Sunday, January 8, 2012

Petals on the Wind, Part Four: Greetings from the Boarding School from Hell

Without warning, the novel turns to one of the more interesting, yet inexplicable tangents in the whole series, an incident that will become a standard in Andrewsland for several series to come: the Boarding School from Hell.  This is kind of a long one.

But let's let Cathy tell it, shall we?

Now I'm going to recount an event in Carrie's life, for this is her story and Chris's as well as mine...Ah, dig me a well to cry in before I begin, for I loved her so, and what pain she had to bear, I bear, even now.

For the record, this is one of only two chapters in which Carrie will play a significant role in this entire series (Chris never gets his own chapter).  I hardly need to point out that Cathy's pain is at the forefront here.

As you will recall, Carrie and her great big honkin' lollipop head were shipped off to boarding school so that Dr. Paul* could freely grope Cathy in the living room back home.  Naturally, Carrie hates it.  Carrie has hated every situation she has encountered since this series began.  She hates her uniform, which is yellow, since yellow represents Cory and the sun they were never allowed to see; she hates her roommate, Sissy Towers, a spiteful little red-haired girl who is jealous of Carrie's blonde hair and blue eyes, since hey, who here isn't bitterly envious of blonde hair and blue eyes?

Artist's depiction of the aforementioned roommate.

I'm betting it has more to do with Carrie being a whimpering, whiny eight-year-old who acts like she's five and who probably should have had some kind of evaluation before being separated from her family and thrust into a completely unfamiliar environment, but that's just my earth-logic kicking in.

One day, for no good damn reason, Sissy calls all the other little girls on their floor into the room she and Carrie share so they can pay a quarter to see "the freak."  Once the girls hand over their money, Sissy demands that Carrie strip naked so the customers can get their money's worth.  Jesus, Andrews!  Even children in Andrewsland have this weird, sadistic, sexual streak to them. 

Finally one girl gets creeped out by this and tells Sissy to stop.  Sissy responds by punching the buzzkill in the nose, splattering blood everywhere.

The blood triggers a flashback of the night Chris cut open his arm to feed the twins his blood, and Carrie begins to scream uncontrollably.  All the teachers rush into the room, and all the girls are punished, even Carrie, who, hysterical, can't stop screaming even when the headmistress tries to calm her enough to find out what happened.  This is a completely healthy and reasonable response on everyone's part.

The following morning at Chez Sheffield, the school calls to tell the family that Carrie is not allowed to come home for the weekend because she's being punished.  Cathy, for once, is upset, since they promised they would have her home every weekend.  Chris, however, is a smug bastard, pointing out that they know Carrie can cut up with the best of them and that "if she did nothing but scream, she'd drive you batty--and deaf."  OH CHRIS YOU ARE A PRINCE TOO.

Alone in her room at last, Carrie turns for comfort to the small porcelain dolls Cathy smuggled out of the incredible dollhouse from Foxworth Hall.  But when she unwraps them, they have been replaced with sticks.  Carrie assumes that they have been magically transformed by God in order to punish her.  This is also a completely reasonable response.  Alone in the dark, Carrie and her big honkin' lollipop head cower and wait for God to take them too.

And then things gets batshit.

Into her room the other students troop, wearing long white nightgowns with pillowcase hoods over their faces.  Bearing lighted candles, they form a ring around Carrie and begin chanting.  They are compared to "witches," but around these parts, we call people who dress like that "Klansmen." 

The mini-Klansmen round up Carrie, gag her, blindfold her, tie up her wrists, and lead her onto the roof of the school, where they abandon her.

Still gagged, bound, and blindfolded, Carrie makes it to her feet.  She's still terrified of roofs, on account of that time Cathy and Chris tried to force the twins onto the roof at Foxworth Hall so that they could get some sunlight, but somehow, she hears the voice of Cory leading her back to safety.  Except that Cory seems to have it in for her too and she falls down a flight of stairs, where she becomes trapped behind a tower of crates in a hidden portion of the school's attic.

The following morning, the headmistress again phones chez Sheffield to report that Carrie has vanished.  The police are involved and currently doing everything in their power to locate the missing eight-year-old girl.  Nah, I'm kidding; no one calls the cops.  No one ever calls the cops in Andrewsland. 

Cathy, Chris, and Dr. Paul head out to the school to look for Carrie themselves, since, again, this is a completely reasonable response to this situation.  Cathy spots Sissy Towers behaving suspiciously and, acting on a hunch, shakes down the little girl and pulls Carrie's porcelain dolls out of her pocket.  Finally, another little girl--doubtless afraid that Cathy will turn on her too, since clearly the headmistress takes a hands-off approach to protecting her students in any way--admits what they did.  Upon hearing this, Cathy has a psychic vision of her sister trapped behind a stack of crates in the school attic.

