- V.C. Andrews 1979
- Gothic Horror/Family Saga
- 411 pages
Flowers in the Attic. The infamous bestseller that got people all over the world excited about teen incest. Ah yeah, the ‘70’s were a different sort of time!
For those of you that don’t know the story, here is a recap, spoilers and all:
So there’s this Barbie Doll looking family, the Dollangangers, that are running around being perfect in suburbia. It’s the 50’s, so just picture Betty Draper from the beginning of Mad Men with a husband and 4 kids that look just like her. Cathy (the narrarator of the story) is 12, her older brother Christopher is 14, and there are two little twins, Cory and Carrie. The Ken doll dad suddenly dies in a car accident, and Corinne freaks out and agrees to go back to live with her estranged parents out in Virginia. She tells the kids their last name is actually Foxworth, and they come from a millionaire southern family. Her dad disowned her after she married Christopher Sr. though, because… Oops! Christopher was actually her dad’s younger brother, which made him her uncle (and if you choose to read the prequel to this whole sordid mess, Garden of Shadows, you’ll find out they were also half brother and sister. So… there’s that).
Needless to say, her parents got pissed about the whole incest thing, especially since they are pervy holy roller types. But the rich grandfather is dying now, and since Corinne is his only living descendant, she figures she can win him over and get back in the will just in time to be stinking rich when he dies. All she has to do is go along with her evil mother’s plan to hide the kids in Foxworth Hall’s huge attic (why not send them off to boarding school or something, you ask? Because they are ABOMINATIONS FROM HELL, that’s why. Quit asking questions, evil religious grandma ain’t got time for that). Anyway, how long could this situation last, right? Over 3 years, stunting the twins growth and twisting the older one’s hormones towards each other? Oops…
What follows is 400 delicious pages of over-the top despair, religious fervor, lust, greed, starvation, tar hair treatments, blood sucking (I’m not kidding), poisoning by arsenic donut, swan beds, murder, longing stares at sibling dirty parts, and lots and lots of televangelist-ish ‘fury of god!’ type speeches.
And then there’s the “romantic” rape. Yeah… Let’s not deny that the infamous incest scene, as described, is rape. It would never fly today, nor should it of course, but keep in mind this novel came out in the late 1970’s. You know, the same year Manhattan came out, featuring a 40-ish looking Woody Allen dating a 17 year old Mariel Hemmingway. And just the year before that there was Pretty Baby, the movie about a a 12 year old prostitute… played by a 12 year old Brooke Shields, complete with nude scenes. Meanwhile, on tv General Hospital had Luke rape Laura, then they went on to get married and were considered the sweetheart couple of tv for a while there.
Think of the 70’s scene as you will, but by the standards or whatever of its day Flowers in the Attic was actually weirdly tame. So why on earth, you ask, was this thing the best-selling phenomenon it was? A book about a brother raping his sister, then going on to get married and live happily ever after?
Well, like all break away bestsellers, the book gained its infamy because of the way it hit a collective taboo nerve, the irresistible hook of all scandalous popular fiction. Think about it. The Da Vinci Code = what if Jesus had kids? 50 Shades of Grey = What if you were asked to sign a sex contract?
Maybe it’s just me, but I see a lot of similarities between 50 Shades of Grey and Flowers in the Attic. No, seriously, both are singularly pervy, and it is all very fetishized. The evil grandmother, for example, gives the kids this long list of very dirty minded do’s and don’ts that’s designed to titillate. I mean, come on:
#11- you will not allow wicked, sinful, or lusting thoughts to dwell in your mind. You will keep your thoughts clean, pure and away from wicked subjects that will corrupt you morally.
Or this gem:
#10- you will not handle or play with the private parts of your bodies; nor will you look at them in the mirrors; nor will you think about them, even when you are cleansing those parts of your bodies.
Is this list of demands much different from Grey’s contract, with all the rules about diet and bondage and butt plugs?
The difference with Flowers in the Attic and the other ones mentioned, however, is the uniqueness of the voice. The story is narrated by a twelve year old girl, and the tone is completely believable. Cathy is melodramatic, moody, narcissistic, and hormonal. She is so real. The book is amazingly well written in that sense. And in every other sense! Yeah, you read that right. V.C. Andrews came up with a wicked tale, and it is gothic, purple prose at its absolute best. This book is melodramatic heaven, and the sequels bring the camp level up with every new installment.
So how did V.C. come up with such a tale, and how was she able to tell it so sincerely? What I found so amazing in researching this stuff was just how much of Cathy is pretty much the author herself.
