Beautiful Rot: Emma Cline and the Myth of the Manson Girls

Katlyn Williams

In mid-November, 2017, one of America’s favorite cultural demons passed away from natural causes, a good death for someone accused of so much bad. Headlines that week referred to Charles Manson as a “wild-eyed leader of a murderous crew” (New York Times), a “cult leader and murder-rampage mastermind” (Washington Post), and “one of [the] nation’s most infamous mass killers” (USA Today). The New York Post went with the simple: “Charles Manson is rotting in hell.” These headlines speak to the once-hysterical cultural passion surrounding the Manson Family crimes, a fascination that our films, novels, documentaries, and essays are still unpacking. Prior to his death, interviews show a man who remained strangely compelling, but also pathetic. His trotted-out ape dance and pseudo-activist environmentalist party lines are both communicated in manic bursts—performing, not making sense. He reminds me of nothing more interesting than the drunk regular that a bartender studiously avoids extending conversation with beyond the surface niceties, lest he mistake a smile for an invitation to divulge. In a long-form 2013 Rolling Stones portrait, Erik Hedegaard presents the man as still charismatic, his attentions addictive and energy strangely virile, but also as human. Disgusting, yes, but also lonely and even scared. Manson’s slowly unrolled revelations on the nights of the murders are divulged by Hedegaard not as bombshell scoops, but as the sadly boasting ramblings of a dying dictator. This is the Manson we are left with, in death.

Looking back, Manson is somewhat difficult to place in the context of America’s characteristic obsession with the male serial killer narrative. These stories position the male killer as mistreated or misunderstood outcasts and drifters, existing outside the mores of polite society, their violent collateral its own little manifest destiny. They are an integral part of our post-1960s American identity. In a way, the uber-famous Manson would seem to fit this mold exactly: a failed artist, a drifter, attractive, explosive. Yet his cult-leader status and the brutality of his follower’s crimes immediately elevated Manson to myth. He became America’s black-eyed manic horror, his legend steeped in fears of Satanism, and especially, the absolute debasement of white feminine purity: ideology, sex, drugs, murder. But now, even a cursory Google search turns up fairly convincing evidence for alternative theories to the insanity of Victor Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter prosecution case. Manson’s myth has started to look different; it is more difficult to buy him as an expression of pure evil and easier to see him as a sexually and emotionally exploitative con artist who happened to be more charismatic than smart. In death, he takes on a futile cast; we can pull up his half-baked song recordings on YouTube and joke about his crushed ambition. It was always the girls who were more interesting. Manson’s own cultural resonance, the deeply felt paranoia he inspired, should be largely credited to his notorious female followers, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten. To account for what he (must have) made them do, he needed to exceed the bounds of the everyday, to become a boogeyman. He had to become a symbol. This premise forms the basis for Emma Cline’s recent reimagining of the Manson Family as told through the eyes of fictional fourteen-year-old hanger-on Evie, and her preternatural relationship with the nineteen-year-old Suzanne, a stand-in for the unhinged, infamous Atkins.

The novel The Girls is the most interesting of several recent attempts to restage the events of the Manson Family murders, including 2016’s American Horror Story: Cult’s typically campy exploration of “the cult of personality,” ABC’s canceled David Duchovny vehicle Aquarius (which Sharon Tate’s family urged that viewers boycott), and the undercooked, pointless indie horror exercise Wolves at the Door. Cline, in comparison, raises several complex motives for the Manson Family’s eruption of feminine violence, but ultimately does not know what to do with the bare facts of Suzanne’s brutality, fingers cut off of a woman’s hands as she raised them protectively, instinctively, to her face. Cline’s novel communicates an unsettling universe of anachronistic adolescent confusion, one where beauty intersects with the grotesque, a revered older classmate smiling, revealing her snaggletooth, or the rank smell of unwashed flesh spilling away from Suzanne’s lovely, coveted body. Though the young Evie is taken in by Manson stand-in Russell’s charms, partially succumbing to him both sexually and ethically, she is also emotionally shuttered, seeing him as a means to an end. He is a door opening outwards from California suburbia, the pathetic tittering of a faux New-Age divorcée mother, the staidness and emptiness of longtime teenage friendship. It is Suzanne, not Russell, who becomes the locus of Evie’s desire, thus allowing for the novel to communicate Evie’s disdain for the petty greed—for power, sex, fame—that she finds coloring all of her interactions with the novel’s men.

