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The Woman Beyond the Attic

The V.C. Andrews Story



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About The Book

The woman who emerges from these pages is as riveting as her books” (The Wall Street Journal) in this compelling celebration of the famously private V.C. Andrews—featuring family photos, personal letters, a partial manuscript for an unpublished novel, and more.

Best known for her internationally, multi-million-copy bestselling novel Flowers in the Attic, Cleo Virginia Andrews lived a fascinating life. Born to modest means, she came of age in the American South during the Great Depression and faced a series of increasingly challenging health issues. Yet, once she rose to international literary fame, she prided herself on her intense privacy.

Now, The Woman Beyond the Attic aims to connect her personal life with the public novels for which she was famous. Based on Virginia’s own letters, and interviews with her dearest family members, her long-term ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman tells Virginia’s full story for the first time.

Perfect for anyone hoping to learn more about the enigmatic woman behind one of the most important novels of the 20th century, The Woman Beyond the Attic will have you “transfixed” (Publishers Weekly) from the first page.


Chapter One: First Steps

chapter one First Steps
A COOL BREEZE SKATES over the Elizabeth River and combs through the grass around the tombs and monuments in the Olive Branch Cemetery on Cpl J M Williams Avenue in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Despite the passage of decades, or perhaps because time has cemented her name in literary history, reverent admirers enter the Olive Branch Cemetery to pay their respects to an author who has deeply touched their lives and the lives of millions of readers worldwide. Looking down at her footstone, they see she is simply described as Author, but when her admirers look at her monument behind it, they first see an inscription bearing the titles of the books that gave her domestic and international fame, headed by the title that most likely has brought them here: Flowers in the Attic.

Walking around to the rear of the monument, they see that Virginia Andrews had these thoughts inscribed, a farewell letter to her fans:

Books opened doors I hadn’t even realized were there. They took me up and out of myself, back into the past, forward into the future, put me on the moon, placed me in palaces, in jungles, everywhere. When finally I did reach London and Paris—I’d been there before. When books fail to give me what I need, dreams supply the rest. A long time ago I dreamed I was rich and famous—and I saw flowers growing in the attic. Dreams can come true, no matter what obstacles fate chooses to place as obstacles to hurdle, crawl under, or go around. Somehow I always manage to reach the far side.

What else can I say? To have a goal and achieve it, despite everything, is my only accomplishment. If I give a few million readers pleasure and escape along the way, I do the same for myself.

—Yours, Virginia C. Andrews

Cleo Virginia Andrews, who went by Virginia Andrews (her mother’s preference, because she loved the state of Virginia), was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on June 6, 1923, the second child of William Henry Andrews and Lillian Lilnora Parker, who had married on May 8, 1920. This was the year the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and women could vote. Lillian Andrews was only eighteen and still couldn’t vote—it wasn’t until 1970 when the voting age was reduced from twenty-one to eighteen—but even so, she was certainly one with a strong presence in this marriage. In fact, William’s close friends called him “Bid” because he never knew when to bid when playing bridge and waited for Lillian to tell him what to do, a small but telling sign of her forceful personality and his reliance on her thoughts and opinions.

Did she, like many wives, tell her husband how to vote? When to make a change in their lives? Where to live? What work he should do? The evidence seems to support a big yes. Words used by surviving relatives to describe her ranged from “determined” to “controlling.” These personality qualities will have great meaning and importance for us to understand once the family of five essentially becomes a family of two: Lillian and her daughter, Virginia.

William enlisted in the US Navy and would send home money for his young family when he was away. In one postcard he wrote from Cuba, he said, “I will always send you money and I will always be faithful to you.”

Not formally educated, Lillian worked as a telephone operator. Affectionately known as “Hello Girls,” these women had the tedious job of connecting calls via cables and jacks at the telephone exchange. According to Virginia’s aunt Eleanor Parker—whom the family called “Baby Sis” because she was the youngest of the Parker sisters and who is now 103 years old—Lillian was headstrong, a wild child who had been sneaking out of her house at night to attend the dances at the navy yard.

From what Virginia’s cousin Pat Mock recalls, Lillian’s father was a very conservative man who strongly disapproved of his daughter’s nocturnal adventures. She even recalls hearing he had occasionally gone after Lillian and dragged her back from the streets, “and not gently.” This will prove to be quite a contrary view of the woman who later ruled her family with almost as much conservatism as her father had once ruled her with.

However, it was at these navy yard dances where Lillian met William, who Baby Sis said was a handsome man who was always impeccably dressed, and whom everyone seemed to love. “From what everyone told me about their romance, everyone in the family was pleased with the choice Lillian had made,” said Mary Andrews, the wife of Virginia’s brother Eugene.

