Monday, January 27, 2014

Petals on the Wind, Part Nine: You Really Didn't Think This Revenge Thing Through, Did You?

Greetings to the thousand extra page views per day I've been getting since Lifetime released Flowers in the Attic! 

 I feel I should warn you right now: if you love these books unconditionally, this blog is probably going to disappoint or upset you.  Here at the VCABlogorama, our love for the works of V.C. Andrews is as conditional as it is genuine, and we do a lot of snarking and criticizing.  The lesson of V.C. Andrews' novels is that people sometimes do terrible things out of love.  We snark because we love.    And hey!  At least I'm not poisoning anyone's doughnuts!*

But to serious matters.

This section is a little . . . rapey.  I dare say this is about as rapey as these books get, at least until we get to My Sweet Audrina (where I advise you to slip on some hip-waders because we're going to be wallowing in it).  It is almost impossible to get through this section without devolving into babbling Lovecraftian incoherence about how rape is portrayed in this section.  Therefore, trigger warning:

You have been warned by Trigger!

"Jory was a problem now that I didn't have Carrie," says Cathy, in arguably the most blatant vocalization of her abject and bottomless self-absorption.  She hires a live-in maid/nanny, Emma, to look after Jory, because apparently losing Carrie saved her enough cash that she could hire help in spite of all those bills and the dwindling supply of money from her dead husband's insurance check--which, I say again, equals three-quarters of a million dollars in now-money.  Cathy's like those people who win the lottery and wind up broke in two years.

Anyway, guys, meet Emma Lindstrom.  Emma will be with us until the next book, possibly because after all the hijinks she witnesses in this book, they will never be able to fire her without the risk of getting blackmailed.  With her son suitably nannied, Cathy prowls the singles bars, trusting that fate will lead her to Bart Winslow.

The whole arrangement of this has got me thinking.  It would seem much more reasonable to have Cathy begin an affair with Bart after their first meeting, during the insurance debacle, rather than splitting it around Carrie's death.  The only reason to play it this way is so that Carrie's motivation for suicide could be more squarely set on Corinne's shoulders, just to villanize Corinne one last time (like we needed one more reason to hate Mommie Dearest).  The book seems to feel Carrie could only meet Corinne in Virginia, therefore they had to have some reason to be there, therefore Bart had to tell Cathy he was moving, therefore Cathy had to meet Bart before Carrie's death.

Still, it seems like most of this could be sidestepped by not tying Carrie's death directly to Corinne's rejection and having Cathy choosing to go to Virginia on her own , something she would have been motivated to do anyway since she's trying to get close to Corinne and Bart.  As it stands, placing Carrie's death where it is delayed the plot-point of getting Cathy and Bart together.  It more than delayed it: it completely derailed it, forcing Cathy and Bart to essentially meet each other for the first time twice.

Cathy learns that Bart is an avid jogger, so she makes a habit of jogging along the forested trails near Foxworth Hall in hopes of running into him.  "Indeed," says Cathy, "he would need a strong heart for what was coming up in his near future."  I'm just mentioning this because idea of Cathy in high-waisted late-60s jogging shorts cracks me up.

Finally she runs into Bart in a cafe, where he immediately zeroes in on her: "As I live and breathe, if it isn't Catherine Dahl, the very woman I've been hoping to run into for months" because, lest we forget, Cathy still hasn't paid this man.  He offers his condolences for Carrie and asked what killed her.  I really don't know, Bart; I was just trying to work that out myself.

Cathy, instead, shoots back "Why don't you ask your wife what killed my sister?"  Bart is shocked, but also suspicious, considering that he found out about Carrie's death because he caught his wife clipping Carrie's obituary out of the local paper.  Dude.  You're a lawyer.  Can't you ask questions or make inferences or, I don't know, anything?

