Cult Madness: Emma Cline’s The Girls

The Girls by Emma Cline caused a publishing frenzy two years ago when it was rumored to have fetched the debut novelist a multi-million dollar advance. Due out in June, the book tells of a 15-year-old girl’s descent into a late 1960s Southern California commune. The editors at Random House (who acquired the, ahem, costly rights to the book) may have made a wise choice. Over the past year, stories of cults and communes have exploded into the mainstream. On TV, there is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey’s sugary sitcom about a woman’s return to aboveground life after living in a bunker for 15 years. (Season 2 debuted in April.) NBC’s Aquarius, where David Duchovny plays a 1960s police sergeant investigating a Manson-like cult, has also been renewed for a second season. Todd Haynes, who directed Carol, is rumored to be making a miniseries based on The Source Family, a breakout 2012 documentary about the radical L.A. commune. And Room (for which Brie Larson took home an Academy Award), has creepy cult vibes.

As others have argued before me, cult hysteria is another symptom of our collective fascination with the 1970s, and grittier, groovier times; the same fascination we see in everything from Vinyl to City on Fire. In an essay for T magazine, Edmund White argues our longing for the ‘70s is a longing for a smaller, more democratic world “in which, rich or poor, you were stuck together in the misery (and the freedom) of the place.” Cults and communes, which had their heyday here in the ‘60s through ‘80s, offer an excellent environment (narratively speaking) to mine an era’s larger themes.

“It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer,” begins the book. While the spirit of the era is present everywhere (as much a character as any of the humans), The Girls does not focus on the vagaries of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Instead, it zooms in close on Evie Boyd, the young protagonist, and the powerful, suffocating female relationships she forms both inside and outside the commune. Told in retrospect, the book is also about the paralyzing effects of nostalgia, and the dangers of blind devotion and hagiography (and not just of people). “I’d seen old Yardley Slickers—the makeup now just a waxy crumble—sell for almost one hundred dollars on the Internet,” the present-day Evie describes. “So grown women could smell it again, that chemical, flowery fug. That’s how badly people wanted it—to know their lives had happened, that the person they had once been still existed inside of them.”

This feels almost like authorial prescience on the part of Cline. Did she know her book would be published in the midst of a national love affair with the era of free love? Perhaps. In any event, while we may move on to other decades, The Girls promises to remain enduring.

The Girls by Emma Cline available June 14 from Random House.

Photo courtesy of Random House