Monday, January 20, 2014

Are You There God? It's Me, Cathy Dollanganger

When I was in middle school, I remember two books being passed around and discussed in hushed tones. It was mostly older girls (or at least girls that seemed older) who seemed in the know about them both. One was Forever... by Judy Blume and the other was Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. Neither of these books were on the required reading list but everyone seemed to know something about both. I didn't read either until I got to high school and I remember feeling like I finally belonged to the world of girls. Reading both of the novels was a rite of passage up there with getting your first bra or wearing makeup for the first time. I was thinking about both after reading an article about V.C. Andrews last week and having a conversation about how reading influences writing. I read a lot of Judy Blume and V.C. Andrews but I don't write like either of them (and probably never will) but I think they were both important for other reasons.

There's a great book called Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume. It's an anthology of women writers discussing the significance of Blume's work in their lives and their writing. This was the first book I bought when I got my Kindle a few years ago and I read it in a day. This would start my Kindle holiday reading binges - during the holidays, I can get through five novels on a Kindle in a matter of days if I have nothing else to do. It was fun to read about how my experiences with Blume's work were so much like other women's. Judy Blume was a part of my reading life before I even knew what Forever... was. I started reading the Fudge books and was a devotee of Sally J. Freedman and Sheila the Great. And then there was Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - this was my favorite Blume novel. Margaret was my pre-teen hero. She was a bit awkward, she was in constant competition with her friends to meet "milestones" they created on the road to becoming young women, and her parents just didn't understand her. Judy Blume understood the pre-teen girl experience.

Of course there was also Forever.. - the book passed around every camp, Girl Scout troop, and group of friends you could find. It's a frequent visitor to the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books (coming in at number 7 from 1990-2000). The book had a bit of everything: sex (and whether Katherine was ready for it), teen pregnancy, a character questioning his sexual identity, and suicide. Most importantly, it had the agony of first love. I re-read Forever... this summer and it's still a killer. The adult me knows that Katherine is better off at the end of the novel (and I applauded her trip to the Planned Parenthood for birth control - be in charge of your bodies ladies) but the teenage me was still hoping that she and Michael's story would end differently. Teenage me still wanted the happily ever after that all the movies I watch(ed) promise. Judy Blume doesn't sugarcoat anything which I appreciate today as much as I think I did when I first read her books.

In stark contrast, Flowers in the Attic, had very little to relate to in the big picture of the novel. Family betrayal of epic proportions, incest, and murder are not things the average teenager deals with in their daily life (at least I hope not). V.C. Andrews did not set out to write fiction that appealed to young adult audiences but that's exactly what happened. Her Gothic horror are definitely precursors to a series like Twilight minus the supernatural creatures. Andrews found actual people more horrifying.

On the surface, there isn't much of a connection to Judy Blume and V.C. Andrews but if you look at the majority of Blume's female characters, they have a lot in common with Cathy Dollanganger, the narrator of Flowers in the Attic and the sequels that followed. Cathy was approaching her teen years at the start of the novel when her father's death causes her family to uproot and head to Virginia to live with a part of the family they never knew existed. She was her father's favorite and early in the novel (and both film versions) you can see the tension between Cathy and her mother (just like Margaret and Katherine and Davey and Deenie and their moms). Cathy is the defiant one of the four Dollanganger children. She yells at her mother, Corrine, and the Grandmother. She's the one that challenges them, not her older brother. Cathy sees the change in her mother (like the reader or viewer sees) and realizes that the children are on their own.

Cathy comes of age in an attic with her older brother and two younger siblings. She assumes the mother role, eventually replacing her mother in the eyes of the twins. She's the voice of reason and pushes her brother Christopher to break out of the attic. Yes, there is the part where Christopher rapes Cathy. Even if you've never read this novel, you know this happens. Is it terrible? Absolutely. Is it the most important part of the book? Not at all. But it's the reason that everyone (boys included) passed this novel around and hid it from their parents (although I never hid that I was reading this book or any book for that matter). Cathy doesn't handle the rape in this novel or confront Christopher about what he did; it's dealt with in the sequels. Interestingly, most fans don't consider Christopher a villain and I don't think Andrews could have written the story without this scene. I don't agree with it but I know the novel wouldn't move ahead without it.

As I watched the new film version this weekend (on Lifetime of all places), I was struck by how Cathy doesn't seemed surprised by anything her mother or grandmother do as the days in the attic turn to months and years. I remember thinking this when I read the novel and when watching the first version of the film starring Louise Fletcher, Kristy Swanson, and Victoria Tennant. Watching Victoria Tennant and Heather Graham portray Corrine is fascinating - there is a moment (and it's not the same moment) in both performances where you can see the woman for who she actually is rather than a loving mother trying to provide for her children. She's a self-obsessed horror. Her children are better off without her. I hope that Lifetime considers making the sequels into movies. Corrine doesn't die at the end of Flowers in the Attic (the Lifetime movie is much more closely aligned to the novel) and she doesn't leave her children alone either.

I don't know if V.C. Andrews set out to write about female relationships and power when she penned any of the Dollanganger novels. On some level, though, that's what she did. Cathy and Corrine are playing out this chapter of this family's version of slamming doors and the silent treatment. The difference is, of course, that Cathy really does come to hate her mother and Corrine actually does try to kill her children. Incest aside, Flowers in the Attic is a coming of age story and it's about the odd and fascinating world of mothers and daughters. Andrews would expand this to focus on mothers and their children in the later novels but the tension that exists in that relationship is what drives Flowers in the Attic. Cathy and Corrine are rivals from the beginning and only one can win.

At the center of Forever..., Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and Flowers in the Attic are all young women trying to figure out how to navigate in the world and find their place within it. Margaret is looking for identity, Katherine wants to be accepted as an adult, and Cathy wants to be free.

Flowers in the Attic
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

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