Margaret Atwood Is ‘Shocked’ at Alice Munro Daughter’s Abuse ‘Bombshell’

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

The novelist Margaret Atwood has revealed her shock at the revelation that her fellow Canadian author Alice Munro knew that her daughter was sexually abused by her husband—and stayed with him after finding out the dark secret.

“It was a bombshell. I’m shocked. I’m still trying to get my head around it,” Atwood, multi-award-winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale and many other novels, told The Daily Beast.

The literary world, like Atwood, is similarly reeling after Andrea Robin Skinner’s stunning article in the Toronto Star revealing her abuse at the hands of Gerald Fremlin—and Munro’s non-response to it.

Nobel Prize Winning Author Alice Munro Dead at 92

Skinner’s piece in the Star detailed years of abuse at the hands of Fremlin, Munro’s second husband who died in 2013. Skinner said the abuse first started when she was 9 and he crept into her bed as she slept, lasting until she was well into her teens. She eventually told her mother about it, but the Nobel Prize winner opted to remain with her husband instead. The schism strained Skinner’s relationship with Munro through the latter’s death in May; the author had suffered from dementia for more than a decade.

The disclosure has prompted agonizing over Munro’s legacy months after her death at 92, with writers, fans, and contemporaries grappling with honoring a writer whose status as one of the most lauded writers in the world, and one of the supreme practitioners of short story writing in particular, has been tarnished by her protection of an abuser.

Atwood told The Daily Beast: “It was a bombshell for me. I’m shocked. I’m still trying to get my head around it. I had heard a rumor about it but very few details, after Gerry was dead and Alice was in an institution.

“One noteworthy thing for me is that Alice was from small town southwestern Ontario at a time when such things were swept under the carpet as a matter of course. Now that we know about this horrifying episode, there are clues in the work—try her short story, ‘The Peace of Utrecht,’ and the exposure artist in her novel Lives of Girls and Women, and the short story, ‘Material.’

“There are dark secrets that come to light in much of her work. I once taught a course called “Southern Ontario Gothic”—that part of the world, where Alice came from, was very Gothic. In Graeme Gibson’s interview with Alice in 11 Canadian Novelists—which was published in 1973, before any of this happened—the two of them talk about how Gothic the world of Alice’s upbringing was. Gothic is very much about secrets. Crimes in cellars. The trusted person turning out to be a werewolf. That was Alice’s real-life background.

“I’ve seen the phrase, ‘the fairy-tale world of Alice Munro,’ but whoever wrote that hadn’t read many fairy tales. The child abandoned in the woods. The girl who runs away from home because of the threat of incest. The father who steps back and lets evil prey on the child. Child sacrifice is the underlying motif: it keeps ‘the family’ happy, at least superficially.”

Munro’s longtime publisher Alfred A. Knopf, her longtime Canadian publisher Douglas Gibson, and her former representatives at WME did not respond to immediate requests for comment.

The award-winning novelist Barbara Gowdy told The Daily Beast she was “too shocked and rattled to know what I think.”

Author, journalist, and professor Susan Swan told The Daily Beast: “I’m not going to throw out Munro’s books even though I think she betrayed her daughter by not taking her emotional welfare to heart. It’s a tragic, horrible and all too familiar story, particularly of Munro’s generation of mothers who usually needed a husband to survive economically.

“As a writer, Alice Munro made a good livelihood, but it appears she was still operating from this old way of thinking for women. I’m upset and saddened to learn what happened to her daughter, but I agree with the critic Claire Dederer who said cancelling an unethical artist is a useless consumer gesture in the age of late capitalism.”

In an obituary for The Daily Beast, published in May, Jessica Ferri wrote: “Perhaps no other writer is able to write so richly about human emotion with so little exposition or explanation about place, time, or people. Munro assumes that you understand, and you do. And just when you begin to wonder, she provides you with a detail so nuanced that only someone who has made a career of observing people would be able to capture: a moment that seems quiet but in actuality vibrates for us with meaning, searing our memories until our brains stop pulsing.”

Author Joyce Carol Oates took to X on Monday to reckon with Munro’s reasoning, wondering why Munro would blame “our misogynistic culture” for choosing to remain with the man she loved—and admitted was an abuser. She pointed to the men in Munro’s short stories, pondering if they were projections of the author’s seeming subservience to men.

“Why cannot we discuss ideas, cultural proclivities, psychological motivations?” wrote Oates, who admitted in a separate post that she had not read Skinner’s piece. “Is there no room for anything except condemnatory speech? She seems to have behaved very selfishly, cruelly. That has been said & resaid. It seems baffling, such behavior. So why not try to understand?”

Jiayang Fan, a staff writer for The New Yorker who’s set to teach a class on Munro’s works, wrote on X the piece made her reflect on how best to teach Munro’s stories, along with whether her fictional tales were personal projections.“Will this change the way I teach her stories? It will & it won’t,” she wrote. “[Because] I don’t believe writers—or the things they write—are ever meant to be placed on pedestals. At their best, stories invite investigation. What is the relationship btw the writer, the violated & the violating?”

Some fans have taken matters into their own hands. One fan posted a photo on X of their copies of Munro’s book in a trash bin.

“As a mother, I can’t even,” the poster wrote.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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