7:49 pm - 01/06/2014

The Flowers in the Attic Generation grows up

“I May Look Like Her, but Inside I Am Honorable!
Flowers in the Attic, daughters, and moms.

Ask any V.C. Andrews fan about the 1987 film adaptation of Flowers in the Attic and she’ll probably tell you that it’s all wrong. The film soft-pedaled the novel’s incest, altered the ending, and screwed up most of the details (it was arsenic-laced doughnuts, not sugar cookies). They didn’t even include the tar incident. What a relief that the upcoming Lifetime TV movie adaptation promises to be faithful to all the dark and sordid details of the novel. After all, many of us have been waiting three decades to climb up the stairs to the attic with Cathy again.

Flowers in the Attic, a novel about four children who are locked up and mistreated in their rich grandparents’ mansion while their conniving mother tries to win an inheritance, was published as adult fiction in 1979, and it was as adult fiction that it hit the New York Times best-seller list within weeks, despite the fact that nobody had ever heard of V.C. Andrews. But reading Flowers in the Attic quickly became a rite of passage for teenage girls in the 1980s. Copies of the book and its sequels were passed from girl to girl, as if we could peer through the novels’ foil-embossed keyhole covers to the powerful secrets within. For many of us, Flowers in the Attic was the start of a love affair with V. C. Andrews that lasted throughout our teens, until it was replaced, somewhere around our first college lit class, by a sense of mild embarrassment. Oh, it was a phase, we told ourselves.

And yet, as all the buzz about the Lifetime adaptation reveals, we are clearly not over Flowers in the Attic. For women of my generation, Cathy Dollanganger’s story continues to possess a weird, singular power. It’s also an elusive one, and most of us have a difficult time articulating why Cathy’s story embedded itself into our imaginations, and why we’re so excited to revisit it now.

So why was Flowers in the Attic so uniquely appealing to its first teenage readers? The novel is narrated by Cathy Dollanganger, who is imprisoned with her siblings at the age of 12 and finally escapes at the age of 15. It’s a harrowing tale of abuse and neglect that includes beatings, starvation, and poisoning. It’s also, notoriously, the story of an incestuous love affair between Cathy and her older brother that culminates in sexual assault. Sure, those shockingly novel themes attracted readers, but the emotional payoff for teens was much deeper than the thrill of reading something taboo. In large part, Flowers in the Attic drew its power because it gave voice to a visceral, adolescent feeling of being held hostage by your own family.

Cathy is restricted by her mother, disapproved of by her mother, and ultimately abandoned by her mother. Any teenage girl could relate; even if we didn’t share the abuses she suffered, we felt all of her adolescent feelings of victimization, hopelessness and resentment—especially at our own mothers. Cathy’s experience vindicated our own feelings of how unfair our treatment was by our families, and the litany of horrors she suffers fueled a powerful sense of righteous anger.

Flowers in the Attic contained the emotional stuff of adolescence that was missing from the YA novels that proliferated in the 1970s and ‘80s. Even Judy Blume, queen of important YA topics, wouldn’t get close to this dark, messy territory. Like Blume’s Forever…—the other novel girls passed around in the 1980s, due to its semi-titillating-and-very-informative content about safe sex—the books we were supposed to be reading to help us cope with our various adolescent challenges delivered many reassurances that things would eventually be OK. By contrast, Flowers in the Attic indulged our fear that things were so deeply fucked up that they might never be OK. Near the end of Flowers in the Attic, Cathy even comments on how inadequate media is for addressing her emotional life:

Chris and I had educated ourselves from reading so many books, and television had taught us much about violence, about greed, about imagination, but it had taught us hardly anything that was practical and useful in preparing us to face reality.

Survival. That’s what TV should teach innocent children. How to live in a world that really doesn’t give a damn about anyone but their own—and sometimes, not even their own.

The novel addressed the disconnect between feelings that were hard for us to acknowledge and fiction that we were supposed to like. Despite its excesses, it conveyed a sadness about being robbed of normalcy that felt authentic to teens that were experiencing varying degrees of their own family dysfunction. In that way, Flowers in the Attic was a uniquely comforting story.