The Andrewses’ first child, William “Bill” Andrews Jr., was born on May 24, 1921. The young family struggled on William Sr.’s naval pay and were as yet unable to afford a home of their own. They lived with Lillian’s parents and her five siblings in a large four-bedroom home in Portsmouth. Pat Mock recalls that Lillian’s father was a successful businessman and had one of the biggest brick houses in the area.

Two years later, Lillian gave birth to Virginia. For an additional two years, they remained a naval family, with William often away from home and Lillian sharing the household duties with her mother.

William Sr. was a veteran of World War I and was used to Navy life. Some of the Andrews descendants suggest that Lillian insisted her husband finally leave the service. They often heard her say he should “get a decent job to support his family,” and she finally convinced him that his romantic Navy life had to come to an end. There were two children to support now. She wanted her family to be secure; she wanted her children to be protected, and all her living relatives remember she was not shy when it came to her opinions. This was surely a telling example of her firm, no-nonsense personality.

In 1927, the circle of life would take young Virginia and her older brother, Bill, and their parents first to Rochester, New York, where William Sr. had been born and raised. His parents were still alive, as were his three brothers, Arthur, Roy, and Wallace. The Andrews family had a big dairy farm outside the city, but only Arthur helped his father run it. William Sr. had taken his young family back to his birthplace not to work the family farm but because he had the opportunity to work for Bausch & Lomb, one of the earliest and most successful optical companies, famous for developing groundbreaking sunglasses for the military in World War I, which had been founded in Rochester.

Soon after they arrived in Rochester, William Sr. bought a relatively new house that his brother Wallace, a builder, had constructed not far from his own house at 25 Wetmore Park, in a quiet residential part of the city. Virginia and her family lived in Rochester from when she was four until she was nine.

Although far from wealthy in the 1920s, Virginia’s family was living during a period of economic boom that drove more and more people from the rural world to the cities, aided by improvements in indoor plumbing and modern sewer systems.

The comparatively undeveloped Portsmouth where she had lived previously would be a dramatic contrast to the city of Rochester, even for one as young as Virginia. Rochester was bursting with urban energy. In the late eighteenth century, Rochester had flourished with the opening of the Erie Canal and became a major manufacturing center, bustling with a growing population and five freight and passenger railroads.

It will surely be of interest to her fans to know that young Virginia’s startling impressions of a rapidly modernizing urban world came from a deep-seated belief, even at so young an age, that she had lived in this very place during an earlier time. Virginia seriously believed in reincarnation. According to her sister-in-law Mary, she called herself “an old soul” and her mother “a new soul.”

“When I was a little girl,” Virginia told Douglas E. Winter in Faces of Fear, “particularly when I was very young—three or four—I would look at things like automobiles and skyscrapers, and I would say, ‘They didn’t have those when I was here before.’ I was sort of expecting horses and carriages. And then I would feel strange thinking this.”

She claimed she would get flashes of other lives when she was a child. Adults would shake their heads and smile as adults do at children’s imaginations. So, according to what she told others later in her life, she began to “shovel it all under” and didn’t think about the subject for a while and later tried to stop the sensation from happening so much.

Despite the effort to keep it to herself, her belief in her psychic visions would remain with her through most of her life. She would use the concept in Flowers in the Attic, where Cathy has a premonition that she will fall in love with the first man she meets, although it won’t be just any man. Like a young Virginia, Cathy had visions, detailed visions. “If I had a dream that the airplane I was taking was going to crash,” Virginia said, “I wouldn’t take it. So before I take a flight, I try to remember what I dreamed.” Perhaps one of the most notable of Virginia’s visions was, “When I sent Flowers in the Attic off to my agent, I had a big house dream.”

Transferring the visionary power to Cathy in Flowers in the Attic, she wrote: “And somewhere in that crimson-colored never-never land where I pirouetted madly, in a wild and crazy effort to exhaust myself into insensibility, I saw that man, shadowy and distant, half-hidden behind towering white columns that rose clear up to a purple sky. In a passionate pas de deux he danced with me, forever apart, no matter how hard I sought to draw nearer and leap into his arms, where I could feel them protective about me, supporting me… and with him I’d find, at last, a safe place to live and love.”

And this is precisely what happens when Cathy meets Julian Marquet, the dancer who had been pursuing her since the day they met. Was he the dancer she envisioned in the attic? She marries him impulsively in Petals on the Wind, the sequel to Flowers in the Attic. Visions and prophecies run dramatically through all the novels Virginia wrote. What she believed for herself she was sure to have her characters believe. This was no mere literary device for Virginia.

