Sunday, April 10, 2011

Flowers in the Attic, Part Three: Merry Christmas from the Family

With the Trunchbull gone, the kids gather around their mother--gently--as she explains what's going on here. What's going on here is that lady, you have one hell of a lawsuit open to you and you could probably sue these sadistic sumbitches for millions. You need to go to the cops and get photo documentation of this. Go on. I'll wait.

Nah, that's not how we roll here in Andrewsland, where money = absolute godlike power. Instead she explains that both her mother and father are religious zealots. Even in her father's condition, he attends church every Sunday, sometimes in a hospital bed, because he is trying to buy his way into Heaven (silly Malcolm Foxworth! You can buy your way into Heaven for $500! Just ask Cal Dennison in a couple of books!). As a child, she says, they were forbidden to go to dances, to date, and were required at all times to control their thoughts and keep them "pure," which explains why she keeps strolling around in her negligee in front of her teenage son, but whatever. But then she fell madly in love with her handsome half-uncle. They eloped, and finally it dawns on the kids that this half-uncle that has been mentioned at least five times now is, in fact, their father. NOTE TO THE ACADEMY: NOT MENSA MATERIAL.

The next chapter is basically the kids establishing a routine and talking about how bored they are being indoors all the time. In response to the Trunchbull's demand that the two older kids memorize a Bible verse per day, they start memorizing all kinds of sarcastic tidbits--Wherefore have you rewarded evil for good?--until the Trunchbull eventually stops asking.

Mommy Dearest is fairly attentive for what amounts to the first several weeks. She appears every day before supper, and as long as she can on weekends, bringing them games, toys, books, tidbits from the big supper downstairs, anything to still feel a part of their lives. On Saturdays and Sundays, she stays with them for hours. At every visit, Cathy asks how much longer; every time, Mommy Dearest says she doesn't know. Chris berates Cathy for making demands of their mother, who's doing the best she can for them. Because Chris wants to bone his mother. There. I said it.

Then we are treated to one of the more inexplicable and disturbing passages in an already bizarre-beyond-belief novel, where Cathy, for some reason, decides to tell us all about her baby siblings' underpants. Seriously. She starts off describing the kids' personalities in a general way, and then . . . starts talking about their underpants: how Carrie likes to skip around holding her skirts up so that everyone can see her frilly panties, and how proud Cory is to wear big-boy briefs just like Chris. It's . . . I don't even know.

One Sunday, Mommy Dearest doesn't turn up at all, which seriously worries the children, as well it should, considering that they are well aware that they are living with people capable of stripping a grown woman naked and beating her so she can barely walk. The worry drags on until Mommy Dearest breezes in, with this touching description:

Momma came gliding into our room, wearing tennis shoes, white shorts and a white top with a sailor collar trimmed in, red and blue braid, and an anchor design. Her face was rosy-tan from being outdoors. She looked so vibrantly healthy, so unbelievably happy, while we wilted and felt half-sick from the oppressive heat of this room.

Sailing clothes--oh I knew them. That's what she'd been doing. I stared at her resentfully, longing for my skin to be tanned by the sun, with my legs as healthily colored as hers. Her hair was windblown, and it flattered her well, making her seem almost ten times more beautiful, earthy, sexy. And she was almost old, almost forty.

Okay, first off: Mommy Dearest was previously stated to be thirty-three. That is not almost forty, young lady. Second off . . . why is she checking out her mother's legs again? What is wrong with these people?

Cathy's fed up. She demands to know why her mother was out having fun when she should be telling the grandfather about them so that they can go downstairs. Mommy Dearest confesses that there's something she's not telling them: her father, it seems, has already announced that the only reason he let her come back was that her unholy marriage produced no children. The children are going to have to stay in this room until their grandfather dies. Which is horrible news, except that EVERY SINGLE SIGN HAS POINTED TO THIS SINCE THE NIGHT YOU ALL ARRIVED. The grandmother flat-out told them that they can't visit a dentist until their grandfather dies, and I don't think that's because they can only have so many people on the insurance. THE GRANDMOTHER HAS BEEN TELLING THEM GOSPEL TRUTH FROM THE START: she's the one that told them they would be there at the end of the month when the cleaning crew arrived. Goddamn, you's some dumb yowwins.

With the truth out, the kids resign themselves to their fate and decide to make a project of self-improvement. To add some structure to their days, they fall back on little rituals; for example, every day has its own lucky color. They also decide to hardcore clean the attic and decorate it so that the twins will have a nice place to play.

