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Alice Munro and sexual abuse fallout: I’m not surprised

As the world still reels over the horrifying news that the late Nobel-prize-winning author Alice Munro supported, and remained with, her second husband who sexually abused her daughter, I have decided to weigh in. This is part one of a three-part response.

Munro’s behaviour didn’t surprise me. Like my mother, she grew up in the insular world of a rural small town in southwestern Ontario. (In my memoir No Letter in Your Pocket (Guernica Editions 2023), I describe my mom’s refusal to acknowledge my father’s sexual abuse of me.) In such communities, especially in the 1950s, the priority was to maintain appearances at all costs. (After I mentioned my dad’s alcoholism in a letter, my mom once wrote back: “You won’t endear yourself to people by pointing out their shortcomings.”) You never aired your family’s dirty laundry because you lived as if none existed. In fact, my mom gave me one of Munro’s books decades ago to try and convey the kind of repressive and morally scathing atmosphere that she herself grew up in.

As the research in my memoir reveals, it’s sadly all too common for parents of sexually abused kids to ignore or minimize the predatory behaviour of a spouse, for the sake of “keeping the family together” or just maintaining some sense of internal stasis or security. Munro’s stance is hardly new or unique.

By no means do I excuse Munro’s actions. Her lack of parental support for, and betrayal of, her daughter Andrea Robin Skinner are unconscionable. (I use Andrea’s first name here to humanize her more.) It’s truly tragic that this acclaimed writer didn’t have the emotional fortitude to nurture and side with her abused daughter. The resulting harm caused by Munro’s actions will never be erased.

Yet, as a survivor who was steeped in denial for years about my own abuse and knows what it’s like to live with dissociation, I would like to offer a perspective not shared in the media.

Someone I know, who I just learned yesterday is Andrea’s cousin, has said that her abusive stepfather Gerald Fremlin, Munro’s husband, was a “true asshole” overall. Therefore, I’m guessing that just to live with Fremlin, who undoubtedly was sexist and objectifying in general, Munro probably dissociated without even realizing it. For her to open up to the grotesque truth of what Fremlin did to her daughter would have meant letting in debilitating pain that she obviously was unwilling to face. It would have meant accepting that she made a bottomless error in character judgment, was a bad mother, and would have to shake up her own life irreparably. How could someone who has repressed her own shadow self reconcile this ugliness with an ego immersed in global accolades and literary accomplishments?  

Hence, Munro did what countless politicians and other public figures have done for centuries with any scandalous family matter: They double down. Don’t accept accountability. Protect yourself and your own status at all costs. Blame the victim. Separate yourself from the source of the embarrassing moral blemish. It’s an all-too-familiar response. That’s always been our predominant social survival stance, so it’s no surprise to me that someone from Munro’s generation, invested in maintaining her own admired image, reflects this. 

Cognitive dissonance and deference to fame

Humans seem to find cognitive dissonance a challenge, not accepting that someone can be respected world-wide and a “monster” in their personal life. It’s part of the either-or mentality we’re all raised with: someone can’t be both things. You have to choose which one you’ll define them by. Instead, I prefer the “both/and” perspective, which recognizes and tries to integrate all aspects of someone. That is the stance I strived to take towards my abusive father in No Letter in Your Pocket. This view doesn’t mean that you accept or condone someone’s atrocious behaviour. It simply means that you try to understand it.

All of the media pieces I’ve read about Andrea’s sexual abuse have focused on Munro’s response, rather than the inaction of Munro’s first husband, Jim Munro, Andrea’s birth father. In learning the news of her abuse, he did not stand up for his daughter at all. He wilfully chose not to even tell Munro about the abuse. His behaviour was abominable. Why isn’t he being excoriated? Do we hold higher moral expectations for women than men?

Andrea revealed the truth of her abuse many years ago. People such as Robert Thacker, Munro’s biographer, knew about it. However, it wasn’t until after Munro’s death that this news has come out. Is this due to the media showing deference to Munro’s prestige, wanting to extol rather than tarnish her exterior image?

I feel tremendous empathy for Andrea, who was abandoned emotionally by both parents and left to wallow, alone, in unspoken shame and taboo-tainted silence for far too many years. Huge kudos to her for finding the courage and strength to seek healing and share her story, emerging as an empowered woman. And many thanks to Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC for publicly voicing support for Andrea.

(Read here Andrea’s article “To heal is truth and peace,” published by The Gatehouse, a Toronto-based centre that provides support and resources for people impacted by childhood sexual abuse.)

Part two of this post will appear within the next few days.

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July 10, 2024 at 3:47 pm
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