Coming to terms with the darkness behind the icon of feminism

This week, in the harrowing story of Alice Munro’s complicity in the sexual abuse of her youngest daughter, we learned how Munro, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning author acclaimed for her uniquely gothic interpretation of women’s lives, really lived her feminism.

In the first-person essay in Toronto StarMunro’s daughter, Andrea Skinner, details years of sexual abuse by her stepfather, Gerald Fremlin, beginning when she was nine. In a previous essay, Skinner wrote, “The sexual abuse of a child is a rape of the mind in which all the initial tools for healing are stolen.”

Although Skinner told her father, Jim Munro, he inexplicably chose to keep it a secret from his ex-wife. Somehow he thought he could protect his daughter from a distance while still allowing her to visit her mother and stepfather. The abuse continued in many ways, and Skinner was left to deal with it alone.

When Skinner, 25, revealed the awful secret to her mother, Munro decided not only to stay with her husband but 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 and prevent the secret from ever reaching her adoring public.

While Fremlin’s actions are easily and quickly condemned, Munro’s unwavering support for her husband at the expense of her daughter sent mortal chills through many who read and loved her work, or simply valued her iconic status.

A statue commemorating the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to Alice Munro in front of the Clinton Library in Ontario in July 2024.

Writing about the inner lives of girls and women

Munro, the only Canadian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, is celebrated for her unique genre—Canadian Gothic, or more precisely, Southern Ontario Gothic, whose heroines are intriguingly imperfect.

Gothic is a feminine genre, full of psychologically complex female characters and heavily influenced by some of the most acclaimed female authors in Western literature: Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, the Brönte sisters, Daphne Du Maurier, Alice Munro. Although it has many definitions, Gothic often includes erotic girlhood, specters of dead mothers, houses haunted by family tragedies and secrets, and disturbing personifications of wild landscapes.

During the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the American literary scholar Ellen Moers revisited the genre through the prism of second-wave feminism. Central to her thesis was that the “feminine gothic” was based on the opposing but connected emotions of motherhood. Motherhood, she said, involved both revulsion and delight: an ecstatic power to create life that constantly wars with the fear of self-annihilation.

Cover of Alice Munro’s book: “The Lives of Girls and Women”.

The unbearable expectation of motherhood

Motherhood was, of course, a dominant issue for second-wave feminism: the right to control one’s reproductive capacity, the needs of working mothers, motherhood as unpaid labor, and, most importantly, the cultural expectation that motherhood should be expressed through devoted, selfless sacrifice.

Motherhood has become problematically linked to feminist consciousness. Philosopher Linda Alcoff explains how cultural and psychoanalytic strands of feminism have emphasized women’s uniqueness in their capacity to mother. Other feminists have angrily rejected such biological essentialism, at least recognizing the social conditions of motherhood.

Even in the era of contemporary feminist thought, motherhood remains a problematic factor, both in terms of socio-economic security and women’s cultural identity.

However, the unbearable burden of idealized motherhood is nothing compared to the cruelty of a mother’s betrayal.

Broken family ties

Munro, who married in 1951 at age 20, says a birthday present of a typewriter from her first husband sealed her identity as a wife/mother and writer — “the twin choices of my life.”

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

When Munro finally learned of the abuse 16 years later, she left her husband. But not to comfort her daughter. As Skinner tells us, Munro felt humiliated and personally betrayed, and the entire family had to deal with 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.

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

Alice Munro in 2014.

Munro’s rationale for ultimately staying with Fremlin until his death in 2013, and keeping his secret until her own death in May of this year, was a parody born of her twisted interpretation of 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 that she was “told too late”, that she “loved him too much”, and that “it was the fault of our misogynistic culture that I expected her to deny her own needs, sacrifice herself for her children, and compensate for the shortcomings of men”.

Our Monstrous Self

Even after her husband was exposed as an abuser, Munro chose “wife” over “writer,” over mother. And she did it in the name of feminism—a betrayal to all her literary daughters.

Now we are left with the shattered fragments of her legacy, which her family says they want to preserve, but not at Skinner’s expense. Toronto Star article includes in its foreword: “They want the world to continue to love Alice Munro’s work. They also feel a responsibility to share what it meant to grow up in her shadow, and how protecting her legacy came at a devastating cost to her daughter.”

For some, this may mean rereading Munro through the prism of her biography, but I think that is too easy. It absolves us from acknowledging the pleasure we took in her Gothic tales of mothers and daughters. We are left with the fervent, hopeful belief that if we were to receive the same terrible news from our own children, we would make different, better decisions. But Munro believed this about herself, too, until it happened.

Part of our collective, horrified revulsion at Munro comes from our own nightmarish versions of our worst selves. That, of course, is part of the pleasure of Gothic fiction—indulging in corrupt, imaginary narratives anchored in obsessive love. Except that this isn’t fiction. To paraphrase Moers, we’ve been forced to hold our collective maternal anxiety up to the Gothic mirror of reality, and we fear the monstrous other that’s reflected back at us.