Reading Alison Umminger's American Girls

Today is August 1st. July just passed and with that means I completed the first month of my self-appointed reading list. Upon turned 31 back in June, I prescribed myself an all-female book tour of titles I have been dying to read—some for a long, long time.

The kick-off (which I started in July to give myself a full month of reading since my birthday is the middle of June) was Alison Umminger’s American Girls.

American Girls is hot off the press. Released just in June of this year, it had been hanging out in the pre-order queue of my Amazon account for a quite some time. I was truly ecstatic when it finally landed in my mailbox with its gorgeous cover (titled My Favourite Manson Girl by UK editions) and I eagerly began tearing through its pages.

I must admit that I have some degree of literary nepotism that rallied my level of excitement, although that does not take away from the talent apparent in this book, in selecting this as my first read—the author, Alison Umminger (follow her on Twitter here), is a former [amazing] professor of mine, one of the only five female instructors and mentors I’ve had through both my M.A. and Ph.D. studies. One of the two female creative writing instructors I’ve had the good fortune to study with in the past seven years. This fact lead me to American Girls, the great writing, the fresh perspective on the young women known as the “Manson girls,” the authentic consideration of girlhood, and the main character’s, Anna, honest and astute deliberation on the not so distant divide that exists between the “evil” acts and relatable motivations of Charles Manson’s young female followers carried me through.

I read this book in two rabid sessions late at night while lounging in bed gripping a glass of red wine. The protagonist, Anna, is a fifteen year old girl who steals her stepmother’s credit card to flee Georgia one summer and bolts off to Los Angles to stay with her older half-sister, Delia, who struggles to make it at as D-list actress.

While in L.A., Anna tackles the anxieties and consequences of her fleeing, Delia’s resentment at having Anna disrupt her daily routine, her mother and stepmother’s disappointment and negligence compounded by the recent birth of her baby brother and her mother’s cancer, an absent father who is more concerned with forging a life his new girlfriend, and the guilt of cyber-bulling a popular girl at school.

Anna’s parents decide it best she stay in L.A. with Delia for the summer and work to pay back the money she “borrowed” for the flight but also so her two moms can work through the drama of their own lives, the new baby, and illness without having to worry about the needs of a teenage girl. Anna is soon “employed” by Roger, a paltry director and Delia’s ex-lover, to research the young women of the Manson Family cult who committed several heinous murders in the summer of 1969— their lives, motivations, actions, and reasoning—for use in seemingly shifty film he is currently directing with Delia as lead actress.

Although the violence that occurs of Anna’s daily life pales in comparison and remains fairly nuanced, the violence she studies and reads about got in my head. The Manson Family is a palpable part of the American consciousness—an event that triggers disgust, fear, intrigue, and also a rock star level fascination. Who ARE these people?! Who could follow such a man?! What could inspire such evil?! What monsters!

 I have a colossal fear of home invasions. I have lost many nights of sleep over this. Horror movies with monsters, ghosts, satanic demons? Sure, bring it on! I love them. Horror movies with the sole premise of psychos busting in your home and slaughtering your family while wearing creepy masks and spouting some backwoods religious doctrine? Get the fuck out of here with that shit. 

A scene from the 2008 film The Stranger that still haunts my dreams. Nope. Nope. Nope. (photo credit: moviepilot.com)

A scene from the 2008 film The Stranger that still haunts my dreams. Nope. Nope. Nope. (photo credit: moviepilot.com)

I don’t know where this fear came from. No real, personal event in life is cause for this fear. Perhaps it stems from the collective American consciousness of the Manson murders that bleeds through generation after generation. Perhaps it stems from the constant social conditioning that as a woman, my body is under constant threat of being forcefully and physically violated. Home, where you think you are protected, is not always safe…for many it can be far from it. When violence enters into sacred space, you are left with a sense that there is no hope, no refuge, that there is absolutely no place on earth that you hide from harm. Although, deep down, we know violence can touch us anywhere, we run toward the illusion of our personal shelters. We need that illusion in order to give ourselves an instant to breathe. Even just for moment.

Needless to say, as I read my fear of knife wielding crazies magnified and I kept waiting for the smashing glass of a window or even more frightening small twist of a door handle. Luckily I have two auditory sensitive mutts who always let me know of the slightest disturbance outside long before it gets close to the house. Thank God for my dogs who give me, at least, a running chance.

