The Grip that Death Could Not Loosen 

by Zoe Williams. Source: The Guardian Unlimited, November 21, 2001

Virginia Andrews was the bestselling author of compelling tales of incestuous teenage entanglements. She was, because Andrews died in 1986. Yet books supposedly written by her have continued to appear ever since. So what explains her continuing popularity, and who is the mystery author who has resurrected her oeuvre? Zoe Williams unravels the plot.

Okay, here's the story - there's a widow, a very pretty widow, with four very pretty children. She locks said children in an attic. They grow up, and the oldest two do the nasty, even though they are siblings. Well, come on, they're in an attic! What would you do for fun, teach yourself Latin? The reason they're in the attic is because the house belongs to their grandfather, who won't acknowledge the existence of the children because of their shameful beginnings - they were sired, you see, by the late half-uncle of the pretty widow.

As it turns out, though, their father was both their mother's half-uncle and her half-brother, the product of a brutal rape (by the grandfather, of his step-mother), which wasn't strictly speaking incestuous (the rape, that is), and certainly wasn't incest compared with what happened later, but was still very wrong.

So, back to the attic children who have just had sex - they are both the spawn of sibling incest and engaged in sibling incest. Oh, and the widow has decided to poison them with arsenic, which makes them very pale, but still extremely attractive to one another.
They realise their peril and escape, with one younger sibling (the other has died). They lead a full and unhappy life of mistreatment and suchlike.

A rogue doctor has an affair with the girl sibling - it results in a pregnancy, he performs a quick DIY abortion and keeps the foetus in a jar on his desk for a laugh. In the end, the siblings marry at the age of about 50 - they pretend they are unrelated, of course. No good comes of it.
I'd estimate that anyone born after 1970, who ever came into possession of breasts or a sister, will know what I'm talking about. We are in the land of Virginia Andrews (originally known as VC Andrews) and her Flowers in the Attic quintet (aka, The Dollanganger Series). She completed three other books besides this series - My Sweet Audrina, and the opening two of the Casteel quintet - before her death from breast cancer in 1986. She is still making the bestseller lists in 2001, with new novels, which is not as spooky as it sounds.
Shortly before she died, Andrews mentioned, in the one interview she gave, that she had the plots in place for 63 further novels. It was no great surprise, therefore, when Garden of Shadows, the prequel to Flowers in the Attic, was published posthumously. Then came the third book in the Casteel series, which is again attributed to Andrews.

At this point, briefly, the Andrews estate claimed that there were many more completed manuscripts, so readers could look forward to a steady stream of fresh gems from the dead writer. This was not the case - in fact, it had brought in a ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman, who shared an agent with Virginia Andrews and furthermore had taught in high school for 23 years, so had a good idea of her teenage-girl constituency. The estate came clean about the existence of a ghostwriter in an open letter in 1987, explaining that it had chosen a gifted author to "organise and complete Virginia's stories and to expand upon them by creating additional novels inspired by her wonderful storytelling genius". It did not mention him by name, and it was six years before anyone discovered Neiderman's identity (he also writes under his own name - most famously, Devil's Advocate, which was turned into a lame film in 1997).

Since 1986, Neiderman has completed the Casteel series, and written six more - The Logan Family, The Cutler Family, The Hudson Family, Landry Family, Orphans and Wildflowers - most of them containing five individual novels. Readers are undeterred by the change in author - judging from the web fanzine, they generally can't tell the difference (or, as one joyfully put it, "I can't believe these books! Every one is so good, you think it's better than the one you just read! I'm going to collect them all, so that when I have children I can present them with the full set!").

Kate Lyall-Grant, from the English arm of publisher Simon & Schuster, says, "As far as I'm concerned, it's pretty much an open secret that the real Virginia is no longer with us." The dust-jacket biography, however, says, "Virginia Andrews is a worldwide bestselling author. Her novels have sold more than 80 million copies and have been translated into 22 languages."
It makes no mention of her productivity being in any way muted by death.