Cleo Virginia Andrews, who went by Virginia, was born in 1923, and raised attending Southern Baptist and Methodist churches with her two older brothers and her parents in Portsmouth, Virginia. She was a pretty average kid until her early teens, when, according to some versions (her background is a bit mysterious and secretive, she seemed to want it that way) her foot got stuck in a stairwell and she twisted her back severely. Other versions have it that she just developed severe rheumatoid arthritis at this time. Yet other versions say her issues stemmed from both the back twist and the other stuff. In any case, she lived a life of constant surgeries, full body casts, wheelchairs, and crutches from that point on. Her spine was fused, so that she could barely even turn her head, and she had to type her manuscripts while standing, often for up to 12 hours at a time.
From the few articles on her background I found, she never married or even dated, and after her father died she lived with just her mother, and at times had to rely on her to eat and for her daily needs. Despite all that, she was able to become a commercial artist through a correspondence course, always writing stories in her spare time. After Flowers was published, she became a wealthy woman, and went on to complete the Dollanganger series (Flowers in the Attic, Petals on the Wind, If There be Thorns, Seeds of Yesterday) and the stand alone novel My Sweet Audrina before dying of breast cancer at the relatively young age of 63 (there are a zillion other novels by “V.C. Andrews” but those are actually by her ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman).
All the novels written by Virginia feature characters that wind up trapped in some way. There are accidents where people end up paralyzed, or in wheelchairs. They are always locked away somewhere, alone, in situations beyond their control. The gothic nature of her stories comes from this feeling, one that seeps into every description, every thought that runs through the characters’ minds. Cathy, like Audrina in her stand-alone novel, is psychologically stunted by the events that happened in her early adolescence, just like Carrie is physically stunted by the same thing.
The origins of Flowers in the Attic is mysterious. Virginia always claimed it was based on a true story. The legend is that during one of her many stays at a hospital, she developed a crush on a hot young doctor that told her that as a child he and his siblings were hidden away in an attic for years over an inheritance issue.
There is no evidence for that. After some research though, I did find an interesting real life case involving a family locked inside a house full of rat poison and brother/sister incest, and it happened around the time of Virginia’s youth. Could Virginia have run into an article on it, or, more likely, did her doctor read about the case, then use it to entertain Virginia? Who knows, but for what it’s worth, here are the details:
Back in 1959, Rafael Perez Hernandez was arrested in Mexico City for keeping his young wife and kids locked up in their home for 15 years. Rafael was one of those conspiracy theorist type guys, always fighting against the world. He lost his arm in an accident, and that made his bitterness and paranoia worse. After getting married, he moved his new wife to La Casa de los Macetones, as their home was known, and she and the kids never came back out.
Rafael worked from home as a rat poison chemist, which was why the house “smelled like death”. He and his wife had 6 kids that survived, and they were named Indomita, Libre, Soberano, Triunfador, Bienvivir and Librepensamiento. These kids became his unpaid workers, spending most of their lives making smelly chemicals and sometimes being the test subjects for the poison’s effectiveness. At least one child died from this, which they buried in the yard.
Rafael had some out there ideas for living a pure life away from society’s ills. He had his family on a strict schedule of work, exercise and philosophy. They lived off a diet of oatmeal, beans, and water, and while they ate they were not allowed to speak. Rafael would spend hours lecturing them on his favorite subjects and read to them from his favorite poetry and philosophy books. He cut out holes in the walls of all the bedrooms so he could spy on them sleeping.
The kids were kept on a tight leash. The punishments for wrongdoings were severe and once, after catching the older ones looking out at the world from the top of a tree in the yard, he took them on a drive to the scariest parts of Mexico City and let them wander around among prostitutes and homeless folk so they could believe the rest of the world was like that. They believed him.
By the time the family was finally rescued, it was pretty much too late. The kids were isolated for so long and were so malnourished they had mental disabilities, and there had been incest among the eldest of them. They had limited speech, were afraid of the outside world, and had no other skills other than how to make rat poison. They lived a hard life after their father was put in prison, and ended up regretting being rescued, because at least under their father they felt useful and could make a living.
The Perez-Hernandez case is pretty fascinating on its own, and if you are interested there is a really good movie about it called El Castillo de la Pureza from 1973 and a fictionalized account called La Carcajada del Gato by Luis Spota.
Anyway, I hope I shed some light on this gem of a cult classic. I’ll leave you with some amazing images I found on The Complete V.C. Andrews website of the models posing for the cover painting by Gillian Hills. Good stuff.