Thursday, May 15, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Flowers in the Attic

So, I'm having a lot of fun with this thing. I've decided that on Thursdays, we'll conjure up an old romance/erotic novel or movie and talk about it. Plain and simple. I personally find it interesting to drag up an old story and apply it to modern day. I'll take requests (please), if anyone is reading this and is interested in chatting about an old favorite. Next week I think I'm going to do a Jane Austen novel. There's a lot of weird sexual shit going on in those books... more than you realize, trust me.

Today I'm talking about Flowers in the Attic

No, not because of the taboo nature, or the clamor it struck it in the 80s (the movie adaptation then was laughable), and no, not because of the recent Lifetime adaptation (which I've yet to see, though I thought the previews looked stunning but have heard performances were lukewarm). I hear tell there's a sequel planned for Petals on the Wind. That one fucks me up, bro, even more so than the first.  But that's for another day.

For the record, I have both of these copies. Look at the right one. Wtf, am I right?

It's because I just like it. I don't think it's particularly stellar writing, or great dialogue, but the story has stayed with me for over a decade. Plus, it's my belief there are oceans of psychological undertones here to explore. 

Chris, Cathy, Cory and Carrie's father has just died. Their mother is dragging them to wealthy grandparents they've never met because they have no place else to go (oh, and the grandparents HATE them). The grandfather can't know they're there (or he'll write their mother out of the will) so the grandmother helps her lock them up in the attic. Incest runs through their family, they later find out, as their parents were related. That's a big part of the reason their grandmother hates them and regards them as the "devil's issue". They're lied to, manipulated, abused...just about everything horrible you can imagine. Their mother's visits start to taper off until they're usually left only with the pious grandmother who spouts bible quotes and is sure they're fucking each other (even before they do!). The two young twins who were locked up just as they were at the crucial age of learning to speak and write correctly develop their own disturbing language and it's just super creepy. And grow only 2 inches in as many years, I think, because of lack of sunlight. And love, Cathy points out.

The importance of money and love is debated heavily within the text, as well.

Chris and Cathy are locked up just as they're beginning to blossom and go through puberty. The book makes a big deal of describing their physical changes. Cathy catches Chris measuring his penis one day. Another day, Chris finds Cathy plucking a strand of hair from beneath her arm. And Cathy of course comes to notice her breasts growing in. Then they find themselves becoming parents to their younger siblings--Cory and Carrie--and it's as though they're eighty years old. 

I think of Cathy and Chris often. It's haunting and sad. There's something far more than incest in those pages; there is incredible loss, squandering of innocence, unspeakable betrayal, a mother abandoning her children, filicide and having no one to turn to but your sibling--and even then, it's an act of striking back. 

"I knew that through me he had struck back at the one woman who had betrayed him in trust, faith and love."
Flowers in the Attic, p.360

God, how fucked up is that?! 

I think it was the first "erotic" novel I'd ever read. My sister--considerably older than me--read it and so it was just there for me to take. I scanned the pages, hardly believing what I was reading. I devoured it, really. 

There was a line about skinny-dipping. I didn't know what it was, and naively asked my aunt.

"What are you reading?" she asked me, her tone suspicious.

For me, I think it was like discovering carnal, raw sex for the first time, but I still didn't understand it. Don't laugh, but it reminds me of when I watched the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Buffy and Angel finally have sex and the scene is filmed in a rose-colored montage, with hands running up and down bodies. I didn't get that something got inserted into something else. Not entirely. Not until Flowers in the Attic.

"...and he had much more determination than I to use something hot, swollen and demanding, so much it stole reasoning and sanity from him... And that is where he took me, and forced in that swollen, rigid male sex part of him that had to be satisfied."

I remember holding the landline phone to my ear, huddled in a corner somewhere so no one could overhear as I read the more tawdry parts to my friends. That line got me some giggles.

It wasn't until I matured a bit that I got how fucked up the story is. How fucked up that sex scene is. If you haven't read it, Chris has just overheard that Cathy kissed a sleeping man (their stepfather) who kinda sorta remembers it, and mentions it to their mother as Chris hides in their closet. Chris is pissed, not only because she's jeopardized their chances of escape, but because she's his in his eyes. The last thing he's got, really. 

Chris made numerous mentions throughout the novel that he wished he had a male influence to talk to, that he was suffering with urges. The reader gets what kind of urges they are, and Cathy--the flirt, she is--kinda does, too. But she's playing a role, as Chris is, and it all blends together.

The psychology behind everything that happens, behind all the characters' motivations, will drive you crazy.

No one knows how to love in this book. At least, they don't know how to love appropriately. Their grandmother loathes them and starts guilting them with a bunch of shitty rules--"don't look at each other" is one, if I recall... what a Christian--and their mother brings them presents and becomes happier the more things turn sour for the kids. 

The love they once had for her when their shining father was alive is gone, or twisted into something even they can't understand. And they have all these emotions and feelings, and Chris is a man and Cathy is a healthily vain young woman and it was only a matter of time before they snapped. They both struck back at their mother, but they both were acknowledging the only love they had was with each other. They loved the twins, as well, but as their children. Cathy and Chris were the parents--the mirror images of the glittering parents they once had.

Um, how fucking disturbing.

I don't think V.C. Andrews was particularly fired up about the incest part of the novel. At least, I don't think that was the driving force of her narrative. It is, however, where I think a lot of the readers get stuck on, and it's a shame. There's a far creepier, psychological and gothic layer within the text... about mothers, about the nature of captivity, about how strange hormones can be, the complexities of adulthood and the complications of love.

It's fucked up, okay? 

People should definitely read it today because it is a good story. V.C. Andrews knew what she was doing (and she was said to have been inspired by a true story). Petals on the Wind, the first sequel, might be even better, but a whole lot more bittersweet. And debatably more screwed up. 

I mark a good book as one I think about years later. It could be that this was the beginning of my understanding of sex, that I found it when I was a little girl and impressionable, that perhaps it touched something dark inside of me, but I don't think that's so. Or that isn't the whole of it.

The reader grows to care for Cathy and Chris. You rail against their mother. You want to bash in the grandmother's skull. And those poor twins who never really had a chance are left to wither away--the "buttercups" they're called affectionately by Chris and Cathy, and once by their parents. Chris has been abandoned by a mother who'd always doted on him, who never missed the opportunity to comfort him by taking him to her bosom (literally). And Cathy has been forced to watch with horror from a distance, knowing all along, deep inside, there was something far worse in store for them than  that smelly, dark, dusty attic.

You feel their loss, their abandonment. You want them to love each other, even though it's wrong, because it keeps them alive. It's their warped survival tactic. And you go along with them as they grow up, as they learn to understand the way of the world by snooping and by eventually watching the old TV their mother gives them.

You'll be haunted by it forever. Or by the book's various covers. Either/or. 

Virginia cultivated a damn creepy, good story. Read it if you haven't. Read it again if you have. Try to resist the thrall of Petals on the Wind, and the rest of the series, really, because fuck. The emotions!

And if you want to read another one of her books that was a little less... incestuous...and a lot more psychological, check out My Sweet Audrina

Oh, and check out this link for some interesting tidbits. 


  1. A movie question: didn't you think the grandma's sparkly black dress was a bit risque for the totally conservative character she was portrayed to me? ~Rainey

    1. Yeah, they really squandered their whole chance all over the place with that disaster. The grandmother really wasn't that terrifying. What's funny is I heard, years ago, that Sofia Coppola was a huge fan of the series and had expressed an interest in bringing it to screen. That would have been awesome.