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.

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The Prophylactic Society

I’m back, readers! I’ve been concentrating on writing in forms other than my blog. But I miss my blog, and hope you do too.

I want to write on a piece of hopeful news. Yesterday, I ran across a profile of a Canadian named Harry Leslie Smith. The title kind of says it all, or at least says it interestingly: “Why Millennials Are Lapping Up Every Tweet and Podcast From 94-Year-Old Agitator Harry Leslie Smith.” I clicked on it because I wanted to know why.

And now I do. Smith is a Canadian-based expat from Britain, and his tweets, podcasts and books, are very popular with young people. His communications are all about life in the bad old days before the end of World War II, which brought in the Labour Party and thus healthcare and education for the working class.

I particularly like this because I spent part of my summer calling and e-mailing senators’ offices here in the U.S. about the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It simply amazes me that there was an attempt to repeal healthcare insurance for millions of Americans. That the attempt at least initially was to not let people (including many members of Congress) even know what was in the bill.

That the attempt is apparently going on in other forms, like defunding the exchanges that are the gateway to the ACA, shortening the enrollment period, and even what seems to be an almost stealth repeal via a bill by Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy in Congress. (This seems to have died as I was in the midst of writing this post. Good riddance, I say.)

This could mean that millions of people are left without healthcare. If that happens, it’s a return to the bad old days of “just get sick and die if you can’t afford healthcare out of your pocket.” As it happens, these are among the bad old days Harry Leslie Smith remembers in pre-World War II Britain. So let him (and the Star of Toronto) tell it:

“One of his two older sisters, Marion, contracted spinal tuberculosis…and, with no affordable medical help, wasted away. One day, Harry’s parents pawned their best clothing to hire a horse-drawn cart. On it, Marion was taken, Harry recalls, ‘like rubbish they hauled away’ to a workhouse infirmary to await death. At 10, she was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave….It was a miserable existence through the Great Depression and Smith recalls that ungodly screams could be heard from neighbours’ homes, the dying unable to afford any type of painkiller. A visit to a doctor or hospital might cost at least half a week’s worth of a subsistence-level wage. ‘It happened often, people simply died when they could’ve been saved,’ he says.”

And this is a man born in the 1920s, no less. I mean, yes, that’s a long time ago. But it’s not exactly ancient history, either.

As I’m typing this, I’m imagining your response, reader. Overly dramatic, maybe? After all, we don’t hear the screams of the dying here.

But I really don’t think so. One of the most ghastly attempts to rationalize the gutting of the ACA seems to be that medical costs would go down if we had no affordable health insurance not linked to corporate life. But that simply ignores how expensive medical costs currently are if one gets a catastrophic illness. Read this article on a family’s grappling with the breadwinner’s contracting a rare form of cancer. The costs come to $7 million just for one year.

Now fortunately, that family has insurance. But what if you don’t, and the attempts to gut it are successful?

One of my favorite theories for why this isn’t a front burner issue is that we live in a prophylactic society, using the dictionary definition of the term. To wit: “Acting to defend against or prevent something, especially disease; protective.”

People in general are protected from the vicissitudes of life. In general, we don’t hear the screams of the dying. There is reasonable medical care for the majority of people. True, the number of people without insurance was climbing upward prior to the ACA. But, as part of the prophylactic society, the uninsured are a rolling ball and not condemned permanently. They also are not, on the whole, visible to the rest of us. (What I mean by a rolling ball: their status is not immutable. They may be uninsured, then have ACA, then have a job that offers insurance; then be laid off; and etc.) So part of the response to them, perhaps, is an assumption that this is temporary.

Even the response to recent hurricanes Harvey and Irma are part of the prophylactic society. The emphasis is on the devastation initially, but then we move to fix it. Devastation is seen as temporary, mutable. We protect against its ravages.

So it’s very bracing to have an eyewitness account of what it’s like when you and yours aren’t in a protective bubble. Let’s not go back there.

Hillary Clinton and Comedy

There’s a momentous election tomorrow, readers, and I want to weigh in on a small piece of it.

And that is the kind of dreary impersonation of Hillary Clinton that viewers of Saturday Night Live see.

I don’t like the Kate McKinnon impersonation of Hillary Clinton, and I feel moved to write this before the election. I was watching some election-inspired comedy recently, and the impersonation really struck me as 1) a retrograde view of powerful women and 2) a not particularly inspired mimicry of Clinton herself.

Why retrograde? Because the SNL version plays Clinton as a crazed, power-mad bitch. She’s not a public servant with a lot of experience; she’s not an unfairly trashed politician; she’s not a lawyer; she’s not the grandmother; she’s not even a particularly savvy pol. Even, on the other side of the political spectrum of views, she’s not the secretive private e-mail hoarder or corrupt.

The crazed power-mad bitch element is seen best, perhaps, in this clip:

The end, where the Clinton character grades Trump as an F, and then promises to be “a stone-cold B” plays on two stereotypes of women.

The first one takes her experience and subtly recasts it as schoolmarmishness.

The second one is even worse — it’s the one that really caused me to write this post. The view that Clinton is a stone-cold bitch is exactly the kind of indictment that has been thrown against women who either do have some power in the world or are seeking it, or both.

