Thursday, July 25, 2024

Daughter of Nobel winner Alice Munro publishes account of sexual abuse


When the Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author Alice Munro died in May at age 92, her many admirers paid tribute to the subtle construction of her short stories, which often involved the gradual unveiling of a terrible revelation.

Andrea Robin Skinner, one of Munro’s daughters, published an essay in the Toronto Star on Sunday that brought to light a long-held secret in the author’s own family: Munro’s husband, geographer Gerald Fremlin, had sexually abused Skinner starting in 1976, when she was 9. Munro learned of the abuse when Skinner wrote to her about it 16 years later, and ultimately decided to stay with Fremlin afterward. Fremlin wrote letters to the Munro family, admitting to the abuse in graphic detail and blaming Skinner, describing her as a “homewrecker.” Skinner’s essay in the Star was accompanied by an article by two reporters at the paper.

Munro remained married to Fremlin until his death in 2013. “She was adamant that whatever had happened was between me and my stepfather,” Skinner wrote. “It had nothing to do with her.”

In the essay, Skinner described the initial sexual assault, which occurred during a 1976 visit to her mother and stepfather. During subsequent visits, Fremlin spoke lewdly to her, exposed himself and masturbated in front of her. Skinner struggled with bulimia, migraines and insomnia throughout her youth, and at age 25, divulged the abuse to her mother.

When she next spoke to her mother, Skinner wrote, Munro focused on her own sense of personal injury, and seemed “incredulous” that Skinner described being hurt by the abuse. Munro told Skinner about “other children Fremlin had ‘friendships’ with, emphasizing her own sense that she, personally, had been betrayed.”

Skinner became estranged from her family in 2002, after telling Munro she would not allow Fremlin near her children. (She eventually reconnected with her siblings, in 2014.) After reading a 2004 newspaper feature in which Munro spoke glowingly about her marriage, Skinner wrote, she decided she could no longer keep the abuse a family secret. She contacted Ontario police and shared Fremlin’s letters. He was charged for indecent assault, and pleaded guilty, in 2005.

Skinner hoped that this would force the public to confront her experience, but “my mother’s fame meant the silence continued.” The secrecy spread beyond the family, Skinner wrote: “Many influential people came to know something of my story yet continued to support, and add to, a narrative they knew was false.”

Contacted by The Post for comment, Skinner wrote, “I feel that the #metoo movement has changed the way we talk about and think about shame and silence. We are fed up with the way things have been.

“I feel very grateful for people like Dylan Farrow, who spoke out at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so. The brave people who dared to tell the truth, back when the public were a lot less trauma-informed, cleared a path for people like me. I really want to open the path for many, many others.”

Readers expressed horror at the news, with some saying that it would be difficult for them to return to reading Munro’s work. (As of press time, representatives for Penguin Random House Canada had not responded to a request for comment.)

“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,” novelist Jess Row wrote on the social media site X. “This is the most awful feeling of recognition.”

“This is gutting,” Tajja Isen, a contributing editor to the Walrus, a Canadian magazine, said on X. “I have so much respect for Andrea for writing this, especially amidst a flood of pieces — including mine, just last week — that missed this part of her mother’s legacy.”

“Someone will surely eventually write the piece that worries we are cancelling Munro but I feel this revelation only enriches and deepens my understanding and relationship with her work,” journalist Michelle Dean said on X. “I only wish it had been made sooner because Andrea Skinner did not deserve to pay this price.”

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