A few months ago, I was discussing books with a good friend of mine. Both of us are well educated black women who have worked in academia and self-proclaimed bibliophiles. Our conversation veered from the seminal books of our personal mental catalogs as we spoke about those that are considered classics and those that are considered ‘smut’. Now, of course, you cannot have a conversation about smut without discussing V.C. Andrews. As we discussed her various novels and the age frame with which we read them, I had an epiphany that I shared with my friend. I realized that reading novels like Flowers in the Attic prepared me emotionally and mentally for the trauma my psyche would endure while reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
I’d like to clarify that I certainly did not process the brutality of V.C. Andrews’s tales without batting an eyelash or suffering a psychic wound. In their formulaic structure and often predictable plots, these novels allowed you to explore the traumatic effects of various violations and despicable acts at a pace in which you were in control. You knew that there would be a death of a main character’s loved one, there would be a shift from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from rags to riches. There would be rape (possibly incest) and there would be love. Once you understood the way in which events would take place in these novels, you could decide how far you would read or if you would skip ahead. However, despite the jarring nature of the novels, most of the time you didn’t skip ahead because the stories were gripping and you wanted to stick with the characters especially since they usually lost so much and you wouldn’t suffer them the loss of you as their captive audience. In sticking out the suffering and hurt of these characters, my heart became more empathetic and unquestioning of the suffering of characters to come, be they Andrews’ creations or those of other authors.
When I read Jane Eyre, I was intrigued by a story in which the protagonist was not the beauty of the novel. She was described several times, as being plain. In the midst of my teen awkwardness and self-consciousness, the normalness of her resonated with me. She was not a Catherine of Wuthering Heights or a Juliet of Verona. She was just a smart girl who liked to read, exactly like me, but here she was having this passionate love affair with an older man. Had the book ended there, I would have thought I had gotten enough BUT then the book presented me with the twist of Mr. Rochester having a wife locked away in the attic! Amazingly, Flowers in the Attic not only had fully prepared for this monumental even it also made me more inclined to believe it. While others questioned how this woman had been locked up for years without being discovered, I remember the Dollangangers hidden away from the world for years without even the staff being aware of their existence. It didn’t seem farfetched for a wealthy man to commit such an act because, as Andrews had shown me through various collections, wealthy people do the most because they can.
Other than allowing me to get an idea of the machinations of the rich, Andrews also showed me the violent side of sex. When Cathy is raped by her brother Chris in Flowers in the Attic and later forgives him because he loves her, it softened me to the idea presented by Claudia in The Bluest Eye that Pecola’s rape at the hands of her father was his only way of expressing love. Now as an adult I agree that this assessment was highly problematic BUT while reading it, I was able to accept and understand this notion because of the writings of VC Andrews. Not only that, but I was in the position to better understand why Pecola was driven mad by the violation. Where Toni Morrison tempered her descriptions of the assault, Andrews didn’t hold back. I understood fully the detrimental and psychological effects of rape and what was lost in its wake. Andrews didn’t desensitize me, but rather, she enhanced my ability to empathize and made me as resilient as a writer could make a reader when preparing them for the world.
Looking back, I’m grateful my mother didn’t censor my reading. More importantly, I’m grateful that I grew up in a household that didn’t prescribe to literary snobbery. From Cathy to Jane to Pecola, I have been truly blessed to engage in the stories of young women as the authors lent narrative to experiences that usually go without words. When I reached moments in my life, sometimes equal in brutality, I was able to make sense of them because I had read the blueprint in between the lines of smut and classics. The key to it all was to keep going, one foot in front of the other, one sentence after another. I know it sounds cheesy, but in many ways, these novels saved my life because in them I found a reason to keep reading, which for me, has always been a reason to keep breathing.