I went to see David Sedaris speak the other night. He discussed his penchant for collecting filthy t-shirt slogans, including one which read: ‘Beer with no alcohol is like going down on your sister. It feels right, but it’s wrong.’
The audience were there to laugh, and they did – the joke and the guy and the notion of collecting t-shirt slogans was funny and gross. But after the snorts came the obligatory squirm, because incest is one of the oldest and most referenced cultural taboos that reliably incites revulsion. Only child or otherwise, it’s an uncomfortable topic that generally leaves a bad taste (sorry).
You can claw your eyes out like Oedipus, but there’s no escape from incest in pop culture. Last week the telemovie reboot of V.C. Andrews’ 1979 cult novel Flowers in the Attic aired on the Lifetime channel. It’s unsurprising that the American cable network dedicated to soaps, melodrama and televisual theatrics produced the mother (yep) of all contemporary incest texts for the small screen.
After the sudden and tragic death of their father (Chad Willett), the four Dollanger siblings – two blonde boys and two blonde girls – are relocated to Foxworth Hall, their mother Corrine’s (Heather Graham) familial home. Up until her husband’s death, Corrine had been ostracised for marrying her half-uncle and bearing the aforementioned children to him. Now, she is determined to reclaim a spot in her wealthy, terminally ill father’s will. In order to do so, she enlists the help of her evil mother (Ellen Burstyn) to hide her incestuous spawn in an attic.
Imprisoned for years, the children are subject to abuse, neglect, and starvation. The story unfolds from the perspective of the eldest daughter Cathy, played by wunderkind starlet Kiernan Shipka, best known as sassy Sally Draper in Mad Men. Adolescent siblings Cathy and Christopher (Mason Dye) learn the truth about their parents’ incestuous past, and eventually enter into a romantic and sexual relationship themselves.
The Lifetime telemovie does not evade the incestuous storyline as the campy 1987 film adaptation did, but nor does it reach the horrific neo-gothic heights of the original novel. While the telemovie is aesthetically pleasing, the torture the children suffer is not as gruesome as Andrews’ descriptions; beyond some overwrought narration, their inner turmoil is absent and sense of general neglect dulled via the Vaseline lens of a stilting soap opera framework.
The whippings and malnourishment are also tempered for the television viewership, and the budding, bottled tensions between the siblings are not as primal as in the book. Dye’s portrayal of Chris’ growing sexuality is somewhat potent but sadly Shipka’s Cathy is less convincing during her integral transition into womanhood. It’s still implied they do it on the dirty mattress though.
Incest is an eternal taboo and it seems its resurgence – think Bates Motel, Boardwalk Empire, Bored to Death, Game of Thrones, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, Sons of Anarchy, etc. – is utilised to push the few boundaries that remain in an otherwise desensitised ‘civilised’ society. In a good program, this tension can develop characters and propel narratives while raising questions of moral relativity.
Where love blossoms is no one’s fault – and for Cathy and Chris, trapped in the attic, it’s impossible for us to understand their burdens. We empathise with their clouded teen minds mingling with adolescent lust, but the added imprisonment and constant cruelty is alien to most – so who are we to judge what they cling to in order to survive? Their romance adds to the direness of their situation.
In a recent episode from season three of Girls, Richard E Grant’s character spouted, ‘Take time to reflect on the issues that your daddy had with his daddy, and his daddy, and his daddy before him and every daddy that’s been going on before that daddy!’ Where the original Flowers in the Attic book reflected on this, rather traumatically, for mummys and daddys and siblings, the Lifetime telemovie fails.