Virginia's "storytelling genius" rarely detours from the incest theme. Indeed, her first published work was a short story entitled I Slept With My Uncle On My Wedding Night. (There were, apparently, decades' worth of short stories, which were never unearthed. If only those secret texts were found - you could probably discover a whole series, comprising I Slept With My Father On Prom Night, and I Jerked Off My Brother Just Before I Had A Bath).

What makes her books so strange, however, is not the incest itself but Andrews's oddly wholesome, home-baked way of writing about it. Don't get her wrong - she never comes out in favour of incest, but she does tend to present it as human error, rather than, say, grotesque trauma. Her writing is, frankly, bizarre - if you had to read a sentence out loud, you'd choke on the words ("Golly-gee, but it was a beautiful day! If only we were allowed out, rather than having to sit in this musty old attic and starve to death!"). Paragraphs about the complexities of adolescent sexuality and brother-love might start with the phrase "Dolly-day!" ("However shall we erase the stain of our evil behaviour? Oh, but it seemed so right!"). It's like reading a court transcript of the Brady Bunch describing a decade of orgiastic abuse.
This led to a ban on Andrews's books in many American schools, which still applies in some of them to this day. One critic at the Washington Post said Flowers in the Attic was the worst book he had ever read. The sales, though, were extraordinary - the unknown author made the bestseller lists within two weeks of publication. Petals on the Wind, the second in the series, stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks. My Sweet Audrina trumped them all, making number one on the New York Times list just three days after its publication. By the time of her death, Andrews had combined sales of 24m, and had been named Number One Bestselling Author of popular horror and occult paperbacks by the American Booksellers Association, beating Stephen King.

Neiderman is a different kind of creature altogether, although he is manifestly keeping within Virginia's girls' own fiction remit - if the heroines are not ballerinas, they're actresses, and they usually have a pony to turn to. They have frequently been orphaned tragically young. His style, though, is storytelling at its most functional - no "Golly-lolly, did it steal my breath away!" here. Packed, in the traditional way, with terrible events and curiously bad behaviour, his books nevertheless have none of the odd crepuscular feel of the real Virginia, whose determined clinging to the bright details of childhood - dolls' houses, matching tutus and slippers - felt unwitting rather than deliberate.

Neiderman does not have Andrews's unfailing best-seller record, either, but he has shifted 50m books over his lifetime, so could hardly be called a dud. His 30th novel as Virginia, Eye Of The Storm, came out last month. There is no doubt that he still works from the novel plans left by Andrews, but that he has leeway to insert modern details, such as the internet. This latest trilogy features a heroine named Rain - there she is, happy-ish in her deprived Brooklyn home, when she discovers she was adopted. "I always knew there had to be a reason why I felt what I felt for you," says her brother (I paraphrased slightly), who turned out not to be her brother. "Let's get married!" But no, that can't be, not until Rain's real brother, who doesn't yet know of the blood connection, has also proposed.
Then he dies and Rain becomes disabled by a horse incident - incest, or even the thought of it, exacts a heavy price, as ever. And yet you can't blame the kids - the Virginia world is not one in which regular people who don't share your blood ever just tip up and see if there are any other bodily fluids you fancy sharing. Apart from a mini-series about some unrelated girls (Jade, Misty, Star and Cat), every group of books features at least one incestuous couple, and usually there are two.

Where this fixation comes from is unclear. Virginia Andrews did have a pretty rotten life - in 1939, at the age of 16, she was paralysed in a freak stairs accident, and lived with her mother for the rest of her life. She started writing at 25, after the death of her father. However, there's no evidence of incest within her family, although there are rumours of one finished novel that she wouldn't publish because it was too autobiographical and was, she thought, too damaging to her relatives. Considering that even small sneezes she did during her lifetime seem to have found their way, via Neiderman, into print, that's somewhat unusual.

