Have you ever sat around the family dinner table on Thanksgiving, gazing upon relatives far and near, and thought to yourself that no family could possibly ever be as immensely fucked up as your own? Well, you were wrong, because there absolutely is! From the incredibly dysfunctional pen of V.C. Andrews sprang the Dollanganger series, a collection of (originally) five books which told of the exploits, drama, and incredible bed of lies which made of the structure of one of the most toxic clans to ever be imagined into existence. Essentially, the Dollanganger series begins with the events which take place when a widowed mommy/aunt/half-cousin locked up her four children/niblings/half-cousins up in an attic and allowed her fake mom to abuse them, all so that her dad wouldn’t cut her out of his will, and she could snag a new, rich husband. Are you confused yet? Don’t worry; I’ll clear things up with a rundown of the entire series. But be forewarned that V.C. Andrews’ signature brand of incest trauma porn masquerading as Gothic family dramas is not for the faint of heart.
The first book in the series is the infamous Flowers in the Attic, where this horrific and terribly convoluted tale begins. Released in 1979 but set in 1957, the book opens in Gladstone, Pennsylvania, where Corrine Dollanganger has been left widowed following her husband Christopher’s untimely death in a car accident. Being in severe debt and having no skills other than being good looking, Corrine decides that, rather than actually acquire some skills in order to support her four children, the best idea she can come up with is to take the children to the home of her abusive parents, Malcolm and Olivia Foxworth, people so cruel that neither she or her deceased husband had spoken to them since their marriage. Travelling from Pennsylvania to Virginia, Corrine brings the children to Foxworth Hall, the truly terrifying home of her parents, where her mother, Olivia, smuggles the children into the attic, so that they can remain undetected by the stern, cold grandfather (who doesn’t even know of their existence), as well as all of the household servants. The children learn from their dear old granny that their parents were half-uncle and niece, and that they are “abominations” who should have never been born. Some grandmothers give cuddles, some give cold confessions. What are you gonna do? Olivia then proceeds to physically abuse her daughter, as well as her grandchildren, and Corrine gives them nothing but the occasional present and promises to introduce them to her father after she has won back his love. If it’s not already obviously: Neither Corrine or Olivia are exactly Mother of the Year material.
Malcolm and Olivia Foxworth are the parents of Corrine. Christopher and Corrine are half-uncle and niece. Christopher and Corrine had four children: Chris Jr., Cathy, and the twins, Carrie and Cory. Chris Sr. died. Corrine took her children to live in her parents home, without her father’s permission and without he and the servants’ knowledge. Olivia systemic inflicts physical and psychological torture on her grandchildren.
The children make do as best they can in the musty attic, with visits from their mother becoming more and more infrequent over the course of many months, and under the iron fist of their grandmother. Chris and Cathy try to educate Carrie and Cory, who hadn’t gotten a change to start school yet, and try to hold onto their own dreams. Chris wants to be a doctor, and Cathy wants to be a professional ballet dancer, and though those dreams seem less and less attainable with each passing day, they persevere. As a year passes with the children still prisoner in the attic, they become desperate, and despite the “privilege” she allows Chris and Cathy of a night outside the attic during Christmas, Corrine becomes even more physically and emotionally distant and cruel to the children, who no longer trust her. On top of the stress of this nightmarish new life, Chris and Cathy, who have begun to enter puberty, find themselves becoming attracted to one another, though ashamed, and frightened of what their malicious and deeply religious grandmother would do if she ever found out. Unfortunately for them, Olivia does find out, and punishes Cathy by tarring her hair, while Corrine, who returns months later with the news that she has married her father’s attorney, was off on her European honeymoon the entire time. The children, who have suffered the height of physical abuse and near-death starvation by this point, rightly lash out at their mother for abandoning them and she promises to never visit them again until they apologize to her. #BitchWut
Despite all of this, Chris and Cathy aren’t prompted to take action and plan an escape until the twins fall ill, with Cory in particular looking more and more fragile every single day, and their growth noticeably stunted. Chris and Cathy begin sneaking into their mother’s room nightly to steal money and valuables in order to escape the house of horrors. It’s during one of these nightly trips that Cathy “meets” her new stepfather, Bart Winslow. He is handsome and she is a teenage girl repressed in every single conceivable way, so Cathy kisses the sleeping man, an action which triggers her Nice Guy™ predatory brother, Chris, into raping her in a fit of jealousy when he finds out. It’s cool, though #Sarcasm. Chris is “in love” Cathy. And she (repressed, lonely, and with only Chris for emotional support and solace) in “in love” him, too. Obviously, these children loved one another prior to their imprisonment, but the trauma visited upon them by non-siblings and the cramped quarters distorted once-innocent feelings, which is (ironically) what their grandmother had been trying to avoid. While it’s easy for readers to understand why these children could feel that they were falling in love with one another, Chris’ rape of Cathy, who had suffered even more than he had at the hands of Olivia, a woman jealous of her young granddaughter, is completely inexcusable. Even in the most harrowing situation of their lives, Chris, like most men, felt entitled to the body of a woman he wanted, her autonomy be damned. Yup, this family is the trash that just keeps on festering.
Cathy forgives Chris, unsure how to navigate the new relationship that he has callously pushed them into, but their primary goal still remains the health of the twins. Cory becomes even more ill and though Olivia seems to finally have found a compassionate cell in her body, stating that she and Corrine will take him to the doctor, they come back empty-handed, claiming that Cory has died of pneumonia. The siblings are completely grief-stricken, with Carrie shocked into silence, no longer speaking to anyone. After this, Chris discovers that their mother and stepfather (who, like their grandfather, never even knew of their existence) has moved out of Foxworth Hall, that Malcolm had passed away seven months ago, that their mother had been poisoning them with the daily powdered donuts they’d (particularly Cory) been eating for the past nine months, and that Corrine’s inheritance from Malcolm had been based on the condition that her marriage to Christopher had produced no children. The three remaining children flee Foxworth Hall, over two years after their arrival, taking the train to Florida, and the novel ends with Cathy swearing revenge for what her mother has done to them.