Even though it's already been searched, everyone heads to the attic, where Carrie is discovered wedged between two enormous, teetering, dangerous stacks of wooden crates, precisely as Cathy saw her.  Cathy is the only person small enough to crawl between the crates and take hold of Carrie, and Dr. Paul pulls them both out an instant before the crates smash down.

Y'know, maybe I'm just being all litigious, but I think a series of well-placed lawsuits would solve a world of problems in this series.  I'm just sayin'.

I don't even know what this chapter is doing here.  It's an unnecessary digression that adds nothing to the narrative as a whole, except to show that Carrie in particular is extremely messed up, physically and emotionally, as a result of her time in the attic, and hey! we knew that already.  Honestly, what it feels like is that Cathy--and through her, Andrews--felt guilty about neglecting the character and decided to devote a whole chapter to her. 

I complained in the first review that Cory's death has no real resonance because Andrews never developed the character.  It's like the author expects us to be sad just because the death of a child is sad.  In terms of plot, he contributed nothing and was actually holding the story back--metaphorically and literally, since the problem of escaping with the twins was part of what kept the older kids from leaving the attic.

Likewise, Carrie's presence or absence really gives nothing to this book.  She contributes nothing.  She neither thwarts the plot nor facilitates it.  She doesn't even serve as that much of an emotional anchor for Cathy, who, in spite of her repeated statements that Carrie is like her own child, spends most of her time absorbed in her own pursuits, foisting Carrie off on other people and only occasionally remembering she's there.  Actually, considering the sort of negligent parent Cathy later becomes, maybe this is treating Carrie like her own child.

Anyhoodle, this is the Boarding School from Hell.  The real question is, why?  Why is this here?  What is the purpose of interrupting the action with a dead-end scene?  What are we supposed to take away from this?  And why is it such an important lesson that the Boarding School from Hell turns up in almost every V.C. Andrews series afterwards?

One of the big themes in Andrewsland is a sort of general "women beware women" attitude.  At the Boarding School from Hell, the heroine is trapped in an environment with wall-to-wall other women.  Often this is her only interaction with her own peer group, and invariably, the majority of these women hate her.  Even in a book where every man is a freakin' rapist, the biggest danger to Our Heroine is . . . other women.  Men only want to rape you.  It takes another woman to really fuck your shit up.

As in Cory's death, victimhood at the hands of other women is frequently substituted for character development in Andrews's work. The heroine rarely seems to grow or change or learn anything from her suffering. At most, it's presented as proof that she is so pretty that other women will naturally despise her for stealing all the male affection and leaving them as runners-up.  In a very weird way, Andrews is very consistent in this concept: men want to rape the heroine because she's the prettiest (read: sexiest) thing going.  Women want to hurt her for the same reason.  The motivations are exactly the same no matter what the gender.  In other words, in Andrewsland, jealousy is how women rape other women.

Carrie is an unusual case.  She is presented as completely sexless, in that she's literally trapped forever in a child's underdeveloped body.  Her chief rival at the Boarding School from Hell, Sissy, is specifically said to hate Carrie because Carrie is pretty.  She even humiliates Carrie in an explicitly sexual way by demanding that she strip naked.  These kids are prepubescent.  No one here is getting laid for a while (we hope).  But the power dynamic of jealousy is still present, even in a demographic that probably still believes that boys have cooties.

The Boarding School from Hell is shorthand for the only sort of relationship sexualized women are allowed to have with other sexualized women in Andrewsland: one based on competition. 

Swear to God, folks, I meant to simply analyze what was on the page, rather than searching out for the overarching thematic elements that permeates Andrews's oeuvre n' shit, but these chapters . . . there's almost nothing to see here.   A lot of these chapters are only four pages long and pretty repetitive.  Most of them could be summarized with "Cathy suffers a piddling personal set-back and blames her mother for it."     


Cathy is of course enraged . . . at her mother, because her mother is responsible for not vetting this school before enrolling their psychologically scarred sister into it and probably she personally hand-sewed all the Klansmen costumes.  Rather than suing the headmistress for gross negligence, Cathy fires off an angry letter to Mommy Dearest--who is in Europe--and signs it "Not yours anymore, the ballerina doll, the doctor doll, the praying-to-grow-taller doll, and the dead doll."   I'm starting to feel sorry for poor Carrie now.  No wonder the child feels like a freak if you've completely identified her with her handicap!