What her books suggest more strongly is not that she encountered incestuous relationships, but rather that she suffered from an arrested development, which bound her for ever into the concerns of the early adolescent. The novels have the core ingredients of a Judy annual, which give them the safe glow of childhood - an orphan wants to be a ballerina; adults around her behave outlandishly badly; she, nevertheless, keeps her beauty; a peer sustains her spirit throughout the maltreatment, and, presto, 15 years of untold abuse later, there she is on stage with a tutu on her trunk and a song in her heart. Small moments from the tail-end of childhood - the breakage of a favourite musical box, the pleasure of eating a doughnut - have peculiar prominence. And yet, at the same time, she delves into the deepest reaches of adult depravity and societal aberration. You couldn't find a more exact formula for teens if it were done by computer, with a built-in Teetering On The Brink Of Womanhood template.

Even if you couldn't feel in your gut that these books are aimed at a specific readership window (11-15, I'd say), you could tell from the reader reviews. There are thousands pasted on the net, and, generally speaking, they take a book-critic clich? and give it a charming angst-wracked spin. "I just couldn't put this down. Not that I had a reason to. I didn't have anything else to do."
The reviews are a million times more touching, and more speechful, than the books have ever been.
"Normally, I can't wait for books to end. I didn't feel like that at all," said one homework-beset individual. "I would hate to be locked in an attic," said another, evoking that terrible blurry time when everything you see or read or hear seems as real as everything else. A child's desire to apply real solutions to fictional scenarios sneaks into the quasi-adult chat - "Well, if I was the grandmother, I would never have allowed Corrine to come back to Foxworth Hall. Instead I would have paid off all her bills, and made her and the children live in a small apartment while she trained to be a secretary."

The readers rarely mention the incest, which is odd, considering it's the sine qua non of the oeuvre. When they do, they are very forgiving - "I know that the incest parts are kind of weird but in a way it's interesting, even though it would be very sick in everyday life. But I could not blame Cathy and Chris for doing what they did."

If people rarely mention the dirty stuff, there is a reason for that - these books share with fairy tales the role of addressing the most absurdly transgressive notions, in order that the more subtle psychological nasties giving rise to them needn't be scrutinised.
It's classic pre-Freudian feverishness, coming out a good half-century after Freud. Virginia Andrews is basically a Gothic novelist, and much closer to her 19th-century forebears than a self-aware, exploratory, progressive Goth-merchant such as Angela Carter. Andrews's tools are the old classics - secret rooms within the larger castle to equate with the danger of the "inner space" within the body; characters who basically seek a pre-adolescent love along brother-sister lines (as they do in Frankenstein and, oh, loads of others), only to find that they've accidentally slipped into the realms of untold depravity.

The feminist critic Edith Birkhead maintains that as fairy tales are necessary for children, so Gothic novels should be the next stage in our development as adolescents. This was said in reference to 19th-century fiction, when no one ever expected to deal with their sexuality beyond actually having sex now and again, when taboos were everywhere and when more prosaic teen fiction such as Judy Blume, which gave you the nuts and bolts of making out with boys, had not yet been invented. As it turns out, even now, with the broad array of frank and open discussion aimed at the inchoate sexual soul, people still have a yen to see the business rendered as a truly disastrous, irredeemable, abhorrent act.

It's hard to say how much longer the current Virginia Andrews can keep it up - and what will happen when he tires of his ludicrous contortions to find new ambitions for the quintessential girl (ice-skater? Tennis ace? Model? How many opportunities can a girl find for a short skirt fashioned of net?). There are another 30 plots left of the first Virginia's literary estate. Can he face it? If not, can a new head grow out of the bloodied stump of his literary career? How much almost-but-not-quite incest can the next generation take before they go back to Wuthering Heights? Will anyone ever match up to the quagmire that was the original Virginia's imagination? And if they can, won't they want to do it under their own name (it would seem a waste not to)?

Well, obviously there will always be a Virginia - there's been a Virginia-shaped hole in the market since about 1890, when people started uncovering their table legs and everyone thought the great repression was over. And it was - but this incest business runs deeper than we thought everyone thought the great repression was over. And it was - but this incest business runs deeper than we thought.

Full text © The Guardian Unlimited,

Her Dark Materials 
Should children read Philip Pullman's trilogy—or the incest classic Flowers in the Attic?
By Emily Bazelon

I'm pretty sure that I'm not going to go see the new movie based on The Golden Compass, the first novel in Philip Pullman's transcendent trilogy, His Dark Materials. It's not that the film looks bad. It's that I loved the books so much that I don't want any actors or special effects, no matter how well-cast and well-rendered, interfering with my own imaginings.

