These children that come at you with knives, they are your children – Charles Manson
In 2019 it will be, amazingly, fifty years since Charles Manson’s band of hippy-dippy losers set about viciously murdering white residents living the American dream in the Californian sunshine, including the actress Sharon Tate who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time she was killed, in order, they hoped, to spark a race war.
Yet all these years later the horror of these murders still resonates and has recently been the inspiration for a number of Manson inspired projects including the TV series Aquarius and, most successfully, the novel The Girls by Emma Cline. It is now the source for another book, American Girls, by Alison Umminger.
Both debut novels, The Girls and American Girls (titled My Favourite Manson Girl in the UK) are by young female writers and both eschew Manson in favour of the teenage girls that that hung around him like wide-eyed groupies and who would, ultimately, act as his surrogate assassins dispensing death as brutally as any man.
In The Girls, Manson’s female followers were a kind of cipher for Evie the books young anti-heroine whereas in American Girls, Anna, the books fifteen year-old narrator, is every teenage girl and, as such, every American girl is a potential Manson girl.
Less haunting and etherial than The Girls, Umminger’s novel centres on the trials and tribulations of Anna who steals money off her mother’s girlfriends’ credit card in order to fly from her home in Atlanta to Los Angeles so that she can stay with Delia, her glamorous, struggling actress older sister. From here Anna progresses through the usual teenage angst and love hate relationships with her mother, always a text or email away, and her sister whose complicated love-life with aspiring filmmaker boyfriends and low budget horror producers provide an entertaining and, at times, very funny backdrop to the Manson theme that pervades the book.
Umminger also manages in a few words to clarify the awfulness of what ‘the girls’ actually did all those years ago, as when Anna is unknowingly confronted with the graves of Sharon Tate and her unborn son, Paul Richard Polanski.
The gravestone marked four bodies. The top read “In Loving Memory” and the left side continued with “Our loving daughter and beloved wife of Roman, Sharon Tate Polanski”. The dates she lived were separated by the thin slivers of a cross, 1943 – 1969. Beside that were the dates for her mother and, at the bottom, her sister. But as haunting as it was, the name that knocked me down was just below Sharon’s, “Paul Richard Polanski”, followed by “their baby,” and no dates beneath the name. No dates below this tiny person who both was and wasn’t, but who had a name.
On Sharon Tate after watching her in Valley of the Dolls she brutally and effectively says:
She went from being a body on the screen to a body in a bag
And on Manson girl Susan Atkins who years later claimed that she didn’t kill Sharon Tate, or anyone else, that she had, in fact, just pretended to have killed them so that she could be the centre of attention. So that she would fit in with the rest of the girls…
If you crossed ‘Mean Girls’ with the ‘Lord of the Flies’ and weaponised all of them, then you pretty much had the Manson girls.
Umminger, like Cline, has, by making the Manson girls so everyday, managed to make them both more accessible and more monstrous, so that ultimately they really are potentially just, not so much American girls, as any girl.