After our episode about Flowers in the Attic, the fabulous Sigrid Ellis sent us an email reflecting on the appeal of Flowers in the Attic, something we struggled to comprehend in the episode. We thought she touched on some interesting truths about Flowers in the Attic and other books of that ilk that we hadn’t really considered before, so we asked if she’d let us share her message here. She agreed, so here it is! Thanks, Sigrid!
I started listening to the Flowers in the Attic episode on my drive home from work today, and have a point of discussion I’d like to raise with y’all. (With the clear understanding that I only made it through the first fifteen minutes of the podcast before I was home!)
I remember being a teenager and reading V.C. Andrews. Reading her books was part and parcel of an entire ill-defined genre of books. Everyone read them. We didn’t really talk about them. The authors were, oh, Lois Duncan, Torey Hayden. V.C. Andrews. That ilk.
What these books had in common was not sexual taboo (though there was some of that.) What they had in common were the taboos regarding abuse. Violation. Lack of safety.
In these books, children were abused. Teenagers were kidnapped and raped. Families proved traitorous and unsafe. The center does not hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Now, I was just this afternoon talking to a coworker whose 17-year-old son is on a kick of reading Ginsberg, Vonnegut, Kerouac, Orwell. The
kid is reading all these books about how the System SUCKS, Man!!! And I told my coworker that I thought this was incredibly age-appropriate. That, at the point in a young person’s life when they realize that NO ONE IS IN CHARGE, that there is injustice and evil in the world, it is very comforting to read books by other people who have realized this before you.
If you suddenly find that you are betrayed by a lack of order and certainty and direction, these books let you know you are not alone.
Similarly, I think many-if-not-most teenage girls have a phase of reading abuse narratives. I think that many-if-not-most girls have a realization — that ones closest loved ones can do the most damage. Even if *I* am not personally abused, the realization goes, I certainly know someone who was. And these abuse narrative books, well, they let people know that they are not alone.
Similarly, I think the appeal of Flowers in the Attic is a horror-genre appeal. “What would I do if that happened to me? Could I survive it?” We watch horror movies to live vicariously to the end, despite the weight of terror and violation on-screen. We read Torey Hayden and V.C. Andrews not for the sexual titillation but for the fascinated watching of a train wreck in motion. “How bad will this GET?”
And then we finish, and it’s still not us in the attic, and we walk away.
I’m not saying the sexual text isn’t a factor! But there are so many other ways to get sexytimes in books! Romance novels do a MUCH better
job than V.C. Andrews! Or, these days, fan fiction for pity’s sake! I firmly believe it’s not about the sex, it’s about the survival.
Sigrid Ellis is co-editor of the Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords and Chicks Dig Comics anthologies. She edits the best-selling Pretty Deadly from Image Comics. She is the flash-fiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction, from Lightspeed Press. She edited the Hugo-nominated Apex Magazine for 2014. She lives with her partner, their two homeschooled children, her partner’s boyfriend, and a host
of vertebrate and invertebrate pets in Saint Paul, MN.