The Girls aren’t Alright – American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin and The Girls by Emma Cline

Ah, the Seventies. What a groovy time to be alive! As proof that history really does repeat itself, the revolutionary fervor of the 1970’s recalls the Anarchist movement and bombings of the early twentieth century.

The civil rights activism of the 1960’s gave way to a decade where revolution seemed more formless, less goal-oriented, more about implementing chaos than fomenting change.

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What a surreal time it was, with an unwinnable war raging overseas, a ghoulish decade bracketed by the Manson murders in 1969 and the Jonestown massacre in 1978. Cults and radical groups were alive and well, with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the sad story of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a group with anarchist ideals and poor execution.

Not knowing much about Patty Hearst beyond her affliction of Stockholm Syndrome, American Heiress was a quiet revelation of American history that offered a pleasing counterpoint to the encroaching onslaught of conservative politics that defined the Reagan era.

The book doesn’t take sides. It’s plain in defining the SLA as what would be considered a terrorist group today; they successfully committed murder, kidnapping, and theft, despite their unorganized structure and zealous politics. Their ransom demands included a plan to feed the hungry, and their Robin Hood antics are almost admirable, despite their propensity for violence and impressive armaments. The character of Patricia Hearst-heiress, rebel, victim, anarchist-is compellingly portrayed as infinitely unknowable, quick to abscond the comforting fold of her parents’ conservative, privileged world, and just as quick to return.

The question remains even at the end of this comprehensive work: Did she really believe in the radical ideals of her captors, or was she just playing a role until she was delivered safely back into her old life of comfort? The answer may lie somewhere in the middle; she’s often described as savvy, and maybe she was just a survivor, a realist, enchanted by ideals, ultimately swayed by a more realistic vision of her future, the future where she was privy to fortune, fame, and safety.

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The Girls by Emma Cline describes a similar type of inauguration, another teenage girl seduced into a lifestyle that preaches love and acceptance, a rejection of authority and slavish adoration to a charismatic messiah figure who eventually goads his followers into horrific acts of petty violence.

The parallels to Charles Manson and his gang are unmistakable in this novel that chronicles the story of a massacre from the POV of a teenage girl that is at most tangential to the main show of the murders. The novel is an incisive dissection of the teenage girl’s psyche, with the petty obsessions of friends and social life and wondering “what does he/she really think of me?” That self-centeredness prevents the protagonist from noticing the little warnings leading up to the eventual massacre.

Beyond the main character, he titular “girls” are poorly fleshed out, their motives opaque and their inner lives unknowable. Even the most prominent one, Suzanne, is a cipher, to the reader as well as the main character, and if there’s a question of what led this group of young women to conduct such horrific violence, that question is never answered. Indeed, it may be unanswerable. It’s little consolation that the reader is stuck inside the head of a bratty teenager, mired in hopeless crushes and fuzzy goals. Even as a middle-aged woman, she is rootless and victimized, and we’re left wondering if she ever left the cult, ever defined herself beyond her place, tenuous as it was, among the girls.

Both books tell the story of women in a changing world, their roles unclear, constantly shifting and evolving. It was a time when they were finally able to be something more than a vessel and a housewife. Women were spilling out of that shoebox where they existed solely for the pleasure of men and procreation of the species and refusing to go back. “Girls” could be people too: anarchists, murderers, revolutionaries. But even in these unprecedented times, often remained in thrall to powerful men who seduced them into small-scale war. It was a time of transition, and the fights we fight today are the same ones because the revolution takes time. The revolution is less violent, perhaps, but the consequences, of fighting and not fighting, remain equally high.

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