American Girls, (along Emma Cline’s widely discussed The Girlswhich is was also released this June and often paired with AG and is now on my must-read list) takes a look at those young followers so often brushed over in favor of the sensationalism of Charles Manson or reduced to mere descriptors of “monster,” “evil,”  “brainwashed,” or “satanic” because we can’t fathom how much we might resemble or relate to the female perpetrators.

This is not to lessen the weight and obvious wrong of their crimes or to demean the victims’ lives but there does seem to be something hazardous in not examining or questioning not just their monstrous qualities but actually how human they were and “normal” they may have been at one time. 

This sentiment and perspective is exactly what Anna gives us—how much, when we pause to consider, we can—perhaps—understand some of the emotional, interior drama of the Manson girls. In this Anna is providing both an unadulterated perspective that can only come from girlhood and the mature evaluation that we must not only consider the violators motives but also take a deep look at ourselves.  This is complex in that there is an understandable resistance to sympathize with those who committed murder but an important recognition in the feelings—the emotional violence intrinsic in girlhood, in growing up— that could lead one down a dark path.

We get to follow Anna through seemingly normal fifteen-year-old turmoil—crushing on a young actor she befriends while hanging out on a studio lot with her sister, resentment for her parents and their self-absorption, the guilt of this resentment when faced with the potential loss of her mother to cancer, pondering what lead her to send demeaning and hateful text messages to bully a girl at school, harboring her sister’s secrets of an anonymous stalker and a questionable and possibly inappropriate relationship with Roger from Delia’s current boyfriend, and, of course, the anxiety of the impending return to school in the fall.

It is not just her researching about the Manson murders (the murders—which are not the focal point or really what the book is about) but her own actions that provide insight into emotive cruelty that arises in coming of age. We quickly learn of her mother’s excitement at the birth of a new baby, calling Anna’s new brother her chance at a “do-over” which Anna quickly deduces makes her a “do-under” in her mother’s eyes. Pretty harsh stuff to be told at any age, let alone your teenage years when your existence and identity already feel so fragile.

What I can attest to, and I know many others (re: everybody?) can as well, is the very real, very felt loneliness of adolescence no matter how socialized or loved you are, the perception of being misunderstood, an obsessive preoccupation with your physical appearance, a resentment of peers and even elders who seem to possess all you lack. Anna feels this but what she also acknowledges is how the Manson girls experienced these universally collective feelings.

The "Manson girls." From left to right, are Patricia Krewinkel, Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten. (photo credit: murderpedia.com)

The "Manson girls." From left to right, are Patricia Krewinkel, Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten. (photo credit: murderpedia.com)

In considering the role of young women’s physical appearance, in how it shouldn’t matter but inevitably does, Anna concludes:

 Another Manson girl, Mary Brunner, who was also technically the first Manson girl, had a witchy face as well. And its not like either of those girls had crazy written all over them—what they had written all over them was ugly with a big, fat side of alone. I kept kicking the same idea around my head the way I did a face that I couldn’t match to a name—that people that these women killed were richer, more attractive, more hip. Insiders. The fact that all the books mentioned         how they looked meant that their appearances mattered, but no one ever said why or how. Before the carnage began, Susan Atkins herself said about Tate and the others, “Wow, they sure are beautiful people.” Whether that made the rest of the night easier or harder, she didn’t say.

We’ve all felt alone. Ugly, inside and out. Glared at those more pretty, more attractive, more rich for their fortunes, even when we realize we are being petty and unreasonable…realizing sometimes. Yet, there is some trigger, some network of busted fuses, we try to locate in these girls that pushed them one step further.

Yeah, I felt this way, we can say, but goddamn I didn’t murder anybody. Anna in her equally young, equally mature mind is fascinated with this too. For her it is not Manson, not the fetishized yet wholly tragic death of the pregnant Tate, not the quasi-satanic, cult lore behind the murders, but how much, at one time, these girls were just normal—feeling the normal pressures, jealousies, resentments, and growing pangs of life like everybody else until something darker overtook them—something that seemed, to them, to be the answer.

It seems so strange and yet oddly comforting that the first book on my birthday reading list is about girlhood, about growing up. That at 31, I find myself overwhelming identifying with a 15-year-old protagonist. Perhaps because I perpetually feel younger than my age or because some insecurities we never out grow, or perhaps because these fears are not locked in adolescence but just inherent in every stage of life—in humanity.