Eventually, this fascination with clairvoyance would come out in the more in-depth interviews after her success with Flowers in the Attic. Virginia even claimed to have foreseen her father’s death two weeks before he died of heart failure in the hospital.

Elaborating in Faces of Fear, she said, “I woke up and I was crying and I told my mother, and she said, ‘Don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear it.’?”

According to Virginia’s niece Suzanne, Lillian would get frightened whenever she saw Virginia make a prediction, no matter how silly or insignificant it might seem.

“When I lived with my grandmother and Virginia for a month, I saw her tell Virginia to ‘stop that’ whenever she predicted this or that, especially if it involved members of the family or neighbors. I had the impression my aunt took a little pleasure in teasing my grandmother with her sudden predictions, made up or not, when she was younger.”

Everyone remembered that young Virginia had a jovial personality, was more like her father, and could be a little impish. However, there was nothing jocund or blithe about what she had envisioned for her father. Their relationship was close, their love quite strong. He had inspired her in many ways, especially when it came to literature.

The seriousness with which she took clairvoyance never waned, despite how her mother forbade it. She tied it closely to her dreams. At one point during her writing career, she would express a desire to write a novel about someone with psychic abilities. She would think a character who was living what she would often call an otherwise dull, ordinary existence fascinated her. There was no doubt she saw herself as such a person. Late in her teenage years, mainly because of the restriction her disability and consequently her mother had placed on her, she didn’t have friends or a boyfriend. Adventurous journeys were limited to the front porch.

Perhaps visions and dreams were another reason Virginia would eventually be drawn to writing fiction. In a real sense, the author of a novel must see the future for his or her characters. Once she had a plot premise and a main character, Virginia could begin to envision where the events unfolding in her imagination would take her protagonist. This is also why forming the character is so essential, because his or her personality, ambitions, and likes and dislikes will determine the plot. Simply put, if characters are vivid enough, they will naturally lead the writer down a path. For Virginia especially, it was another exercise in clairvoyance and clearly the door to escape the confinement her illness had imposed. Thus, her developing imagination encouraged her to explore, and as time went by, that drive only intensified.

“I step into a universe of my own making,” she was quoted as saying in the Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Star in 1986, “and I am the god. What a sense of power! Nobody can exist unless I let them.”

Creative and imaginative people hunger for a means of expression, even at a very young age. But it is one thing to be imaginative and pretend, to be part of the make-believe games you might play with others your age, and quite another thing to be innovative and creative enough to produce something of value, which Virginia did first with her visual art.

One of the earliest examples of her imaginative artistic skill came when the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright arrived at her elementary school to speak to her second-grade class in Rochester, four years after her family had moved there.

Much later in life, when she was talking about her art experiences, Virginia related her vivid memory of Wright pausing at her second-grade desk, standing behind her, looking over her shoulder, and asking, “Why did you draw a round house with all glass?”

She recalled her teacher standing by with a small smile of pride and curiosity. From what Virginia described, one of the world’s most famous architects did not intimidate her seven-year-old self. To her, the answer was plain and simple.

“Well, it’s my mother,” she replied. “She always complains that she never seems to have enough windows.”

Virginia had a clear recollection of the encounter, the classroom situation, and Wright’s reaction. As noted in a Simon & Schuster press release after Flowers in the Attic’s publication (a release that Virginia helped create), Wright told her teacher, “A child like that scares the hell out of me.”

The fury with which she would imagine and then create her artistic images was already overwhelming in grade school. Her memories of this period were vivid and expressed in a number of interviews. Her second-grade teacher gave Virginia an easel and placed it at the back of the class because she would finish her work quickly and otherwise become a distraction to the other kids. Moving her to the rear didn’t solve the problem, however, as her classmates would turn around to see what she was drawing or painting, and the teacher lost their attention anyway.

One temporary solution to fill Virginia’s spare time in class was to send her to help in the principal’s office, to be kept busy copying information about student attendance and school repairs. Years later, as an adult, she felt that the experience was one of the first to urge her into writing. In Faces of Fear, she related, “He [the principal] said, ‘Remember, you’ve got the talent to do anything you want to do as long as you stick to that one branch…’ and every time I would falter in my writing, I would think of him.”

Eventually, Virginia’s second-grade teacher took a closer look at her work and realized that she really did have a prodigy on her hands, something Virginia called herself many times in conversations, letters, and interviews.

Virginia explained it to Winter this way: “Well, we had a house that had an interesting design, and I knew you couldn’t see it if I did it head-on, so I drew it three-quarters and in perspective. My people had necks and arms and waists. Any of my teachers who looked at my work were stunned because 7-year-olds don’t know to see perspective and how to go to a vanishing point.”

