The Manson Girls and Privilege in America

Earlier this year, I read Emma Cline’s novel The Girls. This book has been widely praised and was subject to a publication bidding war.

The praise was deserved; it’s beautifully written. It’s also an interesting look at the 1960s; a young woman in northern California is drawn into a cult led by a charismatic, Manson-like figure. Charles Manson, of course, recently died in prison. He was the leader of a late 1960s cult in southern California that brutally killed about 10 people.

Here’s what I thought, reading the novel: the end is kind of a cheat. There is almost a thematic wrap-up at the end, where she mediates on the kind of rage necessary to commit the kind of murders these women did, and attributes it to…specifically female disempowerment howling for power, or being overlooked and unseen and desperate to be seen.

It’s not that I think these motives weren’t at work; it seems logical to think they were.

But. In reading around about Emma Cline, here’s what struck me. Part of this novel is about privileged Marin County, the suburb north of San Francisco. Emma Cline herself is a descendant of the Jacuzzi family, of whirlpool fame. Her family owns a winery there.

I can’t ascribe the novel to the author’s background, of course. But I can say that part of the protagonist’s Evie’s story seems analogous. In her case, a grandmother has been a famous movie actress and her money supports both Evie’s mother and Evie, so it’s significant enough to be a source of financial capital as well as fame.

So, shutting this book, I admired its style, but here’s what I thought: aren’t the Manson family murders equally about naked class resentment? Something we never like to talk about in this country? It’s about a type of revenge against the privileged, an “I’ll show you who’s boss” move. Big time.

One of the chilling things about the Manson family, I think – and a reason that those events resound with life in California — is that on the surface, the Manson family looked like what Joan Didion calls dreamers of the golden dream. They had long straight hair; they smiled easily; they took drugs and had a good time. They drove around in a van.

So did many middle and upper middle class people too. It seemed as if there was a linkage. It seemed they were all connected, by the ethos of the time, in which vans, drugs, and free love were the determinants.

But what struck me about the novel’s backdrop — which is true to the real proceedings in this particular — is the creepy hippy-esque poverty in which the cult lived. Dumpster diving for food. Wearing cast-off clothes. Stripping old cars for parts. In part, this was the style of the times if you lived in a commune. But wasn’t this also, in a way, the white underclass manifesting itself?

This thought was actually triggered by looking around for the whereabouts of the actual people involved. Part of the Manson family is still in jail. He recently died. Fortunately: their crimes were horrific, gruesome. Sharon Tate’s family reliably showed up at their parole hearings and argued against parole. Her one surviving sister still does.

The middle classness of the women in the cult was commented on by contemporary journalists at the time, and it’s become a staple in discussions of the Manson family. But maybe the long straight hair served as kind of a camouflage that made them seem like hippies rather than vagrants or small-time crooks, before the murders.

So they and their motives are often described in terms of romance, as in this review of The Girls in The Atlantic. What made them do it, kill so many people, when they were girls like us? Or in terms of popular music culture, as in this meditation on the death of Manson?

But Manson was a product of a specific underclass, with a mother who gave him away and served time in prison herself, as he did. Many of his followers had come from broken homes, lower middle class lives or, in Manson’s class, less.

Not that lower middle-class status made them criminals, of course. But it may have made the people they killed Other to them, symbols of privilege who deserved a big middle finger. And that’s a precondition for the acts themselves.

Sharon Tate was the daughter of a career military officer, and her handsome family — she may have been the movie star, but they were equally attractive — reek of a kind of San Diego-esque upper middle class privilege. When they’re pictured with George Bush for their victim’s rights activism, they look of a piece with him.

The Manson girls didn’t know Sharon Tate, as I recall the story. She was an accidental victim. But still, isn’t it more realistic to think they were all exacting revenge on the money and ease of upper middle class Californians? That’s who was killed, after all. Folger coffee heiresses. Wealthy restaurant owners, the next night.

Because the cult’s move into murder started (as the novel shows) as part of a series of microaggressions. In the novel, they start by simply going into people’s houses in Marin County and moving things about. In real life, they gradually took over a blind man’s property. Think about the sinister aspect of taking over power in the household.
It’s a criminal thing, microaggression. It’s symbolic. I can take what you have. I can fuck with what you have. And I’ll know it, but you won’t. And if you do realize it, you won’t be able to do anything about it.

It’s not that unusual for the relatively powerless to use it against the more powerful, especially if the powerful are unconscious and don’t react.

So, the Manson murders about female rage? Ok, yes. But also about class and privilege in America.