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Alice Munro’s daughter Andrea Skinner says the author was complicit in her abuse

On Sunday, the daughter of the late Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author Alice Munro revealed a dark secret that sent the literary world reeling. It serves as a reminder about the shocking layers of complicity that develop when families protect abusers.

As recounted in an essay in the Toronto Star and an accompanying reported article, in 1976, Munro’s husband, Gerald Fremlin, sexually assaulted her daughter Andrea Robin Skinner, then 9 years old. Skinner eventually told her mother the truth when she was an adult — and Munro chose to side with and protect her husband for decades thereafter.

Skinner’s story, as outlined both in the essay and the Toronto Star’s reporting in which her siblings cooperated, is robustly supported. It has been investigated by the police and corroborated by her family, contemporaneous correspondence, and by her attacker, who pleaded guilty to legal charges for indecent assault in 2005.

In her essay, Skinner writes that she “wanted this story, my story, to become part of the stories people tell about my mother. I never wanted to see another interview, biography or event that didn’t wrestle with the reality of what had happened to me, and with the fact that my mother, confronted with the truth of what had happened, chose to stay with, and protect, my abuser.”

Now, the reckoning that Skinner requested has begun. In light of her story, Munro’s work reads shockingly differently.

In Munro’s work, women are repressed, silenced, and bullied by sadistic men, yet their thoughts and secret rebellions are slyly subversive

Munro, who died earlier this year, was celebrated for her short stories, which she wrote primarily about the inner lives of women and girls. In Munro’s work, women are repressed, silenced, and bullied by sadistic men, yet their thoughts and secret rebellions are slyly subversive. Frequently, she drew upon her childhood in small-town 1930s Canada, where, as she described it, girls were taught to cramp their minds to match the smallness of the lives they were promised.

For Munro to become a party to the silencing of her own daughter, to ally herself with her daughter’s abuser, feels like a betrayal of her readers. She was supposed to be on women’s side. How dare she have lied to us?

Here is what happened to Andrea Skinner, and how Skinner’s revelations recast Munro’s work.

How Alice Munro became complicit in her daughter’s abuse

Skinner is the youngest of Munro’s three children, all of whom she had with her first husband, Jim Munro. In a 2004 interview with the New York Times Magazine, Munro describes herself as ambivalent about being a mother, which she felt was a fate thrust upon her by the expectations of her time. “She wasn’t the utter joy of my life she might have been,” Munro said of her oldest daughter, adding that she herself had “no moral scruples” about the sacredness of motherhood.

Munro and Jim separated in 1974. In 1976, she married Gerald Fremlin, a geographer she had met in college 20 years earlier. In the same 2004 Times profile, Munro says she fell for Fremlin the first time she ever saw him and agrees with the interviewer when she suggests that Fremlin is the love of Munro’s life.

After Munro and Jim divorced, they agreed to share custody of their youngest child. Andrea would stay with Jim and his new wife during the school year, and with her mother and Fremlin in rural Huron County in Ontario for the summer.

During Skinner’s first summer with Munro and Fremlin in 1976, when Munro was away, Skinner, then 9 years old, asked Fremlin if she could spend the night in Munro’s bed, which was separate from Fremlin’s but adjacent. Later that night, according to the Star, Fremlin climbed into bed with Skinner and began to rub her genitals and press her hand over his penis while Skinner feigned sleep. The next morning, Skinner wrote that she woke up with a sick migraine and dreaded getting out of bed.

When Skinner returned to her father’s house after that first summer, she told both her stepbrother and stepmother what had happened. They in turn told Jim Munro. Jim, however, did not talk to either Skinner or Munro about the assault. Instead, when Skinner returned to Munro’s house the next summer, Jim asked Skinner’s older sisters to travel with her, look out for her, and make sure she was never alone with Fremlin.

Fremlin did not touch Skinner again, but he continued to harass her until she reached her teenage years. He would expose himself to her and proposition her for sex. He told her that if she told Munro about what had happened, the shock would kill Munro. Skinner stayed quiet.

