Girls to the Front: Emma Cline’s Debut Spotlights the Invisibility of Females in a Historical Context

For as hokey as a reimagined, stylized perspective on the Manson family might sound, 27-year-old Emma Cline has managed to prove that maybe there was something to the two million dollar price tag for her debut, The Girls. In spite of Cline’s relatively anonymous history, with a handful of stories published in The Believer, The Paris Review and Salon, The Girls is an artful depiction of a tainted coming of age.

Centered on Evie Boyd, a fourteen-year-old posing as a sixteen-year-old who doesn’t have the necessary luster of beauty or spark of intelligence to warrant much attention, The Girls re-sets the backdrop of Spahn Ranch on the outskirts of Petaluma in Northern California over Los Angeles. Considering Cline’s own upbringing in Sonoma, a Nor Cal relocation makes sense. Moreover, it adds a greater tinge of desperation to why Evie would even consider taking up with a cult (this area of California isn’t exactly a hotbed of exciting activity). Though she tries her best to take some comfort in being mutable, Evie’s feelings of inadequacy are only accented by her so-called best friend, Connie. At the same time Evie needs someone to feel equally as invisible with, noting of their rigid commitment to a frivolous beauty regime, “How desperately Connie and I thought that if we performed these rituals–washed our faces with cold water, brushed our hair into a static frenzy with a boar-bristle before bed–some proof would solve itself and a new life would spread out before us.”

Like most girls of this age, Connie ends up turning on Evie after an incident at a “gathering” (there were only gatherings in the 60s, not parties) that makes both Connie and Evie look foolish in front of their respective romantic interests–or, at least, sexual interests. But Evie’s sorrow is cushioned by a run-in with Suzanne (the Susan Atkins of the story), an electric sort of girl. As Evie remarks, “No one had ever looked at me before Suzanne, not really, so she had become my definition.”

When Evie gets invited by Suzanne and two other Russell (a.k.a. Charles Manson) acolytes, Donna and Helen (modeled after Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten) to a solstice party at the ranch, she knows somewhere in her mind that this is the beginning of a sea change.

Once she’s brought onto the “property,” which, according to their hippie sense of logic belongs to no one–just as hearts do not–it’s as though a part of her is doomed to remain there. Her introduction to Russell is, of course, built up to no end by the others, and, by the time she’s done asking herself what’s so special about him, she’s already fellated him in a trailer.

In the instances when Evie does leave the proverbial nexus, it’s as though she’s no longer herself anymore, relegated back to being the invisible girl. Conversely, she’s seen as at least marginally special for her newness and energy among those on the ranch. “‘She’s gonna be our offering,’ Donna told the others. Giggling. ‘We’re gonna sacrifice her.'”

More than anything, Russell is merely the medium though which these women connect to one another, which is, at least in part, why all the girls have sex with him. Evie “understand(s) without anyone exactly saying so, that they all slept with him. The arrangement made [her] blush, inwardly shocked. No one seemed jealous of anyone else. ‘The heart doesn’t own anything,’ Donna chimed. ‘That’s not what love is about,’ she said, squeezing Helen’s hand, a look passing between them.”

Nor is love, apparently, about the bonds of familial obligation either. Her mother, Jean’s, naive attachment to a new suitor (post-divorce, all a woman can do is find attention where she can get it) named Frank does not serve to make Evie’s home life any more enjoyable either. Still, she goes through the motions of occasionally showing up, pretending to have been spending her nights at Connie’s. All the while, a clock ticks on the date Evie will be shipped off to a boarding school on Catalina, though it seems impossibly far removed from the world Evie now inhabits, one where, yes, she’s still just another face in a brigade of “easily moldable” girls, but the girls themselves can truly see her, understand her. Ultimately, that’s what everyone at the ranch is seeking: a genuine connection with another person. A girl one’s own age who can empathize with the plight of being underlooked and undervalued. And it is this that propels and fortifies the backbone of Russell’s “family”: the girls.

Not to say there aren’t a few other men besides Russell populating the picture, chief among them Guy, obviously, the representation of Bobby Beausoleil and Mitch, Cline’s interpretation of Dennis Wilson, who Charles Manson latched on to in the late 60s in the hope of securing his lusted after record deal. But, like Hitler, his failure in art was destined to mark him for psychopathy.

And so, the summer forges on, with Evie becoming ever more enmeshed in the lifestyle of the ranch, becoming so acclimated that she can’t fathom why one of the outsiders who lends her a ride back there would be so horrified by it.

One of the men who offers to give her a lift cautions of hitchhiking, “‘None of you girls should be doing this,’ he said. He shook his head and I saw how his face moved a little with concern for me, an acknowledgement, I thought, of how brave I was. Though I should have known that when men warn you to be careful, often they are warning you of the dark movie playing across their own brains. Some violent daydream prompting their guilty exhortation to ‘make it home safe.'”

This, too, serves as one of the cruxes of Cline’s novel, that men, with all their faux paternalness are often the ones to pigeonhole women into that unwanted role: helpless damsel. And the more they see girls that way, the more their projection comes to fruition.

The point of the novel is not to further glamorize the Manson murders, but to use its unlikely narrative to highlight Cline’s ultimate statement: “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.”

Maybe this novel is another in the series of literary and pop culture-infused steps that will aid in bringing the girls to the front.





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