Virginia’s teacher was frustrated but also excited. She showed Virginia’s drawings to the principal, but he was skeptical. He was, after all, looking at the work of a seven-year-old. This wasn’t childish doodling.

“You saw her draw these?” was the response Virginia recalled and often bragged about when she related the story to her sister-in-law Mary. Her teacher confirmed it, and the principal was astonished.

Here was a wunderkind in 1930—what could a grade school offer her? Her teacher couldn’t ignore the rest of her pupils and concentrate more on Virginia, and yet the principal might have felt guilty letting this budding talent die on the vine. Amazingly, the powers that be doubted that even a high school art class could further develop this nascent talent. They had a solution that was far ahead of its time: they sent the diminutive seven-year-old child to junior college art classes.

Virginia remembered sitting on a big dictionary to see the front of the classroom at the junior college. In Faces of Fear, she described the experience: “I think my nose just used to clear the desk and I would draw with all these great big kids.”

Can we imagine what it was like for eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-olds to see a bright and inquisitive little seven-year-old girl listen to and follow the instructions that perhaps challenged even them? Would the older students feel resentful? Maybe. After all, what they were being asked to do was something that even a grade-school child could do. Perhaps their skepticism would have abated when they saw what Virginia could accomplish.

Virginia, on the other hand, was not intimidated sitting among older and bigger kids. What did they have to do with the art that became her passion? According to her, the development of her talent was unstoppable. She took her vision and her art with her everywhere. She claimed she would draw on all her books, illustrate everything she read. She admitted to defacing library books by drawing on them. She said she used to color the black-and-white funny papers because she wanted them to be in color; she even tried to color the bedroom wallpaper because she thought it wasn’t lively. There was an excitement in her life that few seven-year-olds enjoyed. Most were temporarily amused with a coloring book or when given a blank pad and a pencil, especially with multicolored pencils, but Virginia was more than amused. She was challenged, and after mining her imagination, she skillfully created pictures adults admired.

She was never far from her love of art and what she had learned about colors, shades, and tints, even when she wrote Flowers in the Attic. The novel opens with Cathy Dollanganger telling us, “It’s so appropriate to color hope yellow.” She was, of course, relating it to sunshine, brightness, symbols of hope that would exist outside the attic.

Later, perhaps employing what she had learned in her advanced art lessons, Virginia speaks through Cathy: “Momma bought us art instruction books by the dozens. The first of these books taught us to reduce all complicated designs into basic spheres, cylinders, cones, rectangles and cubes. A chair was just a cube—I hadn’t known that before. A Christmas tree was just an inverted ice-cream cone—I hadn’t known that before, either. People were just combinations of all those basic forms: spheres for heads; arms, necks, legs, torso, upper and lower, were only rectangular cubes or cylinders, and triangles made for feet. And believe it or not, using this basic method with just a few simple additions, we soon had rabbits, squirrels, birds, and other small friendly creatures—all made by our very own hands.”

This description of what Cathy did with the animals clearly reflects some of Virginia’s designs and needlework created years earlier as well. Describing her own work in a letter, Virginia wrote: “I decorated mine with polka-dots, gingham checks, plaids, and put lace-edged pockets on the laying hens.” Drawing from the details of artwork she did during her medical confinement in her teenage years after dropping out of school for health reasons, Virginia refers to Corrine bringing Cathy sewing notions like “lace, cords of all colors, buttons, sequins, felt, pebbles and other decorative materials.”

Cathy’s fictional biography in Flowers often bears a resemblance to Virginia’s actual life. While drawing exact equivalences can lead to error, in some places, as with discussions of art, there is a true mirroring.

A second area of similarity: Cathy’s family, prior to the father’s accident, existed in an atmosphere of happiness and security, one Virginia surely related to.

Virginia’s childhood was a time when her family, like so many middle-class families during the late Roaring Twenties, would enjoy some measure of financial security. Her father was gainfully employed, they had a relatively new house, and their family was growing. Lillian gave birth to Virginia’s younger brother Eugene five years and ten months after Virginia was born and nearly eight years after Bill Jr. Virginia and Bill Jr. were often looking after baby Eugene, especially when their mother went shopping. Contemporary relatives say they both enjoyed and welcomed adult responsibility.

Did this childhood parental experience find life in Flowers in the Attic? Was motherhood something Virginia longed for later in life, despite at least one disclaimer to the contrary to her nephew?

It was always something looming out there. She did say she had planned to be married by age thirty. “I never wanted to be an ordinary housewife,” she told Stephen Rubin in the September 1981 Washington Post article “Blooms of Darkness.” “I had no intentions of getting married till after thirty, but life kinda threw me a curve. I think if I had failed at writing maybe I would be bitter now. I always wanted to be somebody exceptional, somebody different, who did something on her own.”

