Horrific deeds of fallen heroes

All kinds of people make all kinds of art, and the quality of the art is no measure of their character.
Author Neil Gaiman
Author Neil Gaiman

The literary world saw two falls from grace this week. The legendary speculative fiction author Neil Gaiman was accused of sexual assault by two young women — a fan, and his children’s nanny — whom he had been in relationships with. The allegations came to light following an investigation by Tortoise Media. Then, the late Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro’s youngest daughter Andrea Robin Skinner, a meditation teacher now in her late 50s, published an essay in which she revealed that Munro’s spouse, her stepfather Gerald Fremlin, had sexually assaulted her from the age of 9, and that Munro had shielded Fremlin.

Both revelations are horrifying in their own ways, perhaps even equally so. This isn’t about comparing which is worse: abuse or enabling. They are two sides of the same coin. The details of what happened to Skinner — how members of her extended family vilified her while Munro herself refused to accept that her spouse had assaulted her daughter and was adamant about not leaving him — are sickening to read. Skinner told her mother about what had happened in 1992, when she was in her 20s. She even pressed charges against Fremlin in 2005 (he pleaded guilty). That this has all become public only now is because of a collusion between many people who knew, including potentially within the media, as well as the secrecy and denial enforced by the family. It echoes the lies and silences of abusive families everywhere.

The allegations against Gaiman are almost stereotypical, garden-variety in their wrongness: a much older man taking advantage of much younger women, in this case, women who must also have been starstruck by him, one of whom was also employed by him. In Munro’s case, what she did to her daughter and didn’t do for her — over and over — is damning. In Gaiman’s: I would bet my last rupee that there are more than two women out there whom he has harmed this way. There always are. Men who predate on young women tend to be serial offenders.

Munro wrote about domesticity: betrayals and belonging. Gaiman writes about fantasy: power and fear. Both contemplated themes in their art that in their own lives they made terrible choices around, which is not at all unusual. All kinds of people make all kinds of art, and the quality of the art is no measure of their character.

The weight of the truth and the pain that Skinner has carried for half a century also cannot be measured. That she held her tongue until after her mother’s demise in May can be understood as love or terror — or both. Whenever a story like this finally emerges into the world, one that has necessarily or forcibly been suppressed, the heartbreak is magnified. For what happened. For what had to be lived with, without the respite of speaking out. May Skinner find more healing through this act.

Gaiman has more defenders than Munro for obvious reasons — everyone is about #MeToo until one of their friends or their heroes is outed. May not just the women who spoke up, but the others who haven’t, who know who they are, find their peace too.

The Venus flytrap

Sharanya Manivannan


The columnist is a writer and illustrator

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