Bart drags out the blackmail letters Cathy wrote to Mommie Dearest several years ago and demands to know who Cathy is.  Cathy plays coy, smiles, and imitates some of Mommie's mannerisms to give him a clue.  Bart admits that she looks like his wife and assumes Cathy must be a Foxworth relative.  Again . . . dude, you're a lawyer.  You've read the blackmail letters where Cathy explicitly states that she's one of your wife's children.  She signed the letters with her full name, which includes your wife's former married name.  She looks exactly like your wife.  You know your wife was married for fifteen years prior to marrying you.  You know there's a codicil in your late father-in-law's will about your wife never having children from her first marriage.  You know it is there because you wrote the will

Bart complains that his wife refuses to answer his questions, which, again, makes him the worst lawyer ever.  Whenever she receives the blackmail letters, she runs away to look in an old photograph album and cry.  She keeps the album locked in a safe, away from Bart.  Cathy, knowing it must be the family album she remembers from her childhood, describes it exactly.  Again, this is the sort of hint you'd think even someone who was not a lawyer would pick up on.
World's worst blackmailer meets world's least perceptive attorney.

Instead, Cathy claims that Henny, of all people, had an affair with Malcolm Foxworth.  HENNY.  The plus-sized black deaf-mute domestic.  Henny, who transformed their lives (and saved Carrie's) by bringing them to her "doctor-son."  Henny, who has never been anything but loving and generous to these kids.  Why did you drag Henny into this?

She also says Henny is dead.  All of this is information that Bart could disprove with two phone calls if he was not plainly the worst lawyer in the world.

Bart isn't sure what to believe, but he knows Malcolm had enough affairs in his life that the story could be true, and there's no denying Cathy looks like a Foxworth.  They leave the cafe, and Bart talks about his unhappy marriage, about how his wife and he have everything they could ever want, except for a child, and how, when he was first living at Foxworth Hall, he used to lie awake at night listening to ballet music wafting from the attic above.

And then he tries to rape Cathy.  In broad daylight.  On a public park bench.  As you do when you're a prominent figure married to the most important woman in the county and your potential victim is an internationally famous ballet dancer who recently retired under tragic and widely publicized circumstances.  I mean, I realize that being extremely high-profile has never, ever stopped a would-be rapist before (see also: Roman Polanski and Julian Assange, amongst others) BUT STILL. THINK WITH YOUR BRAIN-MEATS.

Okay.  Here's the plan, Cathy.  I know this is horrific, but hear me out.  Let him rape you.  Drag his ass to court.  Refuse to take a pay-off.  Make a huge production out of this.  Then, at a critical moment, make the big reveal: he raped his wife's daughter.  You'll have humiliated your mother, taken away her inheritance, ruined her marriage, avenged your siblings, and taken a sleazebag off the streets all in one fell swoop.

Instead, Cathy fends him off with a pair of nail scissors and flees, with Bart calling after her that he still demands his "full payment."

Cathy bumps into Bart again on her daily jog.  She takes off, shouting that "a man that can't catch a woman is no man at all!" only to face-plant when her bad knee collapses on her.  Bart does not rape her at this time.  I'm as surprised as anyone.

As they jog together, Bart invites Cathy to visit him at Foxworth Hall.  Mommie Dearest is away at a health spa, and Bart's only company at home is the grandmother, who's suffered a stroke since we saw her last and can no longer walk or talk, an image sets Cathy's devious brain a-ticking.  Instead, Cathy invites him for dinner later that night, so he can rape her at his leisure.

When Bart arrives, Cathy dresses like she's sixteen and planning for a family birthday all over again: a low-cut red--excuse me, rose-colored--dress, slit skirt, silver sandals.  There's candles and soft music and scotch and Chicken Kiev and in the middle of this, Bart blurts out that he isn't sure he really loves his wife anymore, which causes Cathy to panic: "How could I break up a marriage that was already falling apart?"  Answer: much more easily!

Frustrated that this isn't going the way she wanted it to, Cathy pushes him away.  They don't know one another well enough for him to be telling her these kinds of things (?).  She demands that he leave.