Perhaps she expressed her frustration at never being able to become a wife and mother best in Flowers, when Cathy tells her twin siblings, “Why can’t you pretend I’m Momma? I’ll do everything for you that she would. I’ll hold you on my lap, and rock you to sleep while I sing you a lullaby.”

When one learns more about Virginia’s confinements and social restrictions, one can easily envision the writer imagining how she would be with her own children, were she to have them.

And yet at the start, none of this dark future, despite her prophecies, weighed heavily on her. Not yet, not in this childhood. A new younger brother, accolades for her artwork, her father’s family nearby, and a blossoming, exciting urban world around her all provided Virginia with great childhood happiness, that magical “summer day” Cathy saw in Flowers. Relatives recall that her parents were often complimented regarding Virginia’s beauty and intelligence. The future was full of promise for the Andrews family, as well as for so many others in the growing middle class.

These years of comfort and happiness were starting to tremble, however. Lillian had given birth to Eugene just as another birth was occurring, forces that would shorten the idyllic middle-class existence for so many families. The threads of this coming devastation were insidiously at work weaving through the nation, and indeed the world. The economy was set to collapse like a house of cards.

Like so many veterans of the Great Depression, Virginia would have a more intense fear of what it would mean to lose her wealth and material possessions when she began to accumulate them. She could certainly refer to her family’s experiences with financial pressure during the Great Depression and what she had witnessed around her when she described the plight of Corrine and her children after Christopher Sr. was killed and left the family destitute at the start of Flowers in the Attic.

Millions of people everywhere suffered similar financial panic in the 1930s. Experiencing the Depression and later the loss of her father, Virginia would have no trouble envisioning a newly widowed woman so desperate to survive that she would appeal to the mother she had fled, asking someone she had once run from to help her and her children. Just from the experiences of the women in her own family, she would see the glass ceilings everywhere.

Flowers in the Attic is set in the 1950s. In 1957, 70 percent of working women had clerical positions, worked on assembly lines, or had service jobs—nothing a woman like Corrine would do. Only 12 percent had a profession, and 6 percent had management positions. Again, nothing we could envision Corrine being capable of doing. She had no skills or business acumen, had never attended college or had a job. Regardless of the period, the Corrine created by Virginia in Flowers was burdened with four children; her chances of gainful employment were next to nil.

Like so many who had lived through the Depression and its aftermath, Virginia was always keenly aware of the value of things, down to the very penny. In many letters to her family, she often referred to expenses. Even after Flowers was placed with a publisher and she was writing a sequel, she wrote to her brother Eugene, his wife, Mary, and their children: “And so far I am not one cent richer, only poorer. I keep buying IBM ribbons like peanuts for elephants to eat, and boxes of 20 lb. bond, costing 9.75 per box, and second sheets of four colors, 6.75 per box—(ream)… and I’m not earning a cent. If I don’t make it big with this book, I’ll be worse off than when I started, for the IRS will be after me, plus the Social Security people.”

Although it’s somewhat amusing for us to see Virginia’s dollars-and-cents concerns—knowing what we now know of how impressive her success would be—she was right to worry at that point. Most published authors don’t make more than their advances, and she had only received a $7,500 advance for Flowers in the Attic. Her concern was related to her understanding of the government benefits she was receiving as a disabled person. She told her family in the same letter: “You may not have thought this, but accepting the advance will take me off of Social Security, and the health benefits I receive.” (In order to receive such benefits, she wasn’t permitted to earn more than $3,300 per year.)

Moreover, the future millionaire was already thinking like her own accountant. She told her family: “But my royalty advance is more than double that amount… and therefore, this year I will have to pay income taxes, too.”

However, she wasn’t raised by particularly frugal parents. After 1941, despite their having navigated through the Great Depression, Virginia’s parents were very proud of her and wanted to spoil her. Her cousin Pat writes: “My mom frequently said they always gave Virginia beautiful things. When rubber bathing suits were the rage, Virginia had one in every color. When it came to Virginia, nothing was too good for her. Forty-dollar blankets were casually purchased when 40 dollars was a fortune in the 1940s. In that respect, Virginia’s mother Lillian was very generous.”

Let us not forget that these were war years, too. So much of what had been taken for granted, the basics of life, even during the Depression, had become more valuable than ever. During these years, the war years, William Andrews Sr. continued to make a good living, support his family, and maintain his home.

The roller coaster of emotions Virginia put her characters through in her novels was happening and did happen to her. If her biography, her life, could be described as anything, it would certainly be a car ride taking her up and then down hills before finally taking her very high and then tragically dropping her precipitously just as she finally felt the wind in her beautiful hair.