Corrine really ain’t shit. Olivia ain’t shit, either. Chris Jr. is a rapist. Cathy has been abused by everyone who’s ever claimed to love her, save her dead daddy, her dead brother, and her sister Carrie. Corrine really ain’t shit.
It’s important that I lay the full groundwork for how truly fucked up this family is, and now that I have, we can pick up the pace a bit! Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews first novel, was so powerful that it was adapted into a few short years after it’s release into a film which has been remade a couple of times since. But as dramatic and traumatic as this novel was, it was just the tip of the Dollanganger iceberg. One year after the release of Flowers in the Attic, Andrews picks up where she left off with Petals on the Wind, which sees the three remaining Dollanganger children with their plans gone awry when fragile Carrie takes a turn for the worse and the siblings meet a mute Black woman named Henrietta “Henny” Beech, who comes to their rescue and takes them to the home of her employer, Dr. Paul Sheffield. Paul is a prestigious doctor in Clairmont, South Carolina. If it’s not already obvious, drama follows the Dollangangers everywhere they go, so here’s a briefing of what went down after the doctor opened his home to them.
- The children hide their identities at first, but then Cathy eventually trusts Paul and tells him the truth about their past.
- Paul organizes a ballet audition for Cathy, during which she miscarries a fetus she didn’t even know she was carrying (yeah, it’s Chris’ baby; who the fuck else?), and Paul performs a D&C to evacuate the remains of the fetus.
- Paul suspects this was an incest baby. Cathy suspects that he suspects. He lies to Cathy and tells her the bleeding was due to her irregular periods.
- Cathy gets into a local ballet school, then one in New York, while Chris gets into premed.
- Carrie never gets over her twin’s death.
- Carrie doesn’t grow in height, due to malnourishment in the attic. Her diminutive stature is a source of deep embarrassment for her.
- Cathy is still (rightly) pissed at Corrine’s hellish abuse and neglect.
- Paul and Henny are basically their children’s new parents.
- Cathy and Paul fall in love and get engaged. Cathy is just out of her teens teenager. Paul is her former guardian. Paul ain’t shit.
- Chris is pissed that his sister is in love to a non-blood relation. Chris ain’t shit.
- Paul’s sister, Amanda, ain’t shit, either. She sabotages the engagement.
- Cathy breaks the engagement and panic marries Julian Marquet, a fellow dancer, out of shame.
- Julian ain’t shit. He abuses Cathy, breaks her toes so she can’t dance, is wildly jealous of Paul and Chris, and cheats on her with everybody. Paul and Chris beg her to leave him. She doesn’t.
- Julian commits suicide after an accident leaves him paralyzed.
- Cathy gives birth to their son, nicknamed “Jory”, and is more determined than ever to get back at her mother for all the pain she’s caused.
- Cathy moves herself, Jory, and Carrie near Foxworth Hall and uses her widowhood as a instrument with which to secure the services of her mother’s husband, Bart, under the guise of getting Julian’s insurance money.
- Carrie is driven over the edge by Corrine and attempts suicide. She dies in the hospital.
- Cathy seduces Bart (read: her stepdaddy, and a relationship that he is ignorant to, but she is not). They begin an affair, and she becomes pregnant with a little revenge baby. How sweet.
- Cathy does the absolute most, shows up at the Foxworth Hall Christmas party, and outs Corrine’s triflin’ ass in front of everybody. Bart doesn’t believe her at first but is absolutely disgusted with his wife when he hears Carrie’s story.
- Corrine admits to being the one who’d been poisoning the children with arsenic, claiming she did so in order to make the children ill enough to be hospitalized and thus “escape”, but she left Foxworth Hall after Cory’s death, so the lie detector determined that was a lie.
- Chris barges in the room, their mom thinks he’s the ghost of dead husbands past (Chris Sr.), and has a breakdown.
- Foxworth Hall mysteriously catches fire, killing everyone but Chris, Cathy, and Corrine, who lives out the rest of her days institutionalized. #SmallFavours
- Henny has had a stroke and Paul’s had a heart attack, so Cathy goes home to South Carolina, marries him, and gives birth to her second son, Bart, named for his deceased father.
- Paul dies while Bart Jr. is still young, but not before encouraging Cathy to finally be with Chris. That’s right, y’all. The man who basically groomed her told her that a lifetime of incest with Chris was “the right thing to do” because he’s “waited so long” to be with her. #ThisCantBeLife #ButItIs
- Chris and Cathy move with Jory and Bart to California (’cause no one knows them there) and take Paul’s surname, living as the Sheffields.
- Cathy is terrified that their secret will one day be exposed.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Petals on the Wind somehow managed to be even more dramatical than the first in the series but it actually gets worse. And yes, this mindbogglingly soap operatic sequel also got its own movie. What can I say? V.C. Andrews novels are like a slow-motion car wreck; you just can’t look away. I’m not sure why someone thought that it should be a thing to put books about incest on middle school library shelves, which is where I found the series, but apparently, that’s a trend and most of Andrews’ books are (inexplicably) near a minor near you. Wanna know what happens next? Part 2 of the Dollanganger series will be here tomorrow! Stay tuned.