Chris finds out that Cathy has been stalking their mother via the society pages and asks her why she can't just let it go.  Cathy, pretty reasonably, asks Chris how he can just let it go, since, admittedly, the woman did do a lot of damage to their lives, and she's furious that Chris still feels any love at all for their mother, before she comes to this amazing conclusion:

He went on loving her because he had to if he was to go on loving me. Every time he looked in my face he saw her and what she'd been like in her early youth. Chris was just like Daddy, who had been just as vulnerable to the kind of beauty I had.

For those of you who thought I was talking out of my ass about the impact of beauty in Andrewsland . . . ooooh, boy.  Let's break down this Freudian sideshow: Chris has to keep loving his mother because he's in love with his sister who resembles their mother . . . and I'm stepping out from in front of this trainwreck now.  The scene ends with Chris snogging Cathy and Cathy pushing him away, as per the usual.

The next chapter is only a few pages long and is mostly one of those summarizing "we had now been with Paul for a year and a half" chapters.  Cathy is still studying ballet; Chris is still in college; Carrie is still a friendless and miserable soul who spends most of her time in the kitchen with Henny.  The chapter contains only one significant scene: by pure chance, Cathy runs into her mother and stepfather and spends the whole day stalking them from store to store through the city, as you do.  Then she runs home sobbing and smashes a mirror on account of that whole I-hate-looking-like-my-mother-even-though-my-mother's-pretty-fly thing.

The next chapter is titled "A Birthday Gift," and by "gift," it's pretty clear from the git-go that Cathy plans to give herself to Dr. Paul, for reals this time.  She putters around the house making Dr. Paul a "gourmet" meal (jambalaya casserole--look, it's the 60s, okay?) and a homemade cake (into which she puts twenty-six candles, as that is the age she wants Paul to be), then takes herself to the beauty parlor to get made up.  "When I was done no one would have guessed I was only seventeen," she boasts, before going home to put on a low-cut, flame-colored dress that displays a lot of cleavage.  FAMILY BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.

Needless to say, Paul is late.  About three hours late.  When he finally gets home, only Cathy is still up waiting for him, and man, it's like he forgot the shampoo all over again:
"Why did you have to go to that medical convention in the first place? You might have guessed we'd have special plans for your birthday! And then you go and call us up and tell us what time to expect you home, and then you're three hours late--"

"My flight was delayed--"

"I've been slaving to make you a cake that tastes as good as your mother's," I interrupted, "and then you don't show up!"
Seriously, the whole Shampoo of Sorrow scene was almost identical to this one.  It's like even the author isn't paying attention anymore.

Also I love Cathy being all "how dare you go to a medical conference, you doctor, you!" when Paul has been putting three unrelated teenagers through school for the past year.  So far, Cathy, you have not turned a day's labor for pay since you arrived in Chez Sheffield.  Ballet school ain't cheap, girlfriend.

Eventually Dr. Paul talks Cathy out of being completely bipolar and they have dinner together, then go for a moonlight walk through Dr. Paul's garden.  The garden, I must say, is up there with the dollhouse in the Things I Would Want in Real Life.  Paul's garden is filled with marble statues, life-sized reproductions of classics, and the centerpiece is Rodin's "The Kiss."

Tell me you wouldn't make out with someone with that baby in the background.   Ooh-la-la.

As they ramble hand-in-hand amid marble statuary and over lacquered Japanese bridges--Dr. Paul's family practice is doing pretty well for itself, judging by the unlimited fundage he seems to have--Cathy tells him all about her philosophy of love:
"..Love isn't enough, nor romance.  I want skills to see me through life so I'll never have to lock away my children to inherit a fortune I didn't earn.  I want to know how to earn a buck and see us through, even if we don't have a man to lean on and support us."
[Spoiler Alert: Cathy is never more than three feet from a man for the rest of this series.]

Paul sympathizes with her need, but warns her against being too independent, telling her that "a man likes to be leaned on, looked up to, respected.  An aggressive, domineering woman is one of God's most fearsome creatures."  Buy a dog, dude.

Cathy suddenly grasps that this is getting serious and that she is far too young to be feeling these kind of adult emotions.  Naturally, she blames Mommy Dearest for getting her into this situation, although I'm not even sure how that applies. Instead, she tells Dr. Paul that she was going to buy him a Cadillac for his birthday, but she couldn't afford one, so he'll have to settle for second-best--her.  They start making out, then Dr. Paul sweeps her into his arms and carries her back into the house for the novel's first real sexytimes interlude.

