readers behind the secrecy of some of the world’s most mysterious religions, investigative journalist Joh Krakauer demonstrates how dangerous fanatical faith can be.
Image: E. Ce Miller