But what about the other influences on her work, the ones that would take her up the stairway to open the door to what would be one of the most famous attics in all of literature? Psychiatrists, psychologists, and sociologists largely agree that the major aspects of someone’s personality are formed during the first five years of childhood. Examining more of Virginia’s early life, we find this to be quite true, from her father’s influence on her reading to the accolades she received for her art.

Because so much of Virginia’s work revolves around family dysfunction, one would anticipate finding dysfunction in her family. However, relatives have vivid memories of the William Henry Andrews family being stable and loving. Despite the dark worlds of parent-and-child relationships that Virginia depicted in her novels, familial recollections and known familial history seem to indicate that she did not tunnel down into her own childhood to mine the specific cruelties and betrayals that we find so vividly drawn in her stories and characters.

In all of her letters in which she discussed her childhood, Virginia recalled happy times and a close, loving family. In Faces of Fear, she said, “I didn’t have a terrible childhood. The most terrible things about my childhood probably were those that I created in my mind, because my childhood was so ordinary, and I wanted it to be more exciting. But it wasn’t exciting. A lot of people think I was tortured, but my parents didn’t do anything. They didn’t beat me. They didn’t whip me. They didn’t lock me away. I didn’t go hungry. And I had a lot of pretty clothes.… I don’t know how I suffered, except that I wanted a life much more adventuresome, and I didn’t think it was, so I used to play exciting games with my friends. They told me I was the best instigator of the plots for our games.”

A major question for us while we travel through Virginia’s life then is, from where did she draw these psychologically grotesque figures? Few of them are physically ugly. There are no Freddy Kruegers in her novels, although the nightmares of the children tormented in her novels aren’t remarkably different from the experiences of children victimized in graphic horror stories. Virginia gave us a whole new definition of frightening when she wrote Flowers in the Attic, but perhaps what she envisioned was not so much invented as it was uncovered. The fears she wrote of, as we will see, were somewhere in everyone, something many readers were unwilling to confess.

Books were a big part of Virginia’s early life. In the Virginian-Pilot interview, she described her father taking her to the public library and signing her up for her own library card. She claimed he was a reader and said that on that first day at the library, he went home with two books and she with nine.

Virginia wrote that her father kept only three books in the house: the Bible, The Navy Man’s Journal, and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. She said Tarzan piqued her interest in storytelling and claimed to have read “most of the classics” by the age of twelve.

Virginia never explained to any interviewer or member of her extended family why her immediate family owned so few books despite her father’s emphasis on them. Most quickly realized that a gift of a book was the thing Virginia would appreciate the most. Virginia recalled her mother objecting to the cost of new books and telling her there was always the library. And truly, the library was a place she often frequented until she could afford to buy the books she wanted.

In 1973, when she moved back to Portsmouth after having lived in Missouri and Arizona, Virginia told her aunt Baby Sis in a letter: “For me, the trial is doing the proper research. Even in fiction you have to be accurate. I can’t go to the library when I need to. Libraries are reluctant to rent out their reference books. But, fortunately, there is a school across the street quite willing to let me borrow any book they have, and I might need. Unfortunately, their books are written for children, and they skim lightly over every subject. In the end, I’m forced to buy many expensive books, and now, I have a formidable library of my own. Every time a new book comes into the house, Mother voices objections! ‘Stop!’ she cries. ‘When we move, it will cost thousands just to transport your damn books!’?”

In her teens, Virginia discovered the novels of Charles Dickens, and because they became her favorites, she admitted going through a period of trying to duplicate Dickens’s style. In the prologue of Flowers in the Attic—again giving more evidence of how much of herself Virginia put into her young protagonist—Cathy tells us, “Charles Dickens would often start his novels with the birth of the protagonist and, being a favorite author of both mine and Chris’s, I would duplicate his style—if I could.”

Virginia took delight in describing the library in Foxworth Hall and the shelves that went all the way up to the ceiling, the source for all the books Corrine brought Cathy in the attic. Books were always seen as windows and doors to the worlds beyond Virginia’s reach and were the same for Cathy. In the novel, Cathy reads Wuthering Heights, one of Virginia’s own favorites, and Cathy tells us, “I loved reading Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill, and anything that was dramatic, fanciful and fraught with tempestuous emotions.”

Corrine brings them the same books they’ve read and enjoyed before: Little Men, Jane Eyre, and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen—more classics that Virginia herself would have devoured.

The only thing that compared to this form of escape from a real locked-up attic and a confined life were Virginia’s dreams, dreams she claimed roused her imagination.