The trauma impacted her body. Her migraines continued and she developed bulimia. College was a struggle, and eventually, she dropped out.

In 1992, when Skinner was 25, she decided to finally tell her mother the truth. She wrote her a letter outlining Fremlin’s abuse. “I have been afraid all my life you would blame me for what happened,” she wrote.

Skinner’s fears were proven right. Munro treated Fremlin’s abuse as an infidelity and a betrayal from both him and her daughter. She left Fremlin to fly to one of her other homes and stew over what she saw as a humiliation, according to Skinner’s essay. When Skinner told her that Fremlin’s abuse had damaged her, Munro brushed the idea away, saying, “But you were such a happy child.”

Meanwhile, in a letter to the whole family, Fremlin threatened to kill both himself and Skinner and to make public pictures he’d taken of 11-year-old Skinner, which he described as “extremely eloquent.” He wrote his own explicit account of the abuse, in which he described 9-year-old Skinner as a “homewrecker.”

“It is my contention that Andrea invaded my bedroom for sexual adventure,” Fremlin wrote. “For Andrea to say she was ‘scared’ is simply a lie or latter day invention.” He went on to compare himself to Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert, casting Skinner as a seductive Lolita. “I think Andrea has recognized herself to be a Lolita but refused to admit it,” he wrote.

The only apology Fremlin made throughout his graphic, threatening letter was not for molesting Skinner. It was for being unfaithful to Munro.

After a few months of being separated, Munro went back to Fremlin, with a faux-feminist defense of her actions. Skinner writes that Munro said “she had been ‘told too late,’ she loved him too much, and that our misogynistic culture was to blame if [she was] expected […] to deny her own needs, sacrifice for her children, and make up for the failings of men.”

Over the following decade, Fremlin’s abuse of Skinner became an unspoken secret, one the family knew about but refused to discuss. Skinner continued making regular visits to Munro and Fremlin’s home. When she and her husband became pregnant in 2002, she decided she couldn’t allow Fremlin to ever be around her children, and she called Munro to tell her so.

“And then she just coldly told me that it was going to be a terrible inconvenience for her (because she didn’t drive),” Skinner told the Toronto Star. “I blew my top. I started to scream into the phone about having to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze that penis and at some point I asked her how she could have sex with someone who’d done that to her daughter?”

The next day, Munro called Skinner back to forgive her for speaking to her mother in such a way, and Skinner decided to cut off contact.

In 2004, after reading that New York Times magazine profile in which Munro speaks so lovingly of her marriage with Fremlin, Skinner decided to go to the Ontario police. She brought them the 1992 letters from both herself and Fremlin about the abuse.

In 2005, Fremlin pleaded guilty to one charge of indecent assault and was sentenced to two years probation. Skinner felt satisfied with the sentencing, feeling that Fremlin, by then 80, was so old he was unlikely to hurt anyone else.

“What I wanted was some record of the truth, some public proof that I hadn’t deserved what had happened to me,” she writes.

That long-awaited reckoning would not happen until after both Fremlin and Munro died, Fremlin in 2013 and Munro in 2024. This year, with both Munro and Fremlin gone, Skinner and her siblings took their story to the Toronto Sun.

Skinner and the suffering she’s endured, as well as her safety and well-being, are more important, on a human scale, than Munro and her literary legacy. Yet Munro and her legacy are why we know about this story at all. They serve as a reminder that even the people we like and admire can do terrible things and that they can be complicit in hiding an abuser in order to maintain the pleasant status quo of their own lives. They must be faced.

Reading Munro after her daughter’s story

Much of Munro’s old work reads differently in light of the knowledge of what happened to Skinner. Sex, sexual coercion, and the way brutal men use their power to silence women are recurring themes in her work, where she explored them with great sensitivity and intelligence. Knowing that she failed so conclusively at bringing that sensitivity and intelligence out of her work and into her real life when it mattered most makes those stories feel stranger and darker than they used to.

