Fifty years ago this month, Jacqueline Susann published Valley of the Dolls, about three young women and their successive bouts with self-destruction and addiction. Although widely considered low-quality by critics, the book’s appeal has proven incredibly enduring. At over 30 million copies sold, it’s one of the best-selling novels of all time.
As an adolescent I “borrowed” a copy from my mother’s bedside basket of books without telling her. The Pepto Bismol–pink cover was irresistible to me, and the novel rewarded my curiosity by introducing me to a concept I had never heard of before: pill popping. The book is pretty bleak on the prognosis for such habits, so — in addition to being a salacious read I’ve revisited several times in adulthood and gifted to more than one friend — it added to my Sweet Valley High–induced mortal fear of drug addiction.
My mother’s books — that big basket by her bed, the shelves in the family room where secret, adult gems hid in plain sight — were an incredible source of education to me (and my friends) growing up. Though my mother never declared any of them off-limits, something about them suggested that I should secret them away and keep them to myself. They all seemed, and to some extent were, licentious. But what was great about them was that often they weren’t at all what I expected, as displayed by the list below of the best books I ever stole from my mother.
The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel: If you ask pretty much any woman of a certain age — say from 25 to 40 — they will almost certainly tell you they secretly read The Clan of the Cave Bear at a young age. Maybe it disappeared briefly from the “Fiction - A” section of the local library, or from a grandmother’s bookshelf. Maybe, like me, you found it in that damned basket. My mother actually brought up this book in conversation at some point; it’s a whole series and I think she read all of them, devouring the questionable archaeological insights as well as the salacious Neanderthal sex scenes. I, of course, pretended I had never heard of it.
Communion, by Whitley Strieber: This book, a “true” story of the author’s alien abduction, is so important in my personal development that after sneaking it away from my mother’s book basket, I eventually rounded up enough funds of my own to purchase a copy at a local drugstore. My best friend and I read this book in bed under the covers late at night, whispering aloud. One look at the cover induced us to throw the book across the room, and sometimes one of us ended up tiptoeing in the dark to pitch the book out into the hallway. Only the cover of Stephen King’s It made me squirm worse. This book, as far as I know, really started the mainstream ufologist movement. Way before I was obsessed with The X-Files, Communion recounted an experience I was both terrified of and hoped might happen. I did, after all, want so badly to believe.
It’s Always Something, by Gilda Radner: Why did I take this book from my mother’s room without telling her? I have no idea. I also haven’t read it in many years, but I know that what I expected and what I got were two really different things. When I read this book, I had only a vague sense of who Gilda Radner was: I was too young for Saturday Night Live still, and Radner was before my time, anyway. I knew her primarily from a movie that was often on television, Haunted Honeymoon. It’s possible that I took the book without asking because I did know that, by the time I found it, Gilda Radner was dead. It introduced me to the brilliant comedic genius she was, and also to the struggles of a woman with eating disorders, which I’d never heard about in school or anywhere else.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde: Like many of my selections, I chose this for its cover, which was of a portrait, I assume of Gray, where half of his face was handsome and the other half was mottled and almost skeletal, like Jekyll and Hyde. I barely remember the first time I read it, but I recall finding it on the shelves of our family room, mixed in with my parents’ college textbooks. I wish I still had this copy, a cheap paperback that smelled of rot or bookworms (those don’t really exist, do they?) the way I assumed Mr. Gray himself did. I know just one thing about this book, which I’ve reread as an adult several times: I came to it looking not for philosophy but for a good and scary story. And I found one.
Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry: Long dead before either Making a Murderer or Serial came to be, my mother was obsessed with the big true-crime stories of the day. None was bigger or more horrifying than Charles Manson, and Helter Skelter tells the story in a way that was terrifying to a child my age. No need to explain why I snuck this one away, I assume, but over the years I also “borrowed” books about Ted Bundy, the Zodiac Killer, Jack the Ripper, and the Green River Killer from her room. Though I totally got that these were real crimes committed by real people with real victims, my childish assumptions of invulnerability meant that I gazed almost unsympathetically on the graphic black-and-white photo inserts that these books inevitably contained. I have Zodiac by my bed even now.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë: My mother will always be responsible for introducing me to my second-favorite book by my first-favorite author. I often looked for titillating covers with titillating stories inside, only to find — often happily — nothing so naughty inside, but Jane Eyre was the opposite. I pulled the book from the basket simply because it looked ancient, in a plain black board hardcover, thick and yellowed pages. It had old-book smell, a smell I love now but then had little knowledge of. I took the book with me, and it sits on my desk today. The story delivered more than I could have hoped for: It is romantic, shocking, and suspenseful. There’s a fire, a crazy woman, a fortune-teller. It takes place in Georgian England, which might as well have been Mars to me, a 10-year-old in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. It is, to this day, the best book ever written by a truly pissed-off bitch. Thanks, Mom. I can only hope that one day soon my own daughter steals something so wonderful from my bedside table.