Referring back to herself at seven years old, she said in the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star interviews after the book’s publication that she used to have “these fabulous dreams and I thought what fabulous books those dreams would make. A lot of my books are based on dreams. When I get stuck, dreams help me out.”

It is not unusual when exploring the minds and creative impulses of very successful novelists to find them referring to dreams for their inspiration. Mary Shelley claimed that at eighteen, she had a dream that would change her life, and we all know what that dream became: Frankenstein. As highlighted by Harriet Hall in her 2018 article “Who Was Mary Shelley and What Inspired Frankenstein?” Shelley wrote her thoughts through the voice of her protagonist: “My dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed—my deepest pleasure when free.”

Both Shelley and Virginia mention the importance of their dreams to their writing. Also like Virginia, Shelley taught herself, between homeschooling and being an avid reader. And, amazingly, like Shelley, Virginia was and is credited with creating a new genre. Shelley created science fiction because her work couldn’t be assigned to a genre at the time Frankenstein was published. There was nothing like it. And Virginia couldn’t be assigned a typical genre early on, either. There is too little development of serious romance in her novels to place them comfortably on the same racks as Harlequin titles or the like; perhaps this lack could be directly attributed to what she missed experiencing in her own life.

V.C. Andrews novels are certainly too slow-paced to qualify as thrillers. Dynamic or violent action is quite restrained. And yet there are surges of love and affection. Sex is never graphic, but it’s there. And goodness knows, characters are pushed down stairways and/or poisoned. Many booksellers shelve V.C. Andrews novels in the horror section, but Andrews’s concerns with family, emotion, and relationships put her books firmly outside that genre, as Winter examined in his words about Flowers in the Attic: “The story is animated by nightmarish passions of greed, cruelty, and incest, told in romantic, fairy-tale tones, producing some of the most highly individualistic tales of terror of this generation.”

There is and was a strong tendency to think of V.C. Andrews as a young adult (YA) novelist. In recent decades, that category has certainly expanded and taken turns of plot that we would never have expected in a Nancy Drew story. Despite the reach of Andrews’s novels beyond young girls, we might sometimes still find her in the YA section simply because of the ages of her protagonists and the genre convention that such protagonists suffer challenges and problems usually experienced by older people—they are thrust into adulthood too soon.

Regardless of genre, that early push into adulthood would happen to Virginia herself, albeit in a different way from the characters in her novels. She was experiencing a normal childhood, excelling in grade school, performing in a high school play, and building friendships. However, her experiences with illness and physical disability both rushed her maturity and restrained it.

Obviously, the times and events, both historical and social, have their impact on everyone’s childhood, too. Writers consciously or subconsciously record their experiences and find ways to bring them back through their work, sometimes greatly surprising themselves. Perhaps it’s not inaccurate to say that writers especially work under the spell of their subconscious thoughts and feelings. In Faces of Fear, Virginia said, “I live all my books. When I go into my office, I lose touch with my conscious; I come in tune with my subconscious and it turns on like magic. So as I begin to push the buttons on my computer, I am also programming myself.”

As a result of the economic tsunami, William Andrews packed his family in his Chevy and drove back to Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1930. As young as she was, did Virginia recall the same fear and panic as she described for Corrine and her four children fleeing their happy home, destitute, when her husband, Christopher, is killed at the start of Flowers in the Attic? “Now all our beautiful things would be taken away.”

Before they left Rochester, how many children and families did Virginia see evicted from their homes, staring at the abyss? Darkness was seeping in all around. Boys and girls her age and younger were clinging to their mothers’ skirts, their eyes big and filled with fear, perhaps the same fear the Dollanganger children saw as they rode on the train and as they walked through the darkness toward this looming house that seemed to peer down on the rest of the world. Frightened as they were, they were filled with the hope that their mother’s promise would be fulfilled.

What did this cheerful, artistic, and imaginative young girl, fleeing Rochester with her family, cling to in order to see the same hope lying ahead in their return to Portsmouth? Surely some of that was waiting in the embrace of family. But perhaps she instinctively knew that the one thing the economic free fall in the country could not take from her was her talent and imagination.

She had reason to have confidence in her talent, even in a world where so many adults as well as their children looked lost. Again, revealing a deeply held sense of pride, she repeated what the principal had told her when she spoke to Winter for his Faces of Fear interview: “Remember, you’ve got the talent to do anything you want to do as long as you stick to that one branch. Decide which one you want to follow, and lop the other ones off.” At one point in her life, she lopped off visual art and turned to creative writing. However, she claimed that every time she would falter in her writing, she would think of the school principal. After so much rejection in her earlier years, she must have wondered if it was time to chop off that branch, too. Thankfully, she did not.

