I’ve written before about my fascination with cults. (I’ve probably even shared that one of my favorite texts I’ve ever received was just a link to an article with the note “CULT!” Like my friend just instantly thought of me when they saw the word.) In fact, as I was about a third of my way through Emma Cline’s bestselling novel about a Manson-family-like cult gone sour, another friend sent me a text saying she was reading it and it made her think of me. Partly this obsession is an outlet for my more judgmental energies, but mostly it’s an interest in how people build themselves, their belief systems, and their communities. Cults from the outside seem strange, often mostly in retrospect after they fall apart or do something terrible, but to the people in the moment they seemed like the right choice. How does that happen? We like to think it all must be coercion and “brain washing” on the part of “evil” leaders, but there isn’t a lot of evidence of that being a real thing. *
What’s great about this book is that it addresses this question in a really fresh way. Cline’s protagonist, a girl named Evie, is drawn into the dangerous circle she is not because of Russel (the Charles Manson stand in) but because of the titular girls, one in particular, who she loves but also idolizes. The spiritual beliefs don’t matter to her so much as the alternative life with the group offers to her boring suburban existence. She sees in these “girls” a way to be a woman other than the one scripted for her in magazines. Of course, the idea of the Manson ranch (so thinly disguised I’m not sure why the author bothered to at all, except there are probably legal issues she was trying to avoid) as an escapist paradise is unthinkable to us now, but we know what’s coming. By showing us Evie as both a child caught up in it’s newness and a middle aged woman dealing with the choices her younger self made, Cline creates the sense of creeping dread found in other explorations of murderous cults (the best one about the Mansons I’ve ever come across is Karina Longwirth’s “You Must Remember This” series on the murders) while also making the appeal of the group emotionally clear in a way I had never seen before.
This book is dark and angry as you might expect, but I was surprised by that anger’s feminist bent. Cline compellingly illustrates the way these women were primed by the patriarchy that raised them to be good little soldiers for a creep like Russell. A culture that teaches girls to think first about how they are seen and to always be amenable to the whims of men (and always fearful of them) leaves young women vulnerable to the bullshit of charismatic men who claim they know what’s best. It’s so easy to look at a cult and think “how could that happen?” This book gives one frighteningly plausible explanation.
*Manson is actually one of the only examples I would call really brain washing and it was mostly aided by the fact that he routinely drugged his followers with truly astounding amounts of hallucinogenic drugs while starving them.