New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Comment
10 July 2024

Alice Munro and the shame of silence

Two months after her death, the writer’s legacy has been thrown into disarray, her unforgivable acts laid out in public for the first time.

By Megan Nolan

I was asked a question after a panel event lately about the differences between writing journalism and writing fiction. What was the key difference in register, tone, atmosphere between the two, the woman asked. Opinion journalism, I answered, requires by its nature a register of authority and certainty. This is why so much of it is bad. There are only a handful of geniuses who have erudite, well-considered responses to whatever given event of the day has taken place. The rest of us do the best we can, but the need for a posture of certainty is what I find most difficult about this kind of writing.

Later, on the train home, I wondered if what I had said was true. Fiction may allow a writer ambiguity and expansive interrogation, and a less monochromatic approach to a subject than non-fiction. But isn’t it also the case that, for a particular kind of fiction writer, an even grander air of authority can be cultivated? One not drawn from knowledge of specific facts or events, but rather a general moral authority, drawn from how acutely they understand and reveal the condition of humanity? 

Alice Munro was a writer like this. Both popular and critically acclaimed, the Nobel Prize-winning author was a source of national pride in Canada, her stories of quiet struggle in small-town Ontario considered transcendent. Her work exposed the complex emotional depths of apparently ordinary situations and relationships. This dedication to honouring quotidian lives with close attention is part of why she has been beloved, but, too, the simplicity of her style lends an almost aphoristic quality to the work, and gives it that sense of authority. In her 2012 book of short stories Dear Life, for instance, she writes: “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do – we do it all the time.”

Two months after she died at the age of 92, Munro’s legacy has been thrown into disarray, her own unforgivable acts laid out in public for the first time. On 7 July, Munro’s daughter, Andrea Robin Skinner, published a painful and moving essay in the Toronto Star, describing the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her stepfather Gerard Fremlin, and her mother’s failure to protect her or side with her. This abuse took place when she was nine years old and continued in differing guises until she reached adolescence. Skinner confided in adults, but none intervened or informed her mother.

Eventually, when she was 25, encouraged by her mother’s expression of sympathy for the victim of sexual abuse in a fictional story, Skinner wrote a letter to her mother detailing the abuse. (“In the piece, a girl dies by suicide after her stepfather sexually abuses her. ‘Why didn’t she tell her mother?’ she asked me.”) According to Skinner, “in spite of her sympathy for a fictional character, my mother had no similar feelings for me. She reacted exactly as I had feared she would, as if she had learned of an infidelity.” Although she briefly left Fremlin, she soon went back to him and would stick by him until his death in 2013. “I believe my mother answered her own question about the girl in the story. She didn’t tell her mother because she would rather die than risk her mother’s rejection.”

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Andrea Robin Skinner, the youngest of Alice Munro’s daughters, was 25 when she told her mother about the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her stepfather. Photo by Steve Russell / Toronto Star

Fremlin did not deny that the abuse took place, but blamed it, nauseatingly, on the sexual aggression of his then-nine-year-old stepdaughter. Skinner and her mother maintained a limited relationship which ended when Skinner had children of her own and refused to allow Fremlin to be in contact with them. At age 38, she reported him to the police, and in 2005 he pled guilty to two counts of sexual abuse. Skinner is speaking out now, she writes, because she refuses to see any more biographies, interviews or events about her mother’s literary career which avoid reckoning with the fact that she chose to protect and defend her daughter’s abuser. 

It is, sadly, not unheard of for the mother of an abuse victim to side with a romantic partner who is the child’s abuser. Sometimes this expresses itself as blanket denial even in the face of clear evidence, sometimes it is a grim choice born of financial dependence on the abuser, and sometimes it is a consequence of being another victim of the abuser’s violence. What is striking, and frankly repellent, about Munro’s decision to stand by Fremlin is how lucid it appears to have been, and without any material necessity driving it. Rather, it seems to have been a choice made for reasons that are sentimental in a ghastly sense – because she couldn’t bear to be alone, to leave this man she loved. 

Skinner is astute on how blame, denial and silence affect survivors of childhood sexual abuse, how it forces them to carry the burden of what happened to them alone. “My siblings and parents carried on with their busy lives. I tried to forgive my mother and Fremlin and continued to visit them and the rest of my family. We all went back to acting as if nothing had happened. It was what we did. The denial continued for the next ten years. Inside, I was still at war with this thing, this ugliness. Me.”

Skinner reports her mother told her she refused to leave Fremlin because “it was too late, she loved him too much, and that our misogynistic culture was to blame if I expected her to deny her own needs, sacrifice for her children and make up for the failings of men”. It is disturbing to imagine a figure of apparent dignity and autonomy, one who achieved such mastery in her field, as weak enough to indulge this sort of thinking. This sort of self-pity, this admission of dependence – not just on a man, but a man capable of abusing children and blaming it on them. 

In response to the revelations, one letter sent to the Toronto Star concluded: “The life of a child is more important than art.” And yet Munro did not sacrifice her child for her art. She sacrificed her child to preserve her marriage to a pathetic, vain, weak man. Her decision was not that of the ruthless artist. Instead, her cowardice and negligence were seemingly motivated by a drearily ordinary belief in the supremacy of marriage as a way of life, and the supremacy of men in general. 

Though it may be a meagre, cowardly excuse, there’s no doubt the culture did influence Munro’s choices. One reason this case and others like it inspire such compulsion and disgust is because behaviour like Munro’s violates a primary feminine duty: the protection of one’s children. When your husband is harming your children, the duty to protect them can only be fulfilled by violating the other primary feminine duty: obedience and dedication to a man. There is something profoundly dangerous in acknowledging that these two duties are not always harmonious. To think of the sexual self and the motherly self at such violent odds is loathsome to us on a guttural, evolutionary level – we do not want those selves touching or competing with each other, though they are so intrinsically bound.

I found myself thinking, in the aftermath of these revelations, about something I had noticed several times in Munro’s work over the years, which was a kind of assertion of the right to be happy; to identify your pleasures and then hold them tight. She wrote once, in her 2004 collection Runaway: “Few people, very few, have a treasure, and if you do you must hang onto it. You must not let yourself be waylaid, and have it taken from you.” In Dear Life she wrote: “The thing is to be happy… No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances.” I once read these stubborn claims to contentment as inspiring and defiant. The wilful determination of her words now echo at a very different pitch. 

[See also: Will England love the real Jude Bellingham?]

Content from our partners
The power of place in tackling climate change
Tackling the UK's biggest health challenges
"Heat or eat": how to help millions in fuel poverty – with British Gas Energy Trust