Annnnnd he rapes her.

I've gone out of my way before to point out the moments when the text itself describes an act as rape, because there's so much, er, ambiguously labelled sexual activity going on.  The book actually using the word "rape" gives me a hook upon which to hang my argument.  For example, Paul says he raped Poor Damn Dead Julia.  This was useful when, only a few paragraphs later, Cathy (and through her, the entire narrative) tried to excuse Paul's actions by saying, in essence, that men need sex and Julia forced Paul to do what he did.

Likewise, in the current scene, Cathy punches and claws and screams and bites Bart while he's ripping her clothes off--while at the same time, making the alarming and bizarre statement that her only problem with this sex is that it hadn't happened the way she wanted it: after a long elaborate seduction where she could be certain that he'd chosen her over his wife.  However, the detailed description of the fight, couple with Cathy threatening Bart with a gun she doesn't have and saying she'll go to the police and have him charged with rape, is pretty fucking indicative of rape.     

Look, I'm trying very hard not to get all slut-shaming on Cathy for this.  What's important to remember is that Cathy is a collection of decisions and choices made by V.C. Andrews. And I will shame the hell out of Andrews for her very poor decisions in depicting the dynamics of rape.  The only forgiveness I can offer is that she seems to have a very nebulous idea of what rape is, and that she may have simply been subscribing to the common depictions of romanticized rape that were all over the place in romance genre at this time. 

A small timid sound came from outside my door.  "Mommy, I'm scared.  Are you cryin', Mommy?"

The next morning Bart sends Cathy three dozen roses, with a note reading "I'm sending you a big bouquet of roses/One for every night you'll have my heart."  Well that's an oldie but a goodie--with a falling petals reference, to boot:

When Cathy does not thank him for the roses within hours of receiving them, Bart sends her a single rose made of diamonds.  Cathy dismisses it as another gift bought with his wife's money, and thus without value. This next scene, plus some formatting issues, was the cause of this week's post being two days off schedule.  I waffled on if and how I should include it in what was already going to be a longish post, but in the end, it ended up being such a mindblowingly weird little throwaway scene that I couldn't skip it. The afternoon after the rape scene, Cathy goes to pick up Jory from his Montessori school (um, Cathy, I think I may have found one of your money leaks).  Jory is upset because one of his little schoolmate was slapped by his mother for touching her breast. 
Oh, how fast the young learned all the taboos!...How was it that little children, such young ones, would already be talking of sin and being slapped for only touching?
Cathy reassures Jory that she would never, ever slap him for touching her there and invites Jory to touch her breast and see.
I don't even know where to start unpacking this.

The book is clearly trying to play this scene to highlight what a wonderful enlightened understanding parent Cathy is, not like those other parents who sexualize every little innocent grope!  And on one level, I get that completely.  You don't slap a four-year-old for touching your breast.  At worst you carefully explain that some parts of our bodies are private, and that you shouldn't touch those places because it might upset people, but that mommies and their children have a special relationship where it's usually okay to touch. 

Sometimes it seems that Andrews has this attitude that sexual privacy = sexual prudery.  This series has a long, long history of unnecessarily and inappropriately sexualized relationships between parents and their children.  Andrews, for example, seems to find nothing at all creepy about mothers who squash their teenage sons faces against their tits, or casual nude sunbathing amongst siblings.  Andrews is trying to normalize an experience that most people just don't have, and instead of coming off as refreshingly progressive, it comes across as an uncomfortable lack of understanding about the boundaries most people have.  It's especially uncomfortable given the mountains of context this series has already presented.  For real, Cathy: you're pretty blase about making out with your brother.  I'm not trusting your judgement on this.

But the take-home point of this scene is that Cathy Dollanganger is a better parent than you.  

