If There Be Thorns (1981) ratchets up the filial conflict, as Corrine moves next door to Cathy’s family and poses as a mysterious dowager so that she can spend time with Cathy’s sons. Cathy, now in her 30s and grappling with the reality of parenting, begins to soften in her judgment of her mother. She tells her son Jory, “When I was ten, I used to think that adults had it so easy, with all the power and rights to do as they wanted. I never guessed being a parent was so difficult.” Eventually, Cathy and Corrine find themselves locked together in a cellar. The ensuing fight starts a fire that threatens to kill them both. Corrine sacrifices herself to save her daughter, enabling Cathy to finally, posthumously, forgive her mother.
The plotlines may be outlandish, but the patterns of Cathy’s relationship with her mother are oh-so-familiar. Cathy wants to be different from Corrine but feels terrified that she can’t stop herself from turning into her; that tension is at the heart of all the Dollanganger novels. The series isn’t so much about disrupting destructive family patterns as it is about expressing their horrible inevitability. By locking them up together, Cathy’s mother all but guarantees that Cathy and Chris will end up creating an incestuous, dysfunctional family just like hers. Even their family name, Dollanganger, suggests that Cathy and her siblings are never more than just doubles of their parents. And Seeds of Yesterday (1984) seals the deal when Cathy dies in the attic of a mansion built to be just like the one in which she was imprisoned as a teen.
V. C. Andrews’s preoccupation with escape, confinement, and difficult moms was likely motivated by her own personal experience. Due to an injury suffered in her teens, Andrews used wheelchairs and crutches throughout her life, and lived a solitary existence with her mother as companion and caregiver. (Andrews died before the prequel Garden of Shadows was published in 1987, and though there's much debate on the topic, it's most likely all other V.C. Andrews novels besides the Dollanganger series, two novels in the Casteel series, and My Sweet Audrina were written in full or in part by others.) It’s not hard to imagine the feeling of permanent imprisonment Andrews may have felt. After all, she did dedicate Flowers in the Attic to her mother.
But these are obsessions we all have, too, and so we devoured the books and suffered the disappointment of that first film adaptation. It’s no surprise that a new television adaptation of Flowers in the Attic is on the horizon. The girls who came of age with Flowers in the Attic are now in our 30s and 40s, and if the much buzzed about Dotty Bingo survey from earlier this year is to be believed, most of us have already turned into our mothers. (Some of my generation even have daughters of their own, and they worry that the helicopters they’re piloting may be as oppressive as the attics they once read about.)
Revisiting Flowers in the Attic is a bit like reading it alongside your teen self. You can replay all the emotions you had when you first read it, but you can’t really feel them anymore. It’s not nostalgia that draws us back to Flowers in the Attic and the Dollanganger novels. And it’s not because they’re fun, either. (The novels are neither as good as you thought they were, nor as a bad as you’d like to remember them.) Instead, it’s because V.C. Andrews continues to give voice to feelings that are hard for us to acknowledge. Like Cathy, we got out of our mother’s attics—but we never quite escaped them.