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Alice Munro

A different story

By Rachel RobbinsPublished 15 days ago 3 min read
Top Story - July 2024
Andrea Robin Skinner by Steve Russell/Toronto Star

Alice Munro, short-story writer extraordinaire, died in May this year. I wrote a tribute. She was an excellent writer, with a precision and brevity that I love and admire.

Yesterday, I learned via Twitter and the Toronto Sun about a different side to Alice Munro.

This is what I learned.

In the summer of 1976, Gerald Fremlin, the second husband of Alice Munro, climbed into the bed of Andrea, his step-daughter, Munro’s nine-year old daughter and sexually assaulted her.

Fremlin was later accused of exposing himself to a 14 year old daughter of a friend. When challenged by Alice Munro about the incident, he denied it and denied that he would ever find Andrea attractive, in front of Andrea.

Andrea was 25 before she told her mother what had happened. Her mother responded with disbelief, with a sense of sexual competition with her young daughter and although she briefly left Fremlin, she returned to spend her life with him. As Andrea said:

She reacted exactly as I had feared she would, as if she had learned of an infidelity.

And Fremlin, true to type, threatened Andrea with violence.

Ultimately, Alice Munro sided with the man who had attacked her daughter.

Andrea stopped contact with her mother when she became a mother herself. It was reading an article in which her mother described Fremlin in loving terms and her close relationship with all her daughters that Andrea decided to go to the police. She was not prepared to be invisible any longer.

In March 2005, Fremlin pleaded guilty to sexual assault and was sentenced to two years’ probation and banned from being with children under the age of 14. In 2005, Alice Munro won the Medal of Honor for Literature from the U.S. Her husband’s crimes were never discussed in the international press.

As Andrea says:

Children are still silenced far too often. In my case, my mother’s fame meant that the secrecy spread far beyond the family. Many influential people came to know something of my story yet continued to support, and add to, a narrative they knew was false.

It is hard when you love words, love a good story to know that someone who has reached such heights in crafting a sentence, putting the complexity of human life on the page, is also someone you would not want to meet. It is hard to reconcile that artists can produce spectacular, dizzying works and still be the rotten, mouldy apple.

I am in no mood for forgiveness. I am not going to withdraw my comments about Alice Munro as a writer, but I am going to side with her abused daughter. Unequivocally.

I write a great deal about how some stories are silenced through abuse, racism, sexism. But this is for the strength and courage of Andrea Robin Skinner who is now a meditation and mindfulness teacher specialising in supporting and healing childhood trauma. I salute you.

I remember being nine years old, very clearly. It was the year before my family moved from one city to another. I was happy at school. I was bright and creative. I was unequivocally a child. I liked Roald Dahl books, I watched Saturday morning cartoons, I learned to ride a bike. I was a giggler. I spent the summer wearing short shorts and running up and down the road with Lorraine Baker from a few doors down. I would lurch between being an absolute delight and a sulky pre-teen. I loved my cat, Sammy Smudge and would tell him everything.

I made mistakes. I lost my temper. There was sibling rivalry and arguments. I learned my catechism to prepare for Confirmation. I was beginning to understand the differences between right and wrong and was often confused by how doing the right thing meant being unbearably bored.

Nothing I did would have made it alright for a man to have sex with me. Nothing.

And if that awful, terrible thing had happened, I had the right to expect that my parents would do the right thing by me.

Mother/daughter relationships can be complicated. Believe me, I know. But when you are nine, your mother is the grown-up and you should be able to tell her things and to be supported and loved. Unequivocally.

I don’t expect anyone to be an angel.

I don’t know what to do with Alice Munro’s writing.

I don’t know what to do with any artist whose work I admire but whose lives are a shambolic moral vacuum.

But I do know that we need to talk about abuse, abusers and enablers. I do know we need to listen to victims/survivors and salute their bravery.

Life

About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

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Comments (11)

  • Andy Potts10 days ago

    It's a tricky one. I don't know Munro's writing and based on what you've said about her oeuvre I feel like I should check it out. But then based on what you say about her personal life, I'm not encouraged to do so. Maybe it's easier when there's a historical context? There are plenty of cultural figures whose attitudes suggest I wouldn't want to have a beer with them, but when viewed in the context of their time don't seem all that outrageous (this probably applies more to political or philosophical beliefs, rather than Munro's failure to support her child). However, those same attitudes voiced today would be hard to take, and would probably discourage me from engaging with the work.

  • Robyn Little15 days ago

    on the subject of separating the art from the artist, it is easier if you have never read or enjoyed their works before. in this case, I will not be checking out Munro's work.

  • kp15 days ago

    this is a wonderfully important revision and reflection. thank you for taking the time to shed light on this artist and the complexity of appreciating art from a less than perfect/problematic source.

  • Sam Avery15 days ago

    Amazing excellent good work.

  • David Price15 days ago

    Great thoughts Rachel. Since uni I have always loved Hemmingway. I often re read his work, but parts of his life are pretty moraly repugnant.

  • Katarzyna Popiel15 days ago

    Based on my own experience and other people's stories, I came to the realisation that disbelieving and silencing victims is a rule rather than an exception. Abusers don't usually operate in a vacuum, they take care to surround themselves with supporters those determined to turn a blind eye. My tears were spent years ago so I can only nod now: yup, that's how it is. But if we can do anything to change the 'don't talk about it' rule, then let us do it -- one step at a time. Andrea is a badass hero, as is every adult who experienced childhood abuse and survived into adulthood.

  • Rachel Deeming15 days ago

    This made me mad and sad. I don't know if I've read Munro. Not too keen to now, to be honest. And nine year old girls need to be listened to. The fact that she knew how her mother would react, I think, says a lot about their relationship.

  • Andrea Corwin 15 days ago

    Mothers need to hear their children and protect them. Fathers also. If Daddy is the abuser the mother, no matter the price, needs to stop it! Thank you for sharing this. I am in total agreement. Children are blameless and need a champion. Sometimes the mom is afraid; so parents need to teach their children when young to stand up for truth and kindness; to protect the weak from bullies. Then they grow up to be "warriors" and the truth is told, bravery comes forward. Very sad for all.

  • Painful to tell but you are absolutely right that child victims need to be heard.

  • Unsettling but important revelation. We can never extrapolate from the quality of someone's artistry to the quality of their character. I appreciate this follow up to your great review of Munro's work, which I read at the time. You manage to be nuanced AND take a principled stand.

  • Kendall Defoe 15 days ago

    I have learned to focus on the work, not the artist. What Alice Munro did was shameful and repellent...and the world of literature is full of writers who did far worse things. We cannot give up the divine because the creators were too human.

Rachel RobbinsWritten by Rachel Robbins

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