Virginia Andrews’s Madonna/Whore Complex

As a teenager, I loved to read Virginia Andrews’ books. She was tawdry and trashy, with incest, back-stabbing and promiscuity being her tools of the trade. Recently I’ve been rereading them, and something struck me.

Virginia Andrews seems to have had some pretty intense Mummy issues. (Before I go on, I’ll point out that Andrews only wrote eleven books; the Flowers in the Attic series (5) the Heaven series (5) and My Sweet Audrina; her brand of tawdry trashiness proved so popular that her estate commissioned writers to continue writing under the name VC Andrew, which aren’t nearly as shamelessly trashy as the stuff she wrote herself.)

She had a pattern of portraying mothers as greedy, selfish people who don’t have a basic human instinct in their bodies, let alone any maternal ones. In her Flowers series – her most famous book, which was made into an equally trashy, though not quite as tawdry movie starring no-one important – the four children’s father dies, and the mother takes them to her estranged parents. They’re filthy rich and the mother, Corinne, wants in on the will before the grandfather Malcolm carks it.

Her own mother, always known as The Grandmother, takes sadistic joy in punishing Corinne, whipping her and making her do her bidding. She locks her grandchildren up in an attic, where they stay for over two years waiting for their grandfather to die.

Only, it turns out the grandfather Malcolm died shortly after they arrived, and Corinne has been keeping them locked up. Because her father left her everything, but with a codicil that should it ever be discovered that Corinne had children with her husband – also her cousin, the reason she is estranged from her parents – she would lose everything. And it was her mother who had that codicil added, knowing the children existed, wanting to torture   Corinne by making her chose between fantastic wealth and her children.

So what does she do to hide the evidence of her children? She slowly poisons them with arsenic and goes on her merry way with her new husband and her inherited riches. Not so much lacking in maternal instincts but basic human decency.

In Heaven, Heaven’s grandmother Jillian – the primary maternal figure in the series – is shown to be a selfish, self-absorbed woman who’s Great Love is her reflection. She will have nothing to do with her sickly step-son Troy, for fear any illness might ruin her complexion. She never spends time with her daughter Leigh, because that requires being interested in someone else. When Heaven, Leigh’s daughter, comes along, she gives her the same treatment she gave Leigh. She rarely sleeps with her twenty-years-younger husband Tony, partly because she’d told him she’s ten, not twenty years younger, and partly because she believes sex ages a woman. She overlooks his indiscretions so long as she is left alone to adore herself.

So much so, that she hatches the idea to mould her beautiful young (twelve years old) daughter Leigh in her image, to become Tony’s mistress. When Leigh becomes pregnant, Jillian’s main concern is that her condition will ruin her (Jillian’s) reputation, and shows no great sorrow when Leigh runs away.

In Audrina, Audrina’s mother is self-absorbed, although makes a few misguided but well-intentioned attempts to be a good mother, but dies halfway through the book in that great female burden, childbirth. From then only she is left at the mercy of her well-meaning but controlling father. (No actual incest in this book, though plenty of paternal obsession; maybe that’s why Andrews never made a series out of it.)

I take it Andrews has issues with her mother? Maybe she and Marissa from The OC should exchange notes.

Interestingly, Andrews also has a fascination with her heroines losing their virginity either by being raped (usually by older men with some kind of duty of care over them) or being seduced by father figures. Flowers sees Cathy raped by her older brother after they’re locked in a room together for several years (he’s in his late teens at this point; she two years younger), and the prequel has Malcolm regularly committing marital rape against his wife. Heaven is seduced by her adoptive father, Cal and endures an unhealthy interest from her biological father, Tony; Leigh, Heaven’s mother, is raped by Tony after being moulded into a younger version of Jillian by Jillian herself. Audrina is raped as a young girl by a group of neighbourhood boys.

To recap; Andrews had a history of portraying mothers as self-absorbed bitches (at least until her heroines became mothers themselves; then they were practically saints) and the loss of virginity as something deeply traumatic. She seems to have contempt not only for mother-figures, but father-figures. She fascinates me in the same way Larry Clark fascinates me; people with generally healthy outlooks on life don’t tend to dwell on the behaviour of human beings as their most rotten. All I’ve found of her life on the internet is that she was confined to a wheelchair from childhood and had an over-protective mother.

