You may have heard the phrase “body horror” used to describe a genre focused on producing terror and disgust by doing gruesome things to bodies. A lot of V.C. Andrews’s work falls into this category. Physical discomfort is a huge part of her work. There’s a lot of painful childbirth and missed meals. And who can forget the scene in Flowers in the Attic when Cathy wakes up to find her grandmother has covered her hair in tar? Tar that her brother Chris tries to dissolve by urinating on her head? Or the scene where Chris feeds his own blood to the malnourished twins Corrie and Carrie to keep them from starving? PS, Chris, medical school called, YOU’RE DOING GREAT ALREADY. But I’d argue that a good chunk of her work falls into a distinct category of its own: disability horror.
Famously wheelchair-bound herself, it’s impossible not to read a lot into Andrews’ lengthy descriptions of being physically trapped. From the age of 19, after her near-fatal accident, Andrews rarely left the house or her mother’s care. Being trapped, being emotionally or physically thwarted after some traumatic event is a theme that runs through almost all of her books.
But the most vivid example of disability horror by far comes from My Sweet Audrina. In this book, she creates a vivid, unsettling world, in which every woman is either an oppressive mother figure or helplessly suffering from a myriad of physical and emotional ailments. I’ve always read Audrina as a stand-in for Andrews herself, imagining this strange environment where almost everyone is damaged in the same ways that Andrews was. When a woman becomes confined to a wheelchair after falling down the stairs, and then writes a novel in which four women also fall down a sinister set of stairs (which kills three of the four), it’s hard not to imagine that she’s sharing a little of her own inner life with us.
That wicked vixen Vera, Audrina’s cousin, has bones that break at the slightest provocation. She’s Mr. Glass. She’s a constant reminder that, no matter how mean or wily any of us fancy ourselves, we’re all trapped inside fragile meat cages, and we can only do what they let us.
She could break her arm just by banging it against something hard…Little brushes against a table and her wrist fractured. A slighter bump and huge purple bruises came to mar her skin for weeks. If she fell off her bed onto a soft, padded carpet she still broke a leg, an ankle, a forearm…
Vera wavers between self-pity and taking pride in her injuries (she accuses Audrina of having indelicate “peasant bones” and brags about the life of luxury she leads, being physically incapable of housework). She’s the perverse stereotype of some ignorant person’s vision of disabled people: selfish, weak, fragile, demanding, and extremely expensive to keep around. Andrews both gleefully elevates and punishes her for these traits. Vera has more sass and backbone than any other character, and she gets to fuck all the hot dudes (except, perhaps surprisingly in a V.C. Andrews novel, her uncle). She uses her body to get what she wants, but it constantly betrays her–in addition to the broken bones, she suffers from a gory miscarriage that results, regrettably, in her throwing a blood clot at someone (the clot “clomps” to the floor). When she dies (by falling down the stairs, obviously), Andrews draws out the sound of each sickening thump.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the Saintly Disabled Angel, Billie, who has had both of her legs amputated. Just like Andrews herself, Billie ended up in a wheelchair after an original injury worsened after a doctor’s interference. Billie is so practiced at hiding behind swishy skirts and conveniently-placed walls that it takes Audrina multiple in-person encounters to realize that Billie is a double amputee. But just as Vera represents the nightmare version of what an able-bodied person might think of disabled people, Billie is the opposite—the kind of person you’d see being held up as an inspiring example of being able to “overcome” disability. Her son proudly tells her that he sees her “with her legs…he never sees the stumps.” She is able to move independently in a little red wagon, and even take care of housekeeping and cooking for her new dirtbag boyfriend, Audrina’s father. The men in her life pat themselves on the back for treating her almost like a real person. As a mother figure to Audrina, she’s a person who was “broken” and still lives a “normal” life–an inspiration Audrina vitally needs.
Though Billie is less of a one-dimensional character than Vera, she still represents a very specific stereotype. She displays a multi-faceted perspective of how people deal with physical injury and trauma. But Audrina is disturbed by moments in which she is reminded of Billie’s physical body. Audrina anxiously contemplates Billie’s implication that she’s had up to twelve abortions, and she later walks in on Bille having sex with Audrina’s dad. Through Audrina’s eyes, this consensual sex is threatening and disturbing–the two are “intimately playing” with each other in a room that is described like something out of a bordello. Having been forced to consider Billie as a physical human and not just some smiling fairy who floats around inspiring people, her physical appearance become front and center. For several pages, she’s no longer “Billie” in Audrina’s mind, she is “Arden’s legless mother.”
It is here that we learn more deeply about Billie’s inner experience of disability:
When I lost my legs I thought that never again would a man want to hold me and love me…Damian has made me feel like a whole woman again. Tell me that I smile and act cheerful, Audrina, but that’s the facade I wear, like a pretty dress. The ugly dress I wear is the fact that I hate the way I am now. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t think of the way I used to be, graceful and strong, with the agility to do anything…
It is not long after we learn of Billie’s facade, her “ugly dress,” that she takes a fatal tumble down the stairs.
Audrina’s father repeatedly reminds her that her childhood trauma was a death–that the Audrina who went through that experience does not exist anymore. He reinforces in her the idea that the new Audrina is not only a different person, she’s also an inferior version of her predecessor. Her goal throughout the book is to somehow meld with the First and Best Audrina and get back to this Platonic ideal, to regain some “specialness” that only the true, unbroken Audrina has. Audrina can trace a vast change in her life back to one damaging event, something that casts a sinister shadow over life Post-Event, while simultaneously creating an entirely rosy picture of life before it.
Audrina’s disabilities are not physical, and mostly artificially created by her family. She was unable to sustain short-term memories as a child, can’t tell what the day is or how old she is, and sleeps constantly, often for days at a time. Sylvia, her mentally disabled sister, becomes a physical representation of all of life’s pain to Audrina. She is presented as a burden, a child whose physical and intellectual development has been halted in the same way that Audrina’s emotional development has. After all, Audrina is raised to believe that she is the second-born Adare daughter–it’s fitting, then, that the actual second-born child is both permanently bound to Audrina and profoundly disabled.
But it’s notable that Audrina is the first person who believes it’s still possible to nurture Sylvia and actually helps her learn. Sylvia is inextricably tied to Audrina, who appears to be entirely responsible for raising and caring for her. But she’s also enigmatic and powerful, perhaps more so than any other character in the book. It’s heavily implied that she’s responsible for Billie’s death, and she also manages to save Audrina’s life, dragging and hiding her comatose body before Vera gets the chance to “mercy kill” her (God, this book is so strange and so good).
I think this book is brilliant, I really do. How often can you say you’ve read any kind of story where the majority of the characters have a diverse range of disabilities? And not in a horror movie “the creepy guy has a peg leg and his brother is simple” kind of way. They’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, they’re the kind-of-in-the-middle guys. I read this book almost as a fictionalized memoir by Andrews–she’s telling her own story through the stories of various characters. On the last page, Audrina is still housebound, still connected to her grumpy dad and demanding sister. But she feels “a certain kind of accepting peace,” and resolves to keep trying to live her life. I like to think that this part, at least, is autobiographical.
[Image via Flickr]
Madeleine Lloyd-Davies works in the comics industry and has a file on her desktop dedicated to notes about V.C. Andrews.