Bart shows up for dinner that evening, expecting Beef Wellington ("I'd lace it with arsenic!" Cathy thinks beforehand).  Cathy greets him at the door in work jeans, sneakers, and no make-up.  Bart sits down at the table where Cathy plunks down before him Jory's favorite lunch: a cold hotdog, cold canned beans, and a box of animal crackers.  On a silver platter, no less!

See, that would all be hilarious if it was supposed to be a comeback for him strolling into Cathy's crib and expecting her broke single-mom ass to make Beef Wellington.  Not so much when it's payback for him raping her. I'm sorry. 

Clearly I am having more trouble getting over this whole rape-thing than Cathy is.

"I take it you are one of those despicable liberated women who refuses to do anything to please a man!" Bart says, thus insuring that I will have to whip out the "V.C. Andrews: feminist" tag for this post.  Cathy says she's only liberated with chauvinistic men and that weak, passive men like him are always afraid of an aggressive woman and can we drop the dazzling feminist rhetoric and talk about how he raped you?

But no.  Instead, Bart kisses her and tells her he loves her, that it feels like he's always known her and he can't understand why. Of course, we know it's because he's still haunted by that one time twelve years ago when fifteen-year-old Cathy kissed him while he was mostly unconscious. They take this game straight to the bedroom:
If he'd done for me only a little last night, this night he used all his skills.  This time he took me to the stars where we both exploded, still holding tight to one another, and doomed to do it again, then again.
Hold me closer, tiny bullet points.
  •  Last night he raped you.  I'm sorry to continue harping on this point but someone needs to since the book seems to have forgotten it happened.
  • It is entirely possible to get physical pleasure from rape.  That doesn't make it not-rape.  That doesn't make it not-horrible.  That just means you have functional nerve endings.  But the way this book keeps going back and forth with the consent/non-consent issue being linked to whether or not Cathy had an orgasm is very confusing, not to mention uncomfortable.
  • This is likely my own interpretation, but all these references to the stars and being doomed are eerily reminiscent of the rape scene in Flowers in the Attic, an event inadvertently catalyzed by Bart Winslow:
Now we were doomed through all eternity...the result of one single kiss on mustached lips...the stars seemed to flash Morse Code beams to one another . . . fate accomplished.
  •  If that was the intent...I'm honestly impressed.  Way to bring that back around, Andrews!
We are also treated to a description of Bart's hairy body, further cementing my use of Burt Reynolds for my ultimate dream-cast of this novel.
Cathy falls asleep in his arms and awakes alone, crying, and again blaming her mother for starting all this.

Yet she makes no effort to end all this as the affair stretches into weeks and months.  Bart spends most of his time bitching about his wife, who has become obsessed with plastic surgery and weight-loss spas, and about how bored he is with being a successful rich millionaire who has nothing to do but attend parties and tour Europe.  I weep for you, dude.  Really.  Cathy asks why he doesn't just divorce Corinne, but Bart insists that he still loves her.

One day, when she's sure Bart's out, Cathy creeps into Foxworth Hall using the little key Chris carved lo these many years ago.  You'd think a house with this many valuables would change the locks every now and then, but there's nothing to get in the way of the plot.  Cathy knows from Bart that the grandmother is currently convalescing in the very same room off the library where the grandfather died.  Before she enters she takes off her coat and boots and puts on white pointe shoes.  Beneath the coat she wears a white leotard "sheer enough to let the pink of [her] skin show through."

What follows is this book's Crowning Moment of Batshit.

Inside the room Cathy is shocked to see the grandmother lying helpless and half-asleep on a hospital bed.  She is not wearing her grey taffeta dress, but the diamond broach is pinned to her hospital gown.  There is a very effective image of the grandmother's remaining hair "no wider than [Cathy's] smallest finger" pulled to the top of her head and tied with a pink ribbon, giving her a "ghoulish-girlish look."
Over the next several pages, Cathy will describe the rest of grandmother's scarred, furrowed, pasty, sagging, naked body, including her pubic area and nipples, in lurid detail, down to the last vein and hair.  Just when you think she's gotten over it, she'll start describing it all over again, generally in the context of "wow, old people are creepy and hideous"  and "man, I hope I don't look like that when I'm old!"

