When I look at some of the fiction I’ve written, it’s not really surprising that as a young girl, I was obsessed with V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. Wealth! Children! An attic turned into a playground! Evil grandmother and eviler mother! Incest! I still cannot eat powdered donuts and am very suspicious of all white powdery substances. I wore my paperback copy of Flowers in the Attic out. I still have it; the spine so worn it’s soft, like a blanket of my youthful perversions and hopes.
My parents were strict but they didn’t monitor my reading. Their thinking, I imagine, was that if it were in a book, it was fine for me to read it. It was the name that first drew me in—V.C. Andrews…so mysterious. Was it a man or a woman? Why did they use that name? And then the book’s title. How can flowers survive in an attic—all that dust, the darkness, the low, angled ceilings? I had to read this book. My mom bought the book for me at the B. Dalton Booksellers at the Westroads Mall. I also got a Sweet Valley High book but quickly dispatched it—Elizabeth and Jessica were fighting about something and Todd was still boring and whatever. Alone, in my bedroom, well past my bedtime, I was in my bed reading Flowers in the Attic so fast, I could barely keep up with myself. Why wouldn’t those pages turn themselves?
I was horrified. I was intrigued. I felt funny in funny places and didn’t know why. That was the first time I realized that…I was bent. I was turned on by dark, deviant things (or at least, back then they were dark and deviant). I was going to hell, but I would have great reading material while I burned.
I suppose part of my obsession with these books was that I loved stories, for whatever reason, about children who managed their lives in adult ways. I was also enamored with the goings on of The Boxcar Children, the Chronicles of Narnia, and the like. Here were these kids, largely abandoned, and they made a life for themselves in an attic. They replicated what they understood of adult roles and tried to love each other as best they could.
But of course, the world building under tragic circumstances was only part of my obsession. Most of my interest was in the sex. It was so disgusting and wrong but it also made me squeeze my legs tightly together and it made me feel less guilty about the strange thoughts I found myself having about, say, being tied up by a tall man with steely eyes or being locked away in a prison with a cruel but loving guard who just happened to have a very fine physique and a full head of hair.
Anyway, I love a doomed love story and Chris and Cathy do love each other, so very much. Yes, they are brother and sister (if you want to get technical about it) but they also truly love each other and don’t they deserve to be together after all they have suffered? Their self-loathing in the wake of their forbidden desire is so heartbreaking when so much of their circumstance is beyond their control. Their self-loathing is also kind of relatable, you know? The incest in this book is not just prurient (though it functions on that level quite well), it also I think reminds us that sexuality is complex and sometimes the body wants what the mind says it shouldn’t have. Or maybe that is how I justify my love of this book and the rest of the series where things really jump off.
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.