Murders, especially strange, extreme murders like the ones perpetrated by Manson’s followers, fascinate people because they want to understand—who could have done this, why did they do it, what makes them kill? And as I’ve written about before, in the absence of a satisfactory explanation, people tend to write killers off as monsters. Evil is evil; it doesn’t need further explanation.
“The easy thing was to say No, they were monsters, they had to be monsters to do something like that,” Umminger writes. “But what if the truth was more complicated? What if they weren’t really as different as everyone wanted to believe?”
Cline’s writing is elegant and nostalgic, evoking beautifully a girlhood remembered. Umminger’s is brasher, crasser, more straightforward—showing a girlhood in progress. But reading both, it’s not hard to remember how it felt to be young and lonely and longing for the future: When I remember that time, the appeal Manson must have held makes perfect, frightening sense. Desire, when you haven’t been loved yet—romantically, anyway—is mostly about imagination. This makes idols easy to love, and loves easy to idealize. Teen girl love of Harry Styles, or the Beatles, or the boy next door who doesn’t know she exists, is more about what the girl wants, and how well the object of affection serves as a mirror for those desires.
“How impersonal and grasping our love was,” Cline writes, “pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.” Enter Charles Manson. Or “Russell,” as the Manson stand-in is known in The Girls.
Take Susan Atkins, for example, or “Sadie” as Manson nicknamed her. In her autobiography, the way she describes their initial meeting at first reads like pure projected desire. “My eyes landed instantly on a little man sitting on the wide couch in front of the bay windows [playing guitar]… His voice was middle range and expressive. He played the guitar magnificently … ‘He’s like an angel.’ I don’t think I spoke the thought aloud, but I was so loaded I couldn’t be sure. ‘I’ve got to dance—for him.’”
But then, it all plays out like wish-fulfillment fan fiction. Manson gets up and dances with her, then tells her: “You are beautiful. You are perfect. I’ve never seen anyone dance like you. It’s wonderful. You must always be free.”
In American Girls, Anna reads Atkins’s autobiography, and finds it disappointing. “The fact that her reasons for taking part in the murders were all so stupid made the book extra depressing. I kept waiting for the moment when she revealed all the awful things that had happened to her that she’d forgotten to mention, but mostly she just sang the same old song. I wanted to be special. I wished Charlie and the other girls liked me more.”
The first night Patricia Krenwinkel met Manson, they had sex, and again, he told her she was beautiful. “I couldn’t believe that, I just started crying,” she told Diane Sawyer years later in an interview.