7 Passages from Emma Cline’s “The Girls” That Killed Me

Emma Cline’s debut novel is set for release this summer. June 14th to be exact. It’s been a year and a half since the novel set off a bidding war between publishing houses, eventually won by Random House with a three book deal for a rumored seven figures. A year and a half since the film rights were bought by producer Scott Rudin. Cline is a bit of a prodigy herself. She has an MFA from Columbia University and works in the fiction department of The New Yorker. She was awarded the 2014 Plimpton Prize for Fiction from The Paris Review, where her fiction and essays have been published. And she’s only 25. I’m not going to go into any detail about her life so far, but rest assured her short existence belies some strange experiences, as detailed by Vulture here.

manson girls

In almost every picture they were smiling, as if laughing about an inside joke.

The Girls is essentially a fictionalized account of the Manson family leading up to the famous murders committed in 1969 from the perspective of a young girl who finds herself a peripheral figure of the cult. Cline admittedly became fascinated with the three girls whose roles in the murders launched made them celebrities: Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten. Curious about them myself, I did a little clickety-clack into Google. Upon seeing the following image, I couldn’t help thinking of a line on the very first page of Cline’s book where her young protagonist sees the girls for the first time: “The long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.”

But the real strength of The Girls is not its fascinating historical subject matter…although the Manson crimes are in my opinion the most popular subject of all true crime-related media…just take a look in any bookstore and there will probably be a shelf of just Manson books between In Cold Blood and Whitey Bulger books (admittedly that last one might just be because I live in Massachusetts). It’s strength is its unflinching depiction of the turmoil of girl and womanhood.

Within the first five minutes of picking it up, I had to set it down. This sounds like a bad thing, but it wasn’t. I honestly felt as if someone had reached inside of me and resurrected the 13-year-old me…the naive, desperate, jealous, pitiful me that I thought only existed in the journals I kept from that time. I felt exposed and not a little upset. Cline so quickly reminded me of the parts of myself that I have worked so hard to forget ever existed. And I was ashamed that the words of a lonely, painfully awkward and not entirely likeable preteen stirred feelings of recognition. There are many moments when I was struck by those feelings while reading The Girls, but I wanted to share the Top 7 that absolutely bowled me over:

“She was lost in that deep and certain sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience. As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited — embryonic, ready to be revealed. How sad it was to realize that sometimes you never got there. That sometimes you lived a whole life skittering across the surface as the years passed, unblessed.” – pg 18



“I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you — the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” – pg 28



“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.” – pg 47



“That was part of being a girl — you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.” – pg 56



“Already he’d become an expert in female sadness — a particular slump in the shoulders, a nervous rash. A subservient lilt at the end of sentences, eyelashes gone soggy from crying. Russell did the same thing to me that he did to those girls. Little tests, first. A touch on my back, a pulse of my hand. Little ways of breaking down boundaries. And how quickly he’d ramped it up, easing his pants to his knees. An act, I thought, calibrated to comfort young girls who were glad, at least, that it wasn’t sex. Who could stay fully dressed the whole time, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.” – pg 126



“Poor Sasha. Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.” – pg 149



“Everyone, later, would find it unbelievable that anyone involved in the ranch would stay in that situation. A situation so obviously bad. But Suzanne had nothing else: she had given her life completely over to Russell, and by then it was like a thing he could hold in his hands, turning it over and over, testing its weight. Suzanne and the other girls had stopped being able to make certain judgements, the unused muscle of their ego growing slack and useless. It had been so long since any of them had occupied a world where right and wrong existed in any real way. Whatever instincts they’d ever had — the weak twinge in the gut, a gnaw of concern — had become inaudible. If those instincts had ever been detectable at all.

They didn’t have very far to fall — I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board. My childhood visits to the family doctor were stressful events for that reason. He’d ask me gentle questions: How was I feeling? How would I describe the pain? Was it more sharp or more spread out? I’d just look at him with desperation I needed to be told, that was the whole point of going to the doctor. To take a test, be put through a machine that could comb my insides with radiated precision and tell me what the truth was.

Of course the girls didn’t leave the ranch: there is a lot that can be borne. When I was nine, I’d broken my wrist falling from a swing. The shocking crack, the blackout pain. But even then, even with my wrist swelling with a cuff of trapped blood, I insisted I was fine, that it was nothing, and my parents believed me right up until the doctor showed them the X-ray, the bones snapped clean.” – pg 281-282

Youth’s ideas of an entitled adulthood, the need for validation in any form, the self-hatred, the way society molds girls into the perfect prey for those who would take advantage of them, how the years of insecurity and of being the victims of an intangible violence instilled these girls with a bottomless well of rage and desperation for love, and what that rage and desperation can become. It’s all here. Whether it’s the quick flash of rage when your uncle greets you by jokingly asking for a lap dance or the deeper desperation that drives you to stay with the man who abuses you because there would be nothing worse than making him not love you anymore. It’s an ugly and uncomfortable truth that I think lies deeply imbedded in so many girls and women. And I found that by reading Emma Cline’s The Girls, I was one step closer to being ready to face the unfaceable.

And so I whole-heartedly award Emma Cline’s The Girls with The Taste Maven Stamp of Approval. It comes out on June 14th.

Disclaimer: The above quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof and therefore may have been altered in the finished book.

Cline, Emma. The Girls: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2016. Print.



  1. ann

    May 12, 2016

    Can’t wait to read The Girls. I remember the era of the Manson murders very well having been about 17 at the time. It was horrifying to think of the brain-washing that “the family” succumbed to but I could recognize that the zeitgeist was rife with a sort of bullying, in the name of being open (I grew to hate that word.) For example: the popular group exercise known at the “T-group” – T for therapy, which was, of course, practiced without a license! There would always be some sort of “ring master” (charismatic or not) who would ask probing personal questions or insist on behaviors that, in the previous era of society (which was “uptight”), would have been inappropriate – and woe to you if you refused to participate. Group shaming in the name of enlightenment. It was the dark side of the Summer of Love.

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