V.C, Andrews. Credit: Thomas Van Cleave

Palm Springs author Andrew Neiderman’s biography of V.C. Andrews (1923-1986), the enigmatic woman behind the teen-horror phenomenon Flowers in the Attic and other gothic classics, was released today, on Feb. 1.

Neiderman has held the pen behind the V.C. Andrews name for more than 35 years, making him the most prolific ghostwriter in history—and making V.C. Andrews the longest consistently published book franchise in American publishing history. In The Woman Beyond the Attic: The V.C. Andrews Story, Neiderman has manifested his commitment to V.C. Andrews’ legacy in what Kirkus aptly calls an “admirable job weaving in the available information about Andrews, offering a coherent view into the life and thoughts of this reticent writer,” predicting that “Andrews’ fans will appreciate this insightful glimpse into her mysterious life.”

By sifting through hundreds of never-before-seen personal letters and family photos and verbal testimonies from Andrews’ living family members, Neiderman has pieced together a comprehensive record of the life of V.C. Andrews, known off the page as Virginia Andrews—providing answers for literally millions of fans worldwide who continuously debate and wonder about the details of her life.

Here is an excerpt from the preface of The Woman Beyond the Attic.

Virginia did not set out at first to be a writer. In her youth, she hoped to be an actress, for practically the same reasons she wanted to become a writer. Her medical event ended that pursuit, but she didn’t settle on an ambition to be a successful writer immediately. Rather, she developed a respectable career in commercial art, somewhat necessitated by her father’s unexpected death and the family’s need for income to supplement his Navy pension and her disability payments. Her artistic talent was there from an almost incredibly early age. Teachers recognized it. Her classmates were intrigued with it, and her family was amazed. Where it took her educationally would be just as surprising.

So, then, if she was so successful at it, why did she give up art and turn all her energy to writing? And when she began to dedicate herself to writing, she was not an immediate success. By her own admission, she had written nine novels before she wrote Flowers in the Attic, none of them attracting an agent, much less a publisher. Why didn’t she give up writing novels and stories and return to art, through which she had proven income?

Could it have had something to do with a self-proclaimed ability to see the future, a future she saw filled with success, and her belief in reincarnation? Would it surprise you to know that Virginia was convinced she was gifted with ESP and thought this gift prepared her to confront the challenges presented by chronic pain and limited mobility? Did “psychic” experiences strengthen her faith in her eventual writing success? From her letters included here, it is almost eerie to see how confident and determined she was.

What does triumph look like for a successful author as opposed to, say, a business entrepreneur? Authors, all authors, find success with their work when they create an intimate connection with their readers. These authors succeed in going beneath the surface of romance and love, hate and envy, dreams and pain, to touch what is true not only for themselves but for humanity in general. It’s this achievement, especially the fears and challenges of adolescence and the betrayal within families, that allows some authors, like V.C. Andrews, to become international successes.

Andrew Neiderman.

At the time of this writing, there is a V.C. Andrews title in just about every country that has a publisher, including, as of relatively recently, mainland China. What is it about this author, her characters, and her stories that touches the hearts and minds of people regardless of their nationality, language, and socioeconomic development? What makes her universal? And especially, what makes Flowers in the Attic and all its sequels so popular in all these countries, a popularity that truly seems immortal? 

Virginia’s books continue to sell in significant numbers. Most dramatically, adaptations of V.C. Andrews novels have been featured so often on the Lifetime channel that the channel is claiming the author as part of its cachet. To this date, Lifetime has done 14 movies, each garnering some of the best ratings among all its movies. This clearly disproves the idea that these stories were for a past generation and are not timeless. There is a constant influx of new readers, of young girls and young women discovering them—and let’s not forget the new male readers, despite the common perception of V.C. Andrews as for women only. In fact, her first fan letter, as we will see, came from a man.

Indeed, Virginia’s works are timeless and universal. What makes them so? Is it the successful way she captured the development, subtle at times, from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood? She admitted to reading and studying psychology at the time, but she also admitted that she couldn’t live without fantasy. Fantasy led her to creative writing, to fiction, in which an author could take the omniscient point of view and, in a sense, play God.

Most writers do that, play God, though perhaps not as purposefully as someone like Virginia, who lived within narrow borders for most of her life. Looking down on her cast of characters, she, like all writers, designated where they would go and how. To be a successful writer, you have to sublimate yourself and see the world through the eyes of those you have created. You sift your personal likes and dislikes, dreams, and ambitions through a very fine sieve constructed from the characters you’ve created. Novels, after all, are not meant to be autobiographies.

