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Heart Of Darkness: What's Behind The Manson Family Obsession?

Image: Bettmann / Getty Contributor.
Manson family members and murder suspects Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie van Houten.
There is a museum on Hollywood Boulevard, tucked between sun-bleached strip malls and shiny car dealerships, that curates morbid things. I went there myself years ago, parked in front of a large skull that grinned from beneath a cascade of lush bougainvillea, and crossed the threshold into the darkness. Not long after, I was surrounded by all manner of weird taxidermy, as well as the world's most expansive collection of John Wayne Gacy paintings, or so I was told by the curator. This was the Museum of Death.

I pored over a nuanced exhibit on the Black Dahlia; squinted at a high-resolution photo of a dissected human hand. The museum collection had recently acquired, at an Arizona police auction, relics from the Heaven's Gate suicide: dozens of sweatsuits, pristine Nike tennis shoes, bottles of Comet bleach powder, all artfully arranged around a centrepiece of authentic bunkbeds from the cult. There were old, rusted medical tools, including the ones that would have been used for embalming and lobotomies. The overall effect was that of controlled eeriness — like entering a haunted house during off-hours, before the bogeymen have arrived for work.

One area, sectioned off from the rest, felt more ominous than the others. The phrase "helter skelter" was scrawled across a jailhouse-orange wall that also featured photographs of prominent Manson Family members. On the opposite side of the small room hung a quilt, supposedly sewn at the Barker Ranch hideout: Each square featured an impeccably stitched floral swastika. Videos of Manson himself played on a nearby television. He was singing, a little off-key. Grotesquely juxtaposed within this scene was a shrine to Sharon Tate, who, along with four others, was savagely murdered on the night of August 8, 1969.

It was the first contact I'd ever had with the crime-scene photos and I have never been able to scrub them from my mind. Nor could I forget the story of the magnetic cult leader who formed a commune and then sent his followers on a killing spree two years after the sun set on the Summer of Love. After my visit to the museum, I was hung up for weeks: I watched the documentaries, read up on the women, listened to Manson rave throughout a series YouTube videos.

"A long time ago, being crazy meant something," he once told a reporter. "Nowadays, everybody's crazy." I couldn't help but think he might be right. Eventually, the allure of all things Manson dwindled and I moved to being fascinated by something else.

I am certainly not the only person who developed a horrified passing obsession with this unsettling chapter in '60s Americana — the polar opposite of sunny California surf culture — the epitome of evil, a disturbing legend that is painfully and regrettably true. In the decades since that murderous summer and the highly publicised trials that followed, Manson Family lore has enjoyed an almost annual renewed revival of national obsession, most recently in a Lifetime movie and a Jay Duplass film, Manson Family Vacation, as well as a highly trafficked episode on the podcast We Must Remember This, perfectly titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About The Manson Murders."
Random House.
This summer, the obsession takes the form of a book. Emma Cline's The Girls, acquired by Random House in a three-book, seven-figure deal in 2014, made its debut to mixed reviews on June 7. A story that's as much about female rage as it is about an iconic bloody rampage, Cline's novel is a page-turner because there is no good stopping point, nor any way to break the trance once you begin reading. The novel has its faults, to be sure. But it's smartly constructed and stylistically thrilling from the first page to the last, providing the reader with a distinct, macabre pleasure of chugging toward inevitable carnage.

Cline grew up in Northern California, the daughter of winemakers — near enough to Death Valley and the Manson Family ranch that it seems to have shaped her narrative predilections. Before becoming a full-fledged author, the now 27 year old had a brief and bizarre pen-pal relationship with an ageing disc jockey. Early on, she went the young-starlet route in Hollywood, but gave up after she got sick of auditioning for rape-victim roles. During a gap year between high school and college, she studied for her pilot's license. Eventually, Cline graduated from Middlebury College and then from Columbia's MFA program. She went on to win the Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction with her short story, "Marion." She wrote The Girls while camped out in an internet-free shed in a Brooklyn backyard, where she had to dash across the yard to the main building in order to take a shower.

Her novel is Manson Family adjacent, weaving a story about a circle of women who closely resemble the so-called Charlie's girls, all of whom are stealing for, sleeping with, and bowing to the whims and wills of an idol who wanders barefoot through the rundown commune with a guitar slung over his shoulder. But unlike many a Manson retelling, Cline's book finds its voice in the female perspective — specifically that of Evie Boyd, a restless teenager who is under-supervised during a long, hot summer during which she falls in with the dangerous crowd.

Scratch that. "Fall" is too passive a word to describe what happens to Evie. And besides, that verb is at odds with the ethos of this book, which puts women at the helm of power. It's not Russell, the Manson-modelled cult figure in the novel, who seduces Evie: It's a woman named Suzanne, whose snarled black hair shows up in the first pages of the novel, before we even know what to expect. Suzanne becomes Evie's idol, as well as the key to her coming of age. But we are made to understand that Evie's decisions are made freely of her of volition. She is neither victim nor innocent. Her choices are her own. What a terrifying — and liberating — revelation.

The Girls is split into two eras: Evie as an anxious, isolated adult — Evie as aftermath — and Evie as a teenager whose parents have recently split up and are too preoccupied with their own lives to pay attention to what their daughter is going through. Grown-up Evie lives a life of seclusion: She is staying at a friend's seaside home, alone, when that friend's son shows up unannounced, intending to stay a few days. He has brought his very young, naive girlfriend. Slowly but surely, the couple susses out who Evie is: the family friend who was a member of an iconic cult. Her story of that time of her life unspools from there.
Back in the late '60s, young Evie is on the brink of a teenage rebellion that's been coming to a boil under her skin. School is out and she's dreading a summer of same old — namely, hanging poolside with a prudish friend. Seeing Suzanne's hair one day in Golden Gate Park breaks the spell of Evie's girlhood: In that moment, Evie realises there is another way to female, one that does not require asking for permission, and she begins to revel in a certain wild unpredictability. After a chance meeting at a convenience store with Suzanne and others from the crew, Evie begins her transformation from adolescence, uncovering her sexual power and desires, as well as her yearning to be a part of some sort of larger picture — though she's not sure which one. In time, she becomes entranced by life on the ranch, by the derelict beauty of the place, and the people who reside there.

Under that spell, Evie transmutes. Her skin pulled taught over her bones, she leaves her old life in the dust: She steals, she burgles, she seduces a young neighbour to get what she wants. She spends more and more time at the ranch, on the cusp of becoming an official member of the commune, ready to fully give herself over to the mission without truly understanding what that means — until one night, in the car with Russell's girls, careering down canyon roads, she is ousted. Suzanne demands that they pull over and shoves Evie out the door. That's where her journey with this family ends: in the cold dark, watching the glowing red taillights disappear in a dusty mist.

Of course, if you know anything about the Manson murders, you know what happens next: the bodies, the blood, the ritualistic writing on the wall. Despite the spareness of the language, the mere suggestion of the scene is disturbing enough. We know more about what Evie believed happened than what actually transpired that night, after the car full of furious, unbridled women (and one guy) reached its destination.

Yet, I craved more. I wanted it laid bare, so I could mentally match Cline's fictionalised Manson account and those police photos from the museum I can't unsee — of the place a pregnant Sharon Tate, not yet 27, was found stabbed to death on her living-room floor. Here is what I am trying to say: The Girls is fiction, but it also reveals something very authentic about the way some women are drawn to darkness.

The Girls, by Emma Cline, debuted on June 7, 2016.