Only two years after Fremlin abused 9-year-old Skinner while she feigned sleep, Munro published a short story titled “Wild Swans,” in which a man gropes a college student on the train while the student, Rose, pretends she’s asleep.

Rose is horrified to find her seatmate’s hand on her leg, but she finds herself unable to reject it, embarrassed at the thought. “It made her feel uncomfortable, resentful, slightly disgusted, trapped and wary,” Munro writes. Yet, “If she did say Please don’t, she was sure he would ignore her, as if overlooking some silliness or impoliteness on her part. She knew that as soon as she said it she would hope he had not heard.”

It is not only embarrassment that keeps Rose from protesting, though. There is also “curiosity. More constant, more imperious, than any lust;” the desire to find out what will happen if she does nothing. And eventually, there is lust itself, “a sly luxuriance” that renders her both “victim and accomplice.” Later, we learn, Rose will use the memory of this encounter as a reliable fantasy.

Without the knowledge of Munro’s personal life, “Wild Swans” reads like a canny exploration of the complicated nature of women’s sexuality. The way social pressures prevent Rose from protesting when she first recognizes an unwelcome touch and her eventual arousal reads like playful meditation on the ways our culture eroticizes sexual violence, so that it’s common for women to fantasize about assault.

The new knowledge of Munro lends itself to a darker reading. Revisiting it, I find myself running hypothetical scenarios in my head. Perhaps even when she wrote the story, back before she knew what he had done to her daughter, Munro was already looking for ways to think of Fremlin’s proclivities as harmless. Perhaps when Skinner told Munro about Fremlin’s assault, Munro grabbed for that old story about an unwanted groping turned desirable as a way of shielding her image of him from the awful truth of what he had done. No matter what scenario I imagine, I always find myself tripped up on the same fundamental question: How could a person who thought like that write the way she did?

It’s not only “Wild Swans.” The Toronto Sun points to “Vandals,” a short story Munro published in 1993, a year after Skinner told her about Fremlin’s abuse. “Vandals” tells the story of a woman named Bea, in a relationship with the alpha male Ladner. Bea is devoted to Ladner, who takes care of two neglected neighborhood children, Liza and Kenny. He lets them romp around his bucolic property, teaching them about nature.

Ladner, though, is also emotionally withholding and demanding. He casually humiliates Bea, mocking her as vain and cowardly and silly. And he molests Liza, has in secret “grabbed Liza and squashed himself against her.”

Liza does not tell Bea about the abuse, but she has the sense nonetheless that Bea can protect her from the worst of Ladner. “Surely she could do it,” Liza thinks of Bea. “If only she could turn herself into somebody firm and serious, a hard-and-fast, clean-sweeping sort of woman, whose love was deep and sensible. If only she could find a way to rescue them—to make them all, and keep them all, good.”

Bea, however, remains the woman who Ladner mocked as being vain and cowardly and foolish. She stays with Ladner despite his mockery, having “forgiven Ladner, after all, or made a bargain not to remember.”

Years later, Liza breaks into Bea and Ladner’s house and trashes the whole place with a vicious artistic flair, ripping apart books and pouring whiskey and maple syrup all over the floor. “What did they do that made you so mad at them?” her husband asks her.

“Who’s mad?” Liza responds.

Liza’s vengeance targets not only her abuser but also Bea, the woman she believed would protect her but failed to be the kind of “firm and serious” woman who could do so. It’s her revenge that’s at the heart of the story, and the narrator suggests that her vengeance is fully justified.

We only know what she did, which was monstrous, and what she wrote, which was beautiful

With the knowledge of Skinner’s story, “Vandals” reads as a kind of allegory for Munro’s sense of what happened: the horror of Skinner’s letter wrecking her nice life like a vandal in a lovely house, a just punishment for own her shameful failure to protect a child as she “made a bargain not to remember” her husband’s vicious humiliation of her.