As Cathy turns to close the door, both we and the grandmother see the willow switch Cathy's hidden behind her back.  "Oh, dear Grandmother," Cathy says, "what fun you and I are going to have! And nobody will know, for you can't talk and you can't write, all you can do is lie there and suffer." Thus completing Cathy's transformation into a Marvel supervillain.

In true supervillain style, Cathy monologues about everything the grandmother did to them:
  • "The food you always gave us was shitty!"
  • "I bet your creep husband got off when you stripped down his daughter and whipped her!"
  •  "Carrie grew up to be an itty-bitty rinky-dink with a big honkin' lollypop head*** who killed herself because of you so allow me to slap you in the face with this creepy lock of hair I collected while she lay dying!"
  • "Chris and I made fun of you behind your back and also we sunbathed all the time and we were naked and everything so neener-neener-neener for your stupid rules!"
  •  "You were totes jelly of my awesome hair and that's why you tried to make me cut it off but we never cut it off because Chris loved me so neeners again, hater!"
  • "Random shit that I apparently always knew about jealous you were of my paternal grandmother but that we won't discuss further until Garden of Shadows!"
Cathy starts pirouetting around the room to vent her frustrations before she leaps onto the bed and starts dancing on top of the grandmother.  It starts to get a little kinky when Cathy and her semi-sheer white-tighted self drops to her knees and straddles the grandmother, but lesbians, like social services, do not exist in Andrewsland.****

Though she says that by now "her heart had gone out of this," Cathy flips the grandmother onto her stomach--more TMI on what time has done to the grandmother's glutes--and swats her a good one on the ass with the switch.  The grandmother faints and wets herself. 

Cathy bursts into tears and tries to clean up the old woman, but then sees a "gleam of unspoken triumph" in the grandmother's eye that pisses her off all over again.
Mutely she called me coward! I knew you couldn't be anything but a soft weakling!  No spine, no starch!  Kill me.  Go on, kill me!  I dare you, do it, do it, go on!
For the record, the grandmother is completely paralyzed and cannot speak or move her face.  This is what Cathy imagines her expression to mean.

In lieu of having a handy bucket of tar around, Cathy grabs a candle and a lighter and dribbles a few drops of wax on the grandmother's hair before she's had enough: "She was right.  I was a coward. I couldn't do to her what had been done to us."

She starts to leave, but then remembers that she's left the lock of Carrie's hair behind and rushes back to retrieve it, only to find the grandmother staring at the hair with tears in her eyes.  Cathy is satisfied that now she has her pound of flesh.

This scene goes on for-ev-er in loving, lurid detail.  It's also another one of those scenes where it's very hard to say whether the book is trying to point us in the direction of Cathy's revenge being disproportional and destructive, or if we're supposed to think it's completely justified.  The aftermath makes it seem like the book is condemning Cathy, but after that, the whole thing is never mentioned again, and nowhere is Cathy shown to have any further thoughts or feelings on the matter.
Up next . . . nothing!  There's nothing that can possibly top what we have just witnessed, so why bother continuing?  We're done here.
Nah, I'm kidding.  We're so close!  I'm not going to let this book defeat me! Up next, the Christmas to end all Christmases as Petals on the Wind reaches its fiery conclusion!    

*As far as you know.   
**If you've never seen A Serbian Film, don't.  This is the only scene you need.  


****Yes I know about April Shadows, but that's Neiderman.


  1. Love this...but isn't that Tom Selleck?

    1. OMG I DID IT AGAIN. This is the second time I've posted Tom and called him Burt, and vice versa. Thanks for pointing that out! Correcting now.

