Rereading the preteen incest classic Flowers in the Attic.

Snapshots of life at home.
Dec. 6 2007 6:03 PM

Her Dark Materials

Should children read Philip Pullman's trilogy—or the incest classic Flowers in the Attic?

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As bad as this prose is—in the Seattle Weekly, one male writer quipped that V.C. Andrews ruined the women of his generation—it's also compelling. I'm with the blogger who writes, "I don't get it, why would anyone write such a story? It is such a horrible story, so dark, so tense, so wrong. Everything about it is wrong. It repulsed me. But still I kept reading." I also understand this blogger: "When I was compulsively reading Flowers I thought it was a work of genius. Nothing short of being shaken would've pulled me out of that book. I wasn't learning the what-not-to-do lessons; I was learning how to use melodrama, suspense and betrayal."

Andrews might have appreciated these reluctant tributes. Her real name was Virginia Cleo Andrews. She was born in 1923 and was always coy about her age. She never married, lived with her mother after her father died when she was 20, and published her first book at 55, decades after a fall down the stairs that eventually left her unable to walk on her own. The line from wheelchair confinement to attic prison is too easy to draw. Andrews' commercial success may not have freed her—she never did author tours and rarely granted interviews—but it has given her a sort of immortality. She sold Flowers in the Attic to Pocket Books for $7,500. By the time of her death in 1986, Pocket was so enamored of her sales figures that the publishers took advantage of Andrews' lack of celebrity and didn't let on that she'd died until they'd hired a ghost writer and published several more books under her name. Andrew Neiderman has since been outed as the author of 39 of the 44 books in the V.C. Andrews franchise. Her name has made other people so much money that the IRS deemed it a taxable asset and sued her estate for about $1.2 million.

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No mother in her right mind would choose to teach her daughter about sex via Cathy and her brother/father-figure lovers. My mom took a look at Flowers when I brought it home (from camp, I think, ever a useful font of sin) and told me it was dreck. When I insisted on reading it anyway, she decided to make me talk about it with her rather than take it away. Good work, Mom.

I don't think there's an analogue for boys for Flowers and its sequels—too-adult, utterly sexualized, mesmerizing. But if my sons find that book, I hope I can talk them through the over-intensity, too. In the meantime, the lesson of Flowers holds for good books that tempt readers before they're ready for them: If your kid won't put the book down, help him make what sense he can of it. It could be worse, a lot worse. In the end, my generation of women wasn't really ruined. We almost all survive the stories that we were too young to hear.