Reading “Vandals” now, it feels as though Munro knew that what she did was wrong. She was ashamed of it. She could not acknowledge her shame in real life, so she put it in a story and she made that story great. The whole thing becomes a kind of apology, all the more disturbing for the knowledge that in real life, Munro never apologized to Skinner. She foisted all the blame onto Skinner instead.

That scenario is only speculation. We don’t know what Munro thought or felt, and we never will. We only know what she did, which was monstrous, and what she wrote, which was beautiful.

The monstrous artist problem all over again

Among the most haunting parts of Skinner’s story for me is Fremlin’s invocation of Lolita in his own defense. He reads Lolita as a love story, an account of a sexually aggressive child seducing a hapless older man, and he argues that Skinner was just such a child.

Fremlin’s reading of Lolita is a common enough one, particularly in the 1990s. Yet such a reading requires ignoring the plentiful textual evidence that Lolita, whose real name is Dolores, is coerced into a horrific affair with her stepfather that she neither desires nor consents to. It requires privileging the narrative of Humbert Humbert over the protests from Dolores that he brushes away, like Rose in “Wild Swans,” as silly, embarrassing, rude.

I am accustomed to reading Munro, who wrote so evocatively of women’s fears and desires, as a corrective to a culture that would allow for such a reading of Lolita. Munro, I am used to thinking, is the kind of writer who excavates the stories and the pain and the rage of women from underneath tired old patriarchal narratives. I am not used to thinking of her as the kind of writer who would respect such a misreading of Lolita, much less as the kind of woman who would decide to stay married to Humbert Humbert.

Even when she’s a woman; even when she’s a woman who writes about women; even when she’s the kind of woman who is supposed to be on the side of other women

After all these years of the public learning about great artists doing terrible things — 62 years after Norman Mailer, 45 years after Roman Polanski, 32 years after Woody Allen, six years after Junot Díaz and Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey and and and and — it feels naive to be shocked about Alice Munro. It feels naive to marvel, yet again, at the horrible revelation that people who make beautiful and very human art are, at the end of the day, just as capable of banal human monstrosity as all the rest of us. Even when she’s a woman; even when she’s a woman who writes about women; even when she’s the kind of woman who is supposed to be on the side of other women. Yet here it is: I am shocked. I am marveling.

In her book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, the critic Claire Dederer argues that one of the reasons we find ourselves so preoccupied with the question of what to do with art from bad people is that this question is “a kind of laboratory or a kind of practice for the real deal, the real question.” Namely, “What is it to love someone awful? The problem is that you still love her.” We fret over how to handle art from artists who have done horrible things, Dederer suggests, because we don’t quite know what we should do when the people we love in real life — friends, family members, spouses — do horrible things themselves, and then we find ourselves in the awful position of still loving them.

When Skinner told Munro what Fremlin had done to her, Munro found herself in this very position. She loved someone who had done something terrible. What could be done about it?

Munro’s response was by any moral measure a bad one. She allowed her love for her husband to supersede her love for her child, further traumatizing Skinner in the process. Through her inaction, she also became complicit in any future assaults on children her husband might have committed. “Vandals” suggests that perhaps she knew her choice was a shameful one. Her interactions with Skinner suggest that the shame was still not strong enough for her to choose differently.

Yet Dederer’s argument is not a call for us to estrange ourselves from all the people in our lives who have failed us, or to unthinkingly discard the art of artists who have done terrible things when their art still matters to us. Instead, her argument is a call to reckon with the love and the monstrousness at once, to hold both in our minds, the way Munro could do in her fiction but not in her life.

Munro’s children told the Toronto Star that they want this allegation not to destroy Munro’s legacy but to create a more robust understanding of who she was as a writer. If we want to accomplish that goal, we have to face the idea that the clarity and force of vision Munro brought to her work was not something she carried with her into the real world when it counted. She was as capable of self-deception as her characters were. The question now is whether learning that Munro is as horribly flawed as an Alice Munro character means the characters should mean less to us.

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