The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we consider the V.C. Andrews’s teen-incest classic Flowers in the Attic.
Background: V.C. Andrews’s minor classic of sibling ribaldry was published in 1979, sold millions of copies, spawned endless series of sex-filled “family sagas,” and turned Andrews into a staple of teen girls’ furtive hiding places. Flowers is narrated by an adolescent girl named Cathy Dollanganger. After the death of Cathy’s father, her destitute mother Corrine is forced to move them back home with her wealthy parents, sex-obsessed Evangelical loons who lock Cathy and her three siblings in an attic, so that Corrine can pretend to be young and childless and land a rich second husband. Locked away with nothing but some old books and their raging hormones, Cathy and her brother, Chris, fall in love. It was this gothic Sally Jesse nonsense that made the first installment of “The Dollanganger” saga both hugely controversial and wildly popular; Lady Chattlerly’s Brother, if you will. It was adapted for the screen in 1987 in a film that glossed over the incest part, which is sort of like making Jurassic Park into a film about a friendly lizard named Butternut. The romper-rippers published after Flowers — and there have been scores — were popular enough that they are still being written, even though Cleo “V.C.” Andrews died in 1986. (They are being written by a ghostwriter. Not pervy ghost. Merits clarification.)
Nostalgia Demographic: Times have changed, but young adult novels used to be glorified smut written by middle-aged lunatics with complicated relationships with Jesus. Oh, psych, times haven’t really changed. Long before Twilight, it was a rite of passage for young women to read and shriek over passages of Flowers that would probably be considered lurid by the most liberal grown-up standards. If you’re a heterosexual man, imagine being at the height of your sexual curiosity and having the option to walk into a public library and ask the woman with a craft-fair cat brooch if they have any weird Dutch porn. Needless to say, women born in the seventies and eighties are the demo for this one.
Fact-Check: There was a time when I only knew the V.C. Andrews books from the paperback section at Rite Aid. All of the covers had little cutouts, and you’d flip them open in the hopes that the face behind the metallic sunburst peep hole was attached to a naked body, or at least a well-hung centaur. More often than not, it just turned out to be a seamy trompe l’oeil photo painting of a lady sitting in a chair really dramatically. What was the point of these novelty covers? I’m not sure, but pretty much all copies of Flowers in the Attic utilize this The Very Hungry Incest Caterpillar design.
At some point or another, all preadolescent girls hear about the book where the girl locked in the attic has sex with her brother. I went to the school library like a sweaty middle-aged dad guiltily cruising one of those Thai sex tourism sites. The book was hardly ever in, but one time I got lucky. (The check-out card in the back, I’m sure, was full of fake names. I think I signed it as Dr. Philip Q. Montague.) I remember being vaguely scandalized by the book and excruciatingly bored by the movie, which I’m pretty sure was shot from deep inside a bottle of sparkling shower gel. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy reading it again, but I also wasn’t expecting to experience the entirely new emotion that I did. The emotion is called blorfing, and it’s where you are really bored but also kind of want to throw up enthusiastically. Like unsexy porn or when the people on Bones kiss.
But, getting down to sick-making brass incest tacks: Let’s talk about the writing. Remember when your seventh grade English teacher made you write “in the style” of the Bronte sisters? And you were like, “Hmmmmmm! What if instead of being a nanny … Jane Eyre is a person who tongue kisses her relatives?” Flowers is entirely free of contractions or informal speech and is virtually infested with exclamation points. The syntax is highly reminiscent of Internet fan fiction where Mulder has gay sex. V.C. Andrews was apparently heavily influenced by fellow modern gothic Shirley Jackson. I guess I can see reading “The Lottery” and going, “What if instead of stones … they were brother penises?” If it bothers you when teenagers who were purportedly alive when WKRP Cincinnati was on the air talk like arch Victorian dowagers, you are not going to like V.C.’s style.
People don’t cry, they throw themselves onto beds and pound their silken pillows with their reddened fists. People don’t have sex, they have “hot need”s driven into them. Blech! This is supposed to be a young girl’s diary. What young girl doesn’t journal about how “rounded and firm” puberty had rendered her “buttocks”? None of them! No, thank you, V(ery) C(razy) Andrews.
Admittedly, the Plato’s Retreat concept is interesting. Both in a prurient way and a morbid, desert-island-sex one. Who hasn’t been on one of those little tiny planes and started looking around to see whom you’d bone in a Lost-type situation. Besides, puberty is basically like being The Fly. The idea that given no other outlet, siblings might be forced to sexually fixate on one another is kind of compelling. Like a car crash, where one of the cars is having sex with its sister. But Flowers doesn’t feel like a cautionary tale about confined teenage sexuality.
For one thing, the Dollanganger gang are a prrrrrrrretty touchy-feely bunch before they’re even in that attic. Before he dies, their father doesn’t “come home from work,” he bursts in and yells, “Come greet me with kisses if you love me!” Their mother spends most of her time flouncing about in a negligee while her children admire her shapely legs. These guys presaged that kissing family on SNL by about 30 years.
Then there’s the religious fanaticism. During their tenure in the attic, Chris, Cathy and their young siblings are treated to the occasional beating by “The Grandmother.” Corrine’s kooky mom drops in every once in a while to make sure the children aren’t committing mortal sins while weirdly offering helpful suggestions on how to do so. Like, “You guys aren’t watching each other pee, are you? Good, because that’s very bad but also sort of hot. Anyhow, here’s a beating and some poisoned doughnuts, see you in a few.” Complex Bible nuts are a mainstay in great books like this and the novelization of Footloose.
I had a brief lapse in memory (read: traumatic blackout) and couldn’t remember if Cathy and her brother had full-on intercourse (Sorry! Sorry for typing that!). The answer is yes, yes they do. Once they’re in the attic, it’s all erections and bathing each other and sweet fraternal boob kissing. Frequent mention of Cathy’s lack of a bra is made, and the two of them are groping one another loooooong before it’s their nuclear option. Add that to the fact that when Chris and Cathy finally give in to their grody lust, it’s borderline rapey.
As an example of horror or erotica, the book is neither particularly frightening nor erotic. It’s basically the sexy nurse Halloween costume of books, and the girl in it is wearing adult braces. And is your sister. Sex scenes are notoriously difficult to make sexy, even for writers who aren’t teeth-grindingly awful. I read Flowers in the Attic around the same time people started to get home Internet; that great sea change in the way the world masturbated probably hailed the end of the porny teen novel’s glory days. Now that I’m beyond the age where I practice Frenching on my own hand (unless it’s been a while, let’s be real), I’d say the erotic value of the written sex scene has kind of plummeted. I doubt that “throbbing member” passages to do much for the kids of today, with their YouPorns and their werewolf sex and their Fleshlight iPhone apps (fairly certain those exist).
True, there are a few moments of pretty great unintentional humor: The book is hilariously epigraphed with a Bible verse. Various euphemisms for human sex parts are just as marvelously inept. The recurring theme of “male need” as something that cannot be sublimated is funny in a retro way, like those vintage posters encouraging women to keep their vaginas sparkling clean with laundry bleach. Which is to say: not super funny.
The book is not a short one. I think it’s telling that the most familiar sensation I recognized from reading in the haze of puberty was “Blah, blah, get to the sex parts already.”