Interestingly, after Andrews died, Andrew Neiderman was chosen to continue on her work under the name VC Andrews. Under Neiderman, the novels have become more vanilla, less controversial – very little incest and what’s there tends to be between family by marriage, not blood. (I realise this is cold comfort to victims of any kind of incident, but I believe many people, myself included, find it less distasteful then incest between family by blood.) I find it interesting that a woman was so capable of writing detailing storylines and scenes about human beings at their worst, while her male replacement scales down the tawdriness.

For all that Andrews seemed to hold contempt for both men and women, she probably was the person who made Mary Sue mainstream, with impossibly perfect heroines – something that may have stemmed from that contempt. Was Andrews projecting an idealised version of herself in a world she felt had victimised her? I’m not in any position to say so categorically, I’m only basing my opinions on her work and my thoughts as a feminist and media student, but I’m a little embarrassed that one of the most famous female writers in the world wrote in such broad strokes; women were either self-absorbed bitches or saintly virgins to be violated by this cruel world, and men were just as self-absorbed and only too ready to be the violator.

If it’s misogyny when you hate men, what is it when you have contempt for both men and women?


  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    Hmm. This may be an odd observation, but what the hell. From what you describe, the demon in her stories seems to be an amalgamation of the traits of a serious mental illness known in the US as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The most obvious traits of the disorder are extreme selfishness and a total lack of empathy for others (only the self is real: everyone else is a prop in the NPD’s life story). Digging deeper, NPD’s are asexual – or perhaps autosexual would be a better term. They’re disinterested in sex with others, but would love to be able to have sexual relations with themselves, so they often prey on siblings or biological children who share their DNA (it’s literally as close as they can get to sex with themselves). In their eternal quest to get whatever they want and reach the top of the social ladder, they will use sex as a weapon – which means anything from rape to extremely manipulative denials of sexual favors.

    They are cunning, cruel, and manipulative. Many of them can read people expertly, and pretend to be just what a person is looking for until they have no further use for that person. They frequently snow doctors, too, leading doctors to conclude it’s the NPD’s mean, unappreciative family who’s the problem. Therefore, children of parents with this disorder might as well be chained in an attic.

    In a strange way, NPD embodies both the height of the American dream and monster of the American nightmare: a ruthless self-made success, a hero to all but those who know him best, but ultimately a cancer.

    The reason I’m bringing this up is a particularly severe irony: 75% of NPD’s are men, not women. If you look at myths and fairy tales, it’s notable that Andrews is not the first writer to confront these traits in women characters rather than men.

    Curiously, Andrew Neidermann went on to write Devil’s Advocate, another novel I never read. But the movie centers on a male character who is a perfect example of narcissism, albeit a bit watered-down, and my understanding is that he’s even worse in the novel.

  2. scarlett says

    According to what I read on a website, Neidermann’s VC Andrews books became increasingly watered down by Andrews’s standards. The VC books were the ones I read last so I had forgotten just how risque the Andrews stuff was. It occoured to me rereading them that if I, as 21st century liberal, found then risque, imagine how they would have been received in the 1970’s.
    Either I gave you a very accurate description of the mother figures, or you’ve read the books yourself, because this Narcissistic Personality Disorder is spot-on. The women would be highly manipulative of sexual favours; one character is mind-blowingly demanding, then turns around and accuses her daughter of not supporting her. This same character frequently changes personas to made others fall for her and only reveals her true colours to those she has no use for. While she doesn’t actually RAPE anyone, she sets up the men in her life to commit rape and incest through severe deprivation of sexual favours.
    What I found most interesting is, as I said, that she seems to have a real hatred of women, and men don’t rate much better. Except her heroines. THEY’RE Mary Sues.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yep, that all fits the NPD thing. It’s a classic monster in mythology, as well as a true psychological monster in human experience. And one striking thing about the disorder: it is inherently misogynistic (this is in the psychiatric literature). Those few women who have it also hate women, and use men as weapons against other women – particularly sons they can mold into woman-haters.

    I actually think things were more liberal in the 70’s by far than they are now. I was very young in the 70’s, but I know that even rather conservative, rural Baptist churches were teaching a very different brand of Christianity than the fundamentalism that we see nowadays.

  4. scarlett says

    That occured to me after I’d posted the comment. Flowers in the Attic, her first book, was published in 1979 and her other novels which she wholly or partly wrote were published between 1980-90. I think we have become more conservative. I was thinking today Degrassi was a good example of neutral-characterisation television, but I can’t see it being made today, not even on public broadcasting, not even in Canada.
    Hey, maybe THAT’S why Heartbreak High got canned; John Howard didn’t like it, ‘coz it talked about pre-marital sex and stuff frankly.

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