It was pure serendipity that I read these books back-to-back in the space of a week last fall. I read The Girls first and then, within the first few pages of American Heiress it became clear to me that, together, they represented not just two notorious crimes, but something much larger: read together, they are an unintended portrait of a period in American history.
The Girls is the fictionalized tale of Charles Manson and his followers. The names and locations are changed and the grisly details are (mostly) gone. The story is told by Evie Boyd, who was fourteen when she first encountered the bedraggled, sexy glamor of the girls who followed their charismatic leader, a small, unimpressive man named Russell. Beguiled by girls Evie describes as “sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water,” she joins their world for a few months preceding the murders. Much of the book is set in that period, as Evie drifts between the unmoored life she lives with her mother, and the careless, druggy enticements of Russell’s world on the edge of town – “an orphanage for raunchy children.”
Cline’s language is gorgeous and stunningly accurate, as she captures the insecurity and false bravado of young Evie. She draws a flawless portrait of small town California in the late 60s, when a daughter could explain away her days-long absences to a preoccupied mother unaware of the hideous coming-of-age her daughter is undergoing. The story shifts seamlessly from past to present, and I found the passages in Evie’s present day life even more compelling than the early days which haunt her, and fascinate her acquaintances. At the end of the book, Evie is a thoughtful woman still trying to come to grips with what she saw and did during those lost months in the barren hills of Northern California.
In the opening pages of American Heiress, Jeffrey Toobin reminds us that the 70s was the decade which gave us a continuing Vietnam War; increasingly violent anti-war demonstrations; race riots; Richard Nixon; an oil embargo and its resulting gas lines; a stock market that lost half its value between 1973-74; inflation at 12%; and Watergate.
Into the midst of all that, in February of 1974, Patty Hearst was dragged kicking and screaming from her Berkeley apartment. She and her captors were on the lam for 19 months. During this time America was glued to its television sets as Patty helped rob a bank; a home in which they were hiding was besieged by police and went up in flames, killing several of the comrades; and she sprayed gunfire into a sporting goods store to cover another comrade as he fled from a theft attempt. After hiding largely in plain sight from coast to coast for months, she was arrested about 10 miles from where she had been kidnapped.
Patty Hearst’s story has been told many times, so the details are familiar. But by setting it against the backdrop of Northern Californian politics, wealth, family feuds, and financial strife of all stripes, Jeffrey Toobin makes it part of a fascinating whole. Writing it this way was a stroke of genius on his part.
Many who remember John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 will tell you that day was the end of innocence in America. These two books flesh out that statement, reminding us of myriad moments and events that add up to the world in which we live. The greatest shock of the assassination was its sheer randomness; it came out of nowhere, into a world that had felt like it was finally regaining its balance after the War. In the years since, we have been rocked by far more important events than the crimes in these two books, but what I think the story is here is that we are no longer so shockable. If these crimes happened today, we would turn on the television and watch the chaos, no longer finding it exceptional. What do we think about that?
I highly recommend each book. But if you want a real glimpse into the recent history that helped bring us to where we are, read them both. Like me, you may wonder how we have weathered the storm.