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Literary World Grapples With Alice Munro’s Legacy After Daughter’s Revelation of Abuse

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Tributes flowed in from across the literary world after the death in May at age 92 of Nobel Prize-winning Canadian writer Alice Munro, who is credited with perfecting the contemporary short story. But Munro’s many admirers must now grapple with a darker aspect of her legacy that has just come to light.

In a heart-wrenching essay by Andrea Robin Skinner, Munro’s youngest daughter who is now 58 years old—published on Sunday in the Toronto Star alongside a reported companion piece by the paper—Skinner reveals that she was sexually abused by her stepfather, Munro’s second husband Gerald Fremlin, since she was 9, and that when she informed Munro of the abuse years later, the celebrated writer turned a blind eye and stood by her daughter’s abuser.

The revelation of what until now had been a long-held family secret has rocked readers and colleagues of Munro, whose works often explored themes of women’s lives, complex familial dynamics, sex, trauma, and secrecy.

According to Skinner, Fremlin, a cartographer who died in 2013, climbed into bed with her when she was 9 and touched her inappropriately. She also detailed how, throughout her childhood when the two were alone, Fremlin would crack lewd jokes, press her about her “sex life,” describe Munro’s “sexual needs” to her, and expose himself and occasionally masturbate in front of her.

“At the time, I didn’t know this was abuse. I thought I was doing a good job of preventing abuse by averting my eyes and ignoring his stories,” Skinner writes.

Skinner says she first revealed her abuse by Fremlin to Munro when she was 25, having been hesitant to open up about it earlier, fearing her mother’s reaction. “I have been afraid all my life that you would blame me for what happened,” Skinner wrote in a 1992 letter, parts of which she shared with the Star.

According to Skinner, what inspired her to finally disclose her torment to her mother was Munro’s reaction to a short story in which a girl died by suicide after being sexually abused by her stepfather. At the time, Munro questioned to Skinner why the girl in the story didn’t tell her mother. 

But when Skinner revealed her own experience with Fremlin, Munro was shockingly unsympathetic: “As it turned out, in spite of her sympathy for a fictional character, my mother had no similar feelings for me.”

“She said that she had been ‘told 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,” Skinner writes. “She was adamant that whatever had happened was between me and my stepfather. It had nothing to do with her.” Meanwhile, Fremlin denied wrongdoing and deflected blame onto Skinner.

Skinner says she and her family ultimately moved on, “acting as if nothing had happened,” until Skinner became pregnant in 2002. Skinner decided after the birth of her own twins to cut off contact with Fremlin—who she did not want near her children—as well as Munro, who Skinner says was more concerned about her own personal inconvenience by the move.

Skinner’s quiet estrangement continued until she read a 2004 New York Times story about Munro in which her mother heaped praise on Fremlin.

“I wanted to speak out. I wanted to tell the truth. That’s when I went to the police to report my abuse,” Skinner recalls. “For so long I’d been telling myself that holding my pain alone had at least helped my family, that I had done the moral thing, contributing to the greatest good for the greatest number. Now, I was claiming my right to a full life, taking the burden of abuse and handing it back to Fremlin.”

In 2005, Fremlin was charged with indecent assault and convicted without a trial after pleading guilty. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, a result Skinner says she was satisfied with because she wasn’t seeking for him to be punished nor did she believe he was still a threat to others given his old age.

“What I wanted was some record of the truth, some public proof that I hadn’t deserved what had happened to me,” Skinner writes in her essay. She had also hoped her story would “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.”

But that’s not how things panned out. “My mother’s fame meant the silence continued,” Skinner writes. Munro retired in 2013 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature a few months later. 

“Many influential people came to know something of my story,” Skinner writes, “yet continued to support, and add to, a narrative they knew was false.”

“Everybody knew,” Skinner’s stepmother Carole Munro told the Star, recounting being asked by a journalist at a dinner party years ago about rumors related to Skinner—and affirming that they were true. (Robert Thacker, author of an acclaimed biography of Munro, told the Globe and Mail on Sunday that he was aware of the allegations of what happened to Skinner, who had reached out to him directly before his book was published in 2005, but he declined to mention it because he didn’t want to overstep in a sensitive family matter.)

Skinner’s story stayed out of the public eye. But now, with her essay sending shockwaves through the literary world, the narrative surrounding her mother is beginning to change.

“I know I’m not alone in feeling deeply unnerved by what feels like a seismic shift in our understanding of someone who was formative to me and others as a writer,” Pulitzer finalist Rebecca Makkai said in a series of posts on X reflecting on the recent news.

“Lots of people reflexively denying that Alice Munro could have knowingly spent her life with the pedophile who abused her daughter, or rushing to say they never liked her writing,” Canadian magazine writer and editor Michelle Cyca posted on X. “Harder to accept the truth that people who make transcendent art are capable of monstrous acts.”

“The Alice Munro news is so completely and tragically consistent with the world she evoked in her stories—all those young people betrayed and sabotaged by adults who were supposed to care for them,” American novelist and essayist Jess Row posted on X.

American novelist and essayist Brandon Taylor shared his gratitude toward Skinner. “I’m so in awe of her courage,” he said in a series of posts on X, adding that her account was “personally devastating in that I recognize so much of my own story and history in her experience.” 

In a statement from Munro’s Books, which was founded by Jim and Alice Munro but has been independently owned since 2014, the company said it “unequivocally supports Andrea Robin Skinner as she publicly shares her story of her sexual abuse as a child.”

“Along with so many readers and writers, we will need time to absorb this news and the impact it may have on the legacy of Alice Munro, whose work and ties to the store we have previously celebrated,” the statement added. 

In a co-published statement from the Munro family, Andrea and her three siblings—Andrew, Jenny, and Sheila—thanked the owners and staff of Munro’s Books for “acknowledging and honoring Andrea’s truth, and being very clear about their wish to end the legacy of silence.”

While Skinner says she never reconciled with her mother before Munro’s death, she has with her siblings—who reached out in 2014 to seek understanding and healing together and have supported her coming out publicly with what is sure to put their mother’s reputation in a much different light.

Skinner, for her part, has made clear that this is not about Alice Munro’s reputation. “I just really hope that this story isn’t about celebrities behaving badly,” she told the Star. While some will gravitate toward it simply “for the entertainment value,” she adds: “I want so much for my personal story to focus on patterns of silencing, the tendency to do that in families and societies.”

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