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Family Drama Risks Overshadowing Alice Munro’s Legacy

by | Jul 10, 2024 | News

The literary legacy of Alice Munro threatens to be overshadowed by claims that she stood by her husband after learning he sexually abused one of her daughters.

Andrea Robin Skinner says her stepfather sexually assaulted her when she was nine, but her mother said she ‘loved him too much’ to leave him

The youngest daughter of acclaimed Canadian Nobel laureate Alice Munro has said that her step-father sexually assaulted her as a child, and that her mother stayed with him even after learning of the abuse.

Skinner revealed the allegations in an essay and a news article in Canada’s Toronto Star on the weekend, writing about how her stepfather, Gerald Fremlin, began sexually assaulting her in 1976 when she was nine years old and he was in his 50s.

One evening, when Munro was away, he “climbed into the bed where I was sleeping and sexually assaulted me”, Ms Skinner said.

In 2005, Skinner went to the police. Fremlin, then 80, was charged with indecent assault against Skinner and pleaded guilty. He received a suspended sentence and two years’ probation. Munro stayed with Fremlin until he died in 2013.

Munro, who was regarded as one of the greatest short-story writers of all time and won the Nobel prize for literature in 2013, died last month at the age of 92.

Her collections often focused on life in small-town Ontario where she was raised, earning praise for their nuanced portrayals of women and girls.

Skinner wrote that she first told her mother about the abuse in 1992, when she was in her 20s, writing her mother a letter after Munro voiced sympathy for a character in a story who was sexually abused by her stepfather.

.”  Through the years, Skinner suffered debilitating migraines—the first of which struck her the morning after Fremlin’s sexual assault, the one he said her mother couldn’t find out about because “it would kill her,” she wrote—and grappled with bulimia. When she told her mother she was struggling at the University of Toronto, Skinner said that Munro cried and told Skinner she was wasting her life.

However, Skinner said that Munro “reacted exactly as I had feared she would, as if she had learned of an infidelity”.

Munro temporarily left Fremlin, who admitted in letters to the abuse but blamed it on Skinner. “If the worst comes to worst I intend to go public,” he wrote, according to Skinner. “I will make available for publication a number of photographs, notably some taken at my cabin near Ottawa which are extremely eloquent … one of Andrea in my underwear shorts.” After a few months, Fremlin came to visit Munro, and when he returned to Clinton, Munro went with him.

Ms Skinner and her siblings said they believed this dark family story must also be part of Munro’s legacy.

 

“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,” she said.

Skinner distanced herself from her family in 2002, after telling Munro she would not allow Fremlin near her children. But after reading an interview where Munro spoke positively about her marriage, Skinner took Fremlin’s letters to the police in 2005.

“He described my nine-year-old self as a ‘homewrecker,’” she wrote, adding that he accused her of invading his bedroom “for sexual adventure”.

“The silence continued” even after Fremlin’s death, Skinner wrote, because of her mother’s fame.

“I also wanted this story, my story, to become part of the stories people tell about my mother,” she wrote. “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. “She said that she had been ‘told too late,’” Skinner wrote of Munro. “She loved [Fremlin] 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. She was adamant that whatever had happened was between me and my stepfather. It had nothing to do with her.”

The family continued to have a relationship with Munro and Fremlin, sidestepping the subject at least partly due to Munro’s public profile and what Jenny called “the fame factor. That was a big deal.”

In Skinner’s words, “We all went back to acting as if nothing had happened. It was what we did.”

In 1994, Munro granted a lengthy interview to The Paris Review for the publication’s “The Art of Fiction” series. She admitted to worrying about her children and acknowledged that she’d prioritised writing over motherhood.

“Some part of me was absent for those children, and children detect things like that.” she said. “Not that I neglected them, but I wasn’t wholly absorbed. When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I’ve told her that. This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me. I feel I’ve done everything backwards: this totally driven writer at the time when the kids were little and desperately needed me. And now, when they don’t need me at all, I love them so much. I moon around the house and think, There used to be a lot more family dinners.”

Fremlin died in 2013, the same year Munro was selected for the Nobel Prize for literature. She was unable to travel to accept the award.

Skinner never reconciled with her mother. “I made no demands on myself to mend things, or forgive her. I grieved the loss of her, and that was an important part of my healing,” she wrote.

“I want so much for my personal story to focus on patterns of silencing, the tendency to do that in families and societies,” she said. “I just really hope that this story isn’t about celebrities behaving badly … I hope that … even if someone goes to this story for the entertainment value, they come away with something that applies to their own family.”

 

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