But, as we will discover through her own comments and clear analogies to her own experiences, for Virginia, any rule about novels being pure fiction was not so strictly observed. Indeed, if your characters are providing you with a freedom of movement that life has denied you, you want them imbued with much of who you are. You want to slip into them and do what they do, go where they go, whether that is to a dance, to a party, or on a simple walk in the park, even an exploratory walk like the one Audrina takes in My Sweet Audrina.

And yet how far can one go with this theory? Do we apply it specifically to a novel like Flowers in the Attic, every major story beat? Certainly no one wants to be locked in a small bedroom and an attic for over three years during their adolescence. But can’t the argument be made that Virginia was indeed locked up in a medical attic following her surgeries and body cast? At one point, we will see how she admits to the analogy.

The point is clearly illustrated in a letter she wrote to her nephew Brad Andrews: “No one knows more about depression than I … it is my daily battle to fight and to win. I live in the tightest cage of all, my own body.” Although the analogy isn’t exact, trapped and caged is how she had envisioned the Dollanganger children in Flowers. Can we understand how sympathetic she would be and how important it was to her for her readers to feel the restrictions?

Readers are always interested in hearing about what real person some character is based on. And theories run especially rampant regarding Flowers in the Attic. This biography will describe some significant revelations regarding them. How much will Virginia Andrews finally admit to? How much of herself did she inject into the fictional Cathy Dollanganger?

Most commentators and reviewers searching for answers have been frustrated by Virginia’s contradictory statements about herself—some deliberately so—and by her avoidance of penetrating interviews. In Faces of Fear, she reveals, “I’m a Gemini, and I’ve got a tremendous need for secrecy. I don’t want to tell people all about myself. I decided that I would put bits and pieces of me in my novels, and they won’t know which parts are really me.”

Apparently, she deliberately sought to be mysterious. What did she fear about being more truthful? Where can we go to find the truths she never revealed to the public?

Because of the surviving family’s cooperation, we have not only historical family details in documents but also family photographs never before seen and Virginia’s own letters, most of which have never been read by the public, filled with her thoughts and opinions about herself and the world around her. Much of the information in this biography also has come from interviews with Virginia’s closest relatives, who lived with her and her mother at times and thus witnessed Virginia’s life-changing events themselves. These are the recollections of her contemporaries. Much is taken from their personal discussions with her and what they themselves gleaned from those interactions. (This includes an aunt who at the time of this writing is 103 years old and in possession of a vivid memory.)

In Faces of Fear, she reveals, “I’m a Gemini, and I’ve got a tremendous need for secrecy. I don’t want to tell people all about myself. I decided that I would put bits and pieces of me in my novels, and they won’t know which parts are really me.”

Because of all this, while we can never really know a person in full, I am confident that we can begin to understand what forces con-spired to create the writer V.C. Andrews became.

From the way her family describes it, it did seem as if someone had waved a magic wand, just like the good fairies in her fantasies. One day she was a much-protected and quite isolated young woman not really known by the people of Portsmouth, Va., and then, although it took almost all her adult life, suddenly, surely overnight to them, she became one of the city’s most famous people. Awards would come her way, one from the governor of Virginia, another from the city of Norfolk, in their celebration of local notables. The media would pursue her, and a major publishing company would wine and dine her, arranging for her to meet fans at book conventions and autograph sessions. There was talk of a Broadway play based on Flowers in the Attic. Movie producers would seek rights to her big achievement. Almost as if the wind had picked up her identity and carried it across the ocean, her fame would fly to international capitals.

One of the most important and perhaps most fascinating questions is how—after she had been diagnosed with cancer at age 61, four years after the publication of Flowers in the Attic—did knowing she was in a losing struggle with cancer impact her work and her relationship to her family and fans? Almost as soon as she got to enjoy the accolades, the financial success, and the self-satisfaction of seeing her dreams materialize, it was all being snatched away from her.

How natural it would be for such a person to be bitter and angry toward the end, but was Virginia Andrews? She wasn’t leaving behind children or a husband, but she knew she was leaving behind books that would go on. Indeed, she wrote again to her nephew Brad after she had experienced having her books become best-sellers and told him, “I have never felt the need to be a mother. I consider my books my children, children that will never die from what my public and publishers tell me.”

She was right about that.

And so, as with any biography, but perhaps more so here because Virginia Andrews herself was quite private, we have the main question we must try to answer: Who was she?

We’ll get to know Virginia Andrews through what she tells us in her letters, in her interviews, and in what she said to her family and how she related to them. Alongside this, we’ll wonder, what gave her the courage to come out of her undesired—as she herself said—“cage” to greet her overwhelming success and then gracefully, tragically, watch her life slip away?

Excerpted from The Woman Beyond the Attic by Andrew Neiderman. Copyright 2022 by Andrews Productions, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.