Charles Manson, the Girls, and the Banality of Desire

Two new novels ponder the still-urgent question of what could have compelled young women to do such terrible things.

Random House / Megan Cline / Flatiron Books / Jill Sutton / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

The most fascinating part of the Manson story has always been the girls.

Not the man who cobbled together bits of hippie philosophy, Scientology and How to Win Friends and Influence People to gather followers who’d do his bidding and help make him a star (and when that didn’t work out, kill people to try to start a race war). The ones willing and vulnerable enough to be gathered. Who wanted a community to belong to.

Even now, no one knows whether Charles Manson believed his own insane manifesto, or was just using it as a tool to get what he wanted. But the girls believed. Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins—they believed. They belonged. And then, on two infamous evenings in 1969, they helped kill seven people.

Their stories have long been sidebars to Manson’s—when they’re mentioned, it’s as depraved killers or helpless pawns in his game, or both. Until now, I’d never read something that attributes them motives that go beyond “they were evil” or “they did whatever he wanted.” But two new novels explore the story of the Manson murders by shoving the ringleader to the side and putting the girls (and girlhood itself) at the center of the narrative: The much-discussed The Girls by Emma Cline, and the less-analyzed, though no less worthy, American Girls by Alison Umminger.

The Girls is a fictionalized re-telling of the days at the Manson family ranch before the murders, seen through the eyes of a new recruit named Evie. American Girls, set in the present day, is about a 15-year-old named Anna who spends a summer in Hollywood, learns about the Manson murders and grapples with them alongside the emotional violence she sees around her. Evie’s story, and the parallels Anna sees between her life and the lives of the young women she reads about, underscore something that other narratives have avoided: that maybe the girls—who’ve long held such enduring fascination in culture—are more relatable than many people would like to believe.

Evie, before she meets the people who draw her into a loosely veiled version of Manson’s family, is simply engaged in the tedious, hopeful business of being a teenage girl. She and her best friend spend their afternoons putting eggs in their hair, and reading magazines that offer thirty days of beauty tips to help prepare for the first day of school—“the constant project of our girl selves seeming to require odd and precise attentions,” Cline writes. But mostly, Evie waits for something—anything—to happen to her.

I remember my own girlhood primarily as waiting, too. Waiting for Christmas, or summer, or the next school year, or for my acne to go away. Waiting for college, waiting for the day a boy might be interested in me, waiting for my future to start. In middle school, I constantly wished for just a glimpse of my future self in high school, in college, as an adult, so I could see that I would end up okay; that I was moving toward something.

As an adult, Evie reflects on that very thing: “As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited—embryonic, ready to be revealed. How said it was to realize that sometimes you never got there.” Neatly, Cline makes the reader wonder—when you feel like your life has to have an eventual destination, are you more likely to follow someone who offers a path?

In Umminger’s book (which in the U.K. is called My Favorite Manson Girl, a much better title), Anna steals her stepmother’s credit card and runs away to live with her older sister, a struggling actress in Los Angeles. There, the creepy director of an indie film her sister is starring in (who also happens to be her sister’s ex) pays Anna to read about the Manson Family and give him reports, as “research.” And so she ends up processing everything that happens to her—the fallout of running away, her mother’s cancer, her sister’s self-destruction, a romance, the cruel way she treated a girl back home—on top of the backdrop of the Manson girls’ story. “Most people never thought of them as separate people at all,” writes Umminger of the girls—separate from Manson, she means, and what he made them do. But Anna does and Evie does, and Umminger does and Cline does.

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.

“I waited to be told what was good about me,” Evie recalls in The Girls. “I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch.”

Reading about the girls, Anna thinks, “The fact that all the books mentioned how they looked meant that their appearances mattered, but no one ever said why, or how … I guess that Charles Manson had figured out why pretty mattered. Because he called Patricia Krenwinkel beautiful, even kept the lights on when they did the nasty, she chased down Abigail Folger and stabbed her so hard that she broke her spine in half.”

Manson’s desires were just as boring—to be famous, to be powerful. When the record deal he thought he deserved didn’t pan out, he became angry. There’s been some speculation that when Manson sent his family to kill the residents of the record producer Terry Melcher’s former home that night, it wasn’t just to start the race war he called Helter Skelter, but also partly to send Melcher a message, because he wouldn’t give Manson a record deal. As for the girls, if they first loved Manson because he told them they were special, it’s not hard to imagine that perhaps they shared his fury and disappointment when others told him he wasn’t special. Maybe they remembered how it felt, before him.

“The real danger,” Umminger writes, “wasn’t violence like you saw on the television news, random and exciting—the real danger was the vampiric kind, the sort that you invited in because it told you everything you wanted to hear.”

What draws Evie into the cult isn’t Manson—I mean Russell—but the other girls. One especially, Suzanne, strikes Evie as more wild and dangerous than the others. “She seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty,” Cline writes. And when Suzanne speaks of the group gathered at Russell’s ranch, Evie wants to be a part of that community: “The girl was part of a we and I envied her ease.”

So often, the way the girls’ story is told, it seems as though Manson is some kind of unstoppable force—a magnetic pit of evil that sucked them in. This is a comforting metaphor, because it allows us to think that most people would be smart enough to back away from the edge. But what if it’s not some unknowable dark force that drags good girls down a path to evil, but just our most basic desires that light the path with a welcoming glow?

On the ranch in The Girls, Evie and the others spend a lot of time doing drugs and talking about “the moment,” as she puts it. “We could talk about the moment for hours … It seemed like something important, our desire to describe the shape of each second as it passed, to bring out everything hidden and beat it to death.”

The story of the Manson girls has been combed intensely for hidden things, and what little we’ve found has been beaten to death. And yet it’s a story I keep coming back to, collecting and arranging details like they might add up to some kind of revelation, if I can just find the piece of the puzzle that makes it start to look like the picture on the box. Then I inevitably get bored or frustrated, and throw up my hands for a couple years before curiosity takes me to Wikipedia for another round. I keep thinking I’m going to find a new insight, but all I find is what I already know.

Fiction gives these authors the freedom to try to illuminate what the facts cannot. What it might feel like for someone to say exactly the things you’ve dreamed of hearing. “He thought I was smart. I grabbed on to it like proof. I wasn’t lost.” What it feels like to be lost:  “I had become the human equivalent of one of those balloons we used to send into the air with our name and address on the string in the hope that someone might mail it back, but no one ever did.” Cline and Umminger take a crime that seems impossible to understand, and show the girls behind it being fueled by feelings that are all too familiar. (Again, I find only what I already know.) And, they ask, wouldn’t that be enough?