It’s strange to say that I came to terms with the toxicity of Twilight by contemplating the works of V. C. Andrews, but there it is. I remember at least two bouts of the books’ going around my social circles, when I was growing up, and it might have been three. I remember reading them in fourth grade and in high school, and there might have been a stretch in seventh grade where they went around as well. I was ridiculously young for the themes and the explicit sexual descriptions, the first time I read them, but I’d honestly argue they were part of my emotional development that was worthwhile. It also means I may well have read her books for the first time when she was still alive, which not a lot of her readers can say. Certainly all the books of hers that I read the first time were actually by her.
Cleo Virginia Andrews was born in 1923 in the Virginia where so many of her books would end up being set. (Though more on that to come.) She was crippled by arthritis, but she became a successful commercial artist. In 1972, she wrote a science fiction novel, Gods of Green Mountain, which would remain unpublished for decades, until it was released a few years ago as an e-book. Then, in two weeks, she wrote a novel about a wealthy Virginia family and its dark secrets. The publisher she sent it to returned it, suggesting she “spice up” and expand it.
That book, of course, was Flowers in the Attic. It launched an empire. There are five books in its series, four written entirely by her. In 1982, between the releases of its third and fourth books, she released My Sweet Audrina. In 1985, Heaven came out; its series has five books, two of which were written completely by Andrews and one started by her. And from there . . . not so much.
Because, you see, Andrews died in 1986. The family hired a ghost writer, Andrew Neiderman. Initially, just to finish the books she’d started, then to write more that she had notes on, and now, he’s written literally dozens more books in her name than she ever did. Though it’s only a fraction of the 125 novels he’s written, including the original novel of The Devil’s Advocate, later a movie with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. The family chose a prolific man, clearly; it’s worth noting that the IRS considered them to have dramatically undervalued the estate by not claiming her name as part of their assets, and they weren’t wrong.
Now, I haven’t read most of the not-Andrews books, to be perfectly honest, but I seem to recall that there’s a pattern. Generally Our Heroine is a young girl who goes from poverty to wealth, only to discover that it isn’t worth it. There’s abusive sex of some sort—often flat-out rape, often incest—and a man she loves desperately who is in some way like a brother, or even actually her brother. She will end up with him, but it will probably be after she’s had at least one child with at least one other man. There will be drama with her children as well.
Honestly, the books are often extremely toxic. At least one child in each series will probably turn out to be a product of rape; girls are often held responsible for their mothers’ failings. And it is their mothers’ more than their fathers’, no matter who is actually responsible. Older women in the series have usually been turned hard and bitter by the cruelties of life and are perfectly happy to inflict those same cruelties on younger women. It is often implied that they consider punishing men to be both impossible and pointless. It is women’s responsibility to be the strong ones and not let men get what they want.
I suppose it’s worth mentioning, at this point, that one of the important differences between these books, at least the ones I’ve read, and Twilight is that the books don’t generally take the perspective of those older women. One of the running themes of the ones I’ve read is that religious fanaticism is dangerous and causes more harm than good. There’s nothing wrong with dancing or card-playing or pretty clothing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best. Heck, there’s nothing wrong with sex, just with using it to manipulate or being dishonest with your partner.
In fact, things almost always go worst for Our Heroines when they lie to their partners or betray someone they really love for the passions of a moment. Okay, or when crazy religious fanatic old ladies want to hurt them, but what I’m more talking about is in themselves. Their guilt and shame doesn’t come from the crazy old ladies—or crazy old men, now and again—but from when they aren’t true to themselves and what they love. The primary difference between Our Heroines and the women who harm them is that Our Heroines don’t let the failings of the world turn them away from the world and into a cold and sterile faith.
This, I suspect, is at least part of why so many generations of teenage and preteen girls have used the books to dabble in adulthood. Oh, sure, I won’t deny that it’s the thrill of reading explicit sex scenes. (I’m not going to quote, but wow.) Sure, there’s some appeal to seeing men fawn over Cathy or Heaven or Dawn. But a lot of the appeal is the world they live in—these women move in some interesting circles, and it’s fun to imagine yourself in their place and being able to wear beautiful clothes and do interesting things and tell off sour old biddies.
And again, these women survive. They survive rape. Incest. Unplanned pregnancy. Emotional abuse. Physical abuse. Jealousy. Betrayal. Virtual slavery. Grief. Separation. And on and on and on. A lot of what they survive is so ludicrous that even the most put-upon of readers can say, “Well, you know, my grandmother isn’t actually trying to poison me and my siblings with arsenic-coated doughnuts?” And in a way, that makes it a little easier to get through when the boy you like doesn’t like you back.
The one change I can name for sure in the later books is that they’re less connected to the Virginia origins of the earlier books. Wikipedia doesn’t have much information on most of the books, and as established I haven’t read them, but even the first series that had nothing to do with Andrews or her notes is set in Louisiana instead. Since Neiderman is from Brooklyn, you figure he doesn’t feel as much connection to the state of Virginia as Andrews did. And if the books keep making money, I’m sure the family doesn’t care where they’re set. And they keep making money because the audiences don’t really care who wrote them. First Andrews and then Neiderman captured something in the audience, and if only the IRS seems aware of its power, well, that’s someone, at least.