through the keyhole

by karolinawaclawiak

I came to know V.C. Andrews at a young age. Eight years old, actually.

My sister, five years older, was always a voracious reader. She brought Flowers in the Attic into our house clandestinely, from a friend. Or, perhaps she used her babysitting money to buy it at the grocery store from one of those spiral racks of paperbacks. I’m not sure.

All I know is that my sister treated the book like a secret and naturally I wanted in on it. I usually snuck into her room to read her diary and when I saw the book in its place, I knew it had to be something good.

The book’s keyhole cover was unlike anything I had ever seen. What was this ghostly girl’s face doing locked behind that attic window? Opening the front cover led to an even more shocking discovery. There were other ghost-faced children lurking behind the cover of the house. All in white, they looked dead to me. Powdery and frightened and beautiful. These were the four siblings, Cathy, Chris, Carrie and Cory, who spawned the Dollanganger series.

I was so enamored with the heroine Cathy that I used to sneak into my sister’s room and stare at her for hours. I wanted to be her, with her hair parted down the middle and perfect nose. I didn’t even want to open the book and read. The cover was enough.

The oldest brother, Chris, had a protective stare that made me fall for him immediately … years before I knew that Cathy had fallen for him too. I asked my mother to do my hair like little Carrie’s, pinned back on both sides with barrettes and she did without question. Cory looked like he could be my twin. I belonged with them. I was blonde too!

Flowers in the Attic was my first foray into the world of the Dollangangers and I didn’t even know V.C. Andrews’ version of their story until a few years later. I had constructed my own narrative for these children and let it play on a film reel in my mind day in and day out. They were mysterious while the other children in my suburban landscape seemed ordinary and without secrets. I wanted to live in a hush-hush world.

When Petals on the Wind arrived in my sister’s drawer a few weeks later I couldn’t take my eyes off it. This cover was even more sinister! A foreboding flower with crimson petals, three suspended in falling! What could it mean? And what of the two faces in the center of the petals, where the stigma and other reproductive organs of the flower should have been?

I stared at them and recognized her immediately. My Cathy. It had to be her. And Chris? He seemed older and worn. They both did. I hesitated to open the keyhole and then, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I did. I was unprepared for what I saw. Satin ballerina dress. Satin robe. A corpse lying on a bed. Where was Cory? I wasn’t ready to think about it.

They were all colorless and gaunt. What happened? I took notice of how Chris held Cathy’s waist. He was mine, not hers. I felt a tinge of jealousy seeing their closeness and resigned myself to heartbreak in my own version of their story.

More books followed and in I snuck, bringing them into my closet with a tiny desk lamp, and locking myself in to daydream about this family and their secrets. If There Be Thorns with its prickly flower and little lost boy staring out at me. Seeds of Yesterday with another flaxen-haired girl looking at me with an attitude among scores of what I believed were grapes. Inside, Cathy and Chris were old, a new guard of terrifying children surrounding them.

photo courtesy of araik91

I devoured cover after cover until I decided to break the spell and read them myself. It was a different story than what I had constructed and my pre-teen brain couldn’t comprehend what I was reading. A mother starving her children? Incest? Torture?

I was too shy to ask my sister about any of it. What If I was misreading? I would implicate myself in some kind of perversion and have to spend longer hours in confession. I would finally have something more sinister to confess than the standard sin I had been using for years – being a liar. No one could find out about this. I couldn’t fathom that my sister had spent so much time reading these books and didn’t know what was going on inside of them. I looked at her with a new kind of suspicion. I looked at her like she knew everything and I was still a child.

I even went so far as to convince myself that the “V” in V.C. stood for Victor. It was incomprehensible to me that a woman could write such things. Could envision these things! I was always reaching for darkness but didn’t understand the true limitless nature of it until I read this series. It served as a kind of awakening for me. I never thought women could write this kind of violence, inhabit such darkness. We were supposed to nurture, not destroy.

I was wrong and thrilled to have learned that lesson early in life. “V” stood for Virginia and Virginia was fearless in her writing. She helped me embrace my darkness and channel my destructive tendencies onto the page. I can thank her for that now.

5 Responses to “through the keyhole”

  1. i swear, we should have called this week “reading is traumatic” and/or “books that ruined us!!” Lovely piece on my favorite topic, thank you Karolina!

  2. sara, it’s so true. file under “books that stole our innocence”.

  3. Karolina-I did the exact same thing with those covers, creating stories in my head, long before I read Flowers. They were so powerful. It’s a testament to the power of a physical cover, isn’t it?

  4. GREAT piece Karolina!! Oh I’m so deeply jealous I missed out on being perverted by these seemingly amazing books! I had no problem getting perverted anyway through other channels but still.

    I remember so well seeing them in school libraries and in my sister’s room (she was two years younger so by that time I wasn’t paying attention to much), but they seemed so deeply entrenched in the realm of girls things.

    What I’m really surprised about guys, is that in following some of your Twitter convos etc, that it was a shock to some to discover V.C. was a woman! This seemed self-evident, but is/ was that my kinda sexist projection b/c I associated the books so heavily with the ladies or what? Why would that fact be surprising?

    And I think the power of a cover/ cover art to transport us in part explains the revival of vinyl records, and this supposed “mild backlash” i’ve been hearing about against e-books (which might just be wishful thinking amongst indie booksellers) is all about. You want to hold something, you want to see it and smell it and it has to be its own thing.

    regardless lovely post K

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