"Catherine! Hurry, hurry, come!"

What was he talking about? I was there beneath him, doing what I could. Come where?  I could feel the terrible effort of his restraint as he kept telling me to come, come, come!...Hot juices spurted forth to warm my insides pleasantly five or six times, and then it was over, all over, and he was pulling out.

[The morning after...] I snuggled closer against his bare skin. "Explain one thing, please. Why did you keep asking me to come?"

. . .
. . .
. . . 


I'm sorry, what?  Did that just happen?


Here, in graphic detail, from her own lips, is what Cathy expected to happen:
"I'm supposed to feel stunned by lightning bolts so that I stiffen out and go unconscious and then I'm split wide apart into atoms that float around in space and then gather together and sizzle me with tingles so that I can float back to reality with dream-stars in my eyes."

Yeah!  It's like

you're like, whoosh! and then it's like

and finally you're all like, wooo!  and then it's all

I hope that works out for you, Cathy.  I do.  Really.

Seriously, this whole scene is like textbook virgin/whore dichotomy territory and after doing a whole feminist breakdown of female relationships in this series, I'm not sure I even want to go there.  Suffice it to say that Cathy has been trying to seduce Paul for almost a year now and all this time, she's had only the vaguest idea of what she's going to get out of this deal . . . except for Paul himself.  And honey, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but a man who rapes his wife, knocks up his mistress, and sleeps with his sixteen-year-old ward is no prize.

So Cathy and Dr. Paul begin their weird, creepy May/December--or April/September, really, since Cathy makes like Paul's age is an insurmountable obstacle when he's forty-two (by comparison, she also scoffs that Paul's former lover, at twenty-nine, is an old bag who can't compete with her).  Frankly, he could be Cro-Magnon Man, for all I care, as long as he's not a blood relative.  They fight to keep their affair a secret (Cathy makes a rather snide remark that "Carrie might as well have been in another world she was so unobservant") although Cathy feels bad that she's "betraying" Chris.

Finally, on their third Christmas with . . . wait a minute, didn't it just say at the start of the last chapter that they'd been living there for a year and a half?  Lemme check this.

Okay, back.  So the book opens in November of 1960, when Cathy was fifteen.  First Christmas was the whole rockin'-around-the-Christmas-tree incident, which would have been Christmas of 1960.  Then, the following April, Cathy turned sixteen and tried to seduce Paul.  Apparently nothing else happened in that entire year, because we skipped Christmas of 1961, and then April must have happened again, because she was seventeen at Dr. Paul's birthday.  Now it's almost Christmas again.  So . . . timeline says that this is indeed their third Christmas with Dr. Paul, but Cathy says they've only been there a year and a half.  Huh.

SO ANYWAY, we will accept that Cathy lives in a magical la-la land where Christmas happens twice a year, because apparently this is their third Christmas with the good doctor and he wants to know what everyone wants for a present.  Cathy pipes up that she wants to visit Foxworth Hall.  Carrie only has to hear the name again before she starts to cry, and Cathy, who feels like a mother to her poor traumatized sister, immediately realizes that her revenge is not worth threatening Carrie's shaky mental stability.

Nah, I'm kidding.  She completely ignores both her sister's tears and her brother's outrage and screams that her wounds will never be healed until justice is done.  Because all pain here is Cathy's pain.  No matter how you hurt, Cathy hurts harder. 

And with that . . . I think this entry has come full circle.

Next up:  Foxworth Hall from afar, Cathy sets the stage for her next abusive relationship, people actually leave the house, and I'm sure we can squeeze another Christmas in there somewhere.  Stay tuned! 

*This will be the last entry where I use the name "Dr. Paul," in order to avoid any associations from Dr. Ron Paul, the GOP nominee.**  It's nothing political, I just don't want to get a lot of weird hits.  And also Cathy is now fucking him so I think we can dispense with formalities.

**Management is not responsible for any distasteful mental images of Cathy making out with GOP nominee Ron Paul in a moonlit garden.


  1. "Catherine! Hurry, hurry, come!"

    ...the fuck? It doesn't sound like he's trying to pleasure Cathy, it sounds like he's asking her to keep up with a moving train.
    Not to mention its kind of dickish assumption that a sixteen year old virgin will know what to do and ask her to 'hurry'. CHRIST.

  2. Hahaha. Great analysis, too. So glad you're back!

  3. I LOVE your analyses. I really do. I am so looking forward to the next installment.

  4. "I'm supposed to feel stunned by lightning bolts so that I stiffen out and go unconscious and then I'm split wide apart into atoms that float around in space and then gather together and sizzle me with tingles so that I can float back to reality with dream-stars in my eyes."

