The Gothic Horror Of Alice Munro: A Reckoning With The Darkness Behind A Feminist Icon

Author: Rebecca Sullivan

(MENAFN- The Conversation) This week, in a devastating story about Alice Munro's complicity in the sexual abuse of her youngest daughter , we discovered how Munro, a Nobel Prize-winning author acclaimed for her uniquely Gothic interpretation of women's lives, actually lived her feminism.

In a first-person essay in the Toronto Star, Munro's daughter Andrea Skinner details the years-long sexual abuse by her stepfather, Gerald Fremlin, beginning when she was nine years old. In an earlier essay , Skinner wrote:“The sexual abuse of a child is a rape of the mind, in which any fledgling tools for healing are stolen.”

Although Skinner told her father, Jim Munro, he inexplicably chose to keep it a secret from his ex-wife. He somehow thought he could protect his daughter from a distance while still permitting her to visit her mother and stepfather. The abuse persisted in multiple ways and Skinner was left alone to cope.

When a 25-year-old Skinner exposed the terrible secret to her mother, Munro decided not only to stay with her husband but also to stand by him even after he pleaded guilty and was convicted of sexual assault in 2005. She also used the power of her fame to help create a positive narrative about her husband as well as prevent the secret from ever reaching her adoring public.

While Fremlin's actions are readily and easily condemned, Munro's unwavering support of her husband at the expense of her daughter has sent a deathly chill down the spines of many who have read and loved her work, or simply cherished her iconic status.

A monument to Alice Munro's 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature in front of the Library in Clinton, Ont., in July 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins Writing about the inner lives of girls and women

The only Canadian to ever receive the Nobel Prize in Literature , Munro is heralded for her unique genre of Canadian - but more precisely - southern Ontario Gothic featuring intriguingly imperfect heroines .

The Gothic is a woman's genre , replete with psychologically complex women characters and heavily influenced by some of the most recognized women authors of western literature: Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, the Brönte sisters, Daphne Du Maurier, Alice Munro. While it has many definitions, the Gothic often features eroticized girlhoods, spectres of dead mothers, homes haunted by family tragedies and secrets and uncanny personifications of wild landscapes.

During the women's movement of the 1970s and '80s, American literary scholar Ellen Moers revisited this genre through the lens of second-wave feminism. Central to her thesis was that the“Female Gothic” depended upon the opposing but conjoined emotions of motherhood. Motherhood, she said, contained both revulsions and delights: the ecstatic power of creating life perpetually at war with the fear of obliterating the self.

Alice Munro's book cover: 'Lives of Girls and Women.' Unbearable expectations of motherhood

Motherhood was, of course, a prevailing issue for second-wave feminism : the right to control one's reproductive capacities, the needs of working mothers, mothering as unpaid labour and, most pressingly, the cultural expectations that motherhood be expressed through devoted, selfless sacrifice.

The maternal became problematically intertwined with feminist consciousness. Philosopher Linda Alcoff explains how cultural and psychoanalytic strands of feminism insisted on the uniqueness of women because of their capacity to be mothers . Other feminists angrily rejected such biological essentialism while acknowledging at least the social conditions of mothering.

Even amid this contemporary era of feminist thought, motherhood remains a problematic factor in both the socioeconomic security and cultural identity of women.

The unbearable burden of idealized motherhood, however, is nothing compared to the ferocity of a mother's betrayal.

Broken family ties

Married in 1951 at the age of 20, Munro says her first husband's birthday gift of a typewriter sealed her identity as a wife/mother and writer -“the twin choices of my life .”

By 26, Munro had given birth to three daughters, one of whom died on the same day she was born. Her youngest, Andrea, came much later, in 1966, a year which Munro also recounts as the beginning of the end of her first marriage. In 1976, Munro married Fremlin, whom she identified as the true love of her life. That same year, Fremlin sexually assaulted her youngest daughter.

When Munro was finally told about the abuse 16 years later, she left her husband. But not to console her daughter. As Skinner tells us, Munro felt humiliated and personally betrayed, and the whole family had to tend to her feelings. Fremlin accused the child of seducing him and convinced Munro to return. A conspiracy of silence ensued. To protect herself, Skinner distanced herself from her family.

The Gatehouse, an agency that supports survivors of childhood sexual abuse, says this type of familial response is tragically common. Skinner and her siblings sought counselling from the organization to help them come to terms with the abuse that happened in their family.

Alice Munro in 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Munro's rationale for ultimately staying with Fremlin till his death in 2013, and harbouring his secret until she died this May , was a travesty borne out of her twisted interpretation of the feminist politics of motherhood. According to a letter Munro wrote, she saw her daughter as a sexual rival, not a victim.

Munro wrote to Skinner, saying she had been“told too late,” that“she loved him too much” and that“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.”

Our monstrous selves

Even after her husband was revealed as an abuser, Munro chose“wife,” not“writer” over mother. And she did so in the name of feminism - a betrayal to all her literary daughters.

Now we are left with the shattered fragments of her legacy, which the family says it wants preserved but not at the expense of Skinner. The Toronto Star article includes in the preface:“They want the world to continue to adore Alice Munro's work. They also feel compelled to share what it meant to grow up in her shadow and how protecting her legacy came at a devastating cost for her daughter.”

For some, that may mean rereading Munro through the prism of her biography, but I think that's too easy. It absolves us from acknowledging the enjoyment we have taken in her Gothic tales of mothers and daughters. We are left with a fervent, hopeful belief that if given the same terrible news from our children, we would make other, better choices. But, then, Munro also believed that about herself until it happened.

Part of our collective horrified revulsion of Munro comes from our nightmare version of our worst selves. That is of course part of the pleasure of Gothic fiction - to indulge in depraved imaginary narratives anchored by an obsessive love. Only this is not fiction. To paraphrase Moers, we have been forced to hold our collective maternal anxiety up to the Gothic mirror of reality, and we dread the monstrous other reflected back at us.

The Conversation


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