But the depth of my Pullman devotion doesn't make me want to give his books to my two boys, who are near his intended audience. Pullman's work is a hybrid: It's sold to adults as complex fantasy, and to the 12-year-old crowd as Harry Potter-plus. In some ways, the trilogy is part of the coming-of-age tradition of literature for young teens (and inevitably, somewhat younger kids, too). It tells the growing-up story of Lyra and Will, Pullman's wild and enterprising child characters. But it's a complicated and dark and unsettling coming-of-age, with grotesquely ruthless parents who threaten to sever children from their souls. Maybe this is an idea that's more horrifying to read about as a parent than as a child, but giving Pullman to my still-small sons, even a couple of years from now, is an experiment I'm not about to conduct.
At the same time, when I think back to my own preteen reading, I'll admit that the whole point was to read books that I wasn't ready for, without my parents' approval. Is this kind of illicit read damaging to kids, or is it an inevitable excursion into pseudo-maturity that beats a lot of the other likely avenues? Better a disturbing, too-adult book than an indelibly horrifying movie or Internet game or video (or, it goes without saying, an encounter with real scary people)?

These questions take me back to the awful fiction that obsessed me when I was 11: Flowers in the Attic and its even less redeemable progeny. Flowers was published in 1979 and became a sort of rite of passage for the girls I knew. It still is, to some degree: The books (officially called the Dollanganger Family series) have sold more than 100 million copies, and their biggest audience is teen and preteen girls. The author, V.C. Andrews, ranks with Stephen King as one of the all-time best-selling denizens of mass-paperback gothic horror.
It's a disservice to Philip Pullman to mention him in the same sentence as Andrews. He writes lyrical, soaring prose; she writes sentences like, "Golly-gee, but it was a beautiful day! If only we were allowed out, rather than having to sit in this musty old attic and starve to death!" His books represent the best of the fantasy tradition. Hers are unpleasant entrants in what might be called the Miserable and Tortured Lives of Unloved Children genre. And, as Eden Ross Lipson, former children's book editor for the New York Times Book Review, pointed out to me, the polarity between the two authors is also exterior vs. interior. Pullman roams the world. Andrews never goes anywhere. Lyra and Will have no home and are swept up in struggles over world domination and religious power. Cathy and Chris, the brother and sister at the center of Andrews' tale, are trapped (literally) in their attic home and (also literally) in the incestuous family relationships that define her brand.
When I reread the Andrews books last weekend (while hiding the garish covers from my boys), I discovered that the incest starts on Page 6. "He warmed our lips with kisses," 12-year-old Cathy writes of her father—who is supposed to be the good guy, which is why he is quickly offed in a car accident. On the next page, Cathy describes waiting to watch her mother "emerge in a filmy negligee." What 12-year-old thinks about her parents in these ways? Or, at 14, following "a frantic struggle of his strength against mine," succumbs to her older brother's sexual fantasy about her?

Granted, by then Cathy and Chris have been locked in a room next to the attic for three years by their still-sexualized but neglectful mother and their sadistic grandmother, who never misses an opportunity to call the kids the "devil's spawn." But the absurdity is also part of the whole bizarre appeal. Cathy is full of guilt and shame and yet never really is responsible for her transgressions, given how she's been treated. She gets to act out all of an 11-year-old girl's worst fears about sex, without becoming evil. For a lot of us, she may have been the only such outlet. I don't think that I encountered another character like her in my preteen reading. The girl in Judy Blume's Forever has prosaic sex with a boyfriend who calls his penis Ralph. Cathy has twisted sex not just with her brother, but with the older doctor who later adopts her and Chris and their younger sister, and with her mother's second husband. No boundary goes uncrossed, because no man can resist her; she is Madonna, the whore, and Lolita. Andrews, never one to miss an opportunity to overwrite, makes this explicit. When Cathy invites her stepfather over to steal him from her mother, he tells her: "You are an intriguing combination, half child, half seductress, half angel." (Three halves!) Andrews continues in Cathy's voice: "I laughed short and bitterly. 'That's what all men like to think about women.' "