Cline’s Evie, both young and as an older narrator, fumes at the structural imbalances in human interaction that leave women at a disadvantage, waiting to prove themselves. Evie paints herself as impossibly reactive, awaiting “the possibility of judgment being passed” on her in each encounter. Thus, she is suffused with the need for touch and recognition, and paints this consuming need as potentially transfiguring into violence, or at least representing the potential. Evie uses this retrospective analysis of herself to make sense of Suzanne in turn, but she is also self-aware enough to suspect that she may only be pasting over Suzanne a veneer of her own sweating, immutable desires. In the end, Evie knows, there is something wrong with Suzanne beyond the accumulation of daily jealousies and frustrations, her eyes “like a brick wall,” “a dark space yawning in her.” The novel conjures up a credible Suzanne only to then dissolve her; it cannot at last follow her through the enactment of her crimes, and it does not allow Evie to be there alongside her. This opacity is ultimately what colors our perceptions of the Manson Girls. We sense an unknowability in them, one that feels like it should not be able to exist.

Perhaps this has something to do with the perception of women killers in our collective imagination, who occupy such a different position than violent men. They are historically positioned as madwomen, shoved into institutions, raving. They are a blight, a malady, a case study in aberration. The Manson Girls, though, are different. They did not look like the cowed or indoctrinated Kara Homolkas or Catherine Birnies, wretched horrors of perpetuated abuse taken to its logical extreme. They also did not look like the bitter spinsters who administered poison to helpless patients, who pathetically seize at a furtive power. The Manson Girls were (nearly all) beautiful, disaffected youth—young, white, not obviously disenfranchised. They suffered from the same problems much of America did in the 1960s, a deep and painful ideological disconnect with their parents, a disgust for both apathetic liberal politics and backwards conservatism, a desperately lonely drive toward drug-fueled self-destruction on the fringes of polite society. They could have been teen runaway groupies for The Beach Boys, but instead they met Brian Wilson through the leader and would-be prophet they found instead, Charles Manson, a voice who expertly capitalized on the moral confusion of the zeitgeist.

So we continue to reimagine the Manson Family crimes, to retool their narrative possibilities for a society similarly in the midst of political upheaval, suffused with apocalyptic notions of the end of history, or at least the failure of the American project. We peruse the facts late at night through Wikipedia pages, true crime blogs, and old documentaries, and struggle to reconcile the iconic pseudo-romantic illustrations of these girlish criminal ideologues with the reality of the hands wielding a knife repeatedly through the pregnant stomach of an unearthly blonde movie star pleading for the life of her child. Time passes, and we are left with the smilingly repentant Leslie Van Houten up for parole once again, her still-winning grin peering from beside her longtime friend John Waters. Her face still holds the glimmer of homecoming queen vitality that the media so obsessively capitalized on at the time of the trial. And yet, in 2016, Van Houten conceded that, yes, she likely would have murdered babies or children if Manson had given the order. We seek to remedy our suspicion that there is no reason, at least not one definitive or sufficient, that will explain why an unholy trinity of classical femininity was able to stab and murder innocents, to paint with their blood, to mock and jeer during courtroom proceedings. As the legend of Manson as an all-powerful encapsulation of evil fades, opening up room for other possibilities, the legacy of his girls (young, white, beautiful, tainted) only feels more loaded.

Retrospectively, I think it will feel more and more that Manson’s legacy is the girls. Manson himself was unquestionably a specifically male phenomenon, a recognizable type: a hippie-celestial charlatan with delusions of grandeur who preyed on the young and vulnerable, shouting the gospel of cultural equality and radical acceptance while demanding his own sovereignty. As an old man in prison, Manson referred to his young fiancée Afton “Star” Burton as a “baby on the floor,” but in interviews, she is much more layered and unreadable than his presentation of her as only his latest loyal neophyte. Like Star, Manson may have seen the girls, both the infamous three and other notorious Family members like Mary Brunner and Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme, as extensions of himself, only as good as their commitment to the cause, which is to say, Manson’s own interests. But Cline’s novel strikes me as noteworthy in attempting to imagine a more dangerous, and I think truer, approach to the myth of the Manson girls. Rather than leaning into the familiar story of the beautiful, blind followers and their pagan LSD-fueled corruption, The Girls at least partially insists that the girls are themselves monstrous, and not only because Charlie made them that way. It is this narrative that has been so historically difficult to imagine, and it is this narrative that keeps Manson relevant. If Charles Manson is rotting in hell, then Susan Atkins met him at the gates.  


The Girls
by Emma Cline
Penguin Random House, 2016
$17.00 Paperback; ISBN 9780812988024
368 pages