Mommy Dearest brings them boxes of art supplies they can use to decorate. She even comes up to the hot, filthy attic to help them clean, and Cathy is touched by the image of their mother--who never did housework when their father was alive, relying instead on a twice-weekly maid--kneeling on the floor in her blue jeans, sleeves rolled up, getting sweaty and grimy just so that her kids will have a nice place to play. I'm a little touched, too, except . . . fairly recently, this woman suffered fifty lashes at the hands of her sadistic parents. She has fifty open, seeping, bloody wounds on her back. Imagine sweat rolling into them. Imagine all that grit and dust. Imagine, at the end of the day, going downstairs and peeling that sticky shirt away from those raw wounds. Oh my God this book is HORRIBLE.

Mommy Dearest is seeing them less and less these days. She tells them that, in the event that the grandfather's dying takes longer than current estimates, she's attending secretarial school so that she will be able to support them and keep the family together. This is pretty much bullshit from the start, but we the readers will remember this episode fondly at "that time Corrine actually gave enough of a shit about her children to lie to them."

Meanwhile, even Chris is getting frustrated. He and Cathy lie side by side on a dirty mattress in the attic and console each other with plans for what they're going to do when they have all the money in the world: Cathy wants to be a ballerina, and Chris wants to go to medical school. Chris, touchingly, finds an old barre in the attic (although seriously: who has an old barre lying around in the attic? That implies that somewhere downstairs is a fully-outfitted dance studio) and installs it for Cathy, then has Mommy Dearest bring in some ballet slippers and leotards. Practicing for hours a day, Cathy uses dance as an escape from the situation, teaching herself to go on full pointe, which I'm told is pretty much impossible but it's actually one of the least improbable things that happen in this book so I'll bit my tongue for the nonce.

Also, remember that dirty, stained mattress; it's going to come back to haunt your nightmares later.

The seasons change, and gradually the attic goes from stuffy and hot to freezing. One day the kids are warming up with a game of hide-and-seek in the attic when they realize that they can't find Cory, who has hidden in an old trunk and fallen unconscious. See, for y'all young whippersnappers, there was a time in American history where the most dangerous thing that could ever happen to a child was to discover an abandoned refrigerator. Back in the day, refrigerator handles locked, and of course children would invariably be compelled to climb into inside and would slowly suffocate to death. Apparently there was just a wealth of abandoned refrigerators and children willing to get into them, because the trope of "child accidentally locked inside X; smothers" is fucking everywhere.

Future Medical Doctor Chris revives Cory and soaks him in a warm bath to bring him back up to temperature. All of the children are terrified; they realize now that in this room there lies a few real dangers, and they're all alone. In the aftermath, Chris sits down in a rocking chair and invites the others to pile onto his lap, exactly the way Poor Dead Daddy used to when Cathy and Chris were small. As if the symbolism weren't fucking overt enough, Cathy catches a glimpse of them in the mirror and thinks "He and I looked like doll parents, younger editions of Momma and Daddy." But the incident seems to seal them into a true family unit.

The holiday season rolls around. The kids are bummed out at the prospect of no Thanksgiving dinner and beg their mother to come share their meager lunch with them. Mommy Dearest, unfortunately, has to have dinner with her mother and some family friends, but she promises to bring them up a real feast of whatever the rest of them are having. Since the kids have been literally eating the same meal--cold scrambled eggs and bacon, soup and peanut-butter sandwiches for lunch, cold fried chicken and string beans for dinner--day in and day out, for months, they're eager for a change. Mommy Dearest finally delivers the goods--cold, and several hours late. This is the famous scene where Chris essentially takes most of the food for himself, and gives Cathy and the twins a single slice of turkey. When the twins fuss that they don't want any dinner, Chris pigs down their share as well. God this guy is such a douche.

Turns out the twins aren't hungry because they have the flu. With no doctor's visit forthcoming, Cathy and Chris do the best they can with vitamins, aspirin, and clear liquids, but the twins never really recover. The incident again teaches them that they are responsible for their young siblings. This is another theme that happens a lot in V.C. Andrews novels: young (often prepubescent) girls who become surrogate mothers for one or more younger siblings. Heaven becomes the mother for her entire family; Audrina takes up the life-long responsibility for her mentally challenged sister. Most of the others wind up teenage moms. Even in this book, early on, Cathy initially rejects the twins, only to be won over by their cuteness and running home early specifically so that she can help care for them. Motherhood: you can never start too early!