When the Andrews family arrived in Portsmouth, they confronted a much less-developed urban world than the Rochester they had just spent years living in. It wouldn’t be until 1935 that Portsmouth would get motor buses, whereas Rochester already had subways, with the street railways that had morphed into buses. There wasn’t half the hustle and bustle in Portsmouth that Virginia had known in Rochester.

The family moved back in with Lillian’s parents, the Parkers. Besides the stock-market crash of 1929 and bank failures, the drought contributed to these years of poverty and struggle that would last until 1941, with 1933–34 being the worst of the hard times for most average Americans.

Interestingly, the state of Virginia had experienced a delayed reaction to the Great Depression. Because of the nature of its economy, the high rate of subsistence-level farming, and the support of federal money in the Washington, D.C., and Norfolk areas, the population was resistant to the initial effects of the crisis. Nevertheless, the state was hardly Depression-proof. Unemployment began to rise more rapidly in 1931, farm prices plummeted, the state government cut spending to maintain a balanced budget, and relief rolls rose sharply. By the time the Andrews family arrived in Portsmouth in 1932, Norfolk and Portsmouth had fired teachers, imposed salary cuts, and closed city kindergartens. Almost two-thirds of the state of Virginia’s counties reduced school terms to less than eight months. In Portsmouth, one church was feeding a hundred people a day with leftovers collected from the Norfolk naval base.

Fortunately, William Andrews’s father-in-law found him work at the Navy shipyard. As most families were doing, the Andrewses garaged their car to eliminate the expense of gas and maintenance. They saved newspapers and old rags, and they repaired clothes. Virginia’s ability to sew and create her own clothes later surely found some of its origin here. After a few years, William would leave the shipyard and put his skills to work at a tool-and-die company. Amiable and always ambitious and optimistic, Virginia’s father would never stop finding ways to provide for and support his growing family.

Virginia continued her schooling at the Robert E. Lee grade school, skipping third grade and then being promoted to sixth grade after fourth. How this was effected is unclear, but typically, this sort of advancement was based on an exam a teacher would administer. Considering her early school achievements, her study habits, and all the reading she had done and continued to do, her advancements through grade school were not surprising.

And then, as if lifted by a wind blown from destiny, that journey took a devastating turn. As would be echoed in her novels, it was a turn occurring on a familiar place: a stairway.

The stairway is especially prominent in My Sweet Audrina. But in describing Virginia’s descent, we are facing something much less gothic in nature: a high school staircase. Virginia’s plunge would begin with a figuratively and literally twisted fall. It was almost a free fall, with at first nothing tangible to seize to stop it. She grabbed a banister and injured herself with a painful twist carrying out the instinctive action. It was an accident that we will see had so many ramifications that it would have understandably stopped most people from doing anything more with their lives.

But Virginia’s imagination was relentless, and through it and through what she could create, she would rise again. Perhaps she didn’t stand up as easily as everyone else, but she was certainly ready to confront destiny face-to-face, a true phoenix rising from the ashes.

But what had life been like in her late childhood years leading up to her crisis? How different did it become, and how did she and her brothers adjust to their new home and the dramatically new times? In order to understand the devastating effect her disability had on her young life, it’s important that we contrast her later life with the almost idyllic days before, related to us by Virginia herself in her interviews and in the words of her closest brother, Eugene.

About The Author

courtesy of the author

Andrew Neiderman is the author of numerous novels of suspense and terror, including Deficiency, The Baby Squad, Under Abduction, Dead Time, Curse, In Double Jeopardy, The Dark, Surrogate Child, and The Devil’s Advocate—which was made into a major motion picture starring Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves, and Charlize Theron. He lives in Palm Springs, California, with his wife, Diane. Visit his website at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (June 13, 2023)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982182649

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Raves and Reviews

“Andrews’ fans will appreciate this insightful glimpse into her mysterious life.”
Kirkus Reviews

Neiderman…uses letters and family interviews to set the record straight… Using flowery, dramatic language that is the hallmark of Andrews' novels, Neiderman presents a woman who never let her disability get her down… [T]he text of an unfinished novel…will be a thrill for Andrews' fans.”

“Combining a novelist’s eye for detail with personal knowledge gleaned from his years as V.C. Andrews’s ghostwriter, Neiderman (The Devil’s Advocate) unpacks the famed gothic writer’s notoriously private life…he scrupulously unravels…mysteries still swirling around the novelist’s life today… Fans will be transfixed.”
Publishers Weekly

“Mr. Neiderman seems well-placed to assess Andrews’s motivations, having ghost-written scores of books in her name for over three decades… This material plugs many large holes in our understanding of this fiercely private writer…the woman who emerges from these pages is as riveting as her books.”
The Wall Street Journal

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