Middle-aged Evie Boyd looks back to the summer of 1969 when as a 14-year-old teenager she became involved in a Manson-like cult. Drawn to a free-spirited rebellious woman named Suzanne, Evie is introduced to the commune of which Suzanne is a member. Evie gradually becomes involved in the cult’s lifestyle of free love, drugs, and crime.
The characterization of the teenaged Evie is a strong element in the book. Evie’s parents are virtually absent from her life; nothing seems to be happening in her life; she feels alienated from her peers; and her crushes on boys are unreciprocated. As a result, she is bored and drifting through life and is desperate for attention and love. The older Suzanne sees her neediness and gives her the attention she desires. Evie thrives on being noticed and focuses on trying to please Suzanne and the cult leader, Russell Hadrick, so their love and attention will not be withdrawn. Of course, Evie is being manipulated: she is forced into sexual service and encouraged to steal to supply food and money for the group.
It becomes clear how certain people can be drawn into belonging to a cult. Both Russell and Suzanne are adept at recognizing young women who lack confidence and self-esteem. These insecure, lonely women are easily malleable. Some attention makes them feel, like Evie, that they are “the center of a singular drama.” As an adult, Evie can recognize the tactics Russell used on her during her first evening at the commune: “Russell had put me through a series of ritual tests. . . . Attracting the thin, harried girls with partial college degrees and neglectful parents, girls with hellish bosses and dreams of nose jobs. His bread and butter. . . . Already he’d become an expert in female sadness – a particular slump in the shoulders, a nervous rash. A subservient lilt at the end of sentences, eyelashes gone soggy from crying. Russell did the same thing to me that he did to those girls. Little tests, first. A touch on my back, a pulse of my hand. Little ways of breaking down boundaries” (125).
The novel examines the world of young women and does not present a pleasant picture. Young girls are objectified and their self-esteem is directly connected to how they meet society’s ideals of feminine beauty and deportment. Young girls are often targets of sexual exploitation; Evie lists several instances of how men saw her need and used it against her: “a stranger at a fair who palmed my crotch through my shorts. A man on the sidewalk who lunged at me, then laughed when I flinched. The night an older man took me to a fancy restaurant . . . [and] later placed my hand on his dick while he drove me home. None of this was rare. Things like this happened hundreds of times. Maybe more” (349 – 350). I’d bet there are few women who can’t list such encounters from their personal experience.
The message is that times have changed but what is expected of women has not. Women are expected to accept the dehumanizing demands of men. Evie sees her behaviour paralleled in the behaviour of a young woman named Sasha whose boyfriend Julian coerces her into exposing her breasts to a friend of his. Then Sasha “barely said goodbye. Burrowing into Julian’s side, her face set like a preventative against my pity. She had already absented herself, I knew, gone to that other place in her mind where Julian was sweet and kind and life was fun, or if it wasn’t fun, it was interesting, and wasn’t that valuable, didn’t that mean something” (338)? This is so similar to Evie’s 14-year-old self “trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love” (47).
If you’ve ever wondered how women could have been attracted to Charles Manson and why they would have killed for him, you might want to read this book. You may find yourself wanting to shake Evie out of her naivety but you may also come to an understanding of the appeal of cults for certain people whose vulnerability makes them targets for the unscrupulous.