As bad as this prose is—in the Seattle Weekly, one male writer quipped that V.C. Andrews ruined the women of his generation—it's also compelling. I'm with the blogger who writes, "I don't get it, why would anyone write such a story? It is such a horrible story, so dark, so tense, so wrong. Everything about it is wrong. It repulsed me. But still I kept reading." I also understand this blogger: "When I was compulsively reading Flowers I thought it was a work of genius. Nothing short of being shaken would've pulled me out of that book. I wasn't learning the what-not-to-do lessons; I was learning how to use melodrama, suspense and betrayal."

Andrews might have appreciated these reluctant tributes. Her real name was Virginia Cleo Andrews. She was born in 1923 and was always coy about her age. She never married, lived with her mother after her father died when she was 20, and published her first book at 55, decades after a fall down the stairs that eventually left her unable to walk on her own. The line from wheelchair confinement to attic prison is too easy to draw. Andrews' commercial success may not have freed her—she never did author tours and rarely granted interviews—but it has given her a sort of immortality. She sold Flowers in the Attic to Pocket Books for $7,500. By the time of her death in 1986, Pocket was so enamored of her sales figures that the publishers took advantage of Andrews' lack of celebrity and didn't let on that she'd died until they'd hired a ghost writer and published several more books under her name. Andrew Neiderman has since been outed as the author of 39 of the 44 books in the V.C. Andrews franchise. Her name has made other people so much money that the IRS deemed it a taxable asset and sued her estate for about $1.2 million.

No mother in her right mind would choose to teach her daughter about sex via Cathy and her brother/father-figure lovers. My mom took a look at Flowers when I brought it home (from camp, I think, ever a useful font of sin) and told me it was dreck. When I insisted on reading it anyway, she decided to make me talk about it with her rather than take it away. Good work, Mom.

Full text © SLATE

Children of the Corn  
 (Everything I needed to know About sex I leanred from a schlocky "young adult" novel about incest)
By Emily Mead

Hard to believe it's been twenty-five years since V.C. Andrews — gothic godmother to generations of preadolescent girls — published Flowers in the Attic, the runaway bestseller that really put incest and infanticide on the map for fifth graders. It's still being passed around girls' locker rooms, although with ninety million copies of her forty-plus novels in print, there's really no reason to share: every secondhand store across this great land seems to have at least one dog-eared, drooled-upon copy of her catnippy, extra-lite smut floating around.

For those of you who grew up on one of Saturn's moons, Flowers in the Attic begins the epic saga of the Dollanganger children, four Aryan siblings (fourteen-year-old Christopher, twelve-year-old Cathy, and five-year-old twins Carrie and Cory) whose strong, handsome father dies in a tragic accident and leaves their beautiful, glamorous mother to provide for them on her own. Unfortunately, Momma was raised to be a socialite, not a bacon-earner, so she crawls back to her ancestral Virginia mansion to the cruel, fabulously rich father who disowned her when — gasp! — she married her half-uncle. Of course, her dying daddy would never write her back into the will if he knew she'd borne four devil's spawn, so it's "Up to the attic 'til grandpa kicks off" for the apple-cheeked fruit of her unholy union.

Fortunately for curious teens everywhere, puberty makes a surprise guest appearance during their three-and-a-half-year incarceration, leaving Chris and Cathy to grapple with "little hard apples [poking] out my chest" and "that hillock of his growing maleness before his strong thighs, beginning to swell." (I'll leave you to guess which sib wound up grappling what protrusion.)

When I was eleven, sex had only been explained in clinical, reproductive terms. This left me puzzled as to why movie- and TV-people were always risking life and limb to get naked with each other. Every moment of my existence then was fraught with worries that I would "do it wrong", whatever "it" was, and be ridiculed and humiliated for being, well, a child. So I, like almost every other now-twenty-to-forty-year-old woman I know, I turned to books for answers.