The easy equation that powerful woman = bitch is misogynist. Pure and simple.

There’s very little political content, because it’s overwritten by the fact that Hillary is being subject to anti-woman clichés. She’s not being made fun of because of her politics, or anything related (speech, thought patterns, beliefs), as male presidential candidates are.

She’s being made fun of as a bitch.

I’m also surprised that SNL is peddling such an old, tired view of women.

This impersonation gets a lot of praise, like this, which calls it “genius.”

In fact, I don’t think that it is a particularly good impression except for the hair and the suits. Yes, McKinnon looks like Clinton when she gets in character.

But the crazy look in her eye doesn’t really match what one sees in Hillary Clinton. If the impersonation honed in on very real characteristics of the actual Clinton — her wonkishness, say, or her sometimes painfully clear discomfort with listening to voters, or the sense that she’s acting on the stump, rather than being authentic — maybe it would be genius.

As it is, it just falls back on a lazy, tired view of women. If they’re going for something big, it’s because they are power-mad bitches whose private lives are full of throttled rage (a theme in other SNL impersonations of Clinton).

So, to leave you with a genuinely funny woman on politics, here is Samantha Bee on the third presidential debate:

 

Why Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 Is Like The Hunger Games

I don’t keep up with television, and, frankly, only watch many television shows when they make it to Netflix—which I do watch. Recently, I saw one that relates so much to the current moment—including presidential politics—that I had to write about it.

I recently watched the first several episodes of a show that aired several years ago entitled Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23.b apt 23

Reader, it seemed to me like The Hunger Games of television. The latter, both book and movies, are something of a parable about competition’s role in times of economic and social uncertainty. Young people are loosed to kill each other in a series of bread and circuses televised for everyone’s enjoyment. That’s the game.

hunger gamesThe premise of Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 is simple. A young Midwestern woman, June, comes to New York City dewy-eyed, with a great job in finance, a great medical student fiancé, and a company-paid place to live. All economic and social issues firing happily on all gears, in other words. Love and work, and a nice cushion.

She no sooner arrives in the city than she finds the company—which paid for her move, her apartment, and will pay her salary—has had its assets frozen for CEO fraud. When she walks in her first day, law enforcement officials are cleaning the place out. Needless to say, that means company-sponsored apartment is moot. She is desperate to find a place to live in a highly expensive city.

So, she becomes prey. Now, this is a comedy, mind you. But, after finding a number of predatory/weird situations, they comes upon a more urban young woman, Chloe, who needs a roommate. Our Midwestern woman is ecstatic.

However, viewers know that Chloe has a scheme. She takes the deposits and first month’s rent, and then drives the roommate out by her behavior. In the meantime, she’s a scam artist, with a number of grifter-like techniques to obtain food and clothes.

Then, Chloe sleeps with the fiancé, thereby helping to unmask him as a major philanderer.

June’s engagement is broken, she retaliates against Chloe by behaving outrageously as well. In the end, sitcom style, they have become friends.

Which is just as well, because June doesn’t have any place to fall back on. Her parents, seen on Skype, tell her that, to pay for her MBA tuition, they have skipped their mortgage payments.

Oh! And she takes an unpaid internship which she loses to a woman with a tipped uterus. The boss likes that she can never have kids. She starts working in the local independent coffee shop.

I know this is a long synopsis, reader. It’s long for a reason.

The plot coordinates have to line up to let us see how starkly this is a parable about predatory behavior in the age before Bernie Sanders put on the table a discussion of how predatory the environment looks to young people. Actually, a lot of people, young or not.

Now, what happens is that Chloe is still predatory—she makes a living scamming people in various ways—but the two women bond. Significantly, June pays her back in kind by stealing all her furniture and holding it (with the help of one of Chloe’s ex-roommates) until she gets her money back.

So, if we go with The Hunger Games as metaphor, June learns not to be just nice sunny smart person with a plan, but someone who retaliates in kind. She is a strategist with buoyant optimism when we meet her. She has to learn to become a warrior.

More centrally, however, the fact that Chloe uncovers June’s boyfriend as a no-goodnik bonds them. They become friends.

Oh, let me add one other detail. June’s would-be mentor at her job is, of course, downsized when the firm closes. He ends up as a coffee shop manager. June needs a job. He hires her, saying words to the effect of, “oh, I fired someone for absolutely no reason to make room for one of my friends.”

I find this very grim. In the moral universe of the show, predatory behavior, stealing and dishonesty are all ok. They are a kind of lingua franca, actually. People bond by doing them, and then move on to friendship. But it means that the bedrock is untrustworthiness.

There’s a whole part of academia that examines the philosophical meanings of television shows. There is, for example, a book called The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy.

friends_hContrast this with the universe of Friends, a similar “people come to New York and hang in apartments and coffee shops” kind of show. In the Friends moral universe, they actually are friends—supportive. it’s important to have a social network that is not dependent on economic need. Economic need is hardly ever mentioned. (They are never in danger of being the baristas at Central Perk.) It’s the product of a good economic time.

It disturbs me that the predatory moral universe of Apartment 23 is played for laughs. And I hope Bernie Sanders and his campaign—president or not, elected or not—changes the cultural climate in which it took place.