Trauma And Isolation In FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, Spooky Wrapping Paper, And More
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The Bite #124
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Trauma And Isolation In FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, Spooky Wrapping Paper, And More

September 01, 2020

In this Issue:


Trauma And Isolation In Flowers In The Attic

By Sezín Koehler

Content Warning: Some of the material discussed in this week’s lead may be troubling for some.

As the pandemic continues to ravage the world and many continue to self-isolate in order to stop the spread of the virus, a wildly creepy tale of isolation has gone mostly unnoticed in spite of its renewed relevance to our current situation; Flowers In The Attic. When V.C. Andrews’ gothic horror drama came out in 1979, it caused an enormous scandal. Even by today’s boundary-pushing standards, its dark themes of child abuse, murder, and incest remain shocking. But perhaps what’s more shocking still is the enduring relevance of its subject matter.

The first book of Andrews’ beautifully written five-novel Dollanganger Series, Flowers in the Attic features the four Dollanganger children — Christoper, Cathy, Cory, and Carrie — as they are forced into isolation by their mother, Corinne, who is attempting to win her way back into the wealthy but abusive Foxworth family that disowned her. It’s not long before we discover Corinne’s ouster was on account of eloping with her uncle (who fathered the four children), and Grandmother Olivia’s religious abuse stems directly from that violation of the natural order, as she considers it. Olivia calls her grandchildren “Devil spawn” and treats them accordingly. The brutality that the Dollanganger children endured for years in that attic is unimaginable, with ultimately only three traumatized kids leaving alive. The reveal that Corinne was poisoning her own children with arsenic-laced doughnuts is a key moment in horror history, and in the Dollanganger opus, it becomes a grotesque motif that shapes the rest of the story along with long-term isolation.

But what fascinates me about this series is how trauma and isolation become inextricably linked for the surviving Dollangangers. The bonds Cathy, Christopher, and Carrie formed out of their collective trauma force them to remain a hermetically sealed unit out of self-preservation. Like many domestic violence survivors, the children internalized the abuse and never told a single outside person about their experiences in the attic. They were equally ashamed that parents turned out to be niece and uncle, an aspect of their trauma that only adds to the taboo nature of speaking out. Teenage Carrie ends up killing herself in the second novel, Petals on the Wind — by eating poison-laced doughnuts, no less — because she could no longer live with their secrets or the physical and psychological damage they had caused her.

Equally terrible, because Christopher and Cathy had a romantic and sexual relationship during their captivity — one that begins with a violent rape in the book that all film adaptations have altered — her perception of consent and personal autonomy was fundamentally shifted, resulting in sexual relationships with her adopted father and her mother’s new husband.

As COVID19 continues to reshape our world and self-isolation remains a necessary tool for societal preservation, I can’t help but mourn anew for the Dollanganger children. Their time lost without healthy companionship, proper education or socialization, or even sunshine feels like an exaggerated, horrific version of our new normal. Reading about the rising rate of domestic violence during the shelter-in-place orders feels like a gut punch, particularly as we think of all the children who are stuck indoors with their abusers, just as Corinne’s kids were. Finding out how many children rely on school lunches and are potentially going hungry while sheltering-in-place is devastating, reminding me of the weeks where Olivia would punish the Dollanganger children through starvation before agreeing to help poison them.

The fact that there are children out there right now suffering in isolation like the Dollangangers is a real-life horror we have to reckon with. In many ways, the surviving Dollanganger children never really left that attic at all, living half-lives outside of its appalling shadow. Will it be the same for a segment of today’s children? My fear is that it won’t be Contagion or Outbreak that become the focus of stories about the pandemic, but that it might instead be more in line with Andrews’ devastating Flowers in the Attic as more information emerges. In this alarming thought, all I can do is hope that the Dollangangers’ tragic fate isn’t echoed in the futures of the COVID19 generation. Neither attics nor continuous trauma are the soil from which happy and healthy flowers bloom.

Sezín Koehler is a weekly contributor to Looper, a film critic for Black Girl Nerds, and has bylines in MediumThe ListBitch Media, and many more. She’s the author of indie horror novels American Monsters and Crime Rave, and writes from a small Florida beach town where she raises orchids and endangered monarch butterflies in her yard.


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