One Cleveland-raised friend cites Portnoy's Complaint as a formative influence, most notably the scene in which Portnoy masturbates with a piece of liver he's been sent to the butcher's to pick up for dinner. (So much for Middle America and family values.) But by far the most popular item on my friends' reference shelves (alongside Judy Blume's Forever; Wifey and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret) was Flowers in the Attic.

With its peculiar, tantalizing mix of prudish naiveté and breathless carnality, Flowers was deeply dirty without being intimidating. Chris and
Cathy were so guileless and kind that even after 200 pages of lingering looks, unnameable urges and sadistic whippings with a willow switch, they were still straddling the divide between childhood and adulthood, just like I was.

The sex parts, rare and oblique as they were, felt familiar to me, too — my first little horny urges also felt dirty and wrong and confusing. When Cathy, letting Chris treat her wounds after being beaten by their grandmother, says "it felt odd to be kissed while lying naked in his arms . . . and not right," I could certainly relate to the sentiment, if not the circumstances. And I wasn't alone.

"I can't remember what I reviewed six months ago," a magazine-writer friend admits, "but I could tell you every plot detail from the Judy Blume, Sweet Valley High or Ramona books. Those were all exciting, but Flowers in the Attic was a different kind of 'Whoa!'"
Another friend says that she's still traumatized by a description of Chris' penis that isn't even in the book: "She calls it his 'knobby thing'. That still pops up in my head every once in a while, and I'm like 'Thank you, V.C. Andrews!'"

"I remember it being more disturbing than exciting," the guy in the office next to me recalls. "It's kind of like Tess of the D'Urbervilles, where you've read it and you're wondering, 'Wait, did she just get raped or what?'"

So what made it so thrilling? Andrews was a master tease, building tension as Chris and Cathy's relationship gradually becomes overtly sexual. When will Chris succumb to the siren call of Cathy's hot new ballerina bod?

While she's doing her ballet exercises in a white leotard so sheer that her flesh shows pink through it? As he gazes upon her filmy Christmas nightie and shiny, much-brushed hair? When they lie naked together on a tatty mattress, soaking up the last wan rays of sunshine that pass through their attic window?

Maybe none of us proto-pervs found exactly the answers we were looking for, but for me, at least, the Action in the Attic raised some questions that I hadn't known enough to ask at that age — questions about why people want sex, about the thrill of teasing, about the siren call of secrecy and taboo. It would be years yet before I'd have firsthand knowledge of the mechanics, but some of the impulses became a little less obscure. And like a lover, the book was infinitely sexier for being forbidden.

"These books really got me tingly, and they made me feel like my parents and teachers were oblivious fools," a novelist friend says. "I read the damn things in class and in carpool and at Christian summer camp and no one ever thought to ask what the basic premises were. Also, they addressed two troubling issues that all teens struggle with, namely, incest and arsenic poisoning, which really helped me to feel a little less alone in the world."

The rest of the Dollanganger books — and the bulk of Andrews' subsequent series — are even purpler in their prose, and are largely comprised of the same elements in different configurations, like Mexican food for the horny preteen soul.

Even now, I am powerless to resist Andrews. I know that Grandma will sedate Cathy one night and tar her flowing, tempting tresses; that Momma will fail to tell her new, much-younger man-friend that she's got an anemic brood stashed away in the attic; and that Cory will die after eating one too many arsenic-powdered donuts. But she has me in her bony-fingered grip — again — anyway. The sex parts aren't so exciting and new this time, but it's no less creepy and gross to hear a girl wax on romantically about how her brother touches her "so tenderly with magical tingling fingers and lips." This time around, the moment that makes me gasp out loud isn't the one in which the dirty little monkeys finally get it on. This time, it was the moment when I found myself actually rooting for them.

