We resume the narrative learning that "another year passed, much like the first." Mommy Dearest's visits have become less regular, and the grandfather remains perpetually two weeks from death. Cathy and Chris have developed the habit of sunbathing nude on the roof, too high up to be seen from the ground, and despite all the warnings have a stunningly casual attitude about nudity these days. "We were not always modest in the bedroom," Cathy says, "nor were we always fully dressed. It was difficult to live, day in, day out, and always keep the intimate places of our bodies secret from the other sex." No four people living in such close quarters can reasonably be expected to match the grandmother's standards of "modesty," which involve not even looking at members of the opposite sex, but so far these kids seem thoroughly obsessed with nudity, bathroom functions, genitalia, and their mom's sex life. They could use a few inhibitions.
"Here I was a teenager," says Cathy, "and I'd never seen myself naked all over." Um. Honey. It's your body. You take baths, right? You are capable of turning your eyes downward, right? So . . . take a look sometime, okay? It'll do you good. But Cathy instead waits until the others are up in the attic before she strips nude in front of the bedroom mirror. "Incredible the changes hormones brought about!" she marvels. "Certainly I was much prettier than when I came here, even my face, my hair, my legs--much less that curvy body." (Although given Cathy's restricted diet and six-hour-a-day ballet habit, I can't imagine much in the way of "curves" on this girl.)
Naturally Chris chooses this moment to come down from the attic and, because they haven't seen each other naked enough at this point, stands stunned by her naked glory because one glance at your sister in the buff will twist your jock right the fuck around. This scene is pretty much disgusting in all ways: not only the fact that THIS IS HER BROTHER, but because Cathy somehow gets the idea that Chris is owed the right to ogle her and that if she reaches for a bathrobe, she'll be depriving him. No, really:
His eyes lowered from my flushed face down to my breasts, then lower, and lower, and down to my feet before they traveled upward ever so slowly.
I stood trembling, uncertain, wondering what to do that wouldn't make me seem a foolish prude in the judgment of a brother who knew well how to mock me when he chose. He seemed a stranger, older, like someone I had never met before. He also seemed weak, dazed, perplexed, and if I moved to cover myself, I'd steal from him something he'd been starving to see.
Remember, girls! All men, even your own brother, have a right to your body! And if you try to hide it from them, it is tantamount to starving them.
Of course the Trunchbull walks in on this little tableau and is like "AT LAST!" She storms out, and the kids freak at the prospect of what she's going to do to them. She returns shortly thereafter with a pair of scissors and demands that Cathy cut off all her hair as a punishment for her vanity. If she does not, then none of them will eat for a week.
I can see the idea of not wanting to capitulate to your tormentor's insane demands, keeping your dignity in the face of intolerable circumstances, yadda-yadda-yadda, but there is dignity and then there is a little thing called survival. Cathy is faced withe the choice between cutting her hair or starving her already weak and traumatized six-year-old siblings. Literally starving. Not faux psychosexual starving like when you don't let your brother look at your ass. Really, Cathy, this is not the hill you want to die on.
But Cathy refused to yield. Chris reassures her that they have enough food squirreled away to last until their mother returns, and that they are in no real danger. Ha.
Cathy goes to bed and has what is actually a genuinely terrifying nightmare: she is looking for the twins in the woods, only to discover a candy house where a witch has already frosted the children and is preparing to pop them in an oven. The witch morphs into a Medusa-like Mommy Dearest, who tangles Cathy in her long flowing hair. Dream-Cathy tumbles into a pool of blood "sticky as tar, smelling of tar," and is attack by swan-headed fish who mock her helplessness and nibble at her body until it goes numb.
When she wakes, she's still numb, and she can't move her head. She calls for Chris, who takes one look and immediately begins sobbing. In the night, the grandmother has slipped in, injected Cathy with some sort of drug, and poured hot tar on her head.
LET US PROB DEEPER HERE, SHALL WE?
