Her Dark Materials

Should children read Philip Pullman’s trilogy—or the incest classic Flowers in the Attic?

Dakota Blue Richards in The Golden Compass

I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to go see the new movie based on The Golden Compass, the first novel in Philip Pullman’s transcendent trilogy, His Dark Materials. It’s not that the film looks bad. It’s that I loved the books so much that I don’t want any actors or special effects, no matter how well-cast and well-rendered, interfering with my own imaginings.

But the depth of my Pullman devotion doesn’t make me want to give his books to my two boys, who are near his intended audience. Pullman’s work is a hybrid: It’s sold to adults as complex fantasy, and to the 12-year-old crowd as Harry Potter-plus. In some ways, the trilogy is part of the coming-of-age tradition of literature for young teens (and inevitably, somewhat younger kids, too). It tells the growing-up story of Lyra and Will, Pullman’s wild and enterprising child characters. But it’s a complicated and dark and unsettling coming-of-age, with grotesquely ruthless parents who threaten to sever children from their souls. Maybe this is an idea that’s more horrifying to read about as a parent than as a child, but giving Pullman to my still-small sons, even a couple of years from now, is an experiment I’m not about to conduct.

At the same time, when I think back to my own preteen reading, I’ll admit that the whole point was to read books that I wasn’t ready for, without my parents’ approval. Is this kind of illicit read damaging to kids, or is it an inevitable excursion into pseudo-maturity that beats a lot of the other likely avenues? Better a disturbing, too-adult book than an indelibly horrifying movie or Internet game or video (or, it goes without saying, an encounter with real scary people)?

These questions take me back to the awful fiction that obsessed me when I was 11: Flowers in the Attic and its even less redeemable progeny. Flowers was published in 1979 and became a sort of rite of passage for the girls I knew. It still is, to some degree: The books (officially called the Dollanganger Family series) have sold more than 100 million copies, and their biggest audience is teen and preteen girls. The author, V.C. Andrews, ranks with Stephen King as one of the all-time best-selling denizens of mass-paperback gothic horror.

It’s a disservice to Philip Pullman to mention him in the same sentence as Andrews. He writes lyrical, soaring prose; she writes sentences like, “Golly-gee, but it was a beautiful day! If only we were allowed out, rather than having to sit in this musty old attic and starve to death!” His books represent the best of the fantasy tradition. Hers are unpleasant entrants in what might be called the Miserable and Tortured Lives of Unloved Children genre. And, as Eden Ross Lipson, former children’s book editor for the New York Times Book Review, pointed out to me, the polarity between the two authors is also exterior vs. interior. Pullman roams the world. Andrews never goes anywhere. Lyra and Will have no home and are swept up in struggles over world domination and religious power. Cathy and Chris, the brother and sister at the center of Andrews’ tale, are trapped (literally) in their attic home and (also literally) in the incestuous family relationships that define her brand.

When I reread the Andrews books last weekend (while hiding the garish covers from my boys), I discovered that the incest starts on Page 6. “He warmed our lips with kisses,” 12-year-old Cathy writes of her father—who is supposed to be the good guy, which is why he is quickly offed in a car accident. On the next page, Cathy describes waiting to watch her mother “emerge in a filmy negligee.” What 12-year-old thinks about her parents in these ways? Or, at 14, following “a frantic struggle of his strength against mine,” succumbs to her older brother’s sexual fantasy about her?

Granted, by then Cathy and Chris have been locked in a room next to the attic for three years by their still-sexualized but neglectful mother and their sadistic grandmother, who never misses an opportunity to call the kids the “devil’s spawn.” But the absurdity is also part of the whole bizarre appeal. Cathy is full of guilt and shame and yet never really is responsible for her transgressions, given how she’s been treated. She gets to act out all of an 11-year-old girl’s worst fears about sex, without becoming evil. For a lot of us, she may have been the only such outlet. I don’t think that I encountered another character like her in my preteen reading. The girl in Judy Blume’s Forever has prosaic sex with a boyfriend who calls his penis Ralph. Cathy has twisted sex not just with her brother, but with the older doctor who later adopts her and Chris and their younger sister, and with her mother’s second husband. No boundary goes uncrossed, because no man can resist her; she is Madonna, the whore, and Lolita. Andrews, never one to miss an opportunity to overwrite, makes this explicit. When Cathy invites her stepfather over to steal him from her mother, he tells her: “You are an intriguing combination, half child, half seductress, half angel.” (Three halves!) Andrews continues in Cathy’s voice: “I laughed short and bitterly. ‘That’s what all men like to think about women.’ “

As bad as this prose is—in the Seattle Weekly, one male writer quipped that V.C. Andrews ruined the women of his generation—it’s also compelling. I’m with the blogger who writes, “I don’t get it, why would anyone write such a story? It is such a horrible story, so dark, so tense, so wrong. Everything about it is wrong. It repulsed me. But still I kept reading.” I also understand this blogger: “When I was compulsively reading Flowers I thought it was a work of genius. Nothing short of being shaken would’ve pulled me out of that book. I wasn’t learning the what-not-to-do lessons; I was learning how to use melodrama, suspense and betrayal.”

Andrews might have appreciated these reluctant tributes. Her real name was Virginia Cleo Andrews. She was born in 1923 and was always coy about her age. She never married, lived with her mother after her father died when she was 20, and published her first book at 55, decades after a fall down the stairs that eventually left her unable to walk on her own. The line from wheelchair confinement to attic prison is too easy to draw. Andrews’ commercial success may not have freed her—she never did author tours and rarely granted interviews—but it has given her a sort of immortality. She sold Flowers in the Attic to Pocket Books for $7,500. By the time of her death in 1986, Pocket was so enamored of her sales figures that the publishers took advantage of Andrews’ lack of celebrity and didn’t let on that she’d died until they’d hired a ghost writer and published several more books under her name. Andrew Neiderman has since been outed as the author of 39 of the 44 books in the V.C. Andrews franchise. Her name has made other people so much money that the IRS deemed it a taxable asset and sued her estate for about $1.2 million.

No mother in her right mind would choose to teach her daughter about sex via Cathy and her brother/father-figure lovers. My mom took a look at Flowers when I brought it home (from camp, I think, ever a useful font of sin) and told me it was dreck. When I insisted on reading it anyway, she decided to make me talk about it with her rather than take it away. Good work, Mom.

I don’t think there’s an analogue for boys for Flowers and its sequels—too-adult, utterly sexualized, mesmerizing. But if my sons find that book, I hope I can talk them through the over-intensity, too. In the meantime, the lesson of Flowers holds for good books that tempt readers before they’re ready for them: If your kid won’t put the book down, help him make what sense he can of it. It could be worse, a lot worse. In the end, my generation of women wasn’t really ruined. We almost all survive the stories that we were too young to hear.