During my early teens I found sex and everything that surrounded it more confusing than algebra. Glam rock music videos taught me that desirable women wore skin-tight leather and glowered seductively at the camera while the boys screamed and played their guitars. Said music videos also gave me the idea that sex involved some kind of violence or anger. The AIDS-obsessed culture that I grew up in made me think that I could be dead in a matter of years from a French kiss (one kindly English teacher, for whom I wrote a rambling journal entry expanding on my fears of death through sex, managed to gently reassure me that no, sex would not kill me, even though I should still be careful). The conservative Christian environment that surrounded even my fairly liberal upbringing said that sex was dirty. A few junior high and high school acquaintances seemed to be sex experts before I’d even been kissed. I read vampire novels with very little sex but lots of biting and sucking that people didn’t seem to mind.
Needless to say, I was conflicted. And during that delightfully perfect storm of anxiety, desire, naivete, and mass media brainwashing I discovered V.C. Andrews, author of Flowers in the Attic and dozens of other tragic stories of unimaginable cruelty, incest, rape, and doomed love. Sara Gran and Megan Abbott wrote about V.C. Andrews recently in The Believer, describing how her “spine-creased” books were “often passed down from an older, wiser girl with the whispered promise of secret knowledge hidden between the covers.” My mother might have been progressive enough to give me Girls and Sex and The Teenage Body Book, but it was V.C. Andrews who really educated me. Her books were indeed passed from friend to friend, sister to sister, read and re-read furtively under covers or during class, their most salacious scenes discussed in hushed tones.
Abbot and Gran write that the critical world has either eviscerated V.C. Andrews or simply dismissed her books as the lowest form of trash. I was over her by college, my well-thumbed copies of her books donated to a used bookstore or even thrown in the garbage. I occasionally laughed with friends about how naive we were back then, actually thinking her work was “powerful” and “moving.” College had made us all so much wiser. Other than the occasional oh-how-silly-we-all-were reminiscence, I really haven’t thought much about the books in the last twenty years.
But it seems Abbot and Gran aren’t alone in re-visiting V.C. Andrews, wondering whether she’s really to be dismissed so quickly. They wonder, though, as I did, if this is really territory that any of us former teenage girls want to re-visit. Having survived adolescence and its accompanying sexual confusion / acne / emotional upheavals mostly intact, do we really want to return? Do we really want to revisit books that at the time we found impossibly compelling, that now might strike us as simply hilarious?
Well, for the sake of this post, let’s say I do. And it would seem I’m not alone. In addition to Abbot and Gran, Slate‘s Emily Bazelon recently re-examined her own teen obsession with Andrews’ “awful” fiction in this piece. Bazelon makes the important point that it’s a universal teen right of passage to read books that are too old for you, that you feel the need to hide from your parents. The fear of getting caught, either by parents or by teachers, was half the fun. I’d agree with Bazelon that there’s no real harm in this, as horrified as our parents might have been to catch us reading Andrews’ graphic depictions of incest and rape: “Is this kind of illicit read damaging to kids, or is it an inevitable excursion into pseudo-maturity that beats a lot of the other likely avenues? Better a disturbing, too-adult book than an indelibly horrifying movie or Internet game or video (or, it goes without saying, an encounter with real scary people)?” I think the teenage girls who gasped over V.C. Andrews and Jean M. Auel (whose ridiculously detailed, five-page sex scenes sometimes made V.C. Andrews seem chaste in comparison) mostly turned out fine. Yes, better to encounter it all in a book than in real life.
As Bazelon and other bloggers have noted, V.C. Andrews’ books weren’t just naughty, they were downright weird. Not content with illicit sex and murder, she had to mix incest (between brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, and cousins) with rape and characters who inflict unimaginable torture on each other. Parents sell their children into virtual slavery. Grandmothers pour hot tar on the heads of innocent young children who they refer to as “devil’s spawn.” Parents die in car crashes left and right. Women are either temptresses or frail virgins, and either way they’re likely to get raped, get pregnant, and be made to feel horrible about both. Abbot and Gran comment that bookstores have always been uncertain where to shelve V.C. Andrews books; they’re “too offbeat for romance, too slow to qualify as thrillers, too explicit for Gothic, and far too dark and complex for young adult.” As a young teenager I didn’t think much about genre, I just knew that I couldn’t put the books down.
A lot of it was the sex, of course. Beyond those medical books that my mother provided me with, V.C. Andrews was some of my first exposure to not just the mechanics of sex (which had always struck me as utterly weird and unappealing) but all the rage, tears, and impassioned words that could surround it. Granted, the stories contributed a lot to my confusion (did all sex involve some kind of violence or pain? did all brothers lust after their sisters, and stepfathers for their stepdaughters? were virgin and whore the only categories I could choose from?). My own fiction written during this period, while not nearly as depraved and illicit as Andrews’, shows some of her influence in its confusion of rape with love. But the confusion was brief. By the time I’d finished high school and had a few real boyfriends, things were a lot clearer. No lasting damage was done.
Beyond sex, V.C. Andrews appealed to me for its depiction of a world where good and evil were clearly divided, where the evildoers were so evil and the good-doers so saintly that one could never confuse the two. Jack Halberstam writes similarly of the appeal of the Gothic novel:
“The Gothic…inspires fear and desire at the same time—fear of and desire for the other, fear of and desire for the possibly latent perversity lurking within the reader herself. But fear and desire within the same body produce a disciplinary effect. In other words, a Victorian public could consume Gothic novels in vast quantities without regarding such a material as debased because Gothic gave readers the thrill of reading about so-called perverse activities while identifying aberrant sexuality as a condition of otherness and as an essential trait of foreign bodies. ” (from Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters)
Gothic novels made the horrific “safe” by enclosing it in the body of an unreal monster like Dracula or Frankenstein, and thus made it possible for Victorian audiences to be titillated by something that was deemed “other” and distant from their real lives. In a similar way, the stories of V.C. Andrews allowed readers to experience horror and disgust at the actions of her characters even as they were drawn to them. The monstrosity of Andrews’ world was safely distant in its novel form, cut off from the reality of teenage girls by its fairy tale language and over-the-top storylines. For girls on the cusp of adulthood, with all of the confusion and anxiety that accompanied such a period, a world of stark good and evil, of horrific acts divorced from reality, was remarkably cathartic.
I tracked down a copy of Flowers in the Attic on Google books and read a few pages, expecting to laugh or wretch. I didn’t. Sure, my much older self recognizes that there’s no real literary merit in this book, that it’s full of flat characters and impossible plot contrivances. But it’s not awful. Its prose, while full of occasional howlers (Andrews really loved the word “buttocks”), has a strangely hypnotic quality. It sucks you into its world very quickly, as unrealistic and contrived as that world might be.
Of course it’s impossible to re-read Flowers in the Attic without going back in time, remembering the strange and sometimes wonderful stretch of years that was associated with such books. Adolescence is always more poetic in memory. And maybe that answers Abbot and Gran’s question–yes, we do sometimes want to return to those places, and to the books that we loved, if only to briefly remember that feeling of being poised on a cliff, of an anxious and agonizing world that was nonetheless a time of things felt more deeply than our cynical adult selves might ever allow.