  2. So, the rape thing.

    This query gets into personal, speculative Author Territory, but: it seems to me that VCA's life, and consequently sexuality, were highly constrained by her physical limitations and controlled by her position as her mother's dependent. You've already covered how she in a way is the girl trapped in the attic.. Do you think she actually had any opportunity for knowledge of real adult human sexuality, orr was she perhaps writing entirely from ultra-rapey old-skool romance a la Fern Michaels and Kathleen Woodiwiss? And if so, can that be seen as a mitigating factor in her fundamental misunderstanding regarding the issue of orgasm versus consent?

    1. On the Complete VCA, there's a short section of a letter from one of V.C. Andrews' family friends that claims Andrews never even saw a man naked, which, if true, would explain SO MUCH. I personally think she was very, very taken with sex, in the almost preadolescent way of romanticizing it as a huge life-changing event--one which she may never have actually experienced--to the point that it became sort of a fetish.

      At the same time, Andrews puts her own spin on things. The language she uses, with all its florid rapeyness, is very much the language of old-school bodice-ripper romances, but the attitudes she conveys are very idiosyncratic and personal. Does that make sense? It's kind of a nebulous concept in my mind: this is what Andrews thinks sex is really like, but it's coming through this weird Fern-Michaelsy filter.

      I don't know! You've put all sorts of thoughts in my head! This might make something interesting to talk about in future posts. Thank you so much!

    2. Seriously? Glad I sparked something! I've just been reading a lot of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books lately. :) I think your mention of her fascination with sex as sex makes sense; I remember being that adolescent who bought into any information I could get about it (on the web and, well, in trashy's a vicious circle!) because, well, IGNORANCE and FORBIDDEN and OOOH MEN HAVE MAN PARTS, y'know? And coupling that with being a lady who no doubt did a hell of a lot of reading, I think that could very well contribute to the bizarre confections of language and imagery in the sex scenes she produced.

    3. I love the Smart Bitches. You've got me at a disadvantage on this subject, since I never went through a romance novel stage and only have any knowledge of their tropes through my romance-reading friends and things like SBTN (I kinda went through a trashy horror novel stage instead). I really should hone up on them for this site, though. Any recommendations? Especially for books from around the time Andrews was writing?

      (And oh yeah, everyone who knew Andrews says that she was a hella reader. Everything she could get her hands on, from the sound of it.)

    4. Mmh. My Trash territory is honestly more in the weird neo-pagan quasi-magickal territory, like "The Patchwork Woman", unfortunately--the Fantasy/Sci-Fi section of the library, with all its lavender stickers, was my crack.

      However, I do find that SBTB's F+ rating is an effective method of sorting out the most horrificlarious Old Skool stuff, simply because what was super hot then is now terrible but amazing. (Disclaimer: I also adore "Manos": The Hands of Fate because I am awful and like laughing at things incompetent people worked very hard to produce.) The era-appropriate Super Big Names of which I know are pretty much FM, KW, and Bertrice Small, and they're all pretty damn rapey, but that's by no means informed or inclusive.

      *shrug* I really need to buckle down more, since the stigmatization of modern women's reading and writing is an important component of my niche of research anyway. :/

    5. Oh, and this comment:
      discusses some writer from the 60s-70s named Violet Winspear in terms that make me think she sounds a bit like VCA. As the commenter, Kinsey, put it, "The prose is stilted and the narrative has this oddly detached air. It felt like I was reading a story about a story, if you know what I mean."

  3. I'm extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the
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    1. Thank you for your very kind words! I don't know if you neglected to add your web address or if Blogspot's anti-spam protection snipped it due to you commenting anonymously, but if you would like to make a temp account here and offer the link again, I'm always interested in seeing what other people are working on.

      In answer to your questions, we're a very shoestring production here at the Blog-O-Rama. Any praise should go to Blogspot for offering foolproof templates that are both easy to read and hard to screw up. Blogspot is the Carrie to my Cathy, in that it stuffs the turkey and makes the hot rolls while I do nothing but set the table. The only customization I've added has been the background image of the attic.