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Alice Munro’s alma mater and birthplace reconsider their legacy

Alice Munro’s alma mater and birthplace reconsider their legacy
Alice Munro’s alma mater and birthplace reconsider their legacy

Literary icon’s daughter says mother kept quiet when stepfather sexually abused her

Alice Munro University says it is considering how to proceed after the Nobel laureate’s daughter revealed she was sexually abused by her stepfather and Munro chose to stay with him.

Western University has long touted its ties to the short story writer, establishing an Alice Munro Chair in Creativity in 2018 to “lead the creative culture” of the arts and humanities faculty.

Acting Dean Ileana Paul said in a statement that the faculty is now considering how the revelations by Andrea Robin Skinner, Munro’s youngest daughter, will impact how the London, Ontario, school celebrates the author’s legacy.

In an article in the Toronto Star published Sunday, Skinner wrote that she was sexually abused by Munro’s second husband, Gerald Fremlin, beginning when she was nine years old.

When Munro learned of the abuse years later, Skinner wrote, she focused more on herself than on her daughter and ultimately chose to stay with Fremlin.

Fremlin was convicted of indecent assault in 2005 at the age of 80, but Munro remained in prison.

Skinner wrote in the piece that she wanted her experiences to be part of the story people told about Munro when they thought about her legacy, rather than the hero worship that had become common.

The revelation has left many fans, writers and academics grappling with their feelings about Munro, with some saying it will fundamentally change how and whether they read her work.

Munro died in May at the age of 92.

For the mayor of the community where Munro spent much of her adult life, the monument in her honour outside the local library should remain unchanged – an affirmation that Clinton, Ontario, will always regard the Nobel laureate as a beloved member of the community.

However, Central Huron Mayor Jim Ginn admitted he would consider modifying the installation if there was a public outcry following the recent shocking revelations that Munro chose to remain married to her second husband after discovering he had sexually abused her daughter.

“It was shocking,” Ginn said.

Munro and Fremlin lived together in Clinton until Fremlin’s death in 2013, the same year Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Canadian writer ever to receive the award.

“I think her legacy will always be her unique ability to write stories,” Ginn said, adding that “ultimately that’s how we’ll remember her.”

The two-part memorial outside the library in Clinton consists of a metal bench honoring Munro’s Nobel Prize and a coffee table stacked with four of her book titles.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Ginn said he could not foresee any changes being made to the structure in light of the recent revelations, saying Munro will always be “a Nobel laureate.”

But if we are faced with growing calls for change after what has now been made public, “then we would consider it,” he said.

The mayor praised Skinner for his comments, but hoped the revelations would not tarnish Munro’s literary achievements.

“I hope she can heal from those wounds of the past,” he said of Skinner. “And I hope Alice maintains her legacy and her high standing in the literary world.”

Munro spent her last years away from Clinton. Ginn said there were times, before she left, when running into her on the street would cause a stir.

“It’s unbelievable, you know, that someone from a small town of 3,000 people could be a Nobel Prize winner and then walk down the street and say hello to you,” he said.

Days after Skinner’s story became public, few people in Clinton were willing to discuss Munro. Some said they had read the revelations Skinner made public but declined to comment.

So did Jim Wallace, the blacksmith who made the monument in honor of Munro in Clinton.

He described himself as a friend of the family and did not feel comfortable talking about the abuse Skinner described, out of respect for Munro.

“I remember Alice as a very creative person, a very loving person, so I can’t talk about those allegations,” he said in an interview, noting that his monument to her “will be up for a while” because it is made of galvanized, coated steel.

Karen Philips, a longtime Clinton resident, said she often saw Munro walking down the street but rarely interacted with others.

“She was a very nice lady, very well dressed, very confident. You see her walking around the shops and not acting like she was anyone special, just a normal person,” she said.

For Philips, Munro’s legacy remains intact.

“It must have been awful for (Skinner) but that’s all I can say,” she said. “I don’t think any less of (Munro).”

Munro was born 35 kilometres from Clinton in Wingham, Ontario, where a memorial garden was opened in her honour in 2002. The paved garden features a statue of a girl with her nose buried in a book.

When Brenda Johnston-Hanna stopped by on Tuesday, she said she read Munro’s stories when she was in high school in Wingham.

She said the revelations about the abuse “will have consequences for Alice’s reputation” but she did not support changes to the city’s monument.

“They put up the monument mainly because of her writings,” she said.

READ ALSO: Alice Munro’s Daughter Says Mother Kept Her Silence When Her Stepfather Sexually Abused Her