But V.C. Andrews’ ability to give voice to the chaotic anger of our teen lives isn’t the only reason why Flowers in the Attic resonates with us still. The novel and its sequels also recognized a deep and abiding fear that has shaped women of my generation: the fear of turning into our mothers. As Cathy’s love and adoration of her mother, Corrine, turns into bitterness and anger in Flowers in the Attic, she becomes determined to get free of her family and be nothing like her mother. Yet through the decades that span the novels that follow, Cathy finds herself becoming more and more like Corrine. Petals on the Wind (1980) is driven by Cathy’s desire for revenge, which compels her to look and behave like Corrine in order to seduce her husband. By the end of that novel, Cathy has also begin to duplicate her mother’s choices: She begins an incestuous family with her brother, lies to her children about his identity, and finds herself installing children’s beds in her own attic. The final words of Petals on the Wind are Cathy’s ominous monologue: “But ... I am not like her! I may look like her, but inside I am honorable! I am stronger, more determined. The best in me will win out in the end. I know it will. It has to sometimes ... doesn’t it?”

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.


ONTD, have you ever been attracted to members of your own fa- actually you know what? Not even going there.
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lestat 6th-Jan-2014 07:05 pm (UTC)
lmao reminds me of the read last week about the girl who fucked her cousin bc she "was lonely"
alaynestone 6th-Jan-2014 07:09 pm (UTC)
The way some ONTDers talk about their cousins/how they act with their cousins makes me side-eye. Like, I'm not here to judge anyone, but.... no ty.
lestat 6th-Jan-2014 07:09 pm (UTC)
sometimes i feel like a lot of ontders are from alabama tbh
ivysaur 6th-Jan-2014 09:08 pm (UTC)
cricketgrl 6th-Jan-2014 09:21 pm (UTC)
Shit is disgusting.
holyfrijoles_2 6th-Jan-2014 07:17 pm (UTC)
Omg I DIED at that. Crissle's horrified reactions were everything.
readmymiind 6th-Jan-2014 07:20 pm (UTC)
that post happened here? where?
saintvlas22 6th-Jan-2014 07:50 pm (UTC)
Obligatory "are they white?" inquiry.
poli_jerk 6th-Jan-2014 08:32 pm (UTC)
LMAO yes! Crissle's reaction got me on a spiritual level
danalana 6th-Jan-2014 10:06 pm (UTC)
I was lonely as a child. A lot. And I had a lot of cousins.

imnotasquirrel 6th-Jan-2014 07:07 pm (UTC)
flowers in the attic, giving hope to white siblings everywhere
blue_birds 6th-Jan-2014 07:16 pm (UTC)
francesbcobain 6th-Jan-2014 07:17 pm (UTC)
lovesfreddiem 6th-Jan-2014 07:36 pm (UTC)
omg lol
pastelstar 7th-Jan-2014 02:30 am (UTC)
dropthecrates 7th-Jan-2014 05:41 am (UTC)
sdpt 6th-Jan-2014 07:08 pm (UTC)
I had the biggest crush on kristy swanson when i was a kid
slinkhard 7th-Jan-2014 01:13 pm (UTC)
Forever the real Buffy, imho.
beaucadeau 6th-Jan-2014 07:08 pm (UTC)
Flowers in the Attic drew its power because it gave voice to a visceral, adolescent feeling of being held hostage by your own family.

ngl that's part of the reason why I liked it so much.
alaynestone 6th-Jan-2014 07:09 pm (UTC)
The Lifetime adaptation looks a damn mess, tbh.

I hope someone makes a viewing post.
spankmypirate 6th-Jan-2014 07:11 pm (UTC)
I want to make one, but because of time zones I might not be there on time.

I'm counting on you, ONTD!
ilouboutin 6th-Jan-2014 08:05 pm (UTC)
my wooden queen Kiernan Shipka will slay
imnotasquirrel 6th-Jan-2014 07:09 pm (UTC)
the emotional payoff for teens was much deeper than the thrill of reading something taboo.