It is significant that in every treatment I've seen of this novel, the screenwriter gracefully ignores the detail about the tar and either has the grandmother hack off Cathy's hair or do some other terrible thing to her (Wes Craven boils her feet). Because screenwriters realize that no audience, anywhere--not even audiences who have read this book--will suspend belief enough dig that the grandmother somehow managed to dig up a bucket of hot tar, tote it upstairs into a room with four sleeping children, and pour it on someone's head without anyone else noticing. Granted, I give these kids credit for being the dumbest children to ever draw breath. BUT REALLY NOW. REALLY.
Anyway, it just doesn't fly, and neither does the scene that follows: somehow Cathy is neither burned horribly nor glued to her sheets, because in Andrewsland, tar only sticks to hair. Chris swears he'll find a way to get the tar out of her hair without cutting it and shuttles her into the bathroom, where he experiments with the professional chemistry set he got last Christmas, trying to mix up a compound that will dissolve the tar.*
This is somehow one of the least unrealistic things that happen in this scene, akin to Cathy teaching herself to go on pointe, so I'm not really going to pick it apart, although I will say that someone around here might have had the foresight to think that Chris might one day use these chemicals to, say, create an acid to weaken the hinges on the door, or to throw into the grandmother's eyes. (SPOILER: He does neither of these things.) Don't give your captives potential weapons, is what I'm sayin'.
Cathy, meanwhile, sits in a bathtub full of hot water, crying. Future Medical Doctor Chris also encourages her to, um, go, in the bathtub, hoping that the ammonia in her urine might help dissolve tar. Um. I'm not a scientific genius, myself, but I'm guessing maybe six ounces of urine diluted in maybe fifty gallons of water equals YOUR BROTHER HAS A PISS FETISH.
Even without the aid of human piss, Chris manages to degunk most of Cathy's hair, and although Cathy claims that she "could afford to lose much [hair] without making a noticeable difference," her description sounds like someone suffering from low-level radiation.
True to her word, the Trunchbull doesn't bring breakfast the next morning. Or the next. Or the next. Even after Chris cuts off the front part of Cathy's hair, so that she can wrap a scarf around her head and look like she's ashamed to be seen bald (a ruse that could be uncovered with a simple "take off that scarf or no food for another week"), there's still no food. The kids' secret horde of food runs out quickly, and they settle in to starvation. They run out of other basics--towels, clean sheets, toothpaste**, and toilet paper--soon after. There is yet another scene where Andrews shows her fascination with bathrooms when the toilet overflows after the kids have been using pages from old books as toilet paper. They are forced to take back the bits of cheese they used to bait the mousetraps so that they can eat them themselves.
After two weeks with little or no food, Chris finally breaks down and cuts open his arm to allow the twins to drink his blood for nourishment. And I'm sorry. This is the point at which my sympathy for Cathy as a narrator completely vanished. Girlfriend. Facts on the table. Your younger siblings are dying of starvation, and your brother is feeding them his blood. If you let this continue, you are officially the vain selfish hellspawn the Trunchbull made you out to be. Shave your head. I do something radical and stupid to my hair at least twice a year, and here's a little secret: THE SHIT GROWS BACK.
Finally, Future Medical Doctor and Ballerina Barbie remember that they have a rope ladder and decide--finally, after two years of imprisonment and two weeks living on nothing but a cracker each per day--to risk escaping. In their much-weakened state, they are afraid they will not have the strength to climb down, especially with the younger children strapped to their backs. MAYBE YOU SHOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF THAT LAST WEEK. The kids go to the attic, where Chris retrieves some mice from the traps and prepares to skin and gut them so that he and Cathy can eat them. When he goes downstairs (for salt and pepper, of course), he discovers that the grandmother has finally left them food again--so much food that the lid of the picnic basket won't close. In the bottom of the basket, they find a surprise: four powdered-sugar doughnuts, from the grandmother, who never allows them sweets. These are completely not suspicious, and almost certainly not poisoned.
