A forbidden classic, Flowers in the Attic is the story of four siblings subjected to years of abuse by their mother and grandmother. It was the Twilight of the 1980s: wildly popular and passed around by teens, with the added bonus of being “dirty.” But with today’s teens eagerly reading the chaste romance between a girl and a vampire, how does Flowers in the Attic compare?
Flowers in the Attic
Cathy and her siblings-older brother Christopher and younger twins Carrie and Cory-all take after their parents. The whole Dollenganger family are blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned beauties. But the death of their father breaks up their home and ends their extravagent lifestyle. Their mother Corrinne decides the only option is to return to her family’s palatial mansion in Virgina. However, Corrinne was disinherited years ago, for getting married–and to her half-uncle. That was seen as sin in the eyes of her parents, and Corrinne knows that she can’t reveal her children until she’s back in her father’s good graces. So Cathy and her siblings will be hidden in a small room and the attic of the mansion’s north wing, with only their mother and grandmother knowing of their existence. Christopher is fourteen, Cathy is twelve, and Carrie and Cory are four. And a concealement that was supposed to last for a few weeks at most stretches into years . . . with horrifying results.
Even thirty years later, Flowers in the Attic still shocks the reader. There’s physical abuse, religious hysteria, rape, poisoning and incest. Yet these events occur against a backdrop of normality; the novel doesn’t really condemn any of these events. For many of us, incest merits a shudder, thanks to a set of taboos that stretch back to Biblical times. And the grandmother certainly reflects a Judeo-Christian viewpoint regarding the actions of her daughter and her husband. But Grandmother’s constant refrains about sin and wickedness, not to mention her cruel actions, does much to undermine the reader’s natural antipathy towards incest. After all, who else can Cathy and Chris get comfort from? Add in the potent cocktail of teenage hormones, coupled with adolescents’ under-developed reasoning skills, and incest is bound to happen under such conditions. This certainly doesn’t make Cathy and Chris’s behavior acceptable to most of us, but it can’t be said that the incest is just about titillation.
Yet Flowers in the Attic inflicts these horrible events primarily upon the narrator Cathy, simply because she’s a girl who’s entering puberty. Cathy is questioning and disobedient. Cathy is vain of her beautiful hair and proud of her developing figure. Cathy is turning into a woman–and a woman, not unlike her ancestor Eve, is full of deceit and must be punished. That’s the mindset that comes across in the novel. Cathy is whipped, has her hair covered in tar, and is raped by her brother. That certainly seems like punishment for being a young woman. Other characters suffer, too: Christopher is whipped and feels guilt over his attack on Cathy, Carrie and Cory grow up without sunlight or fresh air. Yet Cathy is subject to the worst treatment.
Teens who have read Twilight could pick up Flowers in the Attic and be surprised at the subject matter. Yet the style of the writing will be very familiar: the foreshadowing, the atmospheric settings, the sense of hidden secrets waiting to be revealed. And in its way, Flowers in the Attic is innocent, too. It’s all strange new feelings and stolen glances, with only a few scenes that describe Cathy and Chris’s developing bodies or sexual acts. So perhaps Flowers in the Attic is the ultimate forerunner to Twilight. But I wouldn’t recommend suggesting it during a reader’s advisory interview. Flowers in the Attic is still the book that you read secretly, after you got a copy from your friend with the covers torn off and the “sexy” parts underlined.
Writing with any degree of seriousness about Flowers in the Attic was a challenge, because it’s a book that’s not designed to be anything other than a fast-paced, steamy read. I really had never read this, and even as an adult I occasionally went “Ewwwww!!!” at different moments, because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. But you can’t help but see the appeal of this book, even now when teens know so much more about the darker side of life. But I think reading Flowers in the Attic is one of those “part of being a teenager” moments that I’m not sad to have missed out on. Anyone else want to share their stories about reading the books they had to hide?