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Are Women More Susceptible to Cults?

Emma Cline's hot debut novel 'The Girls' explores the phenomenon of young women opting out of society and into cult-like groups such as the Manson Family

by Jennifer Schaffer
Jun 24 2016, 2:46pm

Charles Manson, 80, with wife Afton Elaine Burton, 26, in 2014. Photo credit: Polaris Images

Forty-six years ago this week, Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten went on trial for the Manson family murders of the summer of 1969. Manson, with his crazy eyes and lengthy criminal record, fit into America's preconceived notion about the kind of person who might be a sociopathic killer. But it was the girls, Susan, Patricia, and Leslie, who committed the murders and confounded America. Young women, aged 20 and 21, with flowing hair and sunny smiles, who, the reasoning went, could have been homecoming queens and studious coeds and gone on to marry clean young men and taken secretarial jobs. Instead, these girls had chosen to offer themselves to an egomaniacal cult leader and carry out his deranged, murderous plans. These young women had seized agency and independence in the form of violence and zealous devotion. In this way, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten belong to a wider tradition of women who opt into cult-like groups—a tradition that continues into the present-day in the form of those teenaged girls, barely pubescent, who pack up their high-school backpacks and fly to Syria to join the Islamic State.

It is this impulse to leave behind safety, family, and society's expectations in favor of danger and the unknown that Emma Cline explores in her hotly anticipated debut, The Girls (an excerpt of which appears in this month's VICE magazine). Set in the summer of 1969, Cline's novel follows 14-year-old Californian Evie Boyd as she is drawn into a communal cult loosely modeled on the Manson Family. Cline does not rely too heavily on historical fact, and swaps out Charles Manson for her own charismatic cult leader named Russell. The novel has a number of things going for it, from Cline's gorgeous prose to her knack for plot and timing, to her way of presenting Evie's electric, often jolting moments of self-recognition. But the aspect of The Girls that captivated me the most was how Cline channels that particular period in a girl's life when she is consumed with the need to be seen, to be known—by her mother, by slightly older girls, and most often, by men.

Reflecting on her childhood, Evie tells us: "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." In tapping into this particular vulnerability—this yearning that lends itself to recklessness—Cline makes Evie's decision to ditch her mom in the suburbs and tag along with a festering, cult-like commune seem rational, obvious, inevitable even, while still maintaining the sense of formlessness that plagues Evie throughout.

"There was so much, that first night, that should have been a warning," Evie tells us of her first night with Russell and his followers. "But even later, even knowing the things I knew, it was hard to see beyond the immediate," she says, recalling Russell's buckskin shirt, "smelling of flesh and rot and as soft as velvet" and his acolyte Suzanne's smile "blooming in me like a firework, losing its colored smoke, its pretty, drifting cinders."

The Girls made me wonder, is there something inevitable about the way in which some young women flock to cults? Is there a reason why there were "so many more women than men at the ranch," so many women by the real Charles Manson's side, so many girls? Are young girls especially vulnerable to cult-like ideologies?

"Society gives young girls and women so little agency and subjectivity, and choosing to be in a cult or a group can feel like an act of power, sort of choosing your own way, choosing a different life." —Emma Cline

The answers are complicated. When I spoke with Dr. David Bromley, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in the study of "new religious movements" and the author of dozens of books on the subject, he was reluctant to say that women are more susceptible to cult ideology. Instead, Dr. Bromley pointed to wider trends in religion: Women have, historically, attended religious gatherings and affiliated with organized religions in higher numbers than men.

Dr. Lorne Dawson, a professor of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo, echoed Dr. Bromley: "Women in general are more interested in religion and see religion or spirituality as a more significant component in their lives." When I asked Dr. Bromley why women might be drawn to religion—and "new religious" movements (the sociologists looked down on the word "cults")—his reply surprised me.

Manson, circa 1970. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"New religious movements tend to place a lot of emphasis on the private spheres of life, on sexuality, and the regulation of sexuality," Dr. Bromley said. "They put a lot of emphasis on families and child-rearing, and these are things that—whether because of social conditioning or whatever—these tend to be issues that are more female-oriented. [These women] like the stronger, more complete answers provided and the attention given to those areas of life."

Dr. Dawson and Dr. Bromley both pointed to the degree of agency many women find within these "new religious" movements. "From the outside it may look like women are being exploited [in certain groups]," Dr. Bromley told me. "But if you speak to the women, they feel empowered by these systems where male-female roles are set up. There are, of course, lots of instances where male gurus take advantage of ideology to basically hoodwink young women into engaging in sexual relations and almost being domestic slaves to them, and many women have left organizations feeling that they have been abused. But that is a minority position." When I asked Dr. Bromley about the Manson family in particular, he sighed and said, "It's such a skewing outlier."

Emma Cline. Photo by Megan Cline/courtesy of Penguin Random House

Some answers can only be found in fiction. When I asked Cline whether she felt young women were particularly drawn to cult-like groups, she gave a measured answer. "Girls are just so good at myth-making and sort of creating a narrative. When I read about teenage girls in London who run away to join ISIS, I feel like they're creating this romantic narrative that sort of elides the reality of the situation. Society gives young girls and women so little agency and subjectivity, and choosing to be in a cult or a group can feel like an act of power, sort of choosing your own way, choosing a different life."

Dr. Dawson believes that the modern world makes this sense of powerlessness more acute, with the rise of "hooking-up culture" over the past ten years and the destabilization of traditional gender roles. "There's just no guidance anymore for young people out there," he told me. "There's this significant portion of the population that's not succeeding in the new, loose environment. They want more structure, more stability, more faithfulness."

For Cline's Evie, these desires are simpler and more fundamental. "I think what the book sort of talks about is this teenage girl who wants to be seen and noticed," Cline told me. "It's a very primal human desire."

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The Girls by Emma Cline is out now from Penguin Random House.