The Common Good

'Flowers in the Attic' and Women on the Brink

(Spoiler—and imperfect analogy — alert to anyone who wasn’t able to sneak these books when they were pre-teens)

Flowers in the Attic first edition cover, Simon & Schuster
Flowers in the Attic first edition cover, Simon & Schuster

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If there was one book series that defined my childhood/pre-adolescence, it would be V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic series. OK, maybe that wasn’t THE book series—after all, there were the Baby-sitters Club books and Sweet Valley High—but in terms of helping to destroy what little innocence I still had, Flowers in the Attic gets top ranking. I mean, I probably didn’t need to be reading books about incest, child abuse, and religious fanaticism when I was 10 years old. But that’s a story for another time.

The Lifetime network has made a film version of Flowers in the Attic that will debut on Saturday night. In anticipation of the remake, I decided to watch the 1987 version starring Kristy Swanson. Besides being struck by how dated it was — think fuzzy lighting, a lot of beiges and pastels, and 80s bangs — the premise seemed outdated even for that time. A recently widowed stay-at-home mother of four finds herself unable to care for her family and must return to her wealthy, estranged parents and beg to get back into her dying father’s good graces (and will). As a condition of her return, she must consent to have her four children locked in the attic and subjected to her mother’s abuse and neglect.

I sometimes forget how much the world has changed in such a short period of time. The book was published in 1979, in a world in which women were gaining, but still did not have, the same access to education and employment that they do now. I was privileged to be born two years after the book was published, into a world in which little girls were told we could do and be anything we wanted. And 35 years later, my first thought upon watching the story unfold was similar to something “Tracy Jordan” said in 30 Rock: “you don't have to live your life like this. You can be a freaky-deaky (SPOILER) and do data entry. What about court reporting? Believe in yourself.” Seeing a 30-something woman without any means of supporting herself other than relying upon the men in her life felt like a relic from the past.

But perhaps what is most shocking — and should be a mark of shame for us as a society — is how many women today are facing economic insecurity. As Maria Shriver wrote in her recent essay “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink: Powerful and Powerless,” “many … women feel they are just a single incident — one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck — away from the brink.” The essay is one of several in the new Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, which describes how women have been disproportionately affected by the recession.

The statistics are staggering — two-thirds of minimum wage jobs are held by women, yet 40 percent of households with children under 18 have a woman as the sole or primary breadwinner. Seventy percent of women make the consumer decisions in this country and 80 percent of healthcare decisions. So why does it seem that women’s economic empowerment is, like the children in the book, locked away in the attic of a mansion full of wealth and comfort? Why are women, like the mother in this story, forced into all kinds of untenable situations in order to provide for their families?

It feels like something out of an 80s novel that a gender-based wage gap still exists and that single working mothers don’t have access to good childcare. A majority of Americans would agree. It’s 2014 — shouldn’t we have fixed this by now?

I hope that one day, 35 years from now, someone will come across this report and comment about how retro it was that women received unequal pay for equal work or that families weren’t properly supported in times of economic crisis. And I hope (God I hope) that one day, someone will come across Flowers in the Attic and puzzle over the things they read in it — because they don’t exist anymore. But again, that’s another story for another day.

Juliet Vedral is the research assistant to the president.

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