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Munro is no ‘feminist icon’

The following is part two of a three-part series.

Some have called author Alice Munro a “feminist icon.” The devastating revelations about how she stuck by her second husband who sexually abused her daughter Andrea certainly belie otherwise. Again, this does not surprise me. I consider myself a feminist and yet even so-called ones, presumably evolved beyond misogynistic values and role rigidity, can reflect patriarchal attitudes. Munro ultimately chose the role of wife over mother, as Rebecca Sullivan describes in The Conversation (see link below). She saw her own daughter as sexual competition, rather than a vulnerable soul desperately in need of maternal support and validation. Cue a resounding chorus of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.”

I discovered such divide-and-conquer attitudes towards my own incest story when circulating my memoir manuscript. (I describe these in No Letter in Your Pocket.) Responses from feminists that sexual assaults experienced in India must have somehow been my fault showed to me that the blame-the-victim attitude is far more entrenched in our society than I thought, even among supposed allies. This realization shocked me.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Andrea’s stepfather Gerald Fremlin had accused the young girl, aged nine, of seducing him. This is a familiar pedophile trope that sadly, even our courts reflect in some of their judgments. British Columbia had a case in which a judge determined that a four-year-old girl had been flirtatious with an adult male and hence, basically invited the sexual abuse she got. Around the world, we still have the so-called “Lolita defense,” with judges ruling that children from ages four to sixteen have “seduced” their adult sex partner.

Such decisions completely ignore the power disparity between an adult and child and the inability of a young girl to consent in full awareness to an adult sexual act. They remove the abuser’s accountability since the underlying assumption is that any male can’t avoid sexual temptation. Therefore, under this skewed equation, responsibility for “good behaviour” lies with the stereotypical female temptress (at any age!) – not with her abuser. Is it any wonder that women’s groups have been trying for years to provide trauma-informed training to lawyers and judges?

Another case about a famous literary figure that blames the female victim lies with the media response to J.D. Salinger’s involvement with almost a dozen much-younger girls. (Of course, none of this appeared in the 2020 Hollywood film My Salinger Year.) I outline this story in my memoir, as follows:

[M]ost societies have maintained a cultural norm of much older men pursuing, and often preying on, much younger women. For instance, Joyce Maynard revealed in her memoir how J. D. Salinger, beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye, wrote her letters when she was eighteen and he fifty-three, saying she was his soul mate and they would “live out their days together.” The two did live together and discussed having a child. Yet, Salinger supporters and media outlets condemned Maynard for writing publicly about their relationship. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times even called her a “predator.” Maynard writes: “I might as well have murdered Holden Caulfield. Many have never forgiven me.” Since then, more than a dozen women have contacted her, saying that they, too, as teenagers, received similar letters from Salinger.

Maynard reminds us: “It’s not simply about how our culture continues to shame, dismiss, humiliate, devalue, and demonize women. It’s the injury — sometimes overt counterattack, often gaslighting — that an abused woman is virtually certain to endure when she breaks her silence to tell what happened to her. Call it a one-two punch.”

Sadly, Andrea received the one-two punch from her mother, father, stepfather, and through the silence of family members and the media.

Read “The Gothic Horror of Alice Munro” in The Conversation

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Yesterday at 10:12 am Comments (0)

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 Comments (0)