Rebecca Lerner: The Cult of Girlhood

Monday, January 9, 2017 - 1:45pm

As we grow into ourselves, our minds become instruments for categorization. Everything becomes relational, easily compared to something else. We obsessively classify what we see, identifying the people and things around us as “this,” but not “that.” It helps us make sense of a potently dynamic world, but categorization is dangerous. It leads to pigeonholing and expectations of what people can and can’t be.

Characters in literature often evade these anticipations. But the trend of disintegrating the boundaries constructed around identity is, for me, most openly apparent in books that examine girls crossing the threshold into womanhood, and the causalities that so often occur during that in-between state.

Teenage girls are written as adrift, beautifully damaged and desperately looking for love. The difference between typical high school romance novels and heart wrenching literature is where they find this love.

In “The Girls,” the debut novel by Emma Cline, protagonist Evie Boyd retrospectively reflects on her time in a cult in the late 1960s. Inspired by the gruesome Manson murders, fourteen year old Evie is quickly inducted into the swirling, dreamy world created by cult leader Russell. A charismatic narcissist, Russell surrounds himself with runaway teenage girls who are mesmerized by his nonchalant power.

And yet, the novel barely focuses on what the collective culture has remained fascinated with — the new incarnation of Manson in Russell and the violence that he was able to incite. Cline is much more preoccupied with the girls who join him and their reasoning, their struggles and their dreams.

The reason that Evie enlists in the group at all is her instant attraction to Suzanne, one of the older girls in the cult. Evie tolerates Russell, but she is instantly and deeply in love with Suzanne. Evie explains, in the astral prose that surges through the novel, “girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.” Russell creates the toxicity of the hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic commune — none of the members have any money, but the girls are forced into a sexual and emotional barter system when interacting with the men who frequent the commune. Only the girls have any interest in constructing a home out of the commune, attempting to create a semblance of a domestic atmosphere. The girls all “share” Russell, emotionally and sexually, and some have children who live with them as well. Though the girls are still close to being children themselves, they act with the weight of adulthood on their shoulders. Evie, Suzanne and the other girls must constantly balance their burgeoning sexuality with the imposed humiliation of their desire; they must cope with their uneasy feelings about their supposedly harmonious, unconventional living situation.

While I read “The Girls,” I couldn’t help but think of another book in which a band of sisters gathered to be more than what anyone thought they possibly could be. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides,” the Lisbon sisters, beautiful, blonde, and perpetually unattainable, personify teenage angst. Another retrospective novel told from the perspective of the currently middle aged male worshippers of the Lisbon sisters, “The Virgin Suicides” allows the men to indulge their nostalgia and try to figure out what went wrong. Why did these hauntingly beautiful girls, bored in their pastel suburbia of Grosse Point, Michigan, kill themselves?

In "The Virgin Suicides," the boys eventually steal the diaries of one of the sisters, in an attempt to get in their minds. The boys never actually speak to the girls — all communication is done through music played over a telephone or notes left around town.

The boys begin to realize how much they don’t understand about the Lisbon sisters, explaining, “we felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” These teenagers only have ideas of each other, but also only have ideas of themselves. It takes reading the novel as an adult to see how much is a purported, assumed identity; none of them actually understand themselves or the world around them, but being a teenager makes you good at faking it.

So what does it mean to be a teenager, in print and in life? Is it the blatant defiance of categorization, the ability to contain multiplicities and contradictions without being concerned about an identity that makes sense? I don’t know. I think it’s the way that everything becomes saturated with meaning, how people and places and words and colors ring through your brain without a purpose. I wonder if we would continue this concentrated significance to adulthood if we could. But it might hurt too much.