The incident once again commits Cathy and Chris to their new roles. "Now our relationship had changed," she says. "We weren't play-acting anymore. We were the genuine parents of Carrie and Cory. They were our responsibility, our obligation, and we committed ourselves to them totally, and to each other." Except that a real mother wouldn't let her children starving to save her precious hair. Well, maybe their mom would.
(A curious scene takes place at this point, one which has no real bearing on the story as a whole but which would probably be of interest to anyone who bothered to read this far. It's short, so I'll post it in toto:
"Chris," I said, sitting up to brush my hair, "in your opinion, what percentage of teen-aged girls in the world have gone to bed with clean, shining hair and awakened a tar baby?"
Swiveling around, he shot me a glance full of surprise that I would mention that horrible day. "Well," he drawled, "in my opinion, I suspect you might well be the one and only . . . unique."
"Oh, I don't know about that. Remember when they were putting down asphalt on our street? Mary Lou Baker and I turned over a huge tub of that stuff, and we made little tar babies, and put black beds in black houses, and the man in charge of the street repair gang came along and bawled us out."
"Yeah," he said, "I remember you came home looking filthy-dirty, and you had a wad of tar in your mouth, chewing to make your teeth whiter. Gosh, Cathy, all you did was pull out a filling."
This scene--which does nothing, goes nowhere, and is never mentioned again--is of interest solely because there is a small amount of evidence that it actually happened to V.C. Andrews as a child: allegedly, she got tar in her hair while playing around a road crew, and her mother had to "butcher her hair" to get it all out. It's an interesting anecdote for us biographically-inclined types, but even Chris's reaction suggests that it's really out of place within the context of the story.)
One night, well after the Starvation Diet ends, Chris, bored, suggests that he and Cathy climb down and visit the lake that their mother's told them is somewhere on the property. Um. Hey, here's a thought. Why don't you climb down and ask to borrow the neighbors' telephone? Has that thought perhaps crossed your nutrient-deprived little minds, hm? But alas. Not the brightest bulbs in the Christmas display are they.
Somehow, magically, based only on descriptions given by their mother, the kids find the lake. Also they're leaving the twins alone in their rooms but it's okay! they left them a note! Obviously, neither of them own a swimsuit, but that's okay, too, because they can swim in their underwear. Cathy also does not own a bra at this point. This is all starting to look more like some sinister plan concocted by Chris. But she defies him by swimming in her pjs, and the kids actually have some good wholesome fun splashing around in the lake.
They climb out and lie on the shore, under the stars, resting before they have to climb back up the rope to their room, and talk about fireflies, love, and where their mother's been all this time, and it's actually sort of a touching character-development scene as far as V.C. Andrews goes . . . and then, like a bomb, we suddenly encounter the worst line in the whole book:
That was my Christopher Doll, the eternal optimist, sprawled beside me, all wet and glistening, with his fair hair pasted to his forehead. His nose was. the same as Daddy's as it aimed at the heavens, his full lips so beautifully shaped he didn't need to pout to make them sensual, his chin square, strong, clefted, and his chest was beginning to broaden, and there was that hillock of his growing maleness before his strong thighs, beginning to swell.
that hillock of his growing maleness before his strong thighs, beginning to swell
(I seriously considered renaming this blog "The Hillock of Growing Maleness," but I figured I'd get a lot of weird search-hits.)
Seriously. I surrender. You have won, Virginia Andrews. Not only can I not read that with a straight face, I can't even imagine anyone able to write it with a straight face. That line has single-handedly reached a level of glorious idiocy that leave the rest of us white-faced with envy. Hang up your jock, the game is over.
Nevertheless, I'm halfway through this book and must soldier on: days/weeks after the swimming hole incident (Mommy Dearest still hasn't returned), Chris is standing at the window, looking out through the leaden rain for the distant train to pass, which is like nine-tenths of every Leadbelly song. Cathy asks him why, since they're strong and they have the ladder, can they not escape. Cathy, you just almost redeemed yourself for not cutting your hair. Chris makes a half-assed argument about how they've earned that inheritance and that he wants to go to med school and that if they escape, he'll have a ready-made family at age sixteen and blah-blah-blah and TWO WORDS, YOU FUCKING TOOLBOX: CIVIL SUIT.
