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The literary world’s response to Alice Munro’s daughter’s disclosure | CBC Arts



The literary world’s response to Alice Munro’s daughter’s disclosure | CBC Arts

What do we do with the legacy of a writer who failed to protect her daughter from being sexually abused by her husband? That she stood by him, and stayed silent? It could be the plot of a short story by Alice Munro — but we know now that these are the facts of Alice Munro’s life.

Today on Commotion, writers Michelle Cyca, Michelle Dean and Zoe Whittall join host Elamin Abdelmahmoud to try to make sense of this devastating truth, and what it changes about Munro’s place in Canadian literature.

We’ve included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud on your favourite podcast player.

WATCH | Today’s episode on YouTube:

Elamin: This is not just about a family that chose to keep a secret. Gerald Fremlin pleaded guilty to a charge of indecent assault. This was on the record. We now know that Alice Munro’s biographer was aware, her Canadian editor and publisher Douglas Gibson was aware, and others too. Andrea Skinner has repeatedly said she reached out to journalists over the years. What do you make of the collective choice, Zoe, to keep this on the down low?

Zoe: It’s both understandable and so frustrating. I think that the publishing industry is financially incentivized to protect the publishing industry…. If there’s a generous reading, we think maybe people didn’t think it was their place. But I think the reality of it is that people have benefited financially from her success, and that she was also such an icon. I think there’s an unwillingness to bring her down. Even though culturally we love to push people off pedestals, I think that Alice Munro was one of those confusing exceptions to that rule.

Elamin: Michelle Dean, in the piece that you wrote for The Cut, you talk about how people who keep secrets like this are often powerful. They could blow the whistle, but they don’t. You have this devastating line: “the Andreas of the world pay the price, and that’s just what it is.” How do you understand the decision now to sacrifice Andrea and her well-being over decades to keep this secret?

Michelle D.: People keep secrets all the time of this kind, right? I do think the material factors that Zoe is naming are true. I also think there is a certain amount in pretty much every abuse situation that I’ve ever personally witnessed or witnessed as a journalist, a certain amount of willful blindness of, “This couldn’t happen to me or the people that I know, and there must be something I’m not understanding or seeing,” when it’s staring them plain in the face. We’ve even seen a little bit of that reaction in this. Some of the initial reaction was like, “Surely there’s some part of the story that we’re missing, right?” But there isn’t a part of the story that we’re missing.

Sometimes adults just don’t do their best. I think we have this unfortunate, in especially white Canadian society, politesse kind of thing that goes on where people are like, “I assume if I knew more, I would understand better” — especially because Munro is revered as this great humanist…. Obviously it was going around, and I would like to hear from someone who wants to explain themselves. The biographer was at least brave to admit it. I don’t understand a biographer who is afraid of reporting discord in the family, but I’m glad that he admitted it, so at least that’s out in the open.

Elamin: Yeah, the idea of a biographer shying away from this does seem like not part of the job description to me. I don’t understand that decision either. But to that end, Michelle Cyca, when the new biography of Alice Munro is written maybe ten years from now, do you think this will be the headline or a footnote?

Michelle C.: I think it’ll be a pretty substantial piece of that biography for a couple reasons. One is that Andrea’ story really reflects and complicates Alice’s writing, because it’s so bound up in the same sorts of things that she wrote about, so it’s impossible to consider Alice Munro’s work now without thinking about this. The other thing is Alice Munro is dead. This is the last chapter of her life. It’s so damning. It’s so detailed. The details are so unambiguous that I think there’s no room in it for a self-defense.

So many artists accused of terrible things have had the opportunity in their lifetime to try and reframe that narrative, or downplay it or overcome it in some way. Alice Munro can’t do that. And that’s what her children wanted. They want people to continue reading her work. They want the stories to stand on their own, but they want people to understand what she was like. And so I think it will be important…. What we can do with that, hopefully, is reconsider how we write about and how we think about artists in their lifetime.

You can listen to the full discussion from today’s show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Panel produced by Jess Low.

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