A certain story is the key to solving the mystery.

If you love Alice Munro’s fiction, you’ve probably spent much of the last few days wondering: How could an artist so sensitive and insightful behave with such callous selfishness toward her own child? There’s so much to be horrified about in the Toronto Star’s account of the late Nobel laureate’s surprising response to her daughter’s sexual abuse by her second husband. Andrea Skinner, Munro’s youngest daughter, wrote about being molested by Gerald Fremlin when she was 9, and two Star reporters filled in the rest of the story in a long piece detailing the many, many ways Skinner was let down by the adults in her life, especially her mother. This mother spent her career writing with compassion and insight about the inner lives of women—mothers and daughters—and yet, when her own daughter needed her, she stood by her husband.

In 1993, a year after Skinner wrote to her mother to tell her about the abuse, Munro published a short story in The New Yorker titled “The Vandals.” (It was later included in her collection Open secrets.) In “Vandals,” a young couple, Liza and Warren, are tasked with guarding the home shared by an older couple, Bea and Ladner, while Ladner undergoes surgery. Instead, Liza trashes the house: emptying drawers on the floor, ripping apart books, smashing dishes, shaking out bags of flour, and pouring maple syrup and vinegar onto the floor. It’s not until very late in the story that we learn that as children, Liza and her brother played on Ladner’s land and that Ladner sexually abused them.

What is striking about “The Vandals” is how briefly and obliquely Munro describes this abuse, as Liza remembers it—a handful of lines about “Ladner seizing Liza and pressing himself against her”—and how much more attention she devotes to Bea’s attraction to him. She first meets him in the company of another boy, a man whose “kindness, good intentions, enigma and drive” turn to “dust and ashes” in her eyes the moment she sees the surly Ladner. Bea tells her friends that she hates to think of herself as attracted to him, because he is “rude, irritable and slightly wild,” scarred because it seems so clichéd in “all the dark romances—some brute makes a woman tingle, and then says good-bye to Mr. Fine-and-Decent.”

When Bea moves into Ladner’s house in a remote nature reserve, Liza, his young neighbor, expects something to change—though she doesn’t quite understand what. One day, Liza and Bea are swimming in a pond while Ladner is cutting reeds near the shore. Ladner begins to mock Bea behind her back “in an ugly way,” and Liza thinks that Bea must have seen this and that Bea will have to leave “after such an insult.” Liza brings a dangling zirconia earring she found on the road and gives it to Bea, leading Bea to believe that it once belonged to her mother. It’s a sacrifice that Bea doesn’t see the significance of. Liza thinks:

Bea could spread safety if she wanted to. She certainly could. All that’s needed is for her to transform into a different kind of woman, tough and fast, setting boundaries, squeaky clean, energetic and intolerant. No way. Not allowed. Be polite. The woman who could save them all, who could make them all good and keep them alive.

The problem is that “Bea doesn’t see what she was sent to see. Only Liza does.”

Bea doesn’t see this because she’s so caught up in her own strange desire to be treated roughly by Ladner. As she explains to her friends, this is because women like her need a man with “a madness that could hold them back.” Ladner, who seems to think that Bea “had to be cured of all her froth and vanity and all her ideas of love,” offers Bea enough madness that he finds desirable not despite but because it requires her to “live in an environment of inexorability, ready doses of indifference that can sometimes seem like contempt.”

Why Bea finds this situation so appealing is a mystery, but it’s easy to see Ladner as a reflection of the nasty work that was Gerald Fremlin. When Fremlin discovered a letter Andrea Skinner had sent her mother in 1992 revealing his abuse, he threatened to kill her if she went to the police and sent letters to her family detailing the abuse and accusing his stepdaughter of being a “family wrecker” who, at age 9, “invaded my bedroom for a sexual adventure.” He compared Skinner to Nabokov’s Lolita — casting Skinner as the temptress and himself as the helpless Humbert Humbert, unable to fathom that Lolita was a prepubescent girl raped by a predatory stepfather. After learning of the abuse, Munro left Fremlin for several months — but eventually returned to him, telling one of his daughters she couldn’t live without him.

Alice Munro wasn’t the only one who let Skinner down. Her father, Jim Munro, learned of the abuse shortly after it happened, but advised the girl not to tell her mother. He allowed Skinner to return to Alice and Fremlin’s home, but instructed her sister to go with her and never leave her alone with Fremlin.

When Skinner read a 2004 profile of Munro in the New York Times Magazine, she was so disgusted by the way Munro spoke about Fremlin that she showed police his letters from the 1990s. Her 80-year-old stepfather was charged with sexual assault and received a suspended sentence. The Canadian media largely ignored the unpleasant fact, as did Robert Thacker, Munro’s biographer. That Fremlin sexually abused Munro’s daughter seems to be an open secret in Canlit circles.

Munro’s fame and desire to preserve her reputation for the sake of Canadian pride certainly led to the downplaying of Fremlin’s conviction in the 2000s. Some commentators have also blamed the travesty on the secrecy and repressive dynamics that were typical of Canadian families at the time. The spillover of social change from the counterculture to the rural Canadians is a common theme in Munro’s work. (A friend once joked that every Alice Munro story contained a line like, “This was a few years before you could leave marriage, but people already had long hair.”) The continuation of old habits can be seen in Jim Munro’s efforts to shield Alice from the truth. “He thought her needs were greater than his child’s,” Skinner told the Star. Putting adults before children was part of the waning patriarchal culture from which Munro emerged and whose weakening she chronicled. Munro herself attempted to give this stance a “feminist” twist, arguing that it was misogynistic to expect her to sacrifice the marriage that made her happy for the sake of her child.

But how could Munro be happy with a man like Fremlin? He was accused of exposing himself to a friend’s 14-year-old daughter, and Skinner said he lost interest in her when she hit puberty. Was he, as seems likely, a paedophile? In “The Vandals,” Bea—like many of the women in Munro’s work—feels helpless to resist passion, in this case one that binds her to a “brute,” a man who treats her with indifference, even outright contempt, and who may not feel any real desire for her at all. There is a “danger” in him that both Bea and Liza sense, but while Liza simply wants a responsible adult to rein him in, Bea finds that danger intoxicating.

More may emerge about Fremlin’s behavior toward the children, but we can’t learn more about why Munro stayed with him or what made men like him so fascinating to her. She was just as callous toward her daughter, and she wrote “The Vandals”—a story in which the truth lurks like a landmine, the truth that adults betray children and that, in time, those children may choose to tear down the facades that hide that betrayal. Skinner needed her mother to be a different kind of woman. In this story, Alice Munro admits that lost.