Just then the Trunchbull walks in and catches Chris at the window, which is against the rules. Goddamn, this woman is like Ninja Grandma. Chris kind of snaps and confronts the Trunchbull on her hypocrisy--spouting eternal damnation while she starves little children--and the grandmother leaves the room and returns with a willow-branch whip. So . . . she has one stored in the next room over in case this ever happens? Is that where she also keeps the sedatives and the buckets of tar? Maybe she has this whole room wired and uses the other room to as a surveillance headquarters, listening for the splashings of two people sharing a bathroom so that she can rush in and catch them breaking rules.
The grandmother takes Chris into the bathroom--again with the bathroom!--strips him, and thrashes the shit out of him. With every blow, Cathy lets out a scream, as Chris is now "the other side of her" and she feels his pain for him. The Trunchbull then drags Cathy into the bathroom for more of the same. When the willow whip breaks over Cathy's shoulders, she starts beating her with what I can only assume is the toilet brush. Finally Cathy screams at her:
"I'm going to get even one day, old woman," I said. "There's going to come a day when you are going to be the helpless one, and I'm going to hold the whip in my hands. And there's going to be food in the kitchen that you are never going to eat, for, as you incessantly say, God sees everything, and he has his way of working justice, an eye for an eye is his way, Grandmother!"Whereupon the Trunchbull conks her over the head with the handle of the toilet brush and she blacks out.
When she comes to, she is naked in bed with Chris standing over her, tending her injured back. Chris tells her tenderly that the reason he didn't cry out while he was being beaten was because Cathy let out his pain for him. Aw. And then this happens:
We held each other carefully. Our bare bodies pressed together, my breasts flattened out against his chest. Then he was murmuring my name, and tugging off the wrapping from my head, letting loose my spill of long hair before he cupped my head in his hands to gently ease it closer to his lips. It felt odd to be kissed while lying naked in his arms . . .
ODD? THAT IS YOUR BROTHER. "ODD" IS NOT THE WORD YOU ARE LOOKING FOR.
And ugh, here we come, to the most completely pointless chapter in the whole book. Little background for you: legend has it that Flowers in the Attic started life as a 98-page manuscript. V.C. Andrews' editor--and yes, there was one--returned the manuscript with the suggestion that she expand it and make it a little more steamy. Allegedly, the result was the book we have now. This story, if true, explains why so much of this novel just seems to be filler. I mean, there is an inherent difficulty in writing a novel that takes place almost entirely in a single room and revolves around what amounts to four characters (the twins function as a unit and are so underdeveloped that they hardly count). There's a lot of books that do it well--The Collector comes to mind, but The Collector is also a relatively short work that relies heavily on the heroine's digressions in her diary. More recently, Emma Donaghue's Room provides a fascinating narrator in the form of a five-year-old boy who knows nothing of the world outside his single room--and even he escapes sooner than these kids do.
Point is, it can be done, and it can be done well. In Flowers in the Attic, the results are very uneven: there are way too many plot holes, too many spots where the story could have been tightened up, and the narrator frankly may need killing. This chapter, for example, could have survived as three paragraphs: the whole point of it is that Cory finds a live mouse in a trap, the kids save it, and it becomes their pet. The chapter is only significant in that it is the first, last, and only time that Cory does anything except die--possibly because Andrews decided that the reader might want some time to get attached to the kid before she rubbed him out. But it has the stale stink of filler about it.
I really feel bad for ending this section on that tepid note, but fear not! The next section marks the return of Mommy Dearest, the slowest burglars west of the Pecos, and the infamous but inevitable rape scene.
*My science-savvy husband states that the chemical he wants is tetrachloroethylene and that a "professional chemistry set" would very likely have some.
**Even in a four-person household, how fast can you run out of toothpaste? Especially when "brushing after meals" is taken out of the equation.