How did such a sheltered kid like me come to be reading one of the creepiest books in America?
If you were a 'tween anytime around 1979, then you’ll immediately know I’m talking about “Flowers in the Attic,” V.C. Andrews’ first in the series of five novels about the Dollanganger kids, four blonde beauties who were locked away in their grandmothers’ attic because their mother was hiding them from her rich father in order to secure her inheritance.
“It is so appropriate to color hope yellow like that sun we seldom saw,” the book melodramatically begins, forever souring me on the color yellow. “…For I think of us more as flowers in the attic. Paper flowers. Born so brightly colored and fading duller though all those long, grim, dreary nightmarish days when we were held prisoners of hope, and kept captives by greed. But, we were never to color even one of our papers blossoms yellow.”
The garish book is narrated by twelve-year-old Cathy, who is two years younger than her brother Chris, (14), the boy she will ultimately (spoiler alert!) be raped and pregnant by, and ultimately marry somewhere around book three. In their years in the attic, they serve as surrogate parents for their siblings, five-year-old twins Carrie and Corrie – the latter of whom will die of arsenic poisoning by the end of the first book.
Sounds gruesome? The series also includes an evil grandmother who beats and starves the children, a selfish mother who abandons them for money – not to mention the fact that her first husband was her half-uncle, which was why her father forbade her from bearing children. Throughout the series, everyone sleeps with everyone and the only true love is between Cathy and Chris.
Incest, child abuse, kidnapping, neglect, filicide, rape – the perfect fodder for a twelve year old.
As the series comes to the small screen again – the first time was in 1987, this time by Lifetime on January 18 – all I can think is: HOW THE HELL WAS I ALLOWED TO READ THESE BOOKS?
I wasn’t allowed to eat sugar cereal or drink soda. I barely left Brooklyn, New York. And I was hardly allowed to watch TV. And although it probably wasn’t part of my parents’ plan, I became an avid reader. A flashlight-under-the-covers reader. A not-pay-attention-in-school-because-I’m-finishing-my-book reader. A very not-worldly reader who became obsessed with “Flowers in the Attic.”
Someone must have passed it around school. We had already read Judy Blume’s racy “Forever,” which, I found out as an adult, is about a love affair between two teenagers; but all my ten-year-old self knew was the passage about a boy who names his penis “Ralph.” (Never again would I hear that name without snickering.)
But “Forever” was child’s play compared to “Flowers.” As I rapaciously devoured the series, I was thinking to myself, Should I really be reading this? Somehow, I knew it wasn’t what my parents had in mind for my education. (My mother had only once confiscated a book from me— Judy Blume’s “Deenie,” about a girl who has scoliosis. To this day, I have no idea why.) In the “Flowers” series, though, I learned more about the world than I had ever learned anywhere: not in school, not at home, not even from watching "General Hospital" at my grandmother’s house on my sick days.
But as I eagerly anticipate (and equally dread) the TV movie, the real question is not how I came to read these books but why did I love them so? Why, when today’s youngsters are obsessed with wizards and vampires and werewolves and dystopian novels that glorify war, were we all so hooked on this soap opera of freaks?
Freud believed that fairy tales are an arena in which we can play out social taboos and reckon with our carnal ids. Bruno Bettleheim believed fairy tales help children overcome psychological problems inherent in growing up, allowing them to become well-balanced adults.
Maybe today’s teens are so oversaturated and over-inundated with media about sexuality, so the “fairy tales” they need to explore, the unknown they need to dip their psyches into is in the supernatural world.
But for me and many of the innocent children of my generation, we who didn’t know much about sex or rape or abortion or incest or anything more than the G-rated life our parents’ provided for us, perhaps the sinister “Flowers” series was our way of safely exploring that unknown – a dark and deeply disturbing unknown, one which I will never get to relive, except by watching it on TV this weekend.