In which I defect to the dark side
Social distancing has inspired me to make considerable room for pleasure reading. And I find myself branching out, an instinct which was enabled but not precipitated by our isolated conditions. While to some extent I’ve been drawn to beautiful dark twisted tales since reading Lord of the Flies in eighth grade over ten years ago, I’m consciously letting myself be swept along in the psychological-thriller current these days. It’s what led me to Bunny (which I reviewed here) and, most recently, to Emma Cline’s The Girls.
Even so, there’s a pattern to the specific subgenres that hook me. Both these works happen to be horror stories written by women about women. They use their own distinctive methods—for the former, magical realism; for the latter, a blueprint of real-life events—to depict young women’s mutual envy, torment, and influence. And while the former appealed to my literary-minded-twentysomething current self, the latter tapped into the difficulty and darkness which confronted me in my younger and more vulnerable years. I might even go so far as to call it the desperation.
Desperation is an inexorable undercurrent of The Girls, which was published in 2016 and which seems slated for ‘summertime classic.’ Set in the thick of summer 1969 in small-town California, it follows lonely, observant fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, who is on the cusp of shipping off to boarding school and unsure of her place in the world. At first she is desperate for her parents’ attention: a losing battle, as her father has run off with his assistant and seems much happier in his new life, and her mother is distracted trying every homeopathic trick in the book. Next she is desperate for Peter’s attention, the elder brother of her best friend Connie—even committing petty destruction of property to catch his eye—and she does get something of a reward, though she doesn’t know what to make of their encounter. But this too comes to naught; and finally, having found herself at odds with everyone in her life, she funnels all her desperation into a desire for the attention of a strange black-haired girl she sees in the park one afternoon.
This girl, leading a ragtag band of girls in raiding a dumpster for scraps, is Suzanne.
Suzanne is the single catalytic force driving almost all of Evie’s subsequent actions. She makes an impression on Evie that day at the park, though they do not interact; it is only on the black bus barreling through town, during which ride she spots Evie beside a broken bicycle, that she pauses and makes the conscious decision to pull Evie into the world of the girls. And it isn’t all girls, Evie discovers upon accompanying them back to their ranch—there are boys, playful and dangerous, as well as the man at their center. Russell, the commune’s seemingly eternally patient and loving leader, who constitutes Evie’s first sexual experiences, albeit not necessarily as she’d imagined them. She intuits, correctly, that Russell has relations with all the girls—most consistently the core group she falls into, Donna and Helen and Roos (Roosevelt) and Suzanne—and feels honored to be included, even accepted. The girls are older (most are at least sixteen; Suzanne is nineteen) and appear impossibly sophisticated to Evie, ironic given their community’s philosophy of detachment from the harsh material world. She wants to emulate all of them, but she wants especially to be close to Suzanne.
And Suzanne seems to reciprocate the desire for closeness, or at least demonstrate a special brand of tolerance, taking Evie under her wing and letting her sleep in her bed alongside her. What Suzanne doesn’t realize until the last possible moment, after all their drink- and drug-fueled nights around bonfires is the depth and intensity of Evie’s burgeoning feeling for her, a feeling Evie identifies relatively early on:
I sat on the floor in front of Suzanne, her legs on either side of me, and tried to feel comfortable with the closeness, the sudden, guileless intimacy. My parents were not affectionate, and it surprised me that someone could just touch me at any moment, the gift of their hand given as thoughtlessly as a piece of gum. It was an unexplained blessing. Her tangy breath on my neck as she swept my hair to one side. Walking her fingers along my scalp, drawing a straight part. Even the pimples I’d seen on her jaw seemed obliquely beautiful, the rosy flame an inner excess made visible. (112)
Cline’s narration is ruthless, unapologetically probing every nook and cranny of her protagonist’s brain. We can watch her thought process play by play. As Evie separates herself from her family and spends more time at the ranch, she develops increasingly possessive feelings—mostly toward Suzanne—and engages in increasingly exploitative behavior to cement her place and prove her worth in the community. She shakes down a neighbor boy for drug money (though the weed supply she promises is nonexistent) and takes advantage of his adolescent attraction to her; later, she, Donna, and Suzanne actually break into the same neighbor boy’s house, but are caught in the act. Evie’s mother sends her to spend some time with her father and his mistress, delaying her return to the ranch for a considerable time. Then she exploits a good-natured Berkeley student for a ride back to the ranch, at which point she is so wound up about the possibility of having let Suzanne and the others down that she begs her way into participating in the main event.
Along the way we meet Mitch Lewis, a record mogul who seems to have made some sort of arrangement with Russell. Evie ends up losing her virginity to this monstrous man one night while Suzanne looks on; but Suzanne’s very presence changes the game for Evie, who takes every opportunity to kiss Suzanne and explore her desires. This is what makes her able to tolerate Mitch. Evie and Suzanne certainly share a bond by this point, but one wonders if Evie eventually begins to project her desires onto Suzanne and imagine that Suzanne reciprocates them. This distorted reality reaches its apex, along with everything else, on the night Russell decides Mitch has screwed him over.
From there, it’s only a matter of time until the story plays out like the one you know. There is a Sharon Tate figure (in this alternate universe, she has had the child, a young son) and attending unfortunates (the caretaker, his girlfriend Gwen), all of whom pay the price for Mitch’s stubbornness at the hands of Russell’s crew. Cline describes the scene in grisly detail, the methodical dispatching of each victim. When Gwen makes a break for the front gate, Donna catches her and “crawl[s] over her back, stabbing until Gwen ask[s], politely, if she could die already.”
You get the gist.
Ultimately, Evie’s weakness for Suzanne, a soft spot which grows beyond her control, is…well, her weakness. But I won’t spoil the mechanics of that sequence. Suffice it to say that most of the story is middle-aged Evie’s remembering, sometimes recounting aloud, from the house one of her friends has lent her, decades down the line. The cult predictably met its end and has gained a measure of notoriety with history, leaving her ample time to muse on her petulant teenage wants with an adult wisdom. Though the experience hardens her in many ways, she observes the oddly mellowing effect it had on her opinion of her father:
I didn’t hate my father. He had wanted something. Like I wanted Suzanne. Or my mother wanted [her new boyfriend] Frank. You wanted things, and you couldn’t help it, because there was only your life, only yourself to wake up with, and how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong? (278)
We see a young woman rather violently coming into her own in a violent age, gaining awareness of her body and her physicality, trying to use them to enact the changes she wants to see in her world. But, as her adult self astutely and acutely tells us, her actions are bound up with jealousy, possession, powerlessness. Coming of age at the height of American involvement in Vietnam, she understands death in more than the abstract and at least begins to understand the ways in which some people are able to hurt and control others.
Not to mention she is a teenage girl, and teenage girls are renowned for their manipulative skills. Herein lie the most unsettling commonalities. I did not expect the story to hold a mirror up to me quite as it did. Mind you, I’ve never come close to committing murder, and even my day-to-day life as a fourteen-year-old differed from Evie’s in almost every way; but I recognized the ache to belong, recognized the brazen and sometimes irrational behavior of a girl who has never fit in easily and for whom fitting in is only getting harder. I have said and done many regrettable things, especially in that period, in the name of belonging. And I have used those experiences to write stories—some of these my first full-length stories, not too long after the fact—about girls and young women who do some awful things to one another. The Girls is a painful and gorgeous portrait of what can happen when those social patterns find a hospitable environment, and when they go too far.
Image: cover from Random House’s 2017 reprint