    Sadly, this is not Cathy's fault. Or Andrews'. This is, I swear to God, almost identical to the way that sex was described to me in the 1960s and 1970s. "Fireworks going off to the accompaniment of an orchestra" was what I was told multiple times, both in person and in books. Sex was supposed to be THAT dramatic and THAT fantastic.

    So I'm not surprised that Cathy is confused. What actually happened is nothing like she was told to expect from sex with someone she loves. This, basically, is what she's feeling:

  5. OK, as soon as you started with this book, "the Paul book" I will always think of it as (I thought he was romantic, I'm pretty sure! OK, I was like 12 and obviously a completely naive little idiot), I began to wonder, when does the "Come, Cathy, come!" scene happen??? You say everyone remembers the bleeding scene; I always remember two scenes from this book -- the bleeding and "come, Cathy, come." It made a pretty big impression on me obviously. This passage right here is where I learned the (other) meaning of the word "come," and, I'm pretty sure, where I learned of the existence of the orgasm, at least the female version (gee, thanks, VC!). Dear God, why didn't someone stop me reading this crap! Ha.

    And going a might backwards, I was kind of eerily fascinated to read the Carrie part synopsis, because while I could not have told you "Carrie" or this book, I realized as I read your descriptions that I also recalled that whole scene, but I guess, looking back, due to the very tangential nature of it as you describe, I did not at all connect that kind of float-y memory with this book. Of Carrie more generally, I remember always wanting to know more about her, and yet...kind of recoiling from her at the same time, because it was like if Carrie was on the page you knew something bad was going to happen, and her life was just so abjectly miserable (as I recall). It's fascinating to read your analysis of this stuff looking back with mature eyes, and for me to follow along and look back with my own mature eyes. I can't believe I'm having Deep Thoughts about these books all these years later.

    I also can't believe I just wrote in a public forum about how I learned the (other) meaning of the word "come."

    "No matter how you hurt, Cathy hurts harder." I'm not sure if that was a throwaway or you were having Deep Thoughts. I know people like that. I came to full-stop hard-pause when I read that sentence. I do not recall perceiving Cathy that way at the time (naive little idiot). But your posts definitely make me see her that way. But I wonder if you think VC intended (consciously) to portray here that way. Some of the other things you've written here make me wonder if perhaps this isn't something coming from her own personality.

    1. I don't remember being as shocked by the "come, come!" scene as I did later, when Cathy talks about the first time Paul's tongue touched her "there." Oral sex? Scandalous! I understood the implications well enough to believe that oral sex must be some shocking, deviant act. I also interpreted this to mean that someone putting their tongue "there" resulted in an instant orgasm.

      There. Now you don't have to be embarrassed alone. I'm going to hide under the desk now.

      ::comes out from under desk::

      You're absolutely right: whenever Carrie moves to the forefront of a scene, it's because something terrible's about to happen to her. Andrews kind of broadcasts it in advance, which is enough to make anyone dread her appearance and want to batten down the hatches. Poor damn Carrie. It only gets worse for her in the next couple of sections, I'm afraid.

      I think the problem with Cathy's emotions being raised above everyone else's is that the books are very big on protagonist-centered morality: basically, if the protagonist does a thing, that thing is right and good, and the reader isn't supposed to question that. It comes up a lot with writers who fall in love with their characters and attempt to shield them from criticism, and it happens in all kinds of literature, high and low. With Andrews being as emotionally attached to her characters as she was, I wouldn't be surprised if she was projecting her own feelings onto them, or perhaps even trying to justify something about herself through her characters.

      And I think when you're young and reading these books (and most of the people who read these books were super-young--like, median age of thirteen), you're basically just at the age where you're realizing yourself as a person. Kids at that age literally feel things harder than they will at any other point in their lives; it's a physiologically valid phenomenon. Teens aren't exaggerating. They're experiencing emotions at a level they haven't yet learned to cope with and it's literally driving them a little bonkers. Those emotional extremes can be isolating and thrilling. They can also be very addictive. You weren't naive or an idiot when you first read these books. You may have just recognized that Cathy was responding to feeling the same way you were: as if every emotion was raw and brand-new and overwhelming. Because they *were*. (And I'm using the general "you" at this point, not talking about you personally of course!)

      That, I think, is a big reason why these books were so popular with very young teens, and why people still remember them with such desperate fondness: because Andrews, perhaps locked into that sense of perpetual adolescence, tapped into that deep feeling of overwhelming emotion. Maybe they were bad, but in a way, they were *true.*