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Themes of abuse and abandonment run through Alice Munro’s fiction

Themes of abuse and abandonment run through Alice Munro’s fiction

A few days ago, I listened to a song I hadn’t thought about in ages: a cover of John Denver’s “Around and Around” by the indie-rock musician Mark Kozelek. There was a time when Kozelek was one of my favorite musicians, but over the decades, I found myself listening to him less and less, partly because, to put it bluntly, he was creeping me out. He often sang in the voice of an isolated, disturbed man, even at times a serial killer. When allegations emerged in 2020 and 2021 that he had harassed and assaulted female fans going back to the beginning of his career, I felt — what’s the right word? — not shocked, not even surprised, but heartbroken by a sense of understanding.

On Sunday, the Toronto Star published a long-overdue story about the celebrated Canadian writer Alice Munro; the story was written by her daughter Andrea Robin Skinner. In 1976, Gerald Fremlin, Munro’s second husband and Skinner’s stepfather, molested Skinner while she was staying with the couple during her summer vacation. She was 9 years old. Sixteen years later, in 1992, when Skinner was 25 and in therapy, she informed her mother of what had happened, and Munro — by that time acclaimed as one of the best short-story writers in the English-speaking world — chose to stay with Fremlin. Munro said that she’d been “told too late” and that, in Skinner’s words, “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 believes that Munro viewed Fremlin’s assault as infidelity, as if she, as a 9-year-old, represented sexual competition. In 2002, when Skinner was a new mother, she informed Munro that Fremlin could never be around her children; when Munro grew angry and defended Fremlin again, Skinner cut off contact with her and remained estranged until Munro died this spring, at 92.

This is a story I know and you know. It reverberates in my family and in the families of many of my friends. It’s in Faulkner, the Bible, Freud, Greek tragedies and “Game of Thrones.” Denying and erasing incest, sexual abuse or other crimes against children is, to steal a phrase from the literary theorist René Girard, one of the “things hidden since the foundation of the world.”

It was also a central element of Munro’s fiction. Over and over in her stories, a person in a position of authority sees an opportunity to help a child, or a young adult, or someone else in distress, and chooses not to. Her work is saturated with neglect, abandonment, blame-shifting, denial. My favorite of all her stories, “Open Secrets,” is about the disappearance of a young girl on a scouting trip just outside a town in rural Ontario. Told in a circular fashion, from varying points of view, the story’s accretion of tiny details implies that something sinister has happened without ever revealing the girl’s fate. The town keeps the secret; the reader isn’t allowed in; and all throughout, there’s an undercurrent of judgment and disapproval, as if the girl, wayward and rebellious, had brought this on — whatever, in fact, happened to her — herself.

Another story that came to mind after I read Skinner’s account, in a horrifying way, is “Friend of My Youth,” in which a young woman, Flora, discovers that her fiancé has been sleeping with her sister and has gotten her pregnant — which means he has to marry the sister instead. Because the two sisters own a farm together, Flora is forced to share a house with the couple for decades, watching (perhaps with secret delight) as her sister suffers repeated miscarriages and dies of a lingering cancer.

In recent years, and especially since she won the Nobel Prize in 2013, Munro has been treated as a secular saint, a feminist icon, a sympathetic observer of ordinary life, of mothers and children and families. That was never my view. Her work always seemed to me savage and relentlessly bleak, all the more so because her prose was so tidy, so carefully controlled. She wrote about the changes that second-wave feminism and other liberatory movements of the 1960s brought over the world — such as a divorced mother, with partial custody of her children — but often with a sense of dread and recrimination.

And it’s tempting to say: Ah, okay, now we know why. Fremlin was, by Skinner’s account and by his own description (in letters he wrote to her family), a classic and vile 1970s libertine-slash-sexual-predator who liked to opine about how pedophilia was celebrated in other cultures and imagined himself to be Humbert Humbert responding to Lolita. He and Munro were married for 37 years; for 21 of those years, she knew he had molested her daughter. Munro’s feminist principles, according to Skinner, told her that she had to make a choice between her child’s well-being and her own happiness (and, of course, her career and reputation).

Many adults now in their 50s and 60s, myself included, are still dealing with the emotional fallout of being a child in an era when their liberated parents — liberated for good and necessary reasons! — were treating them as an afterthought. Or as a target. Knowing that Munro was one of those adults, then looking back at her work, I don’t feel angry, much less interested in opining about whether she should be “canceled.” (Her work has been read, studied and internalized by writers for some 50 years. It’s not going anywhere.) I feel the same recognition I feel listening to Kozelek today. The pieces match up. This is art steeped in pain and personal tragedy. It reminds me of an interview I recently watched with another singer, Townes Van Zandt, who battled addiction and mental illness his entire life. “I have a few (songs) that aren’t sad,” he gently corrected the interviewer in the clip. “They’re hopeless.”

Fiction writers take the material they’re given — the raw mass of their lived experience — and make something new out of it, something that may seem lifelike but is outside of life, isolated and contained. You can produce great art that way, especially if you’re Munro, but there is a real psychological risk involved, and sometimes a moral risk — to others. As I put it in one of my own short stories: “The thing about being a writer of fiction is this: you spend a lot of time having feelings which are not really your feelings to have. Or conjuring feelings in others that aren’t your feelings to give. The risk is that you lose touch with any sense of reality and just float around in a fog.”

I can’t know whether Alice Munro felt that way, but I strongly suspect she did. She chose denial. She chose over and over to shelter and defend a pedophile, because anything else would have threatened her art. Skinner’s story needs to be heard and absorbed by anyone who has ever cared about Munro’s work. It’s part of the record of who she was, the cost of her particular and painful vision.

Jess Row’s most recent novel, “The New Earth,” was recently published in paperback. His forthcoming books are “Storyknife,” a collection of short stories, and an essay collection, “On Being Short: Men, Masculinity, and Not Measuring Up.”