Margaret Atwood ‘shocked’ by abuse of daughter Alice Munro ‘bombshell’

Novelist Margaret Atwood has revealed her shock at the revelation that fellow Canadian author Alice Munro knew her daughter was being sexually abused by her husband and stayed with him after discovering the dark secret.

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

The literary world, like Atwood, is similarly in turmoil following Andrea Robin Skinner’s stunning article in the Toronto star in which she reveals her abuse by Gerald Fremlin – and Munro’s non-reaction to it.

Skinner’s piece in the Star Skinner detailed years of abuse at the hands of Fremlin, Munro’s second husband, who died in 2013. Skinner said the abuse began when she was 9, with him crawling into bed with her while she slept, and continued until she was well into her teens. She eventually told her mother, but the Nobel laureate chose to remain with her husband. The split strained Skinner’s relationship with Munro following his death in May; the author had suffered from dementia for more than a decade.

The revelation has sparked widespread unrest over Munro’s legacy, months after her death at the age of 92. Writers, fans and contemporaries are grappling with how to honor a writer whose status as one of the world’s most acclaimed writers, and one of the world’s finest practitioners of short story writing in particular, was 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 understand it. I had heard a rumor about it, but very little detail, after Gerry was dead and Alice was in an institution.

“One remarkable thing to me is that Alice came from a small town in southwestern Ontario at a time when such things were taken for granted and swept under the rug. Now that we know about this horrific 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 womenand the short story ‘Material’.

“There are dark secrets that come to light in a lot 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 all this happened — the two talk about how Gothic was the world of Alice’s upbringing. Gothic is very much about secrets. Crimes in basements. The trusted person who turns out to be a werewolf. That was Alice’s real background.

I know the expression ‘Alice Munro’s fairytale world’, but whoever wrote it hadn’t read many fairytales.

Margaret Atwood

“I’ve seen the phrase ‘Alice Munro’s fairytale world’ thrown around, but whoever wrote it hadn’t read many fairytales. 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 exploit his child. Child sacrifice is the underlying motif: it keeps ‘the family’ happy, at least on the surface.”

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.

Award-winning novelist Barbara Gowdy told The Daily Beast she was “too shocked and upset 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 caring about her emotional well-being. It’s a tragic, horrible and all-too-familiar story, particularly for Munro’s generation of mothers who typically needed a husband to survive economically.

I am angry and saddened to hear what happened to her daughter, but I agree with critic Claire Dederer who said that canceling an unethical artist is a useless consumer gesture in the age of late capitalism.

Susan Swan

“As a writer, Alice Munro made a good living, but it seems like she was still operating from this old way of thinking for women. I’m angry and sad to hear what happened to her daughter, but I agree with critic Claire Dederer who said that canceling 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 of place, time, or people. Munro assumes you understand, and you do. And just when you start to wonder, she gives you a detail so nuanced that only someone who has made a career of observing people could capture it: a moment that seems still but in fact vibrates with meaning for us, searing our memories until our brains stop pulsing.”

Author Joyce Carol Oates went on X on Monday to discuss Munro’s reasoning, questioning why Munro would blame “our misogynist culture” for her choice to stay with the man she loved — and admitted to abusing. She pointed to the men in Munro’s short stories, wondering if they were projections of the author’s apparent subservience to men.

Is there then no room left for anything other than condemnatory language?

Joyce Carol Oates

“Why can’t we talk about ideas, cultural tendencies, psychological motivations?” wrote Oates, who admitted in a separate post that she had not read Skinner’s piece. “Is there no room for anything other than condemnatory language? She seems to have behaved in a very selfish and cruel way. That has been said and repeated. It seems baffling, such behavior. So why don’t we try to understand it?”

Jiayang Fan, a regular writer for The New Yorker who will be teaching a class on Munro’s work, wrote on X the piece made her think about how best to teach Munro’s stories, and whether her fictional stories were personal projections. “Will this change the way I teach her stories? It will and it won’t,” she wrote.[Because] I don’t believe that writers, or the things they write, should ever be put on a pedestal. At their best, stories invite exploration. What is the relationship between the writer, the violated, and the violated?

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

“As a mother, I can’t even do that,” the poster read.

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