Meanwhile, the twins' illness opens Cathy's eyes to the fact that their mother has gradually become more and more distant. We the reader saw this a mile off. Chris, however, still places full confidence in Mommy Dearest--possibly because she still has the majorly disturbing habit of putting his head between her breasts and stroking his hair in times of crisis.

Christmas rolls around, and the kids, again, are a little bummed out. Christmas doesn't seem so special when their mother brings them presents practically every time she visits. But the kids start a project: they're going to try to win over the Trunchbull by making her a hand-made gift. Hands-up, right now: how doomed to failure is this plan? But they find an old wooden stretcher frame (stretcher frame? stretcher frame?!) and create a creepy-ass collage of a garden.

Christmas morning arrives, and the kids wake to find that Mommy Dearest has come through again: dozens upon dozens of gifts, and best of all, stockings filled with forbidden sweets. The kids stash the candy under a bed when the grandmother enters, and Cathy tries to give her the present. The grandmother takes one look, then turns and walks out without a word. Cathy goes batshit, hurls the package to the floor, and stamps it flat.

Chris manages to talk Cathy down by the time Mommy Dearest strolls in with what, in my opinion, is the absolutely best thing about this story ever and I want one so much I can taste it: a beautiful antique dollhouse, handmade, fully functional, highly detailed. The books have actual text, the kitchen contains actual implements, the rugs are handwoven miniature Persian rugs, and if this thing exists anywhere in the world, I'm stealing it. Mommy Dearest gives it to the twins, under the solemn promise that they will never lose or break any of the pieces.

Okay, here is another weird thing about V.C. Andrews. She constantly includes references to scenes that she doesn't bother to tell the reader about. In this book, for example, a piece of the dollhouse does go missing. There is no scene, however, that tells the reader that "one morning, we discovered that the doll's cradle was missing." We only hear, much much later, that Chris made Carrie a new cradle out of cardboard. This sounds like a fairly small scene in context, but it sent me scanning back through the pages, wondering if I'd been so careless that I skimmed over the fucking scene where the cradle went missing to begin with.

It wouldn't be so big a deal, except that this happens at different points in several different novels. In Heaven, there is a scene where Heaven breaks into Kitty's cabinets and discovers that Kitty's ceramic molds, which she has been advertising as one-of-a-kind, are purchased from a wholesaler--except that this scene never happened. We only hear about it when Heaven throws the accusation at Kitty. In Petals in the Wind, there is a scene where Cathy explores the attic as an adult and discovers what well may be a cadaver, but again, we don't see this happening; we only learn about it when Cathy mentions it later. It's the equivalent of leaving out the flashback where Charles Foster Kane leaves Rosebud in the snow and all we ever see is it being tossed in the furnace at the end.

Back to the narrative: in addition to the dollhouse, Mommy Dearest brings the kids a small portable black-and-white television, which costs a lot of money back now. The kids are thrilled that the grandfather has given their mother an expensive present and ask her if this means the grandfather has forgiven her. She says yes, but not-so-subtly avoids the question of whether or not this forgiveness means they can leave their room. She does tell them that next week the grandfather is having her rewritten into his will, and that tonight there will be a Christmas/Welcome Home party in her honor.

Cathy and Chris beg to be allowed out to watch, and their mother, who has a brain like a chickpea, relents, tells them that she knows a place where they can watch the party without being seen. She will come later tonight, when the twins are asleep (since they can't be trusted to keep still/silent, but they apparently can be trusted not to wake up alone and freak out), and take the kids to their hiding spot. With this promise, she slips out.

And so do I. Coming up: the Christmas party happens, an entire year is pretty much glossed over, and the kids go through puberty. This will not end well.


  1. Haha, I just made a reference to that tendency of the author to include comments and details about things "that she forgot to tell the reader about" on my blog earlier today. You explain it so much more succinctly though. Still...super annoying.

  2. I just thought of something. Quite soon after a severe whipping, Corinne decides to go sailing in shorts. How did that happen considering the fact that the Trunchbull told the children that she is whipped all the way down to her feet? So there would be severe scarring, right? Apparently not. Mommy Dearest runs around in shorts and in the next book even rocks a backless dress which is just the thing one wants to wear with a whip-scarred back. Maybe MD has some sort of magical non-scarring skin because afterward she is described as gorgeous and pretty well perfect. And we all know how competitive Cathy was with her MD. Surely had her mother had a severe amount of scarring on her, Cathy would have been constantly gloating about it, considering it a small victory for Team Cathy.