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Alice Munro’s Daughter Breaks Her Silence

Andrea Skinner’s account of child sexual abuse leaves questions about how a 2005 criminal conviction was covered up.

Jen St. Denis 8 Jul 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

In the short story Silence, published in 2004, Alice Munro writes about a woman called Juliet who is dealing with the sudden estrangement of her adult daughter, Penelope.

Juliet believes she had a good relationship with her daughter, we read, only to learn — when Penelope is 20 years old — that her daughter no longer wants to have any contact with her. In the story Penelope doesn’t give Juliet any explanation. All Juliet receives is a second-hand account of Penelope’s wishes from a worker at a Gulf Island wellness retreat, then a series of cryptic notes occasionally sent through the mail.

At the end of the story, Juliet learns that Penelope is living somewhere in northern Canada and has had five children. But as in many of Munro’s stories, this central mystery is never solved or explained.

Silence immediately came to mind as I read Andrea Skinner’s brave account of being sexually abused by her stepfather Gerald Fremlin, Munro’s second husband, when she was nine years old — and the decades of suffocating silence that followed.

Skinner’s piece, published in the Toronto Star two months after her mother’s death at age 92, details the inaction of her father, Jim Munro, after learning of the abuse: she continues to be sent to Alice Munro and Fremlin’s home for summer vacations throughout her teens, and Alice Munro was apparently never told about the abuse. Skinner writes that even after she told her mother what happened in an anguished letter at age 25, Alice Munro decided to continue her relationship with Fremlin and treated Skinner like a romantic rival.

Skinner writes that after her twins were born, she cut off all contact with her mother, explaining she could no longer see Fremlin and did not want her children to be around him.

Reading Skinner’s account, it was at this point that my mind started to reel, thinking of those scenes in Silence where Juliet wrestles with the absolute mystery of Penelope’s estrangement. I struggled to understand how the writer could tell herself such a lie, over the course of an entire short story.

Alice Munro was a member of the Silent Generation who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. As a fiction writer, she returned again and again to the repressed culture of rural Ontario in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s and the place of women in that society.

In some of these stories, sexual assault happens, but is only talked about between women, then neatly folded into silence again. In The Love of a Good Woman, the story ends with the female protagonist deciding to marry a man she knows has probably killed his deceased wife’s rapist; it’s clear she plans to keep both their secrets.

In other stories, Munro’s female characters flee Ontario and come to British Columbia, finding imperfect forms of freedom in the 1960s and ’70s. These characters live in basement suites and suburban houses in Victoria and North Vancouver. They marry young, have children, and often leave their husbands and children for other, equally flawed men. In a third category, there are stories about middle-aged women pursuing careers in the arts or journalism, living on their own after marriages have ended. Munro wrote about a quiet feminism, about flawed women struggling to break free.

But two other enduring themes of Munro’s stories are silence and secrets. We, the reader, are often let in on these secrets, but otherwise they are never known to the wider world. It was this unsettling dark undercurrent that made her stories of ordinary women extraordinary. In 2013, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

When Skinner was in her 20s, she says, her mother broached the topic of sexual abuse with her by asking her advice about a story she was writing.

Skinner writes:

“In the piece, a girl dies by suicide after her stepfather sexually abuses her. ‘Why didn’t she tell her mother?” she asked me. A month later, inspired by her reaction to the story, I wrote her a letter finally telling her what had happened to me.’

Disappointingly, that letter led to years of denial and silence from other family members, and crippling psychological pain for Skinner that took the form of conditions like bulimia and migraines.

Silence within families is unfortunately common, but in 2005 — spurred by an interview where Munro described her loving relationship with Fremlin and a close bond with her three daughters — Skinner made a police report about the historic abuse and Fremlin pled guilty to indecent assault. At this point, Munro was likely Canada’s most lauded writer and had received international recognition.

And yet, Canadian media did not report on Fremlin’s conviction. This is a mystery that needs to be examined. As Skinner writes, she did not want silence to be the outcome of the court process.

“I also wanted this story, my story, to become part of the stories people tell about my mother. I never wanted to see another interview, biography or event that didn’t wrestle with the reality of what had happened to me, and with the fact that my mother, confronted with the truth of what had happened, chose to stay with, and protect, my abuser.”

After years of watching Me Too allegations play out in the media, we know this is a familiar dynamic, and 2005 was long before the Me Too movement broke through the silence that protected the powerful and set out a playbook for ethically reporting sexual assault allegations.

But these weren’t just allegations. This was a criminal conviction, a clear-cut case that was fair game for news reporting and should have been seen as in the public interest.

Skinner’s account, and the fact that she had to wait until after her mother’s death to write it, is heartbreaking. But at the end of her piece, she tells us her three siblings reached out several years ago to try to understand what happened. Together, the siblings have taken steps to heal together. It’s a hopeful ending, but there is more to this story.  [Tyee]

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