Okay, Alison Umminger had me at the title.
I’d read her witty little essay in Fast Funny Women, a book of witty little essays, edited by Gina Barreca.
I liked it enough that I went online and found that Umminger had published a first novel titled My Favourite Manson Girl, and, with that title, the book sounded like it had to be a lot of smart-alecky fun.
(I mean, really, it couldn’t be anything else, right? No one gets a book published — except maybe self-published — that seriously looks at the girls who clustered around cult leader Charles Manson and carried out for him nine murders in 1969, including eight-month-pregnant actress Sharon Tate, and chooses favorites. Right? [Although I must admit that, back in 1974, when I was visiting a friend at his Chicago apartment, we both overheard his roommate a couple rooms away say to another visitor, “That’s my favorite photo of Hitler.” So, who knows?])
In addition, I found in the Contributors section of Barreca’s book that Umminger not only wrote humorous stuff and not only taught writing and literature at the University of West Georgia, but also was in school studying the art of spiritual direction, and also was working on a book on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and also led an occasional retreat at a monastery outside Atlanta.
What’s not to like?
So, I ordered the novel.
“Like stuffed animals”
That was a lot of stuff to have in my head when My Favourite Manson Girl finally arrived and I opened it to the first page to begin reading. (And, I might add, a lot to load on you, gentle reader, for the start of this review.)
I expected a fun and deliciously wacky novel, and Umminger didn’t disappoint. My Favourite Manson Girl is the story of 15-year-old Anna who runs away from her somewhat dysfunctional home by stealing the credit card of her mother’s wife and buying a ticket to Los Angeles to visit her sister Delia.
Delia, about a decade older than Anna, is an actress who is actually getting enough work to make ends meet without needing a “real” job. She has a boyfriend, Dex, who writes for a dopey television show and knows how dopey it is; and an ex-boyfriend, Roger, for whom, on the down-low, she’s playing the lead in his arty film that has something vaguely to do with Charles Manson and other mass murderers; and a porn producer who loans her his Jaguar.
Delia is beautiful in a serious way, so beautiful she was almost cast as a Bond girl.
Anna, more ordinary-looking (the two have different fathers as does their toddler brother Birch), is one of those sarcastic, knowing and still-innocent wise-guy teen girls who have been a staple of a certain kind of American movie and oceans of young adult novels of varying degrees of literary seriousness for the past half century.
- “My sister was pretty and funny when you got her going, but I always thought that really beautiful people were kind of like stuffed animals, like they sat in corners and didn’t say much of anything, because people loved them anyhow.”
- “In our family, conflict was a form of affection.”
- “I think if my sister were less pretty, her apartment would have seemed kind of ridiculous — there were too many pillows and candles in the bedroom and too few decent snack-food choices in the kitchen for your standard-issue human being. Instead, it felt like the inside of some Egyptian goddess’s sanctuary, full of perfumes you could only buy in Europe, expensive makeup in black designer cases, and underwear that was decidedly non-functional.”
- “Gerald Ford ranks right up there with Millard Filmore and Bush the First on the list of unexciting white men who have run this country, made their way into history books, and otherwise have been human sleeping pills.”
“Manson’s battalion of zombie-bimbos”
Anna ends up commenting on Ford because (1) Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of Manson’s girls, got herself arrested for clumsily trying to kill Ford with a sawed-off shotgun and (2) Anna is hired, early on in her summer-long visit to Delia, to study up on the Manson girls and provide research to Roger for his movie.
And Anna’s as sharp-tongued about Manson and the young women who were at his beck and call as she is about Ford and Hollywood and her family:
- “If you crossed Mean Girls with The Lord of the Flies and weaponized all of them, then you pretty much had the Manson girls.”
- “Manson’s battalion of zombie-bimbos were the kind of slow-moving death that scared me more than any dumb Hollywood movie. If you wanted a go-to for ‘At least he’s not…’ and Hitler was taken, Manson was a pretty safe second choice.”
- “Helter Skelter didn’t usher in some beautiful new world, it just left the old one a little more awful. They’d been following some horrible, sadistic loser who didn’t know any more about the end of the world than the sketchballs in the liquor store parking lot.”
- “Maybe that was part of the appeal of the Manson ‘family,’ not as a family, but as a myth of a family, a clown-college of bad parenting and anger focused in all the wrong directions.”
So, yes, My Favourite Manson Girl is the fun and deliciously wacky novel I’d expected.
But, as Anna’s comments about the girls above indicate, these young women — now elderly or dead — are not used by Umminger as easy punchlines.
After all of her research, Anna recognizes in a deep way the horror of the killings more than four decades earlier. One of her most telling observations comes when she is shown Sharon Tate’s grave.
“But as haunting as it was, the name that knocked me down was just below Sharon’s, ‘Paul Richard Polanski,’ followed by ‘their baby,’ and no dates beneath that name. No dates below this tiny person who both was and wasn’t, but who had a name. I thought about Birch and the way he had kicked inside my mom when her belly was so big that I could line up Cheetos on it, the way he already had a name, and a face that we could see in his little ultrasound pictures, and how much I had been looking forward to meeting him.”
It’s a measure of Umminger’s skill as a novelist that she’s able to balance the comic tone of Anna’s story with the serious subject matter of her research.
Anna understands how tragic and horrific — and, maybe, worse, random — the Manson cult murders were, and she doesn’t shy away from those realities. She gets to know the stories of many of the Manson girls and recognizes the thread through them all, a thread of a rotten homelife and of running away and of seeking something better.
“A memo to America”
After all, Anna herself is a runaway. The difficult aspects of her own family situation pale in comparison to what the girls who ended up with Manson went through. But she can relate.
Perhaps the Manson girl with the worst homelife was Squeaky Fromme. “I don’t think she was awesome. I still think she was a psycho who picked the dumbest hippie method possible to try to kill the president. Still.” Life was so bad at home — what with a father who was “probably a monster” and who wouldn’t let her eat with the family — that she asked a friend’s parents to adopt her.
After she details the many ways Fromme was scarred, Anna tells the reader that she’s heard of a million reasons the Manson murders were carried out.
“I’m sure there’s no simple way that everything could have been erased, made better. But if I had to write a memo to America on what to do to improve the future, on how to go back and correct the past, it would be simple: Dear America: Please give your daughters sturdy bedroom doors that lock from inside. And when they are hungry, give them a place at the table.”
Umminger’s novel is funny and loopy and thoughtful. It’s a good read, and I recommend it highly.
But, if you are looking for it in America, don’t look for it to be called My Favourite Manson Girl. That was the title in the UK. In the US, for some reason I can’t fathom, the book is called American Girls (like about a hundred thousand other books).
My Favourite Manson Girl is a much better title, and I’m not alone in thinking that. But there you have it.
Also — and here I may be in more of a minority — I enjoyed My Favourite Manson Girl so much and enjoyed Umminger’s essay in that Fast Funny Women book so much that I can hardly wait for her book on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
My understanding is that the goal of those spiritual exercises is discernment, to know how to choose between good and evil. They might have helped those Manson girls.
Patrick T. Reardon