Full text © Nerve

Scarlet Letters  

V.C. Andrews' ''Flowers in the Attic'' series? Judy Blume's ''Forever''? Stephen King's ''Christine''? If you hid your reading list from your parents, you're not alone


My ''Confessions'' column last week — about my daughter's penchant for Gossip Girl novels — unleashed a torrent of commentary from fellow staffers at the magazine, many of whom stopped by my office to talk about the books they'd snuck as teenagers. Everyone pretty much agreed: This kind of surreptitious reading is a traditional rite of passage. But what surprised me was how many of my colleagues — separated not just by geography but by generation — turned to the same books for their, uh, information: The Godfather (page 27 was specifically mentioned by two people), Lady Chatterley's Lover, Jaws, The Diary of Anais Nin, The Other Side of Midnight, and anything by Judy Blume or John Jakes (though, as senior editor Thom Geier said, ''But Jakes tended to write his sex scenes in language so obscure that you'd have to go rushing to the dictionary to figure out what in the world he was trying to say. And even then, you didn't really learn very much''). Seven people cited Stephen King's Christine, including senior editor Nicholas Fonseca: ''Mom saw me reading it and she said, ''How can you read that? I remember the movie being really full of foul language!'''

Over half the women mentioned V.C. Andrews' ''incest classics.'' Senior writer Karen Valby said, ''The Flowers in the Attic series wouldn't have gone over very well if my mother had ever peeked inside.'' Almost all the women cited Judy Blume's Forever, which as far as I can tell was the first Blume novel with an actual sex scene. ''I remember reading Forever in the sixth grade!'' said photo editor Michele Romero. ''This puts me at 11 — way too young, in hindsight. Is there a statute of limitations on reprimanding your inner child? Anyway, I do recall that we had the 'virginity loss' page folded over and would pass it back and forth under the desk.'' At my junior high school, back in Denton, Texas, it was on the ''Forbidden Book List'' — if you were caught with it, you were first sent to the office and then sent home.

At first I was surprised that so many of my colleagues — nine in all — mentioned Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, since I was in graduate school when it came out. Then I remembered how old I am, and how young most of them are. As writer Scott Brown put it, delicately, ''[It had] the first sex scene I ever read, and it wasn't, er, traditional sex. I could barely figure out what was going on. But I did figure it out, thanks to careful study and many, many readings.'' Another staff writer, Greg Kirschling, concurred: ''You remember how raunchy that book's sex scenes were? Great twist at the end, too. But then my mother took it with her on a vacation with my dad and I remember her walking back through the front door with her bags still in her arms and immediately walking up to me in the kitchen, plopping the paperback down on the counter, and saying, 'We need to have a talk.'''

Assistant managing editor Kristen Baldwin was one of several who read — and reread — Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear: ''I'm pretty sure my mom knew I was reading it — I mean, she was the one who had to drive me to the mall to go book shopping — but I don't think she had any idea how capital-F filthy that book is. It's prehistoric porn!'' EW book critic Jennifer Reese was partial to Judith Krantz's Scruples: ''It looked like just another slightly racy supermarket paperback — the only kind of book I liked to read as an adolescent — but when I got about, I don't know, 32 pages in, there was this sex scene where they did things I had never even heard about. I mean, Judy Blume was fine but she's all about missionary mechanics and tender, proper emotions; this was shocking and thrilling and raw. I got quite an education: about gay sex, about oral sex, about the fashion world, about opening a boutique... but mostly about sex.''

Of course, most EW staffers were lucky enough to have parents with open minds when it came to books. Music writer Chris Willman recalls, ''In the fourth grade in 1972, I turned in a book report on the Donald E. Westlake novel The Hot Rock, having been duly inspired to read it by the Robert Redford/George Segal jewelry-heist movie of the same name. My teacher was horrified... though I'm not sure if it's because I was reading 'adult' books or because I was confessing that my parents took me at 10 or 11 to see GP-rated movies, which then was the sign of really morally wanton parenting.'' Greg Kirschling remembers that in one of his progress reports at his Catholic school, ''my teacher wrote: 'I'm concerned about what he reads but so long as he has parental approval I will not interfere.' My favorite books that term were Red Dragon, Fatal Vision, and the dirtiest novels of Ed McBain.''

So, EW readers, let's have it: What books — forbidden or not — were you learning from as teenagers?

Full text © Entertainment Weekly .com

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