soavantgarde 6th-Jan-2014 07:11 pm (UTC)
lmfao that OP note

I've never read the book but I kinda want to see this movie when it comes out

sometimes I wonder how prevalent sibling/cousin incest is, like it's something I think would never happen irl but then I come to ontd and it seems like 1 out of 5 people are fucking their brother
alaynestone 6th-Jan-2014 07:13 pm (UTC)
I know it's something we sort of mock/laugh about now, but that secrets posts where people just openly admitted committing sibling incest (on the first page!!!!) was really unsettling. It was several people, too.
soavantgarde 6th-Jan-2014 07:22 pm (UTC)
I mean, if it was consensual and there weren't any power plays going on (which I doubtttt) then idrc but it was so bizarre to me just how many ppl there were!! I'm an only child so I was like 'wtf is this a THING???'
porcelaain 6th-Jan-2014 08:25 pm (UTC)
Link to this plz!!
lestat 6th-Jan-2014 07:14 pm (UTC)
the cersei icon makes this perfect
brogitsune 6th-Jan-2014 07:17 pm (UTC)
i think a lot of people have experimented w siblings or cousins unfortunately. like primarily when they're young and don't know what the fuck they're doing
wauwy 6th-Jan-2014 08:03 pm (UTC)
Incest is much, much more common than many people know. Unfortunately it's often abusive.
ace_kay 6th-Jan-2014 08:19 pm (UTC)
My cousin just got married to her 3rd cousin.
mrspeacock12 6th-Jan-2014 10:41 pm (UTC)
ngl until i wandered across reddit i just had no idea.. sibling incest is huge. and i guess so is some parent/child adult incest?
amilahxo 6th-Jan-2014 07:12 pm (UTC)
"It’s also, notoriously, the story of an incestuous love affair between Cathy and her older brother that culminates in sexual assault. Sure, those shockingly novel themes attracted readers"

Edited at 2014-01-06 07:15 pm (UTC)
vee_bot 6th-Jan-2014 07:38 pm (UTC)
ikr BYE
amsface 6th-Jan-2014 10:36 pm (UTC)
omfg the amount of side eye in this gif
dropthecrates 7th-Jan-2014 06:15 am (UTC)
francesbcobain 6th-Jan-2014 07:16 pm (UTC)
We're having a viewing post, right?
blue_birds 6th-Jan-2014 07:18 pm (UTC)
The Lifetime adaptation is going to be a mess and I can't wait.
untxi 6th-Jan-2014 07:19 pm (UTC)
I have never read / watched that. Am I missing anything?
spankmypirate 6th-Jan-2014 07:22 pm (UTC)
Meh just join us for the viewing post!

I hope ppl who have never read the book come to watch it I wanna see their reactions >=)
untxi 6th-Jan-2014 07:24 pm (UTC)
will do! :)
soavantgarde 6th-Jan-2014 07:24 pm (UTC)
when is it?
hpennhills 6th-Jan-2014 07:30 pm (UTC)
I'll be there.
holyfrijoles_2 6th-Jan-2014 07:20 pm (UTC)
A little OT, but it's weird how sometimes author's just sort of casually use incest as a legit plot point and no one really says anything. I'm thinking mostly about this Saiorse Ronan movie that I just watched (that was based on a YA book How I Live Now) and she just falls in love with her cousin and it's treated like its nbd.
alaynestone 6th-Jan-2014 07:22 pm (UTC)
Something similar happens in August:Osage County. Like, the cousins thing is seen as maybe ok and it's like LOL NO. I guess because it's fiction it gets more of a pass? Idk.

What movie was it, btw?
holyfrijoles_2 6th-Jan-2014 07:34 pm (UTC)
It was How I Live Now. It was an okay dystopianish novel (which I guess is why it was okay?) And imo the August Osage County is WAY worse but I thought that was meant to really showcase the fuckedupness of the entire family.
lestat 6th-Jan-2014 07:22 pm (UTC)
lmao WHAT
readmymiind 6th-Jan-2014 07:29 pm (UTC)
Hahaha I read that book. I was hoping the cousin thing was a lie but nope.
wauwy 6th-Jan-2014 08:04 pm (UTC)
First cousins fucking is a big thing in British/English literature and highly romanticized. It makes my fucking skin crawl and also explains the country's unique appearance tbh.
mrcumberbatch 6th-Jan-2014 09:15 pm (UTC)
yeah i read that book when i was like 9 and i was like eh??? are they not gonna like, at least PRETEND to feel ~conflicted about their incestuous relationship? homegirl was like 15 yrs old...
funk2funky 6th-Jan-2014 07:26 pm (UTC)
Incest post, god help us all.
grammaire 6th-Jan-2014 07:37 pm (UTC)
Incest is legitimately the most disgusting thing in the world to me. I read the plot description to this a few weeks ago, and needless to say I will NOT be watching this.
nutmegdealer 6th-Jan-2014 07:39 pm (UTC)
i've noticed my physically attractive relatives, but since I'm not a habsburg, i had no intentions of acting on it.
serena_b 7th-Jan-2014 02:23 am (UTC)
pastelstar 7th-Jan-2014 02:32 am (UTC)
oh lord, the habsburg family bush
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