***This article contains major spoilers for Emma Cline’s The Girls. ***
“I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.”
So begins Emma Cline’s recently released debut novel. As eerie as it is personal, as unsettling as it is relatable, The Girls tells the story of a woman, Evie, a 60-something who is temporarily staying in the home of an acquaintance. In the middle of the night, intruders, who turn out to be the son and son’s girlfriend of the homeowner, interrupt Evie’s sleep. Through their questions, Evie recalls the dark memories knocking at the door of her mind. The memories are harrowing, prompting questions that she does not want to answer: who she is, what she wants, and finally, if she ever found what she was looking for.
Stories like The Girls seem in one sense foreign and all too familiar in another. The search for belonging, the deep yearning in the heart so painful, so real, so intrusive that it is nearly physical, that is a common cry of the heart in search of God, in search of place, in search of connection.
During a summer in the late 1960s, Evie is fourteen, clinging to her friendships, pining over boys. Her best friend, Connie, provides a seemingly safe place amidst the turmoil of Evie’s parents’ divorce and the jarring evolution of her mother from a domestic homebody to a serial dater, hardly aware of her daughter’s whereabouts, much less her feelings. Evie is stammering and searching; she is looking for love, any kind at all. Then, one day, she sees the girls, the ones who prompted her with their laughter and kept her gaze with their mystery.
Evie knows something is strange about these girls. She knows this because of their unusual style of dress, because of an indefinable air about them, because of the van they scurry off to after being caught by a restaurant owner while they were rifling through a trash can. Evie observes them from afar, then one day, she witnesses them being kicked out of a grocery store for a prior theft. Desperate for connection, she offers to steal for them (toilet paper, of all things). The girls skeptically accept, send Evie into the store, and await her exit. Evie pays full price for the toilet paper, then hands it to the girls, who ask her how the theft went. “Pretty easy,” she lies, which seem to be the magic words for getting the apparent ringleader, Suzanne, to tell Evie her name.
Evie swoons. Romantically? Maybe (later on? Yes). The point is that Suzanne offers attention of any sort. Connie has started to hang out with another girl whom Evie perceives as a replacement, and Evie recently had a very secretive and disappointing sexual encounter with Connie’s brother. She is desperate and vacant, and Suzanne looked at her. Suzanne saw potential, saw something. Evie was hooked.
Soon after this, Evie sees Suzanne again. Evie’s bike chain has broken, Suzanne approaches, and before long, Evie has joined Suzanne and a few others in a van (think Mystery Machine). The girls take her to a commune, trash everywhere, toddlers running wild, drugs aplenty. The king of the crumbling castle is Russell (said by Cline to be modeled after Charles Manson). Russell is, for all intents and purposes, the god of the group. He is worshiped, served physically, emotionally, and sexually by the girls. Before long, Evie is a part of all of this, slipping between worlds of dinner with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend where she feels hardly seen, and a drug-fueled rumpus around a bonfire, where she feels like part of a whole. Evie does not see her treatment as exploitation; she sees it as connection. She is uncomfortable with the others at times, with who she becomes when she is with them, but she quiets the voices in her mind with the assurance that she has found a place, the assurance that she belongs.
Through a dark and twisted series of events, Russell becomes infuriated with a musician, Mitch, who had agreed to help Russell record an album and later refused him the opportunity. Evie starts to pick up on strange language at the commune, and begins to perceive that there is a plan to which she is not privy. One day, she’s in the van with the girls, and it becomes clear their intentions are sinister. Evie has a look in her eyes, which Suzanne perceives as questioning or a lack of blind loyalty, and Evie is kicked out of the car.
The next morning, there is the headline. Four people found dead in Mitch’s house, Mitch not among them. Evie knows immediately who did this. She knows who has a vendetta against Mitch, and who would be wild-eyed and dark-hearted enough to “make a scene,” even when the original target wasn’t home. Suzanne would. Suzanne and the girls, at Russell’s bidding.
The question burrows deep in Evie’s adult mind: if she had stayed in the van, would she have been complicit, even active, in the murders? If not, why didn’t she ever tell anyone that she knew who the killers were? Who is she now? Who was she, ever, really? And where, if anywhere, does she belong?
Who or what we belong to tells us who we are more than anything else. We see this in an infant, that gaze from her newborn eyes, finding her mother’s face by following that familiar voice. We see it as soon as children go to school, when they learn the phrase “best friend” by listening to peers even before learning to tie their shoes. We see it in recruitment in all its forms, whether intended for good–university clubs or fraternities–or in something intended for evil, gangs or cults. The common quest of all humans is to pursue belonging, an end that lures many toward soul-damaging means.
As Evie discovered, the girls could not offer her anything that she did not already have. She looked for acceptance, and found it temporary and conditional, gone as soon as it came. She yearned for the label of “one of us,” yet found herself literally and figuratively an outsider. She looked at the news and wondered to what ends she would have gone to secure the girls’ permanent affections. She recognizes her driving desire for longing, and she recognizes that hers has been a life of hope deferred, a heart sick.
Stories like The Girls seem in one sense foreign and all too familiar in another. The search for belonging, the deep yearning in the heart so painful, so real, so intrusive that it is nearly physical, that is a common cry of the heart in search of God, in search of place, in search of connection. Cline stated of the Manson girls she studied, “I recognized something of myself at 13, the same blip of longing in their eyes.” We’re all yearning for something.
Christians will sometimes jump to platitudes, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” willing the longings to evaporate in the face of simple, albeit accurate, truth. But sometimes they don’t. Our longings rage on, and we find guilt, or frustration, or fear of what will come, of what will never be. We wonder if belonging is even possible, and we wonder what is wrong with us that we could feel this way even inside the family of faith.
There is a longing deep in the soul crying out for something more, for relationships in which can look into the eyes of a friend as if looking into a mirror, finding a clearer version of oneself reflected back. These friendships are not easy to come by, nor are they always available to us. Even within the context of the church, hearts are often broken, relationships fractured. In his book Vulnerable Communion, Thomas Reynolds writes of the “cult of normalcy,” the mainstream way of thinking and being which leads us to assess our fellow man based on what he offers to us. The cult of normalcy promotes a worldview in which people are commodities with greater and lesser value, rather than members of a true community, in which their presence is deemed valuable simply because they exist.
Reynolds recommends a new way of approaching one another, a way rooted in the fact that people are made in the image of God. Suzanne looked into Evie’s eyes that day outside the store, seeing something which Evie interpreted as potential and value, but Suzanne categorized as utility, a commodity that could be cast aside when it was determined to be no longer useful. The Christian, however, is called to look into the eyes of another and reflect back what is inherently true: each person holds intrinsic value, that community and friendship should be based on love and sacrifice first shown by Jesus Christ and now emulated by those who believe in Him. This does not mean that everyone will be best friends, and it doesn’t mean that there won’t be pain in relationships. But it does mean that the foundation for friendships, the core of community, is different than the system the world offers.
Even in the end, Evie’s life still rings of loneliness, uncertainty, and confusion. She is without even a physical place to belong, waiting for whatever will come next. And while we may feel like Evie at times, resonating with her doubt, her disappointment, her distance, we ask confidently for the grace to continue hoping in the One who draws us closer to himself and to our fellow humans, and we take the smallest of steps